Delightful ‘Sorrow’: D.C. author Richard McCann scores with his first novel
Washington Blade – May 6, 2005
Brian Moylan, Staff Writer
Many writers say they felt compelled to create a novel because of some internal impulse that needed expression. Longtime D.C. resident Richard McCann wasn’t compelled to write a novel, he was contractually obligated to do so.
With the contract signed for a novel, this poet and co-director of the graduate program in creative writing at American University found that he needed to redefine what a novel should be before he could produce the work.
“Over the years, as I worked on it, I realized I could only work in smaller pieces and they were all starting to interlock,” he says. “My idea of what a novel is was really small and limited. Then I realized that a novel could be made of things that are fragmentary, and that it could be made so that it wasn’t just one straight-through narrative.”
The result is “Mother of Sorrows,” McCann’s first novel, which Pantheon Books released in April. But, like McCann says, to call this pastiche of autobiographical stories a novel is really selling the collection short. (He is slated to read from the book at various area bookstores in the next few weeks.)
In the novel, a nameless, first-person narrator tells of growing up in a suburban subdivision in Silver Spring, Md., in a troubled family. But instead of the action in the book progressing from point A to point B, readers get a collection of vignettes about the narrator’s life that leap from childhood to adolescence to middle age, sometimes within the span of one story.
It’s like a scrapbook or a collection of pictures in non-chronological order. While flipping through this literary photo album, the snapshots of the author as a boy alter how we see him as a man, and the events of later life shadow the stories from his childhood.
This philosophy is espoused by the narrator who, after his brother’s death, is creating a scrapbook with his mother.
In the novel, McCann writes, “Tonight, I want no stories. Tonight I want only the singular, precise moments of these snapshots – these snapshots reversed from negatives, these sensitive emulsions dependent on even the briefest, most fugitive light. Tonight, I want only the singular, precise moments of everything that remains unfixed, unsorted, not yet pasted to its final page.”
“Mother of Sorrows” starts off like a standard coming-of-age story with a queer slant. The narrator, exceptionally close to his overbearing and overdramatic mother, dresses in her clothes, listens to Edith Piaf records in the basement and has his parents take him to see a chanteuse perform in downtown D.C.
Once the reader learns that the narrator’s father dies young, his mother is immersed in depression and he struggles with his sexual orientation, the stories take on a darker tone. It gets even darker as the narrator comes to terms with his gay older brother, loses a lover to AIDS and, eventually, contracts the virus himself.
“It’s about how we all negotiate between our loyalty to things that are gone and dead and our loyalty to present life,” McCann told the Blade. “That’s a really difficult negotiation.”
Beautifully written, McCann’s pedigree as a poet clearly shines through in the terse, intense diction, brevity of subject matter, and emotionally heightened prose. This isn’t a book many will be reading at the beach, but it is a gem that should be passed from friend to friend like an heirloom.
McCann, 54, describes “Mother of Sorrows” as an “homage to reality.” Like the narrator, his father died when he was young and he had a gay brother. But he says the mother in the novel is an extreme version of his own outrageous mom.
He also says his family dynamics were one of the challenges that made grappling with his own sexual orientation even more difficult.
“When I was a kid, and first read what supposedly makes a homosexual, I was terrified because I realized I had a compelling, overwhelming mother and the most absent father of all, a dead one,” he says. “That was a terror for me. Part of my baggage was that I fit the stereotype way too perfectly. I thought my fate was sealed.”
Like the narrator, McCann grew up in Silver Spring and earned an English degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and his doctorate in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Currently he resides in Dupont Circle.
In 1995, he published “Ghost Letters,” a collection of poems that became a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. With Michael Klein, he co-edited the 1997 anthology “Things Shaped in Passing: More ‘Poets for Life’ Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.”
Many of the stories that serve as chapters in “Mother of Sorrows” have been around since the ’80s and ’90s and have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. But their full impact is more forceful in this collection.
In the final chapter of the novel, the narrator is facing death from AIDS-related complications. McCann says he gave the character HIV because he felt like the disease he suffers from, hepatitis C, wasn’t serious enough.
In 1996, close to death, McCann had a liver transplant that saved his life.
“My former partner had HIV and the narrator has HIV because of my former partner,” he says. “I think the narrator needed it because he needed a really heavy disease, and I didn’t think liver disease was serious enough. Now, when I look back, I have a 22-inch scar from the transplant and I didn’t work for two years. It was pretty serious.”
McCann is currently working on a book titled “Resurrectionist,” a memoir about his experiences with being a transplant patient.
As for the house where he grew up in Silver Spring, he still drives by occasionally. When his mother was still alive, she once made him go knock on the door with her to see who lived there now. When they knocked, a gay couple answered.
“I was shocked because these people were living an ordinary life where, for me, that life was most forbidden,” he says. “They both had really fussy taste and so did my mother … I think she got along with them better than I did.”