Tale author weaves his own story in Perry finale

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2013 
By Ben Beagle, Special to The Daily News |

Author Peter Troy came to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties prepared to talk about the process of writing his debut novel, “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”

By Saturday afternoon’s final presentation in Perry the author of the 11th book in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, saw his own journey as a writer comer full circle. It was not, he realized, much different from the metaphor he uses in the novel — and credited to his mother for the first time at the Tale talks. Gertie, a slave girl, tells a story about the knots and tangles hidden on the backside of a “stitchin’,” or embroidery, that reveal themselves as a beautiful picture when turned around and viewed “frontsways.”

In the book, the metaphor relates to the journey taken by the story’s four main characters. The Tale programs allowed Troy to see his personal 5 1/2-year journey from the front.

“To have this experience with so many who read my book was incredibly gratifying. I could see the picture now,” Troy said in an interview following the nearly two-hour talk and booksigning at Perry Elementary/Middle School, a program hosted by Perry Public Library.

“The struggles that were there in the writing became anecdotes that 5 1/2 years into the process it is a little easier to see frontsways,” Troy said, borrowing the word he coined for Gertie.

More than 80 people attended Troy’s Perry appearance. The program followed similar events Friday night at Hoag Library, Albion; and Thursday at Richmond Memorial Library and Genesee Community College, Batavia.

Nearly 400 people attended the four talks and booksignings, which culminated more than a month of book discussions at libraries in the three counties, and several special programs featuring such subjects as early photography, immigration and the Civil War, all prominent topics in “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”

Troy’s novel tells the story of Irish immigrant Ethan McOwen, the more refined — but rebellious — Spanish immigrant Marcella, and slaves Mary and Micah, through a 20-year period that takes in Ireland’s Great Famine and America’s Civil War.

“There’s nothing like hearing the author as they tell about what they’ve done. And he did that very well,” said Carolyn Anderson, a retired librarian who lives in Silver Lake. “I think it’s remarkable that he came up with an idea and it grew and allowed for putting himself into making a story. It was a joy to hear about that experience.”

In Perry, Troy also faced challenging questions. One man asked the author why he did not include the draft riots that saw brutal mob assaults and lynchings of blacks and others In New York and other cities. Troy said the original book included the riots and other scenes, including the battle of Gettysburg.

“I took it out not to sugarcoat anything … but for the overall flow of the book. This is not a Civil War story; this is a about the characters and their story. It was the toughest thing I had to cut out,” said Troy, who later offered to share the cut material with the man.

Troy was also asked about how as a white, 40-something male, he could write as women, or slaves.

“These are characters I’ve created. I know them better than anyone else,” he said. “I may not have lived their experience, but I understand that they are not lines checked off on a Census form. When I’m writing about Mary, I know her. I’ve researched and read others and understand her experience.

“Art should expand our horizons,” he said. “It should take us to different experiences. I’m not writing just from a white male perspective.”

Mary Eisenhard of Pavilion said she “loved how he had ownership of his characters and didn’t feel he needed to apologize.”

Troy, speaking after the program, said he loved the tough questions.

“It’s a big part of asking can I do this, do I have the right,” Troy said. “We have a responsibility to not just tell our own stories.”

As he did in the earlier presentations, Troy talked about starting with an idea for a story that would ultimately span 160 years in American history. But that original story was a massive undertaking and one whose size would unlikely net a book deal for a first-time author (though at first he thought he would be content to run off copies at Kinko’s and share with friends and families). Troy eventually narrowed his focus to one book through an often grueling editing process — “I had to cut a novel out of a novel,” he said — that paid off when he secured an agent just nine days after sending out a query letter.

Troy acknowledged his own doubts — knots and tangles, he called them in relating his story to a metaphor that bookends his novel — and shared moments when he nearly gave up on the book.

Troy left a 15-year teaching career to write his novel and at first didn’t care if it was published.

“I started out naïve,” he said. “I had a lot to learn, a lot of growing to do. Which was probably for the best, because if I knew how hard it was going to be, I might not have even started,” he said.

He also said he had to overcome his own self-imposed ceiling that prevented him from seeing himself as a writer. Whenever he’d talk writing, he said, he’d mention Fitzgerald, or Hemingway or Faulkner and instinctively add “not that I’m comparing myself to them.”

“Only when I stopped doing that did it really open the door to see what kind of writer I could be, and what kind of book I could produce,” Troy said. “Both had to do with my fear about what others would think.”

Pamela White of Nunda said Troy did a great job telling his story.

“I think it comes from him being a history teacher,” said White, who attended with several members of the Read ’n Feed book club, which has readers from Livingston and Genesee counties. “He was a history teacher, and he told a story that brings history to life in a way nowhere near reading a history text about the Peloponnesian War would.”

No one, said Leslie DeLooze, the Richmond Memorial librarian who started Tale, tells a story like an Irishman.

“I think the thing that stood out was his self-deprecating humor, the repetition of that humor in the storytelling method he had as he talked about his work, and the poignant moments when he talked about his late father,” DeLooze said. “It’s that mix of humor and pathos that reaches out the audience and really makes the audience connect with him.”

Troy wore an Irish riding cap at each appearance as a tribute to his father. The cap belonged to his father who died about two years ago. His father lived to see Troy sell his book, but not to see it published.

“I can now see the rest of the story far better than ever before. I think maybe my father is looking down on me, looking out for me,” Troy said, his eyes glistening.

Troy was to return Sunday to his home in Ocean City, Md., where he would resume work on the second book in his planned trilogy. The book will continue the story of the characters and later generations from his first book.

The Tale experience, Troy said, has given him “renewed vigor to complete the story.”

“It’s nice that so many people have asked when the next book is coming out,” said Troy, who hopes to complete it by summer’s end for publication next year. “This far exceeded what I thought the impact would have on me.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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