14 December 2005
1 hour, 36 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Tom Kelly was born in 1961 and grew up in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Inwood, Upper Manhattan, and New Milford, New Jersey. His father worked on the freight yards of the Bronx, and his mother worked as a secretary.
Tom Kelly first gravitated towards construction work at the age of fifteen and continued in the field until he was twenty-five. He attended Fordham University, New York City’s Jesuit college, where he studied political economy, and ultimately received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1988. Kelly worked his way through Fordham as a sandhog helping to build Water Tunnel Three, adding the third connection between New York City and its upstate water supply. He also worked in other construction jobs around the city such as roadwork, excavation, demolition, and pouring concrete on high-rises. The experience gave Kelly an inside look at the construction industry and its corruption. Kelly’s experience contributed to the research for his novels, Payback and The Rackets.
Through the unions Kelly got involved in politics. He worked as the director of advance for Mayor David Dinkins’ re-election campaign in 1993. Dinkins, a Democrat, was the first African-American mayor in New York City history. He was defeated in 1993 by Rudolph Guiliani. Kelly also worked for the Teamsters as a political operative and ran a non-profit organization that provided services for laid-off workers (union and non-union) during the federal takeover of the Teamsters.
Tom Kelly has received critical acclaim for all three of his novels: Payback, The Rackets and Empire Rising, and is currently working on a television show in Los Angeles.
Excerpt No. 1
Tom Kelly speaks about his Catholic schoolDisc 1, 27:03
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
TS: Tell me about your Catholic school.
TK: My Catholic school was uhh, a little boot camp, soldiers for Rome. We had nuns and lay teachers we didn’t have brothers or priests. Uh, the nuns I caught the last, even my brothers five years younger had a lot less, we caught the last of, like, the shit-kicking nuns. I mean you know…
LA: What kind of nuns were they?
TK: I don’t remember. Dominican maybe? They were old-school and they were tough and they you know, here’s the line. You know I remember one time we took our jackets off in the playground and then we had to stand by our desks the entire day. You know it was that kind-of it was really, you know it was corporal punishment they would punch you, they would slap you, they would hit you with rulers and stuff. The worst they ever did though they would grab you by the sideburn and lift you up. And it was, you know, listen but you got a great education. I mean, and there was, it was a very crowded school at the time, there were a lot of kids, probably forty kids in a class and there were two classes in each grade. So um, and it was just, you know, it was a factory for education. You know I hated it when I was there although I got very good grades in everything except conduct and handwriting. Um, but you got a great education. And, again, other things you appreciate later. You know, you could get that eighth grade education and do very well for yourself in this country, you know what I mean? It was that good I mean you really… So uh, you know, the nuns would come in in like fifth grade and give you a map of the world, blank, and you had to fill in every country. Fifth grade! I mean, you know, most people go through twelve years of graduate school and couldn’t come close to doing that. And it was learning by rote which some people have a problem with but I don’t I think you know, you’re sort-of forced to learn. I mean the thing I didn’t like about it, I only realise now, it was pretty harsh on kids that just weren’t that bright, you know? It wasn’t until the later years that they started separating classes, you know they’d have sort-of an A class and a B class. Whereas when you were in the younger grades you had to stay up with everyone else and there were a few kids who just weren’t cut out for it. They just were basically terrorised by the nuns, called stupid every day and, you know, horrible. You realise now, I mean I see some of these people now and sort-of, you know, they’ve never recovered. At the same time, you know, I think they really meant well. They didn’t think they were, they thought that’s how you got a kid motivated and, you know, and you learned. And compare it with what’s going on in schools today. Well, you know it’s like this whole notion now of “everybody gets an A” I mean you know, I saw an interview with some CEO and they asked him about recruits coming out of college. He says, “well, you know what the problem is now?” He says, “For a generation kids have gone through entire school systems in America and been told they’re wonderful that oh no, everybody’s great, everybody’s special and everything else” and he goes, “And it’s my job to tell them, well, the world kind-of sucks. And the only way you’re going to survive in it is to work really hard.” You know, so we didn’t have any of that. I mean you worked and you paid a price when you strayed, and it was probably harsh in some ways, but, you know, I don’t think it was a bad thing.
LA: It was a discipline thing.
TK: It was a discipline. And you knew, like, here’s the line. And you knew if you crossed it you’d pay the price. If you’re willing to pay that price, cross the line. You know, and I don’t think that’s a problem. I think, you know, that’s how society functions.
Excerpt No. 2
Tom Kelly talks about his inspiration for writing about characters of the Irish Civil WarDisk 1, 59:50
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
TS: Why did you choose to write about refugees of the Civil War, considering there is a lack of these characters in fiction?
TK: Well that was basically the reason. I mean a lot of it is part of why I’m sitting here. Um, you know I don’t really know the extent of my grandfather’s involvement, you know, it’s one of those things people don’t talk about a lot. I’m sure he wasn’t out shooting people, but you know he was very much… It was a funny thing because my uh, his wife, my grandmother’s father was killed by the IRA. He was dragged out on his front lawn and shot in front of his thirteen kids on a Sunday morning because they thought he sold shoes to the Black and Tans which he didn’t. So then they apologised and sent my great grandmother a letter of apology and some money.
LA: Really, a letter? I’m surprised they would put it in writing!
TK: Which apparently pissed her off almost as much as her husband being killed. And it’s funny because she’s buried in the Bronx, I didn’t realise that until very recently. That she had come over. And her son was actually Michael Briody who I based the character on who’s buried in uh, so you know, I think for him it was kind-of weird because it would have been on one hand the IRA kills his father but he was very much an Irish Republican. Anyway, I didn’t get into that in the book at all it was too complex, but, I just felt like, you know that’s part of why I’m here.
LA: When you say part of why you’re here you think this is your…
TK: Well I think that’s why they came to America.
LA: Oh okay.
TK: Literally why I’m here.
LA: Realistically, philosophically…
TK: And physically.
TK: So I think, you know if that was the catalyst that drove them out of Ireland that’s the reason I was born in America.
TK: That’s the reason you know, my father met my mother and on and on and on. So you know. We all want to figure out who we are and where we come from and I, so that was part of the incentive for writing the book. And again I really felt like there was this fascinating bit of Irish, and Irish American history you know we hear all about the famine, we hear all about what went on in the 1980’s you know, it’s almost like… The Irish have this great secrets and lies thing. If we don’t talk about it it didn’t happen. Um, I think that’s part of what goes on. Because I think there really were ugly memories, ugly reverberations, and that. I mean, it was really, if you read some of the stuff, horrible tit for tat, vicious killings.
LA: You said within families there are divisions. I’ve read things about the Carmellite priests – there are divisions within orders, I mean just the whole episode. That period split people.
TK: Yeah. It’s a small country. And it was something that you couldn’t avoid at the time, you know?
LA: Literally in your face, in your backyard.
TK: Yeah, I mean so that was part of the reason and again, sort-of fascinated by that history. It’s almost like. You know, you had to sort-of look into it to get anything out of it.
Excerpt No. 3
Tom Kelly talks about his favorite characterDisc 2, 04:00
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
TS: Who is your favorite character that you have written?
TK: Grace Masterson, far and away. You know, I really like to write women characters and I feel like, you know, so many men seem to have an inability, I mean Hemingway case in point. You know so many men just can’t write women, so many good male writers. I don’t get it. I guess maybe because I really feel like I had a very great mom who’s strong and, you know…
TK: Kind and, you know…
LA: You think they don’t get women or they just can’t write women?
TK: I don’t know. I don’t know where one starts and the other leads off. I don’t know, but I’ve always really enjoyed, always felt like… Payback was tough, when you’re doing gangsters and construction workers, you know, I thought Rosa was decent. Then I thought Tara O’Neill was pretty good and another few minor ones here and there. You know I’d love to do a novel about what happened to Grace.
TK: You know.
LA: I always wondered too because you have the people that died and then she has to live.
TK: I’d like to do her story. You know, she lived to eighty-seven. You know it’s funny because we’re sort of doing a treatment for a movie now – Empire Rising. I can’t end it like I end it in the book, you know, Briody’s still going to die, but, you know, there’s got to be some more redemption for her. And so, you know, I was having this conversation with the producers. You know, of course when I write a character like that I have imagined her out. You know, she died at like, eighty-five and had these memories and people would have no idea that she lived that life. You know, which I’m fascinated by and that was part of the great thing about doing a historical novel is, you know, these stories. Everybody has… you know it’s a cliché but it’s so true.
TK: You know people of that age have lived through things. It’s inconceivable to us. And when they die the stories die with them.
Excerpt No. 4
Tom Kelly talks about his time living in IrelandDisk 2, 18:54
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
TS: You said you visited Ireland. Was it what you expected?
TK: Well I visited, I also lived there for a couple of years.
LA: When was that?
TK: I lived there from 2000 to 2002. First trip I went was 1993 so I was already thirty-one or two years old when I went there. And, you know it’s funny, you hear about it your whole life, you want to go your whole life. You know in Europe they often talk about how Americans never travel. What they miss about America is that 75%, 80% of the population live paycheck to paycheck a trip to Europe is very beyond most people’s reach. Um, then again maybe if you lay off the Cheetos… The first time I went it was oddly, and I don’t want to get overly goofy about it but it really felt like you went home in a sense you know on a level I couldn’t really articulate. I liked it a lot and you know, I went back many times. I’d go back every six months or so until I moved over there for a couple of years. And it was fascinating to me when I was there because of the whole Celtic Tiger thing was really, really kicking up and a lot of these people were moving home. People who came over in the eighties and were illegal and stayed here and it was very funny because people would say, “you must be glad to be home.” Well, you know not really. And what they don’t realise is when they came here in 1972 when they were seventeen or eighteen or nineteen, and they were in Queens or Boston or Chicago or wherever for fifteen or twenty years, they became American in ways that they didn’t really understand. It’s funny because when you go back for like a week or holidays, and it’s like, oh great to see you… Then you go back and it’s like from living in New York City to living in County Cavan. And yeah maybe you could get a job now, but it’s still a small village and that hasn’t changed on any really profound level. So it was funny how many people I met who were thinking, “maybe we made a big mistake.” You know a lot of times it was a couple and they wanted to move back for the kids, so I think maybe there’s a happy medium if you can afford to find a flexible profession, where you can split the time. You know I liked it a lot it was fascinating to be there and see it go through all those changes. Which we, you know, America things always change but it’s a gradual cycle. There it was like going from, in the early eighties, you know technically a third world status in terms of per capita income, to twenty years later being the fastest growing economy in the world and one of the richest countries in the world and a lot of that happening in a much shorter time period than that. You know, so it was very fascinating to be there then. And you know I lived in Kerry, I lived in Dublin, I lived in the Curragh, so I got kind-of a great overview of very different aspects of Irish life. And you realise even for a small country it’s a lot more complicated than it seems you know?
LA: What were you doing there?
TK: Just writing. Working mostly on Empire Rising. Which was kind-of great. You know it was fun because I wanted to, like, when I do dialogue, you know Empire Rising – “Ah saints begorrah!” I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I had a problem with that because I’d grown up and worked… and for me it’s more about the rhythm of the language than it really is the actual words. So it definitely helped a little. One thing I found by living in Ireland, it used to be if I met someone from Ireland I could tell them exactly what county they were from. I used to have this uncanny knack for it. By living there everything blended together now I can’t tell except for like an extreme Northern accent and an extreme Kerry accent. It all sounds the same to me, which is kind of funny, before I moved there it wasn’t a problem at all. Another thing that happened to me in Ireland, before I moved there I used to like an Australian accent, and after living there for two years an Australian accent just grates on my nerves. I have no idea why. And it’s not because I met Australian people I didn’t like or anything, it’s just it’s, you know, orally your brain works on a certain level…
TS: Yeah, it actually gets on my nerves too.
LA: Really? You hear it a different way.
TK: Yeah, it’s funny.
TS: Yeah, I don’t know what it is.
TK: You know a lot for me, like I said when I write dialogue I try never to think about dialogue I try to just channel it in a sense that makes sense. You know you can really, if you start thinking too much about it, what people are saying, the structure of sentences just starts to go clunk clunk clunk.
- Tess Sheridan (TS)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Author photo of Tom Kelly from the jacket cover of his book, Empire Rising, taken by Kate Lacey.