Patrick Flanery

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 28th March 2020


When I speak to Patrick Flanery on the phone from his home in London, the American author admits to some feelings of despair. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he moved to England back in 2001 to study at Oxford University for a PhD. At the time America felt precarious – the election of George Bush Junior felt like a crisis – and Patrick was attracted to England because it seemed totally embedded in Europe.

“That felt reassuring,” he says. “And being able to have access to this extremely rich variety of cultures so closely joined together over the last two decades has been extremely enriching. Seeing the way in which Britain is trying to tear away from Europe and is in the process of tearing itself apart fills me with huge anguish and anxiety too.”

A thoughtful interviewee, who, giving weight to my questions, speaks slowly, editing his sentences as he goes, his accent is Oxford English, with just a tiny hint of American. But he has no confusion of who or what he is.

“I know that I am, absolutely American,” he says. “But I am also a British Citizen who regards himself as a European Citizen. I feel more European than British.”

We’re chatting about Patrick’s fourth Novel, Night for Day – a doorstopper of over 600 pages. Set in Hollywood during the fifties, when the witch-hunt against communists and homosexuals was at its height, it centres on Desmond Frank, a screenwriter who is embroiled in an affair with the, married, leading man. He’s about to be exposed for Un American activities. Should he stay, defend himself and continue to live a lie, or is it time to flee?

“The closet was a place of such terrible violence,” muses Patrick. “It does terrible things to the self. It required one to contort one’s way of being in the world and one’s way of being in private, and the effects are really long standing.”

The book is narrated by Desmond, who, in 2013, is exiled in Italy. Looking back half a century, he relates the events of just one day. Focusing, also, on his friend, the director John Marsh, whose wife, the leading lady of the movie, is threatening to expose her husband and his friend, the action moves rapidly.

The author includes sections of Desmond’s current screenplay, followed by the censor’s comments. These show the reader the extreme extent of the ludicrousness of the censorship process which existed in Hollywood in that period. And that wasn’t the only problems writers experienced. Very often, those who had worked hardest on a screenplay failed to gain a credit.

“I think there was a longstanding sense amongst writers in Hollywood that the industry regarded them as totally dispensable. You could throw away one writer and bring in another if you didn’t like what the first one was doing and, ultimately, the actors and directors might decide that the writer doesn’t know his job.

“Writers are wonderfully able to feel put upon and hated by the world, so there’s an element of flirting with that sense of being in a precarious position, but the serious side is the way in which the blacklist inflicted a kind of anonymising upon the people who were blacklisted . That’s an extraordinary crime against arts, but also against the right of writers to be credited with the work they have done.”

Patrick has painted such a full and clear picture of fifties Hollywood, that it’s obvious he’s made himself an expert on the subject. This came after months of research. He studied Street maps of the period, which showed speed limits of the day; he perused a cookbook written by the stars, which contained some sane, and some bizarre recipes, and he watched home movies made by the stars. He borrowed from one, directly.

“There were wonderful ones of Bogart and Bacall, but also of Esther Williams. There was a wonderful bit of footage where she appeared beside her stunt double wearing the same frilly costume, the same headpiece and the same make-up. But the stunt double was, in fact, a man. It was this really odd moment of queer subtext going on.”

It’s impossible not to compare the conflicts besetting Patrick’s cast of characters with those assailing the world today. Was that the impetus behind the book?

“The easy answer is yes, but the honest one is more complicated. I started writing it in 2013. I wrote a draft, but it felt at odds with the Obama administration, which I felt was quite hopeful. I stepped back from the manuscript, because it didn’t seem to be speaking to the world we were living in, but when Trump was elected it became absolutely clear to me how it might now be relevant.  Although I’m writing about the 1950’s, it’s a story that continues to reverberate today.”

Trump’s election came at a low point in Patrick’s life. He and his husband had been trying to adopt a child. They had been through the process of being approved as adopters in England, and had been matched with a child, but around the time of Trump’s election the adoption fell through.

“It was extremely traumatic. It was devastating. It was a horrible kind of intersection of the personal and political.”

Patrick wrote a memoir about the experience, released earlier this year. Called The Ginger Child: on family, loss and adoption, it wasn’t, he stresses, a campaigning novel.

“I wrote it because I needed to make sense of it logically and intellectually for myself. Coming out of it I felt such a huge amount of confusion both about what had happened and about my emotional response to it all.”

Was it cathartic?

“No. Not at all. The trauma is only, gradually assuaged by time; not by the act of writing.”

There are a few dream sequences in Night for Day. One of them, an anxiety dream suffered by the elderly Desmond was lifted directly from Patrick’s life. And, although he doesn’t believe that he writes in his sleep, as John Banville claims to, he is aware of writing in a semi-conscious way as he moves around the world.

When I last spoke to Patrick, back in 2016, he cleared his head by engaging in ‘rather bad running.’ He’s since taken up weightlifting; taught to him, and his husband by a personal trainer he employed whist on a writer’s retreat in New Hampshire.

“It’s incredibly good for my brain. It produces a strange meditative state when I’m in the midst of it, and even though I feel physically exhausted afterwards, my brain is working much more productively than it would be otherwise.

When Patrick isn’t writing, he’s teaching, as a Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London. It’s something he loves – mostly because of what he learns from his students.

“I get a great sense of the kinds of concerns that are animating my undergraduates. Without that, I would feel much less attuned to the shifting landscape of cultural concerns. It’s not that their concerns are different from mine, but I think they are differently felt. I often see a kind of despair. I do too, but being 19 or 21 and feeling total despair about the world is different to being 44, 56, or 80 and feeling it.”

His observations have inspired him to plan a third-year advanced module on Writing Fiction in a Moment of Danger, scheduled for next Spring.

“It needn’t be about Brexit or Trump. It may be the ‘Me Too’, movement or Gender Violence or Climate Change. But I want to give the students the opportunity and license to write about those kinds of things that are driving them to despair.”

Night for Day. Atlantic Books: €17.45. Kindle: €7.02

Published in The Irish Examiner on 1st February.

© Sue J Leonard. 2020

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