A Conversation with Unexpected Turns

Two longstanding faculty members come together for publication. J. Michael Lennon, co-founder of our creative writing program, archivist, biographer and master of non-fiction, paired with Robert Mooney, wordsmith connoisseur, fiction genius and creator of time-shifting worlds? It feels improbable.

But in the fall of 2022, we shall all bear witness to this brilliant duo’s efforts as Etruscan Press releases Lennon’s book, edited by Mooney. And from the Zoom conversations we’ve had, it sounds like our two mentors will not disappoint. 

Conversations with Phil Brady led to behind-the-scenes planning with Mooney, and the two founders of Etruscan Press offered to publish Lennon’s work. Isn’t that the opposite of how the publishing world works? Bravo! Lennon, well done.

Mooney and Lennon remind me that they’ve had a warm friendship for over fifteen years, and this is not the first time they’ve reviewed/edited each other’s work. Sharing writing, asking for feedback is a common practice among faculty. It is because of this writers’ community that Phil Brady played a critical role in orchestrating Mike Lennon’s book for publication and suggested Bob Mooney’s involvement.

When asked about the working title of this book, Lennon and Mooney’s answers reveal the nature of their partnership. “We haven’t nailed it down,” Lennon says. “The longest essay in the book, Mailer’s Last Days, is a working title. It’s kind of a valedictory work. The whole collection ranges through time. But a lot of pieces focus on the last five, six years of Mailer’s life. It’s the longest piece in the book. And as Mooney suggested, it’s ‘New and Selected Essays’.”

Mooney’s fidgety, with a thoughtful wrinkle on his brow, oozing sincerity when he says, “Actually, I was trying to work on something more like New and Selected Remembrances of a Life in Literature because of the fine reviews and essays and pieces on Mailer. And it’s a memoir of yours, on your life, not only in the world, but in literature as well.”

“I like that,” Lennon says, leaning back, satisfied.

Half of the book consists of essays and reviews that are in some way linked to Mailer. The other half of the book is various published and unpublished memoir pieces that provide the connective tissue that weaves the work together. 

“Mike, you call it a ragbag,” Mooney says, about the work in progress. “We just needed to find a shape, and we did that pretty quickly. It’s what brings all of these different genres together . . . these seemingly disparate moments of an interesting life, which is of course, what all memoirs need to be.”

When asked about his role as editor, Mooney, who’s editing a number of books, says his approach is different with each writer, just as it is when he teaches creative writing: “…to figure out what’s this person’s vision? What’s her voice? What’s this fiction trying to become or what is it interested in philosophically and psychologically? And then to deal with young writers and seasoned writers like Mike on their terms.”

Later, Mooney adds more on the topic of being an editor. “It’s about creating an atmosphere of trust, where writers can trust you with intimate details that they don’t know would work. The friendship has helped to open things up and your readiness, Mike, to take the challenges I’ve given you.”

And so it’s under the gaze of Mooney’s watchful eye (through Zoom) that Mike shares what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this process. “Bob said to me, ‘We want to see how these stories knit together in a larger narrative that grows out of your life. We want the memoir pieces to be foregrounded more, and we want more of them.’ I’ve always felt resistance about writing about myself. Bob really pushed me.” 

It’s apparent Mooney is thrilled to be working with Lennon. His eyes sparkle as they did during residency when he taught a lesson on transitions in fiction and when he spoke about the creation of story. Mooney refers to Lennon’s readings at Wilkes with that same magical gaze. “Mike’s memoir really moved me. I would think of scenes that Mike had read [during residency] weeks later. The way he creates the world he grew up in—Fall River. You can smell it. You can feel it. Mike and I have a lot in common with heritage, and that resonates. But he really brings you into his life. It feels substantial.”

I sense the push and pull of this collaboration will result in a finely crafted book. Mooney wants more memoir. Lennon wants more reviews and essays. Both will win, and so will we. 

“I came to agree with Mike,” Mooney says. “These reviews should be in the book. Mike’s insight into literature and the people he chooses to write about are among my favorites. He’s got the eye of what Mailer called a first-rate reader. He’s able to translate that into language that is not academic. It’s from one interested smart reader to another, going right to the heart of the issues that a work of fiction is calling forth and what that might mean to us. And how that vision might be shaped. Only a writer of Mike’s caliber can do that. And then to turn the camera on himself is what I wanted. Mike didn’t realize the extent to which his life and his eye, his pen in his hand count for something huge here. Like a conductor—I am saying, give me more Lennon!”

Mike Lennon responds with a grin underneath his mustache. He’s worked with five different publishing houses over the years and a number of editors. “Every editor has their own style. I’ve never had any issues. But the difference with Bob is that I’ve known him for years. The others I knew because of the writing.”

Bob Mooney’s eyes appear to be searching the corners of his mind. Deep thought.

“After I finished the biography,” Lennon says. “I didn’t know what to do. So I began writing memoirs, essays, and reviews because I had to write. Most of the stuff in the book has been written in the last five years.” 

Mooney leans forward. He has contemplated the topic of their friendship. “I think it has helped the editorial process for me and the writing process for you,” he says to Lennon. “Because we chat like this and you tell me about your grandfather and your father, and I can tell you—” Mooney smiles as he points with such strength it feels like a jolt of electricity might come through the screen. “—that right there is what we need!” Did the lights just flicker? “There’s intimacy. I don’t know if you’d feel as comfortable opening up to some guy in a suit in New York City. I can see the lights going on in your head, and you’re following this thread, and I’m going ‘Yeah, that!’”

Reposted from Revise This!, April 2021.