Interview with Kathleen Donohoe

16.03.2017 - Pressenza New York

Interview with Kathleen Donohoe

By Jhon Sánchez

A flight attendant looked at me in the eye and said, “Jhon Sánchez? We’ve been calling you for half hour. Your flight has already departed.” Irritated she shook her head and added, “Where were you? I didn’t reply, of course. I was right there, reading “Ashes of Fiery Weather” by Kathleen Donohoe. I clearly remember Kathleen from my years in Southampton College. We took several classes together, including one with Carl Blaise who once told her, “You want write a short story in one hundred years span. This is ambitious.” After Southampton, I went to study law at Indiana University, and then I came back to New York. More than twelve years had passed by when suddenly I came across Kathleen, working near my home in the Botanical Garden. I bought her book because it’s a New York-Irish novel, I asked her if she could grant this interview for March. Kathleen took time from her beloved child to answer my questions while she sipped her Irish tea. Let me tell you, there is no a better read than “Ashes of Fiery Weather” to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, but please don’t miss your flight.

1) Kathleen, tell us a little bit about background and about your life during those twelve years we didn’t see each other?

I grew up in Brooklyn, but while I was in in college, my parents sold our house and moved to Long Island. After college, that’s where I lived until I went to the MFA program at Southampton College. After I left Southampton, I moved back to Brooklyn, into a studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It was like living and writing in an attic. But it was perfect for me at the time. I got a job as a receptionist in a staffing firm in midtown Manhattan. My goal was to finish my thesis for the MFA, which was a novel. However, the school closed before I was done.

On my own, I finished the book, and signed with an agent. The book, however did not sell. I’d written a novel during my senior year of college that also never sold. But I was twenty-two then. In December of 2008, when it became clear that this second novel was going in the proverbial drawer with the first one, I was thirty-four. The very thought of starting all over again with a new book was daunting. But beginning again was the only option.

I started the novel that would become Ashes of Fiery Weather. Two years later, when I was well into it, I got married and had a baby. My son was two when I finished the first draft, which was close to 600 pages. After editing the book for a few months on my own, I began looking for a new agent, a process that took about seven months. In August 2013,
I signed with a new agent and the novel sold in March of 2014.

2) When did you get idea to write this novel that elicits around firefighters? Did you started writing in Southampton College?

The novel is based on a short story that I began writing at Southampton College, but on a visit back in September 2003, so a year after I finished the program.

From very shortly after September 11, I knew I would write about it someday but I was unsure of the approach. On the second anniversary, I decided it was time. I was visiting a friend who was still in the MFA program. He was living in one of those beautiful Southampton summer mansions that gets rented to students instead of sitting empty all winter.

The initial story was about a girl whose firefighter-father died in 1983 and the daughter she gave up for adoption. The daughter would lose her father on September 11. (Later, it would, of course, become her mother).

September 11 was an unprecedented event, but how the FDNY community came together, how it handled the funerals, and supported the families of those killed, those things were the same as they’ve always been. This was something I wanted to get across in the book.

3) Since I’m a writer tell me what was the first chapter every written. Do you remember from your drafts what was the most important flaws that you needed to address back then?

The chapters were all written in the order in which they appear in the book. One of the characters was introduced in the first chapter and then had her own chapter later, but this ‘introductory’ chapter, if you will, was edited from the book.

Because the book moves through so much time, and the characters are all related to one other and appear in each other’s chapters, one of the issues I had to work out in revising was consistency. On one hand, it was plain logistics. Things like making sure each character is the correct age each time she or he appears. Then there is consistency of character. She, or he, has to be believably the same person in 1941, 1969, 1983, 2001, and so on.

4) What I love from the novel is that is a New York story as well as a story of the tragedies in New York. Are those tragedies part of the narrative in your personal life? How all of this nurtured your imagination? Did you have any fear on talking about these big events and tragedies in the history of New York?

The fire in the Waldbaums supermarket that killed six firefighters in 1982, I grew up hearing about, as well as the 23rd Street Fire in 1966, the one that killed the most firemen in a single day before September 11. The other fires that I brought in to Ashes of Fiery Weather, I’d never heard of, and simply came across in doing research for the book. These include the Windsor Hotel in Manhattan, which tragically burned to the ground during the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1899 and the St. John’s Orphanage fire in Brooklyn, which killed twenty-one, mostly children. Both of these fires were highly publicized and the victims publicly mourned. And today, they’ve vanished from common knowledge.

I would say they nurtured my imagination by reminding me that there is so much hidden history in New York, so many forgotten tragedies and that the victims were far more than names in a newspaper. The Malbone Street Wreck, as it’s called, is the worst subway accident in New York City history. Over ninety people were killed when a train derailed. I’d heard of this accident from my father, but in researching it for the book, I read quite a bit about it. In 1918, when it happened, the full addresses of the victims were published. I learned that one of the victims, the son of a prominent Brooklyn family, had lived in with his wife and month-old baby up the block from my apartment. His only sister lived next door. Both houses are still there. I can see them from my bedroom window. Nearly always, when I walk by now, I think of him. His name was Edward Erskine Porter and his wife and daughter were both Eloise.

When writing real events into a novel, there’s always the fear of getting the facts incorrect. I checked all facts multiple times, from more than one source. But even more than this, writing about tragedies that you have personally never experienced is daunting. The fear is writing in a way that emotionally off-key. This is, of course, especially true about September 11 because it’s so recent. Survivors, and their families are still here and still telling their stories themselves, as they should be.

My answer was to focus first on getting the facts right, and then to imagine how the characters would act and react to the situation.

5) Well, all novel is told from women’s perspectives. Do you have any hidden chapter in your computer in which you wrote a male perspective of novel? Why did you decide to write only women’s perspectives?

(Laughing) There are no hidden chapters, but there are hidden paragraphs and pages written from the points-of-view men in the book that were never going to make it into the novel. But it’s supposed to be that way, I think. There will always be things the writer knows that the reader doesn’t, and shouldn’t.

As to why all women, the impetus for the novel was September 11 but I knew before I even began that it would only be part of the story. Perhaps the beginning, perhaps the end. I didn’t know.

I was leaving my office job in midtown Manhattan one day (2008) and puzzling over the way to approach a novel about September 11. I knew it would be based on the short story that I’d written about the daughter of the firefighter killed in 1983 but there had to be far more to the story to sustain a whole book.

I thought, whatever I write, it can’t be a novelized version of Rescue Me, the brilliant Denis Leary show about post-9/11 New York City firefighters that came out in 2004. Even if I tried I couldn’t, of course. The voice of that show is not my voice. Then I thought very suddenly, the women. Not just one daughter of a firefighter, but the women of a fire-family over several generations.

The book can be multiply narrated by women who are portrayed in the news as heroic, brave, stalwart—and they are all of those things. Of course they are. But at what personal cost? Firefighters’ mothers, wives and daughters are typically only shown at funerals or at ceremonial events. Yet their lives are far more than those moments, be they sad or joyous. And they always have been no matter what the era.

6) Maggie O’Reilly in your novel says, “But her students are young enough to believe in their own lives. That certain mistakes, even the worst ones, can’t be undone, and that there is a thin boundary between their dreams for their lives and their lives and they will be lived.” Is this a definition of being young? So, what’s is to age?

Perhaps it is a definition of being young because only when you are young does it seem that time will never give up on you.

To age, I think, is to gain perspective, to see the wrong turns and their consequences laid bare. It is accepting that there are things in life you wanted, worked for, hoped for, that will never come to pass.

Yet, paradoxically, to age is also to realize that life doesn’t offer simply once chance, but many. Success is not the provenance of the young. It can come later, though perhaps not the way you’d envisioned in your twenties, and of course, only if you don’t give up.

I finished the first draft of Ashes of Fiery Weather on my 40th birthday. When I was just out of college, it was unthinkable, the idea that I’d spend twenty years working in offices eight hours a day, writing on the side. Writing was supposed to be at the center of my life, not forced into the margins.

There was a sense—and some days it was overwhelming—of living an accidental life. I would be on my knees with my hand stuck in the guts of the Xerox trying to dislodge the scrap of paper jamming the machine, and thinking, is this it? Forever? To be clear, I am fully aware that I’ve been lucky to have steady work that paid decently and offered health insurance. Yet imagine expecting to spend your life at sea and instead, you’re scaling mountains.

And then, one day, the ocean.

7) Let’s talk about Eileen O’Reilly who eventually became one of the first female firefighters according to the story. Did you base your character in a real person?

Eileen is essentially an amalgam of that first group of women who went to court and spent seven years fighting to get on the F.D.N.Y. They were not trying only to make a point, and as I recall, this was something that was said about them at the time, particularly Brenda Berkman, the woman who filed the suit. In other words, this is all some kind of political game. In my novel, Eileen is not interested in being a trailblazer. She has to be one because that’s the only way she can become a firefighter like her brother. All she wants is to do the job.

8) One of your characters narrates her life while she is pregnant, did you write that chapter while you were pregnant? You already have a child, what elements would consider to write a convincing pregnant character?

When my son was born, I was on Chapter Three, which is Annie-Rose, who loses two sons to the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Maggie, who has a baby at nineteen and gives her up for adoption, is close to the end of the book. My son was probably a year old before I got there, so quite some time.

Writing about pregnancy is tricky because it’s an experience that’s at once universal and deeply personal. The first key is to avoid being overly sentimental. I did a lot of reading about pregnancy and childbirth, as I think most women do these days. Online, you can find a hundred stories in an hour and you know your story will be some variation on them. For the entire pregnancy, you know that one minute you will be pregnant and the next, you won’t be anymore, but how exactly it unfolds, you can’t know until it happens.
To write convincingly about having a baby, I had to blend uncertainty and fear in with the anticipation and wonder.

In Maggie’s case, she’s made her mind up about not keeping her baby, so I was writing a character who was highly ambivalent, and who worked very hard to distance herself from her own body. It’s not until the baby is born that Maggie can no longer avoid the reality of her child.

9) Have you ever thought to become a firefighter? How did you make a decision of being a writer and why?

No, I never wanted to be a firefighter. My father has three daughters and at one time, he suggested that we should take the test but we all politely declined. I was eight years old when I knew that I would be a writer. My career path was set before it was even legal for a woman to join the FDNY. That came two years later, when I was ten.

I went to Catholic school in Brooklyn for twelve years, so as a kid I heard a lot about epiphanies. It’s tempting to use that language to describe the moment I knew I would be a writer. But epiphanies are ecstatic and strange and there’s often a third party involved, like an angel, or at least a disembodied voice.

My moment, realizing that I would be a writer, was not mystical but matter-of-fact. It just made more sense to me than anything has since. I loved to read but that’s not the whole answer. Plenty of people love to read books but they don’t have an innate pull to write them. I did, and I still can’t quite explain it.

10) Sometimes when I write I can see myself in my characters. It’s like observing myself in different photograph. Do this happen to you as well? Who is the character that is closer to your personality and why?

In a way, yes, there are pieces of myself in each character. Because Ashes of Fiery Weather moves through so much time, I often asked myself what I would do, if, for example, my father had insisted on secretarial school instead of college (1941) or if I’d been trapped in an abusive marriage during the Great Depression. One of the biggest challenges of the book was making sure the characters were distinct from each other, and not different versions of the same person because they are mostly family and have so many shared experiences.

It’s probably Maggie who’s the closest to me in personality. She and I would be contemporaries since she’s only a year younger than me.

11) The novel talks about several historical issues within the NYFD: The times of racism, the exclusion of women, the poverty but at the same time the mutual solidarity, etc. What are the current issues that we as New Yorkers need to work to improve within the NYFD? Are still some problems from the past? Is the solidarity among the firefighters something that derives from their profession or is that solidarity is coming from the Irish immigrants?

I think the solidarity of the fire department is from knowing that you have to work as a team or someone could die. A fellow firefighter, or a civilian. There is no prevarication. It’s the job.

Certainly, when the Irish first began joining the fire department in huge numbers, when the immigrant population surged because of the famine in Ireland in the mid 1840’s, it was very much about finding a community in a new country that was definitely not welcoming of them because they were Irish, Catholic and very poor.

Today, great strides have been made but there is still work to be done. I would recommend Terry Golway’s book So Others Might Live, A History of the F.D.N.Y. from
1700 to the Present for anyone who is interested in learning about the fight to integrate the fire department and then the fight to let women on the job.

12) The novel is the story of an Irish family. But besides the characters and their origin, do you notice that your voice has this Irish undertone or musicality if you wish? If a person from a different background would have written the same story, he would have different taste. What makes this tone so distinctive so Irish?

Infusing the book with an Irish, or Irish-American tone is not something I consciously thought about as I was writing the book, but I am glad to hear that it comes through.
Because I was writing specifically about Irish-American characters and their history, I think it is naturally the voice of the book.

13) Tell us what’s your next project and where we can find more about your work.

My next novel centers on a twelve year old girl who vanishes from an upstate New York town. Her best friend believes she saw her the afternoon she disappeared, a sighting that is not corroborated by a single other witness and so it is dismissed.

More than a decade later, there are many theories but no resolution. The book questions how certain one can be of what they see and hear in a moment that is, as it passes, insignificant. It’s about what rises to fill the void left by a mystery.

Thank you very much. It was such a pleasure to read your book and an honor to be your classmate.

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For more information about Kathleen Donohoe and her work, please visit

“Ashes of Fiery Weather” is available in Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Ashes-Fiery-Weather-Kathleen-Donohoe/dp/0544464052

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Jhon Sanchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sanchez immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum. He received a law degree from I.U. and an MFA from LIU. Currently, Mr. Sanchez is an attorney and enjoys traveling and cooking in his spare time. His publications in 2017 are “The Vinegar Scent of Books,” available in Swamp Ape Review https://www.swampapereview.com/ and “Acacia and the Thief of Names,” available in Existere http://www.yorku.ca/existere/currentissue.html . Nominated for The Best of the Net Anthology 2016 and for a Pushcart Prize in 2015 and 2016, respectively. He was also awarded the Newnan Art Rez Program for summer of 2017.

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