Interview: Kevin Jack McEnroe Author of Our Town

Shelf Unbound: Why did you want to tell the story of your grandmother’s drug and alcohol addiction, given that, as you said in a recent issue of People, you barely knew her?

Kevin Jack McEnroe: In my family, my grandmother was considered a sort of cautionary tale, and I grew up knowing her in this context. However, when I took my first writing class in college, my professor prompted us to write from the perspective of the opposite sex. In doing so, I wrote a story about a grandmother’s—a nana’s—vision of her grandson. I wasn’t quite sure why she came to me in this context, but after this I kept writing about her, and trying to understand her, and in doing so I feel like I may have gotten to know her the best I possibly I could’ve, and I cherish that relationship so.

Shelf Unbound: You base your main character on your grandmother, the actress Joanna Moore, and other characters are based on your grandfather, Ryan O’Neal; your father, John McEnroe; and your mother, Tatum O’Neal; and yourself. Why did you choose to write this story as fiction?

McEnroe: I believe that this book—and the character of Dorothy—is based on my grandmother Joanna Moore. However, the rest of the book, and the rest of the characters, are entirely fictional. And, more so, I feel like all the rest of the characters are some sort of version of me. I chose to write this as fiction because I have no interest in nonfiction. I’m afraid to write in the first person.

Shelf Unbound: The grandson in the novel says of his grandmother: “She never disappointed him. Even if he had to patch her life together—even as its threads, often, fell apart in his fingers, she never disappointed him. Even if he had to make it up—especially if he had to make it up—she never disappointed him. No matter what, he understood that they had something in common. That they were both alive and they knew what living meant. That they were together.” I found this passage so moving and beautiful. Why does the grandson character, and why do you, cherish the relationship with the grandmother?

McEnroe: I think the relationship that I have with Dorothy, and therein Joanna, has allowed me to understand myself better. I learned, in writing the book, that the reason I was so interested in her, I think, is because she had a tendency to get in her own way when she felt success coming, a tendency that I feel like she and I share. When you don’t believe you deserve success, you can do anything to blunt that. But, I think it was in my attempting to understand her better that I learned that that’s what we shared, something I wish she could’ve figured out herself. In that way I feel she saved me. To this day I view her as my guardian angel.

Shelf Unbound: I think you humanize your grandmother’s drug use but you certainly don’t glamorize it. You began Our Town and got your book deal at a time when you were using drugs and you finished it in during two months in rehab last year. How did your own perspective on drug use change over that time and did your changed perspective make any difference in the book?

McEnroe:I don’t think that drug abuse necessarily is passed down from generation to generation, but Dorothy, Joanna, and I certainly share something, and whatever this is drugs pair quite well with. Drugs allow you to live life entirely in the present, which early on can be quite appealing, especially if you find looking inward to be a scary thing to do. In the midst of drug use, the light at the end of the tunnel begins to feel too far away, and so turning around feels in some ways safer. Because, while behind you is dark, its also familiar. You know what’s there. Since I finished the book though, I feel I have to do better and try harder for Joanna, which again makes me feel like she saved my life.

Shelf Unbound: Was writing the book cathartic?

McEnroe:The writing of the book was in fact cathartic. I find that the only writing of my own that I like is writing about the things that I don’t like to talk about.

Shelf Unbound: Will your next book also be based on real life?

McEnroe: In some ways, all of my writing is based on my own life. In that vein, Our Town is my California novel, and I have just begun work on a New York book, based on some of my experiences working at night in the city. Moral code changes in New York at night, and I look forward to exploring that.  

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