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Mckenzie Cassidy talks about his debut coming-of-age, Here Lies a Father, a fabulous 1970s playlist featuring songs about dads, the hero’s journey, upstate NY as a character, the catharsis of writing about family secrets, more


By Leslie Lindsay

A coming-of-age tale featuring a young man dealing with the death of his father, the secrets he attempted to hide, truth, reconstruction, and more

WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS

ALWAYS WITH A BOOK

Leslie Lindsay & Mckenzie Cassidy in Conversation

Writer, professor, Floridian, and Dad, Mckenzie Cassidy delves into dark secrets and a sorted past to discover who–and what–shapes us in his debut coming-of-age, loosely based on a true story.

About HERE LIES A FATHER:

This an astute and poignant debut from McKenzie Cassidy (Akashic Books, Jan 2021), about fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, and the universal odyssey of family secrets, lies, and revelations. Ian Daly is fifteen when his wayward father dies; they are a bit estranged, he and his mother having recently returned to New York state after a stint in Florida. The parents are separated and leaning toward divorce. Ian has an older sister, Catherine, who is at college. HERE LIES A FATHER opens at the man’s funeral and backtracks through the somber, dysfunctional realms of his life, peeling back layers while juxtaposing it with the life of his son, Ian.

It’s at the funeral that Ian and his sister discover that their father, Thomas, had been married not once before, but twice, and leaves behind two other families, including children –half-siblings–neither ever knew of before. Ian wants to know more of the truth, and so he seek to discover the long-held painful secrets in this classic coming-of-age tale ala the ‘hero’s journey.’

Meanwhile, Ian’s sister and mother, Helen, would rather leave the past in the past. Here, we beg the question: is truth a myth? Why reconstruct the facts? The setting is the perfect melding for truth-seeking and mirrors the journey well. In the upstate NY, it’s dry and somber, lonely and cold as Ian attends the funeral, recollects his father’s life and his experiences with his dad; on the other hand, we get a good sense of the lush landscape of Florida, where the two halves of his life are sort of breaking apart, and then coming together again.

HERE LIES A FATHER is a relatively quick, yet
 somber and haunting read. It is about truth and reinvention, walking away, and reuniting.

Please join me in welcoming the talented and kind Mckenzie Cassidy to the author interview series:

Leslie Lindsay:

Mckenzie, so great to chat. I am so struck by the epigraph, both of them, actually, the ones pulled from 1970s songs, “Old Man” by Neil Young and also Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son.” Since it’s June and Father’s Day is right around the corner, I image a lot of folks are a bit sentimental. Can you talk a little about why you chose these particular lines to introduce HERE LIES A FATHER? Also, was it the same motivation for writing the story?

McKenzie Cassidy:

One of the most interesting things I was asked to do when promoting the book was to create a playlist. Something readers could listen to before or after and get a feel for the novel. I realized each of the songs I selected were melancholy and dealt with fatherhood, mental disease, and addiction. It included The Pixies, Everclear, No Doubt, Nas, older classics like “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by The Temptations, and even “Father And Son” by Cat Stevens.

Throughout my 20s I curated this list of sad songs involving fathers and then I’d listen to them every now and then. They weren’t exactly my motivation for writing but they often put me in the mindframe to get the story down. It’s amazing how a three minute song can arouse more emotions in the listener than a 300 page novel. Both of the songs in my epigraph are also from the 1970s, which I associate with my parents’ lives because they were married in that decade. That’s also when my older sister was born.

I chose the line from “Old Man” by Neil Young because I felt it represented a significant theme from the story: whether we can choose who we want to be in life or if destiny has us on one track? Nature versus nurture. “Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like you were” is the line I included. The main character Ian is on the same track as his father, yet he chooses to correct his behavior after learning about his father’s tragic life. I think this is a big fear for people who grew up in a home with addiction or mental disease; whether they’ll end up like that parent?

For the Cat Stevens song “Father And Son,” I was drawn to the line, “from the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.” In my view this represented protecting the family myth. Everyone in Ian’s family knew there were problems but they swept them under the rug. They wanted to keep up appearances and in order to do that everyone had to keep their mouth shut. Both songs are very sentimental and sad. They both celebrate fathers but there is a suffering under the surface and I think this is why I chose them. Everyone reading this should give them a listen over Father’s Day.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

HERE LIES A FATHER is a traditional narrative arc in the form of the hero’s journey. Ian is given a task. He travels, he is tested, he learns new stuff, he returns home better. Was this deliberate on your part? Did you experiment with form and structure?

McKenzie Cassidy:

I always knew this story was going to be a hero’s journey because it’s my favorite narrative arc. When I look back at all of the books and movies I’ve loved the most in my life, they’ve all been the hero’s journey. It’s the most compelling for me as a reader because I feel satisfied when a character overcomes their challenges (whether internal or external). Using this form was deliberate because I knew Ian would need to change by the end of the story.

One thing I did experiment with was perspective. My publisher Kaylie Jones was the person who suggested early in the drafting process that I try making Ian Daly into an unreliable narrator. I wasn’t familiar with the concept but the point-of-view fit my story like a glove. I started studying how the masters did it. I immersed myself in novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Greene, J.D. Salinger, Gillian Flynn, Zoe Heller, Vladimir Nabokov, Julian Barnes, and more. I read their best works and dissected exactly how they created an unreliable narrator. Then, over the course of five years, I worked to apply elements of an unreliable narrator to my own story. It was a long, difficult process but I’m pleased with how the novel turned out.

Leslie Lindsay:

One of the key elements—themes—I found was how we often want to know the ‘truth,’ even if it’s unsavory. Particularly if it’s unsavory! But sometimes the truth is just that, and sometimes it’s bland. What do you make of that? Do we just live with it? Learn from it? Do you see this as being about reconciling the past in order to move forward?

McKenzie Cassidy:

Learning the truth like Ian did in the story is painful. Someone who learns about a dark family secret will always feel different and broken. But, I do think this is something that individuals can reconcile in the long-term and learn to live with in a healthy way. Nothing will ever change what happened, but over time they can shift the way they think about it until they reach acceptance and peace. It’s a work in progress.

I’m not sure whether it’s better to learn the truth or keep living the lie.

This is an impossible question to answer. Now that I’m a parent, I realize we lie to our children all of the time when we talk about Santa Claus, withhold information that could be painful to them, or misrepresent something to protect their innocence. In these cases, I believe we’re doing the right thing, but where does it end? At what point does a fib about the Easter Bunny turn into the concealment of half-siblings and secret families? This is what made writing the novel so interesting for me. It’s not black and white. There’s no easy answer.

I do feel it’s better to know the truth about major issues. For one, it gives you an accurate portrayal of what is happening in your family and shows the realities of life, but it also helps you learn from previous mistakes. I’m able to be a better father to my children because of what I learned from my father’s mistakes. I can also recall what I had desired from my father growing up, and I can offer this to my children. We’ll never improve as parents or human beings unless we hear the bad along with the good.

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I wanted to talk about the setting and landscape a bit. In Florida, it’s lush—in many ways. Ian’s mother is falling in love with a new man and Ian might be falling in love with that man’s daughter (or at least her backside—wink, wink). Back in upstate NY, it’s desolate, somber. He’s lost his dad, his best friend has drifted. Was this shifting landscape intentional?

McKenzie Cassidy:

The changes in setting were absolutely intentional. I was raised in upstate New York and it’s very cold and depressing for most of the year. Ian’s mother moved the family to Florida to start all over again. It was bright, tropical, beautiful, everything she was seeking in life, but the problem was her family was the same. She could change the scenery but she couldn’t solve the family’s dysfunctions. Everything was exactly the same as it had been in New York so she left again to get away from it.

The setting of upstate New York is like a character of its own. I wanted to make sure the reader was grounded in that desolate, winter environment. While writing the story I looked for opportunities to use the setting to establish emotion or further action. For instance, when Ian and Eveline are first spending time together and he has to step over large cracks in the sidewalk from giant tree roots. In this scene I used the setting of upstate New York to demonstrate how he’d never let her get too close. He had feelings for her in the beginning of the novel but he lied about it, and kept her at arm’s length so she would never get to know his family.

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

What I found so astonishing as I read was how this isn’t exactly a ‘new concept,’ the idea of having families before. I am currently in the process of unearthing some family lore—so much fun with Ancestry.com—and in talking with my father, I discovered that there were several ‘families before’ on my paternal side! Many of these had death as a precursor, and the ‘new’ family knew, but still…it’s jarring! Can you talk about that, please?

McKenzie Cassidy:

Here Lies a Father is loosely based on real events. Before marrying my mother, my father had relationships with three other women. He had children with all of them. My father was married to the first woman and had two children with her. I’m not sure if he was married to the other two.

I first heard about the other families when I was 18 and we didn’t start connecting until my father died when I was 21. The process of learning about my father’s life wasn’t the same as it was in the book. It was drawn out over years and wasn’t dramatic at all. We were all adults by then and had lives of our own. But, as you know, conflict is the key to a good story.

My father’s death brought us all together. I have met nearly all of my half-siblings in person, except for two. We have pretty good relationships and keep in touch on social media. Most of them didn’t know our father at all because he left when they were young. He stayed with my family the longest, which I think had to do with the fact that he was getting older and didn’t have the energy to start over again with another woman.

What shocked me the most was how my father compartmentalized everything.

He left his other children when they were in diapers and never looked back. I couldn’t understand how he did that but it explained a lot about his mental health and his issues with addiction. Secrets and guilt ate away at him. As one of his children, it made me wonder if he had been planning to leave me and my sister at some point but just never got around to it? I couldn’t imagine leaving my own children behind and never seeing them again for the rest of my life.

Like you, I also used the Ancestry website to get some answers. I even completed one of their DNA kits. I always thought my family was all Irish, but my test results showed me I was Scottish and Welsh as well. More than I ever thought. Basically, over 90% of my ancestry was from one of those two islands. These tools are great for people who are adopted or who never met one side of the family. It won’t fill in all of the gaps but it can help you develop an identity.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

McKenzie, this has been so insightful. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what’s it like publishing your first book in the midst of a pandemic, working with a smaller/indie press, what you’re working on now, fatherhood and writing…or perhaps something you’d like to ask me?

McKenzie Cassidy:

Publishing during the pandemic was disappointing because I couldn’t meet up with people in real life but we made it work online. The benefit of hosting virtual book events is that people can attend from anywhere in the world. If I hosted a book event in Florida, for example, there would be family and friends in New York who wouldn’t be able to attend. But, Zoom and other platforms helped that happen. Now that the spread of COVID is down and the vaccine is available, I can start to think about attending book fairs or other events. I’m also fully vaccinated so I’m ready to get out there.

I am working on a new project but it’s challenging to consistently write with two small children and the fact that I work from home. This project is not like Here Lies a Father at all. I would describe it as a literary speculative novel set on Mars. The only similarity to my first novel is that many of the characters are teenagers. After all of the time I spent on my first novel, and all of the emotions involved, I’m ready to move on to something else. The process of writing Here Lies a Father was cathartic and I’m putting it to bed. Thank you so much for reaching out with these questions about the book! I hope we get to meet in person one day. Stay safe and healthy. 

For more information, to connect with Mckenzie Cassidy, or to purchase a copy of HERE LIES A FATHER, please visit:

ORDER LINKS:

  • Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
  • This title may also be available through other online sellers. 

YOU MIGHT LIKE:

I was reminded of WINTER LOON by Susan Berhard meets the writing style of William Kent Krueger , along with Dave Patterson’s SOON THE LIGHT WILL BE PERFECT.

If you loved this interview, please consider sharing it on social media. Reviewing books and talking about them with others on-line and in-person is one small way to engage with & support the literary community.

Learn more & donate to Leslie Lindsay|Always with a Book HERE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

MCKENZIE CASSIDY is a writer, higher education marketer, and professor living in southwest Florida. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and HERE LIES A FATHER is his first novel.  Author photo credit:  Ali Camacho-Febles

ABOUT YOUR HOST:

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online.

She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to become an audiobook from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.

You can learn more about HERE.

Instagram|Facebook|Twitter|Bookshop.org|Penguin Random House

Instagram|Facebook|Twitter|Bookshop.org|Penguin Random House

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

If you loved this interview, please consider sharing it on social media. Reviewing books and talking about them with others on-line and in-person is one small way to engage with & support the literary community.

Cover and author image courtesy of Akashic Publications/Kaylie Jones and used with permission. Artistic image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1.

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