Strong Echoes of Ireland at Book Fair

Alphie McCourt

By Mary Pat Kelly, Contributor
August / September 2008

“When I walked in this morning I was overwhelmed.  I heard the siren call of books from every corner, and I didn’t know which one to answer. There’s an openness at the BookExpo, a kind of non-restrictive environment that lets you go wherever you like. No stops, no prohibitions.  Maybe because it’s in L.A.  Would it be the same in New York?  Here everyone seems welcome and the variety is enormous.”

That’s Alphie McCourt speaking about BookExpo America, the annual trade show of the publishing world, held this year in Los Angeles May 29th through June 1st.  The youngest of the four McCourt brothers, Alphie was experiencing “my first hour as an author,” signing a limited-edition excerpt from his memoir, A Long Stone’s Throw, to be published in the fall by Sterling and Ross Publishers.

“The book begins in New York with some of my adventures and then I go back to Limerick to my growing up.  And while my book has the same basic background as Frank’s and Malachy’s, my story is different because my brothers and I have lived in different places and I’ve had a variety of work experiences.  So it’s the same, but different,” Alphie McCourt said.

We sat together at a small table surrounded by miles of booths displaying thousands of books.  Authors, editors, publishers, sales staff, publicists, book buyers and sellers moved through the futuristic convention center where four-story-high banners and every kind of poster and pavilion called to them.  Sirens, no question.  Astounding.

The sheer number of books calling for attention makes the commercial and critical success achieved by contemporary Irish and Irish-American authors even more impressive.  Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is a potent example of what can happen when readers fall in love with a book.  Many other names come to mind: Malachy McCourt, Peter Quinn, Pete Hamill, Maeve Binchy, Mary Gordon, Anna Quinlan, Mary Higgins Clark, Carol Higgins Clark, Nuala O’Faolain, Tom Kelly, Dennis Lehane, Joseph O’Neill – the list goes on and on.  But a writer’s work has to be acquired, edited, published and skillfully promoted in order to live.  My two days of interviews at BookExpo showed a substantial Irish-American presence in all phases of the book business.

At the DK Publishing booth where juxtaposed posters advertised DC Comics Encyclopedia and The Vatican, I met Nancy Ellwood, Children’s Editor; Rachel Kempster, Associate Director of Publicity; Meghan O’Brien, Special Sales Manager and Jennifer Wendell, Marketing Manager.  All had Irish ancestors.  We began to wax a bit about the Irish as great readers, the cultural respect for storytellers.  No wonder Irish-Americans were attracted to publishing and did well.  “Of course,” Meghan spoke up, “most publishers are in New York and Boston, places where there are a lot of Irish people.” A good point.  Still, Meghan Clery of Becker and Mayer in Bellevue, Washington; Gerard Kelly who started his successful imprint, Miles Kelly, in Glasgow and is now based in Essex, England; and the Kelley family – Gloria, Meghan, Jocelyn and Connor – whose book publicity and promotion firm is in Marblehead, Massachusetts, disproved the location theory.  And Pat Kelly Rizzolo, Regional Sales Manager for McGraw-Hill, who’d been born and raised in New York, is now based in Stuart, Florida.

Still, New York does draw book people, no matter where they begin.  Robert Gleason, Executive Editor of Tom Doherty Associates, publishers of both Morgan Llywelyn and Father Andrew Greeley, grew up near Chicago in northern Indiana.  A successful writer himself, Gleason does see a special connection between his Irish heritage and his literary vocation.  He spoke of being struck on his first trip to Dublin by the many statues of writers.  He quoted Yeats and Joyce as the Expo swirled around us.  Words, I thought.  It’s the words.

“It’s because we Irish are readers,” Susan Donnelly, Director of Sales at Harvard University Press, said.  She began in bookstores and found great satisfaction in recommending books and in the discoveries the readers made.  For example, an elderly Irish-American woman looked at her father’s service in the British Army in World War I in a different light after reading Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness.

I didn’t stop the many bookstore owners and buyers from the large chains with Irish names on their tags.  They were intent on the purpose of the Expo: ordering books.

I did speak to the authors, however.  “Variety” indeed.  Where else would George Hamilton be signing books next to Salman Rushdie?  “There’s another famous person,” I’d think.  I’d never seen celebrities, with neither bodyguards nor entourage, seeking to give their autographs: Barbara Walters, Brooke Shields, Dionne Warwick, Magic Johnson, Ted Turner, Henry Winkler, Ernest Borgnine, Gary Hart, Robert Kennedy Jr., authors all.  The glitzy bus taking Jackie Collins on a coast-to-coast tour of Harrah’s casinos to sign her new book, Married Lovers, was parked across from the booth for Hay House, publisher of metaphysical classics.  Louise L. Hay, the teacher and lecturer, an influence on so many, was signing copies of her million-plus best seller, You Can Heal Your Own Life.  I had to ask, “Irish?”  She does have Irish ancestors, she said, and felt a deep connection to Ireland’s spirituality and mythical character.  “The first time I went to Ireland, all I did was cry.  It’s very special.”

The woman ahead of me in the Louise Hay line saw my Irish America badge.  “My mother is from Dungiven, near Derry,” said Alexandra Weis.  “I visit her family there often.”  A nurse, she turned to writing after she and her doctor husband lost their New Orleans clinics to Katrina.  Her book, To My Senses, a romance novel (the biggest-selling genre), was published through Amazon’s Book Surge and selected from thousands for Expo after being a finalist for two awards.

My badge also caught the eye of Delilah, the radio disc jockey whose nationwide program is devoted to “love songs and sympathetic listening.”  Her book, Love Matters, combines stories from her listeners and her own life.  “I come from McGowans and McPhersons,” Delilah said.  Her father was a farmer in Oregon.  “He hand-fed his cows.  My devotion to animals comes from him.”

At the Hachette Book Group USA pavilion, authors from the very top of the best-seller list were signing books – Brad Meltzer with The Book of Lies, James Patterson with Against Medical Advice and Michael Connelly with The Brass Verdict.  “Irish America magazine,” Michael Connelly said.  “I was one of the Top 100 and I have the Crystal Harp to prove it.”  He was honored to be connected to the great tradition of Irish storytelling, he said.

Christopher Buckley was signing Supreme Courtship, the latest in his very successful comic novels set in Washington, D.C.  The son of James F. Buckley, he spoke of his family.  “My uncle, Reid Buckley, has written a history of the family and our Irish roots,” he said.  His Buckley ancestor was a Protestant who, after marrying a Catholic, refused to allow a 12th of July parade to cross his land.  He was arrested but escaped to Ontario, Canada in the 1840s and became a sheep farmer.  “I’ve been to Ireland many times,” Christopher Buckley said.

The staff at Hachette Book Group USA made the important and obvious point that it wasn’t necessary to be Irish to appreciate and promote Irish and Irish-American authors.  In the interest of full disclosure, my novel Galway Bay is being published by Grand Central Publishing, part of Hachette.  Acquired by Maureen Mahon Egen, who has since retired, it’s been well nurtured by publisher Jamie Raab and associate publisher Emi Battaglia, who were there in the booth and introduced me to their colleagues.  “I’m Irish-by-marriage,” said Rick Cobban, V.P. of National Accounts.  “My wife is a Dornan, and my daughter Tara’s husband proposed to her on the Cliffs of Moher.”  Bob Levine, Manager of National Accounts, claimed to be Irish-by-choice.  Linda Duggins told me her family comes from the Caribbean.  Her father has researched their name in Ireland.  He displays the Duggin coat of arms and is proud of both his Irish and African ancestors.

It was the end of the second day now, and Alphie McCourt was finishing his book signing stint.  A woman asked him about writing as an Irish or family trait.  “There was always a great love of reading in the family.  We were surrounded by people who talked, and there was a musical thing with the words.”
“And you’re the baby?” the woman asked.

“The baby’s a man now,” Alphie said.  “That’s from a Percy French song,” he explained, and sang, “‘The baby’s a man now, He’s toil-worn and tough; Still whispers come over the sea; Come back, Paddy Reilly, to Ballyjamesduff; Come home, Paddy Reilly, to me.’”

There was applause.

Ireland was certainly present at BookExpo America 2008.

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