In 2016, Sean Padraic McCarthy won a Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction. As he gets ready to publish his debut novel, In the Midst of the Sea on May 1, 2019, we asked him about his new book, the difficult balance of work+life+art, and what’s next in his intriguing trajectory as a literary artist.
What came first for In the Midst of the Sea? The setting (Martha’s Vineyard)? The characters?
I would have to say it was a combination of things. My family and I have vacationed out on Martha’s Vineyard for years and after attending a few of the ghosts tours out there with my kids, I started thinking about writing a ghost story set on the island. But some of the characters in the book have been popping in and out of my short stories for years, so which came first is hard to say. In general though, I usually start with characters and then build a story around them.
How do you balance your writing with the other aspects of your life – working, raising a family, now publicizing your book, etc?
When my kids were small I used to have to wait until later at night and they were all in bed before I started my writing for the day and sending out my stories. Now, my brain doesn’t work as well anymore after a certain hour, so I basically write whenever I can or get a few spare minutes. It’s tough balancing writing with work, and life in general, but I always bring a manuscript I’m working on – short story or chapter – with me with me whether I am waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for an oil change, or sitting on the beach in the summer. I learned a long time ago that you can’t hang around waiting for the muse; if you want to write, you have sit down and write, and I still do my best to produce something new or edit something I’ve been working on every day. With publicizing I think you have to plan in advance and set aside blocks of time, and always remind yourself that the business side of things is a big part of the process.
Is there a throughline that connects the various things you write (or write about)? If so, what is it?
As I mentioned several of the same characters move in and out of my stories and novels, sometimes slightly altered or going by different names for the sake of the story. When I started writing, I was mostly producing short horror stories, but then in my early twenties, I purchased Hemingway’s First Forty-Nine at the old Victor Hugo bookstore on Newbury Street, and that was it; I was hooked, and started focusing on literary fiction. In the Midst of the Sea is ghost story, but it is also a literary novel which explores trauma and the cycles of abuse which often get passed down through the generations. My brother died a few years back and up until that point I had been mainly focusing on realistic fiction and some dark comedy, but after we lost him, I started moving back towards the supernatural, not consciously at the time, but probably as means of escapism. These days I still go back and forth between the two, but I often find myself either putting something offbeat or some element of the supernatural, even if small, in most things I write.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2016 Artist Fellowship? Where were you in your career?
I do. I used to work at the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain some years ago, and on the day I got the call, I had gone back there for a meeting – I hadn’t been back there in a long time – and after I came out from the meeting I saw that I had a voice mail from Dan Blask, and my heart rate accelerated times ten. I went over to Franklin Park to listen to the voice mail, and I was flying for the rest of the day, the rest of the month for that matter. I had published a number of short stories at that point in my career, but I had yet to publish a novel.
If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
I would tell myself to be more patient – it’s a long learning curve and a long road. I’m not sure what I expected when I first started writing, but I remember thinking it came fairly easily, but now I realize that was only because the majority of what I was writing was pretty terrible. The old adage about the more you learn, the harder it gets is so true when it comes to writing. I also was very naïve about how difficult it is to publish, so I would definitely tell myself to take a few deep breaths in that area as well, and learn from rejection.
Are there any local artists (literary or otherwise) you’re excited about that you think others should be, too?
I really like the images I’ve seen from Brece Honeycutt on the ArtSake site. I’ve always been drawn to paintings and photos of dilapidated barns and antique farm equipment. Brendan Matthews has written some really cool stuff, and I’m looking forward to what he’ll have coming next. Daniela Petrova is a great writer. Mira Lee. There’s a lot of them.
I have a fictional memoir, and earlier novel, and a collection of short stories I’d love to see published. I’m also working on a few new short stories, and a novel — working title The Triangle – which once again delves into the supernatural, in this case bizarre sightings, murders and disappearances in what is known as The Bridgewater Triangle here in Massachusetts, but also explores infidelity and the impact on marriages and families. I have a story entitled “As Are We,” forthcoming in an anthology called Metamorphosis from Propertius Press which I’m pretty excited about.
Sean Padraic McCarthy will read from In the Midst of the Sea at Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boston, Sunday June 23, 2019, 7 PM.
Sean Padraic McCarthy‘s (www.seanpadraicmccarthy.com) short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Hopkins Review, Prole, Supernatural Tales, The Indianola Review, South Dakota Review, The Sewanee Review, 2 Bridges Review, Water~Stone Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shadowgraph Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and South Dakota Review. An eleven time top 25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Award, his work has been cited in The Best American Short Stories 2015, and he was recently named a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction.