Mckenzie Cassidy on Fact vs. Fiction and the Book You End Up With
I met Mckenzie Cassidy I want to say around 2014. I was a visiting alum for my low-res MFA program at Wilkes University. I love a good book pitch and his novel had such a great premise, based on a true experience—a young man learns his deceased father had a secret family. I was able to read the novel early and loved the story and style. It’s well-written and has a lot of heart. That debut novel, Here Lies a Father, has finally been released, through Kaylie Jones Books.
This book has been in the works for some time. How does it feel for it to finally see print, and what was the process like?
I’m ecstatic that Here Lies A Father is now out and in the hands of readers. So far it’s only been available for a week, but I’m looking forward to finding out how people react to the book. Writing and editing it took me five years, yet the early inspiration came to me in 2007 when I was working as a newspaper reporter. My father had died in 2004 and I’d been in contact with these half-siblings that I never knew existed. I thought what happened in my family would make a great story.
The book changed so much over the five years I wrote it. First, from memoir to a novel, and then so many revisions I barely remember what it was like in the first place. I’m sure other writers feel this too, but I started to get sick of my own book! You spend five years intensely working on one thing and you can’t wait to finalize it.
There’s a great quote by James Baldwin: “You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get.” Things will certainly change throughout the process and you need to be ready to roll with the punches. The book I wanted to write in the beginning was very different from what I ended up with, yet I’m very happy with it.
I know that there are true aspects to the story. Would you consider this novel auto-fiction, mixing fact and fiction?
I would describe this book as auto-fiction, probably like a 50/50 split of fact and fiction. Now that it’s out my friends and family are trying to figure out who’s who in the story. Although it’s loosely based on my father’s secret life, most of the events in the book were fabricated to develop conflict.
The advantage of writing fiction is that you can borrow elements from real life or people you once knew, and form it like you would a hunk of clay. Most of the characters are a mix of real personalities and character behaviors that I made up. I compare it to picking what you want from a salad bar. You take whatever you want or need, and leave the rest.
Ironically, this type of writing gave me the freedom to be more honest than I ever would’ve been writing non-fiction. And I’m not talking plot points. Rather I mean capturing those universal feelings all readers can relate to.
We both went to the same low-res MFA program. How helpful was the experience for you as an author?
My time in the Wilkes University low-res MFA program was helpful as an author. I had the opportunity to work with my incredible mentor Kaylie Jones. She made me into the writer I am today by supporting me every step of the way.
One thing I also loved about Wilkes was the writer’s community. I’m not sure if it’s the same in other MFA programs, but everyone at Wilkes supports one another. We share each other’s accomplishments, invite our classmates to literary events, and even lend a hand if someone needs help with their writing or career aspirations. I think it’s probably easy for writers to become competitive and nasty to their contemporaries. That’s something I would’ve walked away from immediately.
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer, but it was something I needed. I wanted to work with a published mentor and get the support of a writing community. The primary reason for pursuing my MFA was to teach. I’m currently an adjunct faculty member at a few higher ed institutions thanks to my degree and writing experience. So this path worked well for me.
Do you feel frustration in releasing your debut novel during the final act of a pandemic and a failed government coup?
What frustrates me the most is not being able to travel. I wanted so badly to visit Wilkes to see old friends or to attend events to promote the book. I had a chance to join some virtual book events in 2020 and, in my opinion, there are silver linings.
Zoom events make it easier for more people to attend your event from anywhere. If I hosted a launch in my hometown of Fort Myers, for example, I’d only get the people I knew there. The virtual format lets people from all over the country watch. Or even the world! I had some of my wife’s family in Ireland tune in.
This is also pure opinion on my part, but I think more people are buying books because they’re stuck at home. It’s easier to convince someone to order your book and have it shipped directly to their doorstep rather than invite them to an event and buy a copy in-person. Marketing and sales are all about convenience. I haven’t been following the market very closely but I think book sales are up. The one thing that’s changing is how people are buying them.
And, yes, the morning after my virtual book launch I woke up to the absurd news of Trump supporters storming the Capitol. I guess I’ll always be able to tell people my book was released during a failed coup. I read that the last time the Capitol had been breached like that was in 1814 when the British broke in and set fire to the building. Maybe they’ll be talking about this riot and my book in 207 years?
The incident at the Capitol actually came up in a conversation I had about the book last week. Here Lies a Father is all about the damaging effects of lies. Not that my book has any connection to the rioters, Donald Trump, or politics in America, but I think the desire for truth is a fundamental human need. We crave the truth. Our brains start to fester when we’re fed lies over and over again. At some point, that’s all going to bubble to the surface and I think that’s what happened at the Capitol.
How much of yourself is in the main character and how much of you and your experience is in the book?
All writers draw on their own personal experiences, feelings, and perspectives to write a story. They also do research on parts where they’ve had no direct experience. I think there’s a lot of me in the character of Ian Daly, but he’s not me. When writing Ian I tried to remember the way I felt as a 15-year-old boy in high school and how I would’ve reacted to the world.
But, there are many things Ian thinks and does that isn’t me at all. Like all of the characters in the story, Ian is an amalgamation of different personalities. That’s the beauty of writing fiction, I can use my own feelings as the basis of a character but go off in any direction I please.
Believe it or not, I think Ian is way braver than I am. He does things in the book I never would’ve done. It’s possible I used Ian as a way to play out my own subconscious fantasies. To make him do the things I never did. Regret is a strong motivator.
Did you have an end in mind or did it come to you during the drafting process?
Originally I had an ending in mind, but it totally changed by the time I finished the book. One of my sub-plots has Ian training at a local boxing gym. This is actually based on my life. For a few years in high school, I trained at the Cobleskill Boxing Club, which sadly no longer exists. These were some of my best memories from high school and I used them in the story.
In my very first ending, Ian and a few other characters traveled to New York City to compete in a boxing tournament. I decided to go another way because I didn’t want it to be a “boxing book.” I wanted boxing to be part of the story but not too prominent. It was important for Ian to find something that developed his confidence. If you read the story you’ll understand how boxing helps him down the line.
There are aspects of YA present here, but the novel reads like a literary novel. What are your thoughts on genre and categorizing books in the publishing industry?
There were conversations about this between myself, Kaylie Jones, and Johnny Temple from Akashic Books when deciding how to market the book—should it be marketed as YA or literary fiction? While the main character is 15, the book itself is more literary. The book straddles these two genres kind of like Catcher in the Rye. The style of YA is very specific and Here Lies a Father could appeal to many different audiences, so the decision was made to market it as literary fiction.
I understand why books are so heavily categorized. It helps with marketing and sales, but I think it limits audiences. Both YA and literary fiction have elements that could appeal to all readers. You can be a fan of both. For example, I’m a big fan of comic book stories like the Avengers, Daredevil, Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men, but I also read literary fiction by writers like Julian Barnes, Octavia Butler, Kazuo Ishiguro, or Colson Whitehead. Read what you like!
Lastly, have you started to work on a second book?
Very loosely, I have a few stories fermenting in my brain. The truth is I’ve struggled to read or write anything in 2020. Like everyone else this year, my anxiety dialed way up. I had some financial struggles and then I tore my rotator cuff so I spent a few months in a sling going to painful physical therapy sessions. 2020 was a real nightmare but I’m glad to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. I’m feeling better about the world and I want to jump back in the saddle. The most important lesson for anyone to learn—especially writers—is to get back up whenever you’re knocked down.
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