Quinn, Peter 1947-
QUINN, Peter 1947-
(Peter A. Quinn)
PERSONAL: Born 1947, in Greenport, NY; married; wife's name Kathy; children: Genevieve, Daniel. Education: Manhattan College, B.A., 1969; Fordham University, M.A., 1974, also study toward Ph.D.
ADDRESSES: Home—Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Agent—Robin Straus Agency, 229 E. 79th St., New York, NY 10021.
CAREER: Speechwriter for Governor Hugh Carey of New York, 1979–82; speechwriter for Governor Mario Cuomo, 1983–85; chief speechwriter for Time Inc., 1985–90; Time Warner, chief speechwriter, 1990–2000, corporate editorial director, 2000–. Visiting writer, "Commemoration of the Irish Famine and Celebration of Irish Literature," 1997. Has worked as an adult education teacher in Kansas City, KS, and as a high school teacher in Paramus, NJ.
AWARDS, HONORS: New York area Emmy for outstanding cultural/historical programming, 1987, for McSorley's New York; American Book Award, 1995, for Banished Children of Eve; D.H.L., Manhattan College, 2004.
(With Tom Quinn) McSorley's New York (television special), first broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service, 1987.
Banished Children of Eve (historical novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
Hour of the Cat (detective novel), Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2005.
Also contributor to Irish Hunger, Roberts Rinehart, 1996, and The Irish in America, Hyperion, 1997. Contributor to periodicals, including American Heritage, Catholic Historical Review, Los Angeles times, New York Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer. Editor, The Recorder: The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society.
ADAPTATIONS: Banished Children of Eve was adapted to video as No Irish Need Apply, Cinema Guild, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: Peter Quinn, a former speechwriter for two New York governors, chief speechwriter for Time, as well as editorial director for Time Warner, has found an avocation in writing about his Irish heritage. In his first novel, Banished Children of Eve, he explores the after-effects of the vast Irish immigration into New York City following the potato famine of 1847, specifically in the draft riots of 1863. Rebelling against conscription of the poor into the Union Army, the Irish targeted African Americans, an even more oppressed group whom they saw as competition for low-wage jobs. After four days of rioting, 119 were confirmed dead. Quinn explained the tensions leading to the riots in an interview with Ken Emerson in Newsday: "You could either hire a substitute … or you could pay 300 dollars to get out of that round of the draft. Those alternatives were not accessible to working people or the poor—and ninety-nine percent of the Irish were in that class. It was a race riot because class and race in American have always been intertwined, but it was also class warfare." Further explaining the impact of the Civil War on Irish immigrants, Quinn concluded, "The war started inflation, the most punishing thing the poor can suffer. And the draft seemed to add to this. However central the struggle to end slavery is to American history, to a working person on the Lower East Side in the 1860s it was pretty distant."
Quinn explained in an interview with Patricia Harty in Irish America Magazine that he wanted to write the book as a kind of memorial to his ancestors, who were Irish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City. After reading a book about the draft riots, he found the name of a "Peter Quinn," who was killed in the riots, and his interest was further piqued. In doing his research, he encountered many old prints and lithographs that made him think, "These aren't quaint people. They are as real as we are." Quinn equates the tensions between blacks and Irish during the nineteenth century with some of the ethnic tensions in cities today: "When people get together en masse and they lose their individuality, they are capable of doing anything…. The tragedy is that the people at the bottom are fighting each other." In 1863, Quinn told Karen Sue Smith in America, "American history changed. You had Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The issue of whether the United States was going to be one country was settled in that summer," but there was another war, "the urban civil war … fought over the question of race and class."
Quinn's novel is a vast canvas on which he paints a wide diversity of Irish and black characters, as well as a number from the upper classes and some real historical figures. Noel Perrin commented in the Washington Post Book World that "people who know nineteenth-century New York from the novels of Henry James or Edith Wharton will not easily recognize the city." Some of his characters, whom Elizabeth Bartelme called in Commonweal "almost Dickensian," include Jimmy Dunne, a likeable Irishman who becomes a hustler in New York after being rescued from servitude in the West; Eliza, a beautiful mulatto woman who goes on to star in a stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin; Jack Mulcahey, a blackface minstrel; Margaret O'Driscoll, a serving-girl; Colonel Robert Noonan, the hated administrator of the draft; and Eleanor Van Schaik, a member of one of the most respected families in New York, who also happens to be a prostitute. Moving in and out of the narrative are also real-life figures whose stories are fictionalized by Quinn: composer Stephen Foster; Archbishop John Hughes, the driving force behind the building of St. Patrick's Cathedral; novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe; the Prince of Wales; Secretary of State Edwin Stanton; and financier Jay Gould, among others.
One of the novel's subthemes is the way in which the races mixed in the world of the theater. Eliza moves from a brothel to star in a stage play, and her Irish lover, Jack Mulcahey, becomes a minstrel performer who brings black music to the masses through the songs of Stephen Foster, a white composer. Another storyline deals with Archbishop Hughes, who sees the Irish as his special mission. In his efforts to lead them out of their own kind of wilderness, he embarks on cathedral-building as a way to bring them to salvation. According to Bartelme, "the scene of Hughes on the scaffolding of the just-begun Saint Patrick's, attended by his sycophantic auxiliary, is one of the most dramatic and at the same time most comical scenes in the novel."
Margaret O'Driscoll, a maid to the Bedfords, a stockbroker's family, is typical of many of the Irish who "went into service." Her high hopes for life in America are dashed when she encounters the squalid conditions awaiting most Irish arriving in New York. Before taking her maid's job, Margaret lives in a filthy tenement and does exhausting factory work. Thinking her prospects have brightened with the Bedfords, Margaret instead finds that there is no real way out of poverty for the downtrodden Irish. According to Los Angeles Times reviewer Judy Bass, "Quinn masterfully communicates the irony of the fact that men and women endured tremendous risks when they fled Ireland to seek better prospects in urban America, where further degradation, exploitation and oppression awaited them." For many decades to come, only the blacks would remain on a lower rung of society than the Irish. In his interview with Smith, however, Quinn made a point of saying that he was not trying to glorify the Irish: "It isn't a celebration of Irish attitudes or anyone else's." He noted that "these same despised Irish people by 1936 in the Bronx have become congressmen, judges and have their own university."
Many reviewers of Banished Children of Eve recommended the book as a fascinating glimpse into history through the eyes of ordinary people. Negative criti-cism often cited the book's sheer size and its perplexing mixture of plots and characters. Perrin asserted that the book has "too many characters involved in too many plots," adding that the book is melodramatic and "lurid" while still providing "thousands of fascinating details about life in New York in 1863." Gilbert Taylor complained in Booklist that Quinn "goes after everything and never really focuses his narrative."
Bartelme, however, called the book a "remarkable first novel" that attempts to put the New York Irish into the context of "the entire sweep of a history steeped in the bitter fruits of subjugation," an effort that results in a "splendid stew of a book." George W. Hunt, writing in America, said that Banished Children of Eve is a "wonderful historical novel" and "a long novel that does not seem such because of its narrative energy and the skill and lucidity of its shaping." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the book "a vast, compelling panoply of human misery and greed." Bass, who felt that the book was "reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime," concluded that Quinn's "pungent style, refusal to romanticize and affinity for historical details all blend to make [the novel] an achingly vibrant panorama of ethnic feuds and struggles."
Quinn did not publish another novel for more than ten years, when Hour of the Cat was released. It is a noir detective thriller criss-crossed with several narratives that eventually intersect. The novel is set in 1938 New York, with the shadow of Nazi Germany looming over the world. Irish private investigator Fintan Dunne has been hired to look into the murder of an unmarried nurse. Once a member of the city police force with a rising career as a homicide detective, Dunne found himself looking for another job after his honesty conflicted with the corrupt-to-the-core department. He is convinced that the nurse's neighbor and accused murderer, Cuban immigrant Wilfredo Grillo, is innocent, but a shadowy group of conspirators want the authorities to believe otherwise. Dunne finds corruption everywhere, and as he steps up his investigation into Grillo's innocence, Quinn weaves in subplots about American indifference to impending war in Europe and the rise of Nazism. As Dunne looks deeper, he finds that the doctor who had employed the slain nurse owns a dubious sanitarium in the Bronx, and that he also has ties to the U.S. Nazi Party, to higher-level authorities in Berlin, and to the eugenics movement.
In other plotlines, German chief of military intelligence Admiral Wilhelm Canaris hesitates to bring Germany into war again to serve a Fuhrer he despises. William Donovan, a Medal of Honor winner who served in World War I with Dunne, conducts financial business with prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. While Dunne reluctantly seeks help from his old trenchmate Donovan, the freak hurricane of 1938 brings the story to a climax. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "good thriller. Historic figures seldom ring true in fiction, but Quinn pulls it off." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "Quinn's novel is as much a rebuke of the systematized violence of war as it is straight-up spy thriller."
Quinn told CA: "I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I received important encouragement from Brother Aquinas, F.S.C., my high school English teacher at Manhattan Prep. In college and graduate school, I studied to be an historian but was frustrated by the confines within which historians (at least the honest ones) must work, so I turned to fiction.
"My greatest teacher has been James Joyce (sorry if that sounds pretentious but it is the truth). I keep Ulysses in my desk and am constantly dipping in to it. For me, along with being a compendium of novelistic methods and devices, it offers constant encouragement to experiment, to take risks and see what works or doesn't. I love the historical novels of Thomas Flanigan (Year of the French in particular) and the Albany novels of William Kennedy.
"Throughout my writing career, I've had a fulltime job and have been involved in helping raise a family. This has required me to compress my writing into the early morning hours before I turn to my day job. For the past seventeen years, I've followed the same routine: up at 5:30 each weekday to write (or read and research) for two hours. No calling in sick or sleeping late, but I take the weekends off. If I had to bring down my writing process to two words, they'd be consistency and persistence.
"If they sit long enough and dig deep enough into the subconscious, all writers, I think, are surprised by the spectrum of human experience they have inside them. There are worlds inside each of us that are waiting to be discovered, explored, described.
"My next book is always my favorite because it incorporates none of the blemishes or imperfections that are part of every finished text. It's the book that will win the Pulitzer and the Nobel, that critics will universally admire, and that academics will hold up to their students as a flawless text.
"The advice I would give to writers just starting out is the same advice that William Kennedy gave me twenty years ago when I was just starting out: renew your vulnerability. Writers are always putting their stuff out there in front of agents, editors and critics, and there will always be a fair number of those editors and critics who'll take inordinate pleasure in stomping on a writer's work. The non-writer gives up in the face of frequent rejection and relentless criticism. The writer persists. He or she renews his or her vulnerability, gets a clean sheet of paper and starts anew."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 91, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
America, March 12, 1994, George W. Hunt, review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 2; April 30, 1994, Karen Sue Smith, "Poor Banished Children: An Interview with Peter Quinn," p. 12.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Gilbert Taylor, review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 808.
Boston Globe, April 30, 1994, Kevin Cullen, "A Vivid First Novel Chronicles the Irish Draft Riots of 1863," p. 23.
Commonweal, September 9, 1994, Elizabeth Bartelme, review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly, June 3, 2005, Bob Cannon, review of Hour of the Cat, p. 89.
Irish America Magazine, March-April, 1994, Patricia Harty, "An Irish American Unearths His Past," interview with Quinn, p. 64.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2005, review of Hour of the Cat, p. 446.
Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1994, Judy Bass, "Struggling to Survive in a World of Hate," p. E2; March 11, 1995, Patrick J. McDonnell, "Connecting the Past and Present," p. B3.
Newsday, July 12, 1994, Ken Emerson, "Remembering New York's Deadliest Riot," interview with Quinn, p. 35.
New York Times, March 5, 1987, John J. O'Connor, review of McSorley's New York; July 24, 1994, Lorraine Kreahling, "A Long Historical View of What Foments Mob Rioting," review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 8.
People, July 4, 2005, "Great Reads: Thrillers," review of Hour of the Cat, p. 43.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 1994, Michael O. Garvey, "A Historical Novel Nearly Disorienting in Its Authenticity," review of Banished Children of Eve, p. L2.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 60; March 7, 1994, "First Fiction: Getting a Handle on Spring's New Novelists," review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 42; May 9, 2005, review of Hour of the Cat, p. 46.
School Library Journal, September, 1997, Scott Johnson, "No Irish Need Apply," p. 162.
Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1994, Maurice Walsh, "A New York History," review of Banished Children of Eve, pp. 20.
Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1994, Noel Perrin, "On the Sidewalks of New York," review of Banished Children of Eve, p. 4.
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (October 5, 2005), Tom Callahan, review of Hour of the Cat.
Manhattan College Web site, http://www.manhattan.edu/ (October 5, 2005), biography of Peter A. Quinn.
New York State Writers Institute Web site, http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ (April 15, 1999), biographical information on Quinn.