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Ned Bachus On Chosen Family, Unlikely Friendships, And His Debut Novel’s Thirty-Six Year Journey To The Page

by Brendan Dowling on October 7, 2022

In Ned Bachus’ debut novel, Mortal Things, three disparate characters find themselves in an unexpected family unit, providing support through some of life’s darkest moments. Reeling from the recent deaths of his wife and infant son, Mike Flannagan returns to the small neighborhood in Philadelphia where he grew up. Eventually he finds himself in a promising relationship with the vibrant and intelligent Sarah, a professor at a local college. Yet even though he cares for her, Mike retreats whenever things get too serious. After a disastrous social outing with Sarah’s friends, Mike comes across Domenic, an elderly barber who has recently been mugged. The two men, both widowers, soon establish an unlikely friendship. When Sarah reaches out to Domenic for advice about her flailing relationship with Mike, she discovers a kinship with the old man as well. When a series of surprising events threaten the delicate social structure the three have created, each person is pushed to their edge as they confront the lengths they’ll go to protect the ones they love. Ned Bachus’ debut novel Mortal Things is a rich and tender examination of community, chosen family, and loyalty. He spoke with us about finding the layers of his characters, the struggle to fit in, and why writing the book took thirty-six years.

Bachus’s upcoming library appearances include

  • 10/20/22, Rockland Library (Rockland, ME), 6:30 p.m. ET in the Community Room
  • 2/9/23, Camden Public Library (Camden, ME), 6:30 p.m. ET in the Picker Room

I read on your website that you’ve been working on this for thirty-six years. Can you talk about what it was like to sit with a story for so long? What was your process for writing it?

Well, this was obviously not the initial game plan. (laughs) Nobody in their right mind schemes a thirty-six year program. We all know very reputable authors who are able to somehow crank out a book every year; I would never be in that conversation. This started out as a short story when I was in my MFA program, and that was thirty-six years ago. When I started it, I certainly didn’t see it as a novel, I saw it as a story. It morphed in time. I got feedback from my professors: “I think this is really more than a story. I think you need to think in terms of a novella.” I saw why it needed to develop a bit more and I followed that string out. By the next semester my professor then said, “You know Ned, I think you have a novel on your hands here.” I kept plunging forward. That was when the story was basically about two of the three main characters who are now in the novel. Somewhere, not very far after that, the third character swerved into the lane. Then the story got increasingly complicated as the three lives impacted one another. I always wanted to keep the three narrative threads going and honor each one of them. That was a challenge.

You have to understand, I was not a full-time writer. I was on sabbatical. I was working as a college counselor at the time. At the end of my MFA program, I transferred into the English department and then spent a number of decades teaching. Once I got summertime from teaching to work on fiction projects, that’s what I did. The thing is, even then, I wasn’t necessarily working on this project every summer. Sometimes there were years when it remained fallow. I worked on another novel; I’m still working on that. I’ve only been working on that since 2001 or so. That’s relatively a teenager almost, compared to the fully fledged adult that this is. (laughs) [I had]  a collection of stories that came out in 2013 and also a nonfiction book about my work as a college professor with first-generation students.

Of course, teaching took over my life. I saw myself primarily as a teacher, but I craved the writing. I was never one of those academics who could keep writing on the side. I tried every fall. Every September I tried to keep my hand in it, but I failed every single time. By the end of September, I was completely unable to re-establish myself in the fictional terrain that I’d lived in in the summer. After a while, I accepted that. I tried every year, but I failed every year. Happily enough, I think it enabled me to do a decent job as a teacher. That was very important to me.

I worked on it in stages. At different points in my life and kept coming back to it because I was never satisfied with it. It grew. It evolved quite a lot. I nurtured it through those phases as best I could. It’s not like I’ve suffered in these thirty-six years. Of course it’s frustrating to take a long time to do something, but I’m very happy with the way it’s turned out.

Did your perspective about any of the characters change as you sat with them and gained life experience?

One good thing about the way things turned out was when I did sit down and decide to go back to Mortal Things, I was always able to reset myself, to find those characters, to hear their voices, and to understand them. What changed, I think, was over the years I came to know them more and more. Over the last four or five years of working on this, the character of Sarah really became much more important than she had been. In a way, it’s more her story than it is the other two. That was a good experience, to get to know her. When you’re wrangling three characters that each get their point of view on the page in their own time, the more you know about one, the more you get to know about the others, because they’re very closely connected. There was, of course, the romantic relationship between Sarah and Mike, and then the very different non-romantic relationships they have among the three characters. Plus all the back story that goes with each of these three folks.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the friendship that both Sarah and Mike separately form with Domenic. It feels like those kinds of multigenerational friendships are rare in books.

They’re not that necessarily rare in real life, I think, in the sense that we do develop, if we’re lucky, these incredibly unlikely but important relationships with people who are not family, but become family. That’s what happens with these characters. They’ve all had such losses with family. Whether they know it or not, they need [familial connection], and they find it in a way in these unlikely people. Of course, there’s the situation where one character knows more than the other does about something and the reader knows even more because they know the third person. I was always able to play with that. That’s tricky to track. I have to remember when I’m working on a scene between Domenic and Sarah that Domenic knows certain things about Sarah because of his connection with Mike. There are things that Sarah knows about Domenic, or thinks she knows about Domenic. There are just these layers of what one character knows—or thinks he or she knows—and what the other actually does. Of course, the reader will find that even when the characters do know something, they don’t necessarily share it. There’s a lot that the reader ends up knowing only because they have access to the interior lives of these three people. They’re the fly on the wall in the interactions between these pairs of people: the romantic couple and then each of those people with Domenic. So they see them in all sorts of situations.

I think if I’d set out to write this the way most sane writers do, it might have been impossible. It might have killed me. (laughs) The complexity that I’ve just described might be off-putting to the writer. But I found myself in it, and there I was. I had to try to keep up with them. That’s really what it was. Once I knew who these people were and I saw the situation they were in, it was just a matter of, “What would this person do next? Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen then? That’s going to be disastrous and what are they going to do about that?”

You mentioned that the book story began as a short story between two characters. Who were those two characters?

It was the dinner party scene at the beginning of the book with Mike and Sarah. The original idea was this working class guy who’s had this horrible loss in his life has established a romantic connection with this young woman who’s much more educated. She’s a teacher at the college and it means the world to her to introduce him to some of her work friends. Of course, it’s a disastrous night for him—very, very painful. It brings him to a point where he has existential questions about the relationship. The coda to that is him stopping on the way home at the neighborhood pub and having an equally alienating experience with someone who really represents the early part of his life. Where does this guy fit?

I think so many people in life wrestle with that question. Where do I belong? Where do I fit? That’s a very overwhelming moment for him. To get back to your previous point, I think the more as years passed by, I came to see it as a book that’s about the importance of the families we’re given and the importance of the families we choose. So much hinges on what it is that anchors us in life. That’s what I ended up being very aware of. I understood what was anchoring these characters and what they were trying to use as anchors. I was curious to see how that was going to work out. How much stress can a person bear when this comes under attack? What happens when something like misinformation takes place? That’s the cruel irony that can happen in people’s lives. We don’t always react to the fact. We sometimes react to spin or misunderstanding, and then we’re in big trouble.

Your heart goes out to Mike because he’s truly someone without a place, which is why the setting of Mount Airy seems so important. Can you talk about why the Mount Airy neighborhood in 1989 Philadelphia was the perfect place for you to tell this story?

Well, it’s ironic that he’s so unsettled in Mount Airy, because I’m trying to portray it as one of those islands of acceptance and support that we appreciate, knowing how polarizing neighborhoods or towns can be. This is a neighborhood that has a reputation for generations of being that kind of place, but it wasn’t necessarily a sort of blue, blue, blue area in the fifties or sixties.  It had that [reputation], but it was very much a working class neighborhood. It was an interesting mixture. Running right through it is the main commercial thoroughfare, Germantown Avenue, which goes back to paths used by Native Americans. Then on each side of that commercial district you have homes. Typically the first block is working class or row house homes, or what used to be that. Then as you get three, four or five blocks off the avenue, they’re pretty substantial homes.

That’s the neighborhood where I spent a great deal of my youth, from age eight on. I lived in a number of places in that neighborhood. I remember as a kid going with my buddy who had a paper route and collecting his newspaper take on Friday, going to different homes. Maybe three blocks from the little apartment where I lived, there was this single home, a beautiful place, with rugs that felt like I was walking on water. That was not uncommon. It was socioeconomically mixed. That made for a certain inclusiveness, I think. No matter who you were you could believe like you belonged. You could be in a place where it was okay, whether you were Black or white. The neighborhood was “changing” at the time, and that was handled differently than in many other parts of the country. It went better than it did in many other parts of the country. It’s a neighborhood where anybody ought to feel comfortable and that individual lives don’t all fit that paradigm. You’re still going to feel alienated if certain things are going on in your life or part of your mindset. Both of those things, I think, apply to Mike Flannagan. He’s come back after being away for several years, living in a very different part of the world. Even though it’s not very far—it’s rural, another state. He’s come back and goes right back to the same old neighborhood. He has these memories and connections but things change. He has to wrestle with that.

For Sarah it’s a comfortable fit. She’s a young, liberal, open-minded person. She just relishes the opportunity to be in a neighborhood like that. That was like many of the people I knew when I became a faculty member of the Community College of Philadelphia. I knew many young faculty people, men and women, who’d come from other parts of the country and so many of them ended up in my neighborhood. It made me smile, because where I grew up I thought it’s no special thing. It’s my neighborhood. It’s a little quirky, but I’m glad they like it. In a way it’s a place of exile or escape for a lot of people, and I think it still is. I had the unique experience of after growing up in it, settling down and working and living and raising our children in it. It’s a very important place for me.

I didn’t consciously set the story there for any reason. That’s where I found the characters, that’s where they were. I tried to accept them for who they were and where they were, and being in the neighborhood was a significant part of their identity. It never occurred to me to change that.

What role has the library played in your life?

When you talk about librarians you’re describing some of my favorite people. One of my wife Kathleen’s college roommates and close friends spent her entire career as a university librarian. The library in my neighborhood, it was in a little park about a block and a half from where I first lived in Mount Airy. When they were doing construction to the addition of this library—I forget what age I was, but I was very young. They had mounds of dirt there and that’s where I learned to ride a two-wheel bike. I scraped up my courage, went to the top of this little mound, and rode down. I might have crashed the first time because it was all too much for me, but that’s where I learned how to do it. Going into the library of course, was a very common experience. It was something that was part of my youth and my life and still is. We live in Camden, Maine, about a block and a half from one of the most fabulous small town libraries you could ever find. There’s no question that it’s a library that has probably the greatest view. It’s right above Camden Harbor with a view of these anchored  schooners. It’s stunning. If I’m working on something or doing background reading in the reading room, every once in a while I catch my breath, look up from what I’m reading and just remind myself, “Holy cow, this is life as it should be.” So libraries have been a refuge for me all my life and continue to be. When I had my first sabbatical and was in the MFA program, I would go up to the nearest college campus where we lived, Chestnut Hill College, just up the road from a lot of the sights in the novel, and just use the space to do reading and writing work. That was a good feeling. Along with certain pubs, I would say libraries are among my favorite places.