Like most of the characters in his debut collection of stories, “Floyd Harbor” (Catapult, 244 pp., $16.95 paper), Joel Mowdy, 42, grew up in a blue-collar hamlet on the South Shore of Suffolk County. Mowdy’s stories unfold in landscapes familiar to many Long Islanders: William Floyd Parkway, a 7-Eleven parking lot, the Penn Station waiting room at one in the morning. Mowdy, who attended William Floyd High School and Hofstra University, spoke over the phone from Indonesia, where he teaches at Green School Bali. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In the late 1980s, there was an initiative to change Shirley’s name to Floyd Harbor, which is what you call the town in your book.
I love the idea of a real fictional place. I was in grade school when the whole thing happened; there was this big debate, and I didn’t really understand the context — that people thought our town was somehow below everything else. My world was really those three towns: Mastic, Mastic Beach and Shirley. I just thought it was a great place. My father would talk about [the name change] as a joke — a joke you could see all over town on bumper stickers that said “Where’s Da Harbor?” That just stuck with me.
Since leaving home, you’ve lived in Michigan, Lithuania and now Indonesia. Yet you locate these stories on Long Island. What keeps drawing you back?
I found it easier to write about the place when I wasn’t there. I wasn’t so worried about the accuracy of details so much, and more just the feeling.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Absolutely not. If anything, I thought, “Who from here can be a writer?” I never thought I could do something like this. My sister, Shannon, and I would always entertain each other with stories and jokes. I remember in high school I read a story of hers and thought, “Hey, maybe I can do that, too.” My sister inspired me.
When did you start writing about the town?
Some of the stories in the book I started 20 years ago. I was terrible in school and did really poorly; got kicked out of William Floyd twice, went to alternative school, then was just loafing around for a few years. I finally went to Suffolk Community College and took my first writing class — I hadn’t written before that. I started my first story, “Fatta Morgada,” there and finished it when I went to Hofstra.
For a long time I didn’t think of it as writing a book. I didn’t even know what that meant. I didn’t know what an MFA was until I was almost finished with my undergraduate studies at Hofstra. I felt like I was winging it the whole time, especially when I went to Hofstra — that was a big step up for me. I took a workshop with Zachary Lazar [author of "Sway" and other titles], who became such a great mentor to me. He was the first person I met who wrote a book, who was a writer. I didn’t know you could meet them. They were mythological to me. They didn’t exist in my neighborhood.
Many of your characters deal with poverty and feeling stuck — line cooks and landscapers and public school teachers and burnouts. Was this your experience growing up in the area?
My family had 12 kids; my parents adopted and fostered and took in kids who needed a family, from time to time. I didn’t really grow up poor, but I grew up around poor people. My father was a Vietnam veteran, and after he was laid off from a very steady job, the ills that surrounded us crept into the family. My brothers and sisters and I have different ideas about how we grew up. I’m sure some would swear we were a middle class family.
This book is one perspective; it’s my perspective. I’m not pretending to write “the” book of the place. I’m telling the stories I want to tell. My sister, Shannon, writes stories about that place and her perspective is different. There is no one view of the place. If we could get everyone to learn how to write in Mastic Beach, we’d have thousands of stories. I’d love to hear everyone’s different ideas of the place.
Kelly McMasters is the author of "Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town" and co-editor of "This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home." She teaches at Hofstra University in the undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs.