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Small Mercies

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Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce
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Feb 09, 2016 | ISBN 9780143107873

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  • Feb 09, 2016 | ISBN 9780143107873

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“Joyce’s first novel is a paean to his native borough, Staten Island, and the resilience of the Italian- and Irish-Americans who call it home . . . The book revitalizes the once widely discussed idea of the ‘Sept. 11 novel,’ making that communal horror a pivotal part of an intimate family portrait.”
The New York Times

“[A] terrific debut novel. . . . Joyce layers … different characters’ perspectives nimbly and skillfully, infusing his portrait of a messy, complicated, loving family with heartfelt emotion.”
—Sara Vilkomerson, Entertainment Weekly, A-

“An inside look at one Staten Island family’s struggle with grief . . . [A] poignant, deeply affecting tale.” 
Martha Stewart Living, a Book Club selection

“The story is all Staten Island, but the themes are universal.”
—Staten Island Advance

“An intergenerational story of family dynamics that’s layered, complicated and intensely readable. . . . Staten Island features as more than a setting. It’s the heart of the family. . . . Firefighting was a family business, and the idea that you can save others but you can’t save yourself is a metaphor that informs the rest of the book. . . . This isn’t a novel that paints people as saints and sinners; every character here comes complete with individual triumphs and failures. We see in detail the way coping mechanisms drive the Amendolas apart and bring them back together in a way that, far from being unique to them, is part of the fabric of every close family.”

“Sense of place is as strong here as any character in Small Mercies – with Staten Island representing a neighborhood-and-tradition-oriented lifestyle seldom found anymore on the East Coast. . . . There is a marvelous thread of March Madness woven throughout the novel as each member of the Amendola family, during ‘Bobby’s favorite week’ – the book’s seven-day time line – gear up for the annual ‘Cody’s Pool’ at Staten Island’s fictional Cody’s Tavern. Author Joyce, an attorney who like Bobby was once a Staten Island basketball phenomenon, uses the sport to inject just the right amount of humor cum passion here.”
—The Buffalo News

“A sharp portrait of a family’s history and its pain. . . . Joyce has a keen eye for the familial culture of Italian/Irish tribes on Staten Island and how it informs his characters’ development. He has an insightful and descriptive touch. . . . An intimate, familiar, and appealing story of tribal longing for safety, fealty, and permanence.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books

Small Mercies is the story of a family and of a tragedy, but it is also a story about ‘place’ in the best tradition of American literature. . . . There are dazzling, revelatory lines throughout.”
—The Portland Press Herald

“A realistic portrait of everyday Staten Island life—basketball pools, local bars and pizzerias, high school basketball games, and big Sunday dinners. . . . An empathetic and honest account of an imperfect, believable family. . . . Fully realized characters that we genuinely care about.”
—The Berkshire Eagle

“An emotionally rich debut novel about family dynamics in the wake of tragedy. If Staten Island were Asbury Park, this former lawyer-turned-novelist could be its literary Springsteen. He was born and raised in the borough, which one of his characters calls ‘the servants’ quarters of the city,’ and he has a deep affinity for the ethnic assimilations, class struggles, marital discontents and larger ambitions of those who share his roots. . . . Readers will get to know these characters and care about them to the very last page.”
Kirkus Reviews

“This assured debut novel is an insightful psychological tale of family and of love and loss. . . . Joyce gets the quotidian details of this family’s life exactly right: the ever-present aromas of pasta and meatballs; the high-school athletic trophies still on display. He also pens a love letter to the forgotten borough of Staten Island, evoking its deep community ties with heartfelt emotion.”

“Joyce writes with sensitivity about his grief-stricken characters. . . . It’s clear that Joyce, a native of Staten Island, has deep affection for his characters and the pride they feel in their local rituals.”
Publishers Weekly

“Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty. His Amendola family and their beloved Staten Island may be flawed, but they represent what’s best and most necessary in the American character, what our tired and poor still yearn for.”
—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls

“Eddie Joyce’s triumphant first novel rings like a bell: for Staten Island, for husbands and wives, for mothers and sons. This is a beautiful book, and Joyce’s deep, complicated love for his characters makes them seem like they could amble off the page and into the nearest bar, where it would be a joy to sit beside them and have a cold beer.”
—Emma Straub, New York Times bestselling author of The Vacationers

“A warm and absorbing family saga from Staten Island—‘this forgotten place,’ as one character thinks of it, ‘this fifth of five boroughs.’ With its focus on one tightknit clan’s loves and hates and births and deaths and joys and sorrows, Small Mercies recalls the work of Alice McDermott and Colum McCann. Eddie Joyce’s big-hearted generosity is apparent in every word. He cares deeply about his people, so we will too.” 
—Stewart O’Nan, author of West of Sunset

Small Mercies isn’t just the best Staten Island novel ever written; it’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. His understanding of the role a hometown plays in the development of character rivals William Kennedy’s, and his gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments recalls Alice McDermott’s. A kaleidoscopic novel of a people in grief, Small Mercies paints a winning portrait of the loyal, tribal souls of Staten Island. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that they may almost make you think about moving there if they aren’t careful.”
—Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves

“The Staten Island family whose voices tell this story in turns are so real I feel like I’ve been to their house and eaten their baked ziti. Yes, it’s a 9/11 novel, but maybe it’s exactly the right kind of 9/11 novel: earnest, unabashedly sentimental, real and not manipulatively tear-jerking. SI native Joyce knows what he’s talking about, and how to talk about it.”
—Emily Gould, Paper

Small Mercies, a first novel that does not read like a first novel, tells the story of the Amendolas, a working-class, Staten Island family trying to remain a family in the wake of some terrible bad luck. It’s a very good book, with a texture of reality, a sense of place, and a genuine warmth and seriousness that is rare in contemporary fiction.” 
—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

“It’s been a long time since I’ve read a debut as good as Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies. His knack for inhabiting the lives of these vivid characters from New York City’s ‘forgotten borough’—getting inside their minds, capturing the crucial subtleties of each glance and glare and grasp—marks him as a writer to watch. This is the sort of debut William Trevor might have written had he been born a writer from The Rock, a wised-up kid dreaming of the glittering island waiting just across the water.”
—Keith Dixon, author of This Is How You Fall and The Art of Losing 

Author Q&A

1. You gave up your law career in order to raise your daughters and pursue your dream of writing. Growing up in Staten Island, did you feel like writing wasn’t a legitimate career choice? Or did your desire to write evolve later?
            I always wanted to write but really had no idea how one accomplished that. It’s not that I was discouraged from writing but it just wasn’t something that kids from Staten Island did. They became cops or firemen or sanitation workers. If you had ambition, maybe you became a lawyer or worked on Wall Street.
            My desire to write really intensified after I graduated from law school. I enjoyed law school—you read a lot and it’s intellectually stimulating—but you don’t really have time to read anything but legal materials. After I graduated, I clerked for a federal appellate judge in New York and started reading contemporary fiction—Roddy Doyle, Richard Russo, etc.—on my commute and at night. I started jotting down my own thoughts and story ideas. I might have even drafted a chapter or two of a novel called Ferry Beers.
            After my clerkship, I started working at a big firm and really didn’t have time to write. I eventually moved to a smaller firm where the work was a little less intense; there were very busy periods but there were also times when things were a bit slower. The stories would rise to the surface when I wasn’t as busy. My wife, Martine, noticed. I’d come home from work and start talking about these ideas for stories. So when our twin daughters were born, she said, “I think you should try to write.”
            Long story short: the desire was always there. I just didn’t know how to turn that desire into something concrete. Martine’s faith in me made me think I could do it.
2. Would it be correct to say that Staten Island suffered proportionally more losses from 9/11 than any other borough of New York? Has the tenor of life changed there in the wake of the attacks?
            I don’t think about it that way exactly. Every life is meaningful, so it’s not a question of whether one place was hit harder than another place. But when a place like Staten Island—insular, relatively small (for New York City)—has hundreds of people killed on a single day in an event that the world witnesses, there’s going to be a significant effect.
            Two hundred seventy-four Staten Island residents were killed on 9/11. That’s 274 families, at least, who lost someone. Tens of thousands of people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, friends—who lost a loved one. All in a somewhat isolated, tight-knit community. Pretty much every person on Staten Island knew someone who was killed on 9/11. Most people knew multiple victims.
            Obviously, this was a terrible tragedy for everyone involved. But in the shadow of that tragedy, some good things have emerged. The sadness is mixed with this pervasive sense of resiliency. A few wonderful charities have emerged on Staten Island in response to the tragedy: the Stephen Siller Foundation, which sponsors the yearly Tunnel to Tower race through the Battery Tunnel; Camp Good Grief, which assists bereaved Staten Island children in coping with grief; and many, many others. So, yes, it has become part of the fabric of the community, as I’m certain it has in other communities in the tristate area.
            Staten Island also got slammed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. So in the space of a dozen years, you’ve had these two global events devastate a community that, frankly, most people never think of. It’s an eerie coincidence.
3. The Amendolas’ lives and experiences feel so true. Are they based on a real family?
            Not exactly. It was more of an amalgam of several different families I grew up with, including my own. There were a bunch of families on Staten Island—as I’m sure there are everywhere—where there are three or four or five brothers, all clustered around the same age. I thought that would be an interesting angle to examine. How do they get along? What are the dynamics? What kind of relationship does each of them have with his parents?
            There are a handful of background facts that I took from my own life. Michael, the father, was an only child. So was my father. I find that concept fascinating. How do you go from being an only child to being part of a larger family? Some of the sibling dynamics are completely foreign to Michael because he had no brothers or sisters.
            For the most part, the Amendolas evolved into their own family on the page. They became a family through the writing process. Whenever an issue came up, I tried to follow my gut as to how I thought the various members of the family would react. I’m sure that was influenced by my own experiences, both within my family and witnessing other families, but there was no one model for the Amendolas. 
4. The novel brilliantly depicts the loving yet fractious relationship between Peter, Franky, and Bobby. Do you have brothers of your own? Which of the Amendola brothers do you relate to most?
            I have two younger siblings: a sister and a brother. But there are three years between each of us, so my brother, Kevin, is six years younger than me. Because of that age gap, we were not as close growing up as Peter, Franky, and Bobby. Six years isn’t a big difference in your twenties but when you’re seventeen and your brother is eleven? Different worlds. We did live in the same room until I left for college, which is something I explore very early in the book.
            I relate to all the brothers. Peter and I are probably the most outwardly similar. He’s a lawyer and in some version of my life I could have ended up like him. But his relationship with his family and his feelings about Staten Island aren’t me at all. Franky is clearly a troubled soul and has some not so pleasant qualities. But I empathize with him. I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve been on a Franky path: self-destructive, self-pitying, angry at the world. It’s not a pretty thing to witness.
            I also think it’s important to note that we’re meeting these people at a time of crisis. Franky is probably perpetually in crisis but Peter usually has his life in order. If we had met Peter a year earlier or a year later, we’d probably have a much different perspective on him. And maybe Franky too. I think Franky is capable of redemption and I hope that sense is present in the novel.
            As for Bobby, it’s deliberately hard to have a clear sense of what he was like. He certainly seems to be the brother who is the most comfortable in his own skin, the brother who is happy with his place in the world. But was that actually true or is it the way his family wants to remember him? Is that a sheen caused by his heroism? In her chapter, Tina reveals that Bobby had his faults. Of course he did. He was human and flawed like the rest of us. Still, he’s a bit of a mystery. In an earlier version of the book, I had a chapter where Bobby did something that no one in his family knew about. Nothing bad actually but just a secret that he never revealed, one of the countless things in any life that belong only to that person. I didn’t include it for a number of reasons but I think it’s safe to say that Bobby was probably a little more complicated than he’s remembered as being.
5. You use food—the pizza at Denino’s, the sausage from Enzo’s shop, and the endless array of Italian American dishes that first Maria and then Gail prepare for their families—as a way of reflecting unspoken feelings or tensions between characters. Was this a conscious decision?
            Yes and no. When you think about it, the way we eat (and what we eat) says a lot about us. Are we sitting down with family around a table or grabbing something on the go? Are we making a big meal together in the kitchen or ordering in a pie so we can eat in front of the TV? Or to use a specific example from the book, are we eating at Denino’s or Per Se? There’s no one answer, of course, and I suspect many of us are doing all of these things at different moments in our lives. (Well, maybe not eating at Per Se.) So on a few occasions in the book—Tina and Wade’s date—I was intentionally using food to illustrate the characters’ desires and feelings. Tina wants to know that Wade can take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, and eat a few slices at Denino’s. Is that just about pizza? No. She’s testing him, using one of her own ingrained food rituals to make sure he can fit in when she needs him to. He knows it, maybe even before she does. In writing that chapter, I was very conscious of the role that food was going to play at this moment of their relationship.  
            Other things slipped in there without me even realizing it, because of my own subconscious associations. For example, when Maria first starts cooking for Gail, a bead of sweat rolls off her nose into the sauce. I put that detail in because I remembered it happening at one of my friend’s houses growing up. His grandmother was cooking us pasta and I can remember a bead of sweat dangling from her nose and eventually falling into the pot. I thought it was a funny little detail. But I see it differently now. Maria is not simply preparing food. She is giving herself—literally her sweat and later her tears—to Gail. That’s why we crave home-cooked meals, while we associate so much happiness with our grandmother’s sauce or our father’s chicken parmigiana. It’s not just the food, it’s the effort of someone’s making it for you. Of someone sweating for you. What’s more primordial than that?
            Okay, I’m babbling now. Sorry. This is what happens when you ask me about food. Next question.
6. The novel begins in the present day, but slips effortlessly back and forth between the various characters’ pasts. What section or character did you create first? How did your understanding of the Amendolas evolve as you wrote Small Mercies?
            The book started with a very simple idea: a middle-aged woman walking on a beach, talking to her dead son. I wrote a short story centered on that idea which had many of the elements that later ended up in the novel. But it was way too cluttered. I kept adding Gail’s backstory, where she grew up and these other episodes from her marriage. So I start thinking about her family: Did she have just the one child? What was her husband like? How did she end up on Staten Island? I let her guide me through the book. She brought in Tina and Maria and Michael and Enzo. Even Franky. Every time I got lost, I came back to Gail, doing something mundane—walking on a beach, sitting at a kitchen table, cooking, riding the ferry —and thinking about her life.
            Peter and Michael were the two trickiest characters to weave into the tapestry. Peter has a very different life from anyone in his family. I thought it was important that his chapter have a different feel. But in creating his world, I was worried that the book would drift away from Staten Island too much. Regina Giordano was in the book from the beginning but at some point, I just decided that she should be from Staten Island as well. That would help tie Peter back to his roots and, I hoped, explain why she’s so appealing to him. Even still, Gail has to literally go into Manhattan to take the narrative away from him.
            Michael presented different challenges. I really struggled with his chapter. I went through many, many drafts. I had to go back into his life, back to when he was a kid, to fully understand him. Really imagine what it would be like to be an only child in a house where English was rarely spoken. And again, his chapter really started to make sense when I started thinking about how he met Gail.
            She’s the glue. I love all of the characters but it’s Gail’s book. At least, for me.
7. Like Richard Russo and Stewart O’Nan, who both praised Small Mercies, you’ve chosen to write about the lives of so-called ordinary, working-class people. What draws you to these kinds of characters?
            I don’t even think of it as choice. As the old maxim goes, write what you know. This is what I know. These are the people I grew up with, the people who populate my life. Most of Richard Russo’s work is about small-town people, in upstate New York or Maine. I’ve never lived in a small town but, man, when I read his work, I feel like I know these people. I understand them, even if the minutia of their lives are very different from my own. Certain things are the same everywhere: family, I think, being the main one. Clearly, this is a Staten Island book. I’m hopeful, though, that readers will see aspects of their own lives reflected in the characters’ lives; that they will find something universal in the local.
8. Who are some of your favorite authors and literary influences?
To crib from the previous question, Richard Russo and Stewart O’Nan are a good start. Roddy Doyle makes it look easy but I think what he’s doing is incredibly difficult. Alice McDermott is amazing. When I was practicing law and often quite busy, I’d keep a short story collection by the bed: usually something by Alice Munro or William Trevor. Both are incredible and can convey worlds in the space of ten pages. Jess Walter and Anne Enright are at the top of their respective games. And I couldn’t hope to write the way he does but John Banville is a genius. 
9. What are you working on now?
            I’m betwixt and between, as they say. I’m jumping back and forth between two ideas, hoping one will ensnare me. The first is about a cop who moves to Staten Island in the seventies and comes into conflict with a sort of redneck biker gang. It’s based on the town I grew up in, Tottenville, the southernmost town in New York State, and a very strange place, particularly back then. The second is about a guy who owns a bar near the Staten Island ferry. It’s a little more of a black comedy. They’re both in the early stages.

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