WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1

Talty Captures Buffalo’s Soul in ‘Black Irish’

By Michelle Boyle

Author Stephan Talty is no stranger to literary success. His previous five nonfiction books have been bestsellers and are as varied as they are interesting, ranging from such topics as the "greatest double agent of World War II, Juan Pujol" in Agent Garbo, to an account of Henry Morgan, infamous pirate captain, in Empire of Blue Water which was also a New York Times bestseller. 

So to catch up with Talty shortly after the publication of his first work of fiction was truly an honor. The novel, Black Irish (Ballantine Books, ISBN-10, 0345538064), has everything a psychological crime thriller should have, especially an interesting and compelling protagonist. There is also a tangible, atmospheric setting in the bowels of a part of Buffalo, N.Y., one that has seen better days and plays nearly as large a role in moving the story. The great cast of characters is the added bonus, educating the reader in a segment of Irish-American history in a fun, non-dogmatic way.

The protagonist, Absalom (Abbie) Kearney, is a strong, yet haunted individual. Talty discusses his novel's lead character, saying, "I wanted someone who was smart, an outsider who longed in many ways to be an insider, someone empathetic but wary of making connections, because she'd been burned before." 

He went on, "Since most cops I grew up with were men, I thought a female cop would be a natural outsider. Some of her viewpoint is my own, as someone who left South Buffalo and went to college up in Massachusetts. Some of it is probably based on my wife, who's very smart and uncompromising in ways that I'm not, and the rest is just what I'd like to see in a female character." 

After a long absence, Kearney returns to the city where she grew up where everyone knew her story and where it seems most people were closely related or connected. She feels herself highlighted as the orphaned outsider. In the novel, her native neighborhood of South Buffalo is defined as "the Twenty-Seventh County, or the "County" for short, a patch of Ireland in the wilds of America." Within Black Irish, Kearny is described as a woman with "raven-black hair, which was only accentuated by her pale skin and sky-blue eyes, her long-dead drug-addicted mother, and her unknown father had doomed her to a life as an outsider in the County, where ancestry was everything."

Black Irish touches on how former members of groups like the IRA, can struggle to reintegrate themselves into a regular, working class existence and how truly difficult, and at times impossible, it can be for some of them. Talty drew upon the memories of meeting "one or two convicted IRA activists who were living under pseudonyms as they tried to make a new life in America. 

"I found them a bit haunted by the experience - some of them had been in jail and they couldn't really shake the past as they thought they were going to do in America," said Talty. He includes other less-known bits of Irish history like The Fenian Raids of 1866 where a group of Irish-born veterans of the American Civil War decided to attack the closest British soldiers they could find, by invading Canada. 

This group of men called themselves the Irish Republican Army-- the IRA-the first time this name was used and it was surprisingly created in western New York State. One of the Fenian groups marched north from Buffalo and attempted to invade Canada where they engaged in a bloody struggle, leaving many dead. Compelled to learn more, Talty conducted research of his own and discovered that there were actually five Fenian raids of note from the U.S. into Canada between the years 1866-1871. 

The Fenian raids created anti-American sentiment in Canada since it was perceived that the U.S. government tolerated the public meetings of the Fenians as they openly strategized these raids. Many of these incursions were planned at or around Buffalo by those under the banner of the IRA. And the long-standing ties with Buffalo and the IRA continued to modern day, Talty pointed out. 

"Some of the things in the book actually happened when I was growing up in Buffalo," said Talty. "IRA men were actually caught being smuggled across the American-Canadian border and that stuck with me. Other things I picked up from my father or from living back in Ireland or through reading. They really weren't lesser-known to me. It's the consequence of growing up in a deeply Irish-American place."

As the son of first-generation emigrants from Co. Clare, Talty "was surrounded by Ireland without really knowing it. My parents and our aunts and uncles had all come over in the 1950s and they still carried rural Ireland with them. They told me stories of growing up on farms with very little money. This all stayed with me. 

Talty moved to Dublin in the late 1980s when he was in his early 20s to look up his roots. He worked in a fish and chips shop and a bar (for one night), freelanced as a journalist and hitchhiked to Co. Clare some weekends. 

"It was a fascinating place but I'm not sure how much of it I really understood then," he said. Although initially he may not have had a strong understanding of his experience in Ireland, Talty's rich comprehension of Irish culture and heritage in his hometown comes ringing out loud and clear in his first work of fiction.

As a youngster,Talty knew he wanted to be a writer, or rather that he was a writer. Talty recalled, "I remember writing stories for my fourth grade class and my teacher would read them and the class would laugh and clap and that was it for me. I did major in English and have worked at newspapers and magazines before trying my hand at books." Talty feels comfortable writing just about anywhere with his preferred location being a café "with a low hum of conversation." 

He is usually writing by 10 a.m. after he gets his emails and surfing the net out of the way. He writes at least a few pages before taking a break before another round in the afternoon. He explains, "The hardest part is starting; once you're inside the book, you relax." 

Once a book is complete, Talty heads to a favorite restaurant for a good, celebratory meal. "I try not to think about writing for at least a week," he indicated. A great diversion from writing comes in the form of football, laughed Talty, "I'm a huge, tortured fan of the Buffalo Bills." Talty is also a busy family man with two children, a boy, 7 and a girl, 5. "That's about 90% of my leisure time right there." 

Luckily for fans of Black Irish, Talty has already completed the next Abbie Kearney suspense novel, set to come out later in 2014. The Hangman also takes place in Buffalo, this time moving to "the North," the wealthy part of the city. With Talty's razor sharp writing and engaging protagonist, readers will certainly be entertained by many more Abbie Kearney crime novels in the future.


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