Writer Tommy Donovan joins me today to chat about his coming-of-age memoir, The Rail: What Was Really Doin’ in the 60’s Bronx.
Tommy Donovan grew up near the Amalgamated Cooperative Housing in the Van Cortlandt Park area of the Bronx. Coming-of-age during the turbulent and questioning 1960s helped shape his spirit of inquiry and critical thinking. He currently lives in Big Timber, Montana, with his life-partner, Dr. Kim C. Colvin. Tommy holds a doctorate in psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is a Faculty Fellow in the Honors College at Montana State University.
Welcome, Tommy. Please tell us about your current release.
This is my coming-of-age memoir that depicts the struggles of the son of an Irish immigrant growing up in an all-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, between the end of World War 2 and the shadow of the Holocaust, and the emergence of the turbulent 1960s. At home, I wrestle with family dysfunction, while in the streets I must navigate a world where being a goy (gentile) confers a hurtful, outsider status on him. Eventually, my life hangs in the balance as I struggle to not surrender to the pull of drug addiction while fighting to break free and flee the Bronx for good. My confrontation with these formidable obstacles, on my journey to manhood, takes place center stage at “The Rail,” where my allies and nemeses gather daily.
What inspired you to write this book?
This is my first book. I was compelled to write this because whenever my childhood friends and I have described our growing up, we consistently get amazed reactions and someone inevitably says, “Your stories should be a book.”
Excerpt from The Rail: What Was Really Doin’ in the 60’s Bronx:
There was one particular section of the fence that ran along Van Cortlandt Park South, that came to serve as each generation’s true north and the epicenter for all manner of social interaction – especially for the postwar baby-boomers. Directly in front of the park, this portion of the fence stretched east from the retaining wall to the asphalt pathway leading into the playground area, approximately 60 feet in length. When we were little, it was just part of the landscape demarcating the boundary between the street and the park, claiming no particular attention during our comings and goings. At that tender age, even if we noticed the older kids hanging out there it had little impact on us and even less interest. As we found ourselves inexorably thrust into our teenage years, this spot in front of the playground began to loom larger and larger in our lives and our imaginations as the place to be. This section of fence was known to everyone as, simply, The Rail.
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I AM THE BASTARD SON of an immigrant Irishman. For this reason, and more that you will discover in the course of this memoir, I have had a difficult time locating home, trusting family, finding safe harbor in many of my intimate relationships. Yet between the years 1956-1972 (spanning the ages between five and twenty-one), home, family, and a place of safety were located in the Bronx. I found them not in my own house, but in the homes, schoolyards, playgrounds, and streets of a tiny, modern-day shtetl populated predominantly by Jews. Beneath the apparent incongruity of this statement – safety in the streets of the Bronx, family among people of a completely different religion, and home within others’ homes – a deep and abiding kinship revealed itself over the course of my childhood, a kinship with a place and the people who lived there that shaped decisively who I was then and who I am now. Indeed, this sense of kindredness has informed my entire life; during these tender and impressionable years, I learned how to trust, how to share, how to stand up for what I believe, and how to love.
The soil that nurtured this unlikely, lifelong bond with this place, with Jewish culture, and with the friendships forged there – many continuing to this day – was seeded by a variety of episodes, traumatic and elegant, painful and exquisitely loving. Mine was a coming of age in a peculiar time and place. Wedged between the nightmare of World War II and the thunderous, shattering Sixties, my coming of age awoke in me, and many of us, common rhizomatic stirrings to live beneath a sun different than the one we inherited. Pulled by an indescribable draw toward a deep mutuality, there arose a desire to band together in ways that would lift us beyond what the larger world offered as the apparently irreconcilable differences of ethnicity, class, gender, religion, and race. Our sensibilities were shaped by a nascent determination to defy a history of fear and the promise of more of the same and, instead, create something we imagined would be entirely new.
What exciting story are you working on next?
YA fiction based in Celtic Mythology.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I began writing at age 14. I would write stories about our neighborhood gang, completely romanticized, and read them in installments to my friends gathered in the basements of our neighborhoods
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am a college professor at Montana State University. I write when I have breaks in the teaching schedule, mostly on weekends, semester breaks and especially over the summer months.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I cannot move to the next sentence unless I feel the previous one evokes precisely what I want to convey emotionally.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Back in my day I imagined myself being a firefighter or a policeman. By the time the 1960s erupted I wanted to be a nomad.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
If you are writers, keep reading everything, and write to express your soul-daimon and not for any other motive.
Thanks for being here today, Tommy! Happy writing.