When I began this self-interview, I assumed I’d complete it in one sitting. Now I’m of the opinion it’ll take at least four. Part 1 covers my overall approach. This’ll be followed by interviews on the O’Donnells family life, rise of Hitler, campaigns in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific … before and after Pearl Harbor. As one editor, Val Dumond, commented, “It’s an era that’s swiftly fading from memory.”
Q-I understand why history enthusiasts would have an interest, but why would potential writers?
A-I’ve known numerous authors, after receiving a critical evaluation, complain that they’d have to make major changes. Come on fellas! These aren’t the days of Edgar Allen Poe. We use computers. Revisions are no big deal.
Others vowed to be absolutely accurate. Boring, boring.
Whereas, my first criteria is to maintain the reader’s interest, which is especially needed in today’s world of declining readership. My advice to writers, use your imagination and make each revision an improvement to move the tale forward. Learn to accept the inevitable—stories seemingly take off in a direction all their own. At times, my scenes had to be moved and reconstructed to fit the book’s timeline.
Q-Give me an example?
A- John Meehan my Sligo born grandfather, in order to earn big money building Philly’s Broad Street Subway, handed my mom his badge to turn in to his foreman at the Electric Storage Battery Company. Digging the big ditch with pick and shovel, he lasted one day. Came home sickened because with a large family depending on his paycheck, he had quit his job. The Lord be praised, my wise-beyond-her-years mother, waited to see how he fared before surrendering the badge.
Because digging the subway occurred long before the beginning of my story, I modified the tale, and moved its essence to the chapter that contained the construction of Philly’s first skyscraper.
Q-Which of your books do you like the best?
A- That’s an unfair question to ask of any author. But, I’d have to say the Liam book. It set the pattern for those that followed. The tale began as a family saga to depict my childhood before becoming a reference book and expanding to its present volume.
Q-Tell me about it?
A- Picture a handyman who decides to build a modest abode, but after adding a sauna he doesn’t know when or how to stop. That’s me. While waiting to place the Druid book with a publisher, my kids asked me to write about growing up in Philadelphia, surviving the nuns, and attending a high school with 5,000 boys (that’s right 5,000). Just as a narrow stream joined by tributaries soon becomes a river; the book grew to 23-chapters—each one representing a year. By necessity, I dug deep into my own experiences, my memories, interviewed WWII veterans, and collected stories from all who’d share. Everything in The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell happened to someone.
Q-What other major revisions did you make?
A-Many! I decided that my father and his brothers had led a far more exciting childhood. So, I lengthened the story to include their years. In addition, I moved the locale to Philadelphia’s industrial Port Richmond neighborhood. As the story took form, I pushed the beginning years further back to include the influenza epidemic, during which thousands (yes thousands) of Philadelphians died.
Q-Why is that so important?
A- Our country’s first involvement in a European war, WWI the war to end all wars, resulted in 25,000,000 deaths from the Spanish Flu. One out of five Americans was infected. My mother told of bodies being piled on the streets like cordwood, waiting for the garbage men to collect them. I thought my readers ought to know this.
Q-Is there anything else?
A-In reflecting on my own childhood, I realized that Philadelphia’s kids were playing baseball while Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. This, profound impact on our lifestyles, needed to be reflected.
Q-How did you bring these events into your tale?
A-By adding more characters. I designated the son of an English Lord, Alex Welbourne, to befriend Matt O’Donnell, during “The Great War,” before becoming a correspondent for the London Times. Tom Barr, a nephew, was put to work reporting for the Philadelphia Bulletin. These characters enabled me to include world and American history up to and through WW II. Alex covered world affairs emanating from Europe, Africa, and Russia. Tom wrote about Philadelphia and humorous events from around the country before visiting China and reporting on the War in the Pacific. These news reports were enhanced by letters from the O’Donnell brothers in the service.
Q-Now, you’re starting to intrigue me. Tell me more!
A-I made Alex part-Irish after learning that England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair was part-Irish. This change enabled Alex to pretend he’s from neutral Ireland and easily enter Germany to report on the rise of the Third Reich. Later he corresponded on England’s and Germany’s battles in North Africa, the bombing of Britain, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, and accompanied Patton during the invasion of Europe. Barr, the Bulletin’s reporter, covered national and local politics; reported on the Flying Tigers, American guerillas active in the Philippines after the fall of Corregidor, Doolittle’s raid, and the battles of Guadalcanal, Midway, Iwo Jima, to Okinawa.
Q-What about the saga on the O’Donnells? Did it get lost?
A-Not at all! Every chapter has Liam and his hard-of-hearing brother Rory growing up, attending parochial school and an overcrowded high school, being disciplined by nuns and Irish Christian Brothers, meeting girls, and Liam entering the U.S. Army Airforce, while Rory attended LaSalle College. The story includes everything that kids of the 30s and 40s experienced, while their parents struggled with Union strikes, the dust bowl, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and war-time rationing. The Life and Tomes of Liam O’Donnell opens with a telegram bearing news of Liam’s crash in the Sea of Japan. I vividly recall my returning uncles and cousins telling of their war-time feats. Many of these made the book, in one form or another. Following Chapter 1, the story reverts to the year 1919, and begins the family saga.
Q-Did you make story-teller Rory hard-of-hearing to gain your reader’s sympathy?
A-Not at all! I proudly modeled Rory after my sister Anne, who lost her hearing during a bout with Whooping Cough. A female ahead of her time, Anne won a scholarship to Saint Mary’s Academy, followed by a full ride to Chestnut Hill College, and earned her masters degree in chemistry from Temple University. Despite her handicap, she’s a mother and grandmother, having ended her working career as an expert witness for the Philadelphia Police Department.
The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell downplays the depressing alcoholic scenes of best sellers such as Angela’s Ashes, to more accurately reflect Irish-American family life, during the ‘20s, 30’s, and 40’s. Furthermore, the book honors the more than one and a half million, Irish-Americans, Scot-Irish, and Irish-born who proudly served during WW II.
If you know a history professor, or know of one, whose lectures are getting long-in-the-tooth; tell them about James Francis Smith’s outstanding family saga and reference book, The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell. It may be the best $6.99 they will ever spend.