When 53-year-old Tom Phelan's first novel was published, one critic asked, "Where has Mr. Phelan been?" The answer was: all over. Born in rural Ireland in 1940, he became a Catholic priest, serving in England and New York. After leaving the priesthood in the mid-1970s, he got a master's degree at Seattle University, then moved back East and worked as a custodian in the Garden City public schools system for 20 years. In a recent telephone conversation from his home in Freeport, Phelan discussed his late blooming as a fiction writer and the genesis of his most recent novel, "The Canal Bridge" (Arcade, $24.95), which follows two young Irishmen into the trenches of World War I.
What prompted you to write about World War I?
The thing that really interested me was the way Irish soldiers were treated when they got back. When I was a child, my father every now and then would hire a few people to help on the farm, and some of them were World War I veterans. They were laboring men who joined the army because they had no money or job, but when they came home, they were pushed to the edge of society because a lot of people thought they had fought on the wrong side.
Your main character is criticized for serving in the English army, but his neighbors are also critical of the 1916 Easter Rising and the IRA.
The thing that a lot of American Irish don't understand is that when the Rising took place, it was not very popular. As the rebels were being led off to Kilmainham Jail, the women of Dublin whose husbands were fighting in the trenches in Europe were very angry and threw stuff at them. It wasn't until they were executed that all these myths were created: that the British were monsters and the IRA great heroes. All these people were very human, and they all had their faults.
Although you've lived in America since 1970, your novels are set in Ireland. Why?
Because that's what I know; it's the society I was born into and brought up in. It's all totally different here, from little things like the names of flowers and birds to the way the educational system works. I would never be able to catch up and know American society as well.
Most of my novels are based to some degree on fact. "Nailer," for example, on the surface is a mystery, but it's all about the industrial schools set up by the Catholic Church in Ireland to take care of children who were destitute. It turned out there was terrible abuse -- physical, sexual, psychological -- by the priests and nuns. I knew some kids who went to the industrial school near us, and they were never whole people afterward. I set up "Nailer" as a detective story to carry the story of the abuse.
"The Canal Bridge" is told by a variety of narrators with vividly distinct voices. Does that come naturally to someone from a culture with a strong oral tradition?
That's certainly part of it. When I was growing up, there were a lot of old bachelors called "ramblers" who every Sunday would go to a different house and tell stories. We were very isolated, and it was very exciting to have someone coming to the house. There was no radio or television, so people sat around and talked.
But I've also been influenced by what I've read; you can't be a writer unless you're constantly reading. My first book, "In the Season of the Daisies," is told in the same style as "The Canal Bridge," with different voices, and I got that idea originally from William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." With any writer I read, I'm always taking notes; I'm reading from the point of view of how they're going about their work. It's always a learning process for me.
Why did it take an avid reader and writer like you so long to publish?
I started writing seriously when I was going to school in Seattle; one of my professors encouraged me. For about 15 years, I wrote this 900-page stuff that thankfully never saw the light of day. But at the end of it, I realized I had developed a voice, and I went straight into writing "In the Time of the Daisies." The reviews for that were just what any writer would like to get, and I think it was just the right time in life for me to be published.