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Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

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McNicholl, Damian: Author Interview

Damian McNicholl is the author of the novel A Son Called Gabriel. He was born in Northern Ireland, attended law school at University College Cardiff in Wales, and came to the United States in the early nineties where he practiced as an attorney in NYC while writing his first novel, A SON CALLED GABRIEL. He lives and writes in Pennsylvania.

Visit the author online at

1. Tell us a little about your novel A Son Called Gabriel.

The story is about a young boy growing up in a conservative, Catholic community and family that is harboring a dark secret in its bosom. Through the unfurling of Gabriel's childhood and adolescence, he grapples with being bullied, the politics of sectarianism and his confused sexuality.

2. Are you working on anything new?

I'm currently finishing off a novel in which I explore a friendship between a young Irishman and an educated, highly assertive Englishwoman and have also begun another which is the first to be set in the United States.

3. Your book reads like a memoir, such that it's almost impossible to think of it as a work of fiction. How closely do Gabriel's experiences mirror your own? Do your family members recognize themselves in your characters?

Thank you. I happen to love novels that read like memoirs or have plots that appear to be snatched raw from real life. My novel is a fiction with some of its events rooted in experience. In other words, some of what happens to Gabriel throughout the course of the narrative also happened to me, but then I molded and developed the events using artistic license. The characters in the story are not my parents or based on living people, but they are fully alive; any Irish person reading this novel would instantly recognize the characters and their traits as typically Northern Irish.

4. As I mentioned in my review, comparisons between your book and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes are inevitable, and there are certainly similarities between the two. But your book is not nearly so sad: although your main character does suffer some adversity, he does not grow up in the abject poverty in which McCourt did.

As a first novelist, I'm flattered to be compared to any writer of quality. Yes, there are some similarities between the two which is undoubtedly due to the universals of being Catholic Irish. However, my protagonist did not grow up in the abject poverty which McCourt experienced; Gabriel is a member of an extended Northern Irish family that is close, flawed, ambitious and upwardly mobile despite encountering overt discrimination and relentless sectarianism.

5. You've been promoting your novel fairly aggressively, with readings and book signings and interviews and so on. Have you had any unusual experiences as a result?

I've had many heartwarming experiences, especially mothers who've come up and confided their children were or are being being bullied or empty nesters who tell me they wish they'd understood the hardship or confusion their gay child went through trying to conform. When people are moved to share their feelings like that, the writer can be sure he or she has done their job. I've had a man walk out of a reading--something about not truly representing Ireland--and I suppose that was pretty unusual.

6. I know there's some debate among authors about the worth, or not, of doing book signings. Do you find that they've been helpful in promoting your book?

Yes, I believe readings help build up an audience for one's work. I'm also a social person so I love the interaction that takes place between writers and readers at such events. Of course, as a first novelist, I've gone to some events where only four or five people were present--so a writer needs to have a thick skin.

7. Readers should know that you'll also be joining the blogosphere soon. What sort of material will you be blogging about?

I'm fascinated by blogging which I just stumbled upon toward the end of the publicity for my hardcover last year. The blog is now live and I write about my life as a writer, about an Irishman's experiences living in the United States, about Britain and Ireland and any other subject that takes my fancy.

8. I'm always curious to know how writers write. When did you start writing?

I was always the story teller of the family but didn't take a career in writing seriously until about 1997. That's when I did a bunch of writing exercises on the commute to work in NYC and then began a novel which I now refer to as the 'cutting my teeth' novel. Some friends whose opinion I respect read it; while they savaged the manuscript, they also said I had talent, which was the precious elixir I required to continue onward. As a result, I sat and wrote A SON CALLED GABRIEL.

9. And do you have some kind of schedule you adhere to when you write?

Writing is a full-time job to me. I regard it exactly as I regard anyone toiling for a lawfirm or corporation. When I'm writing, I sit at my desk from nine to five, take small breaks, and make sure I've produced something at the end of the work day. Of course, now I'm published, I realize that the writing life produces other demands: books have short promotional lifespans and an author must also work with the publisher to ensure the book's success to the best of his or her ability; this requires readings, promoting it in the media, etc., which inevitably distracts from the actual writing process. I found these distractions fun and, in all honesty, it's been tough to get back to the nine to five schedule.

10. Are you writing full time now in lieu of practicing law?


11. What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Have unwavering confidence in your abilities and a lot of fortitude.

12. What are the last three books you read, and what did you think of them?

Ruth Ozeki's MY YEAR OF MEATS and ALL OVER CREATION. I found these well-written, compelling and insightful. I like to be educated as well as entertained when reading and her novels accomplished that. Thomas Hardy's TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES and FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. I keep returning to the classics, particularly English classics, and never tire of Hardy's descriptions of English rural settings and his compelling characters.

13. What question should I be asking you?

How about, is A SON CALLED GABRIEL entered in any awards?

Yes, my publisher entered into a number of awards and I've just heard that it's been chosen as a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards. The winner will be announced on the eve of Book Expo America in NYC in June.


Here's a book club guide for A Son Called Gabriel:

1. How does Gabriel's relationship with his mother develop throughout the course of the novel? How representative of your view of an Irish Catholic mother is Mrs. Harkin? Do you think Gabriel's parents are constrained in any manner by their religion? Do you consider Mr. and Mrs. Harkin's marriage to be a happy one?

2. He would get no more love from me. He was Daddy to me no longer. The word "Father" was a better way to address him. Used in England but not so much in Ireland, at least not in Knockburn, it was ideally remote. I was removed from him, and it was just the perfect word. I resolved to think of him only as Father in my mind from now on.

Gabriel's relationship with his father becomes increasingly strained as the novel progresses. Discuss instances where the two are portrayed as being close and those where they are distant. To what degree are Gabriel and his father responsible for the deterioration of their relationship? Do you think Mr. Harkin treated Gabriel different from any of the rest of his children? Would you say Gabriel's attitude toward his father is typical of a young boy's growth to manhood?   

3. To what extent, if any, did being bullied as a child affect Gabriel's personality? Have you had to deal with bullying at any time in your life? As the story proceeds, Gabriel and Fergal's boyhood relationship changes from one of friendship to rivalry and finally estrangement. Why does Gabriel allow this to happen? Compare his experience of childhood friendship to that of your own.   

4. Gabriel's appearance at his first dance is a romantic affair in that it takes place in an old Fortress set within a park of ancient sycamores. What are your feelings about how the women position themselves in the room and their behavior during the dance? What does this system say about Irish society, if anything? How does it correspond to American society of the same period? 

5. The novel takes place during a phase of the Irish conflict known as "the Troubles." How convincing is the author's depiction of the state of Northern Ireland politics? While the conflict there is larger than mere differences in religion, to the extent that religion plays a role, do you feel the author is evenhanded in his treatment of Catholicism and Protestantism, or does he appear sympathetic to one at the expense of the other?  Do you agree with the IRA man's view that Irish families like the Harkin's are in the same position as that of the dispossessed families in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath? Regarding Gabriel's parents, whom do you feel is the more political, and why? Do you consider Gabriel to be a real Irishman, or do you agree with Mr. Harkin's assessment of his son?          

6. Gabriel's opinion is that those who say all kinds of work have dignity and please God are talking a "load of junk." Contrast Gabriel's attitude to physical and academic work. Do you agree with Gabriel's viewpoint about manual labor? Do you think Gabriel's struggle with his sexual identity has any effect on his academic and social development, and if so, what?

7. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to ignore or reason away the terrible desires. I was sixteen now, and they were relentless. No matter how much I swept them away, they returned seconds later to beat me down, corrupting my every thought, even in the sanctity of the classroom. There were two of me: good Catholic Gabriel who wanted to be normal and lead an exemplary life, and dark, degenerate Gabriel who lived only to lust.

Do you agree with Gabriel's assessment of himself as an adolescent? How does the author show Gabriel trying to lead a normal or exemplary life? Does the author succeed in his portrayal of the protagonist's emerging sexuality and his pain in relation to it? To what extent, if any, is the culture in which the protagonist is growing up responsible for his feelings of inadequacy and/or fear of women? Does Gabriel struggle hard enough against what he feels he is becoming, or do you feel it was preordained and he should just have accepted his lot earlier? How do you feel his mother reacted when he tells her his secret? How do you feel about Gabriel's plight?   

8. Notwithstanding Uncle Brendan is "off-stage" for large portions of the novel, he becomes a key role model in Gabriel's life. Discuss Gabriel's relationship with his uncle and the influence he exerts over the boy. Do you feel Brendan is portrayed as a happy or tragic figure in the story? Discuss Brendan's handling of Father Cornelius. Was Brendan correct to leave the priesthood?   

9. Describe how the author uses imagery and/or color to convey moods and theme. Discuss the methods used by the writer to show the uniqueness of Northern Ireland (include both the land and the people). How effectively does the author use dialogue, and for what reasons?    

10. Discuss Gabriel's reaction to his mother's shocking news and the means by which the author conveys it to the reader. In light of the revelation, examine Gabriel's relationship with his siblings before and after. Do you think Mrs. Harkin would take back the revelation if she had an opportunity to do so? How would you have dealt with this situation? 

11. As the novel unfurls, there are scenes of high humor and scenes of deep pathos. What parts of the novel did you find funniest and which did you find saddest? Does the author strike a good balance between both?

12. The novel covers a period of about fourteen years in the protagonist's life. What devices does the author employ to convey the passage of time? Discuss how Gabriel's voice develops throughout the novel.   

13. Which scenes in the novel would lead you to conclude the work could be autobiographical? How does this coming-of-age story compare to stories about growing-up by American writers?  Do you feel the experiences of the Harkin family are uniquely Irish, or could such a situation arise in rural America?

14. What do you think is the overarching theme (or themes) of the novel? What, if anything, have you learned or taken away from reading this novel?




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