Although he may still be off your radar, Patrick Dacey is one of the best fiction writers working in Richmond.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, before traveling the world, he moved here eight years ago and stayed to be near his 4-year-old son. Having earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University, he teaches undergraduate creative writing classes at the College of William and Mary, but spends most of his time writing.
Known for his powerful debut collection of short stories, “We’ve Already Gone This Far,” he’s earned influential praise from a famous mentor, George Saunders, who called him “one of my favorite young American writers.”
Now Dacey has his first novel coming out, “The Outer Cape,” which follows an intergenerational story of a small-town family tarred by patriarchal sins, both public and private, and how those ghosts linger. It’s a world of quiet desperation in which Dacey still manages to find love and something like hope beneath the surface.
Style caught up with him before a launch and reading at Chop Suey Books. He just finished another collection of stories and will be pitching it for publication next week, he says, as well as the movie rights for “The Outer Cape,” which is published by Henry Holt and Co.
Style Weekly: How did you handle the shift from short stories to a novel?
Patrick Dacey: It was really difficult. The big thing was I had a great editor and team. I thought with novels you had to have specific plot points, but they encouraged me to write how I was writing with short stories. As long as I focused on the story of this family, it was true and came from the gut.
In an early draft, I had a kidnapping scene. I turned that in and my editor said, “This is a novel about love, go with that.” And she was right.
I think short stories, novels, all writing is difficult. I threw out 50 drafts of this novel. … Hopefully place becomes a character, too, and everybody feeds off that and it becomes bigger and bigger. I think that’s how it becomes novelistic in a way. I’m able to span a lot of time from the ‘70s to present day and have it feel fresh in each part.
I met Denis Johnson once, one of my favorite writers — who just died — and he was encouraging. He said just the act of completing a novel is an accomplishment. Not many people realize a lot of dark times and failing go into it, trying to get out on the other side.
Have you always wanted to write about the area where you grew up and portray it in a different light?
Yeah. For Cape Codders who grow up there, we stay indoors for the two months it becomes touristy. You can’t drive anywhere, it’s so clogged up. The whole area feeds off that and after that, it’s just a very small-town, old New England kind of feel — a lot of working class people. I grew up around construction workers and landscapers. There’s a lot of alcoholism, opiate addiction. Hyannis was just named 98th most dangerous city in the country. It’s sort of shocking what’s around there. Hyannis is only a stone’s throw away from Camelot, the Kennedy compound.
What challenges were involved with writing about characters so close to your personal life?
They’re all in there, my father, mother, brother. The most difficult thing was I started in a place where I wanted to write them, but it felt like I was defaming them. So, I realized every character had to be part of myself as well. I had to create distance as well as put a bit of myself into each.
A lot of the stories are pretty accurate from my memory — probably not my father or brother’s. I think my father inspired this kind of danger in me, where it didn’t matter if you won or lost, he was just involved in the action. There was a point where he was a millionaire and a point where he had absolutely no money — but he was never really a different person.
I think you have to keep failing until you feel like it’s right. It’s got to be fictional. But your memory is fictional in my experience. I don’t trust memoir, biography or history textbooks. If you feel like you’re truthful to the source, it will come out right. I think that’s what I’m proud of in the book: The place, times and people feel truthful and honest, whether it’s uplifting or not. I think that’s what a good novel does, especially one rooted in realism — it gives a voice to people and how we live.
I was impressed by the intimate scene where the father, Robert, goes to visit his former wife while she’s dying of cancer and begins massaging her feet “like some instrument he once knew how to play.” Then out of nowhere you drop in the line: “No one else can see how beautiful he is at failing.”
I think that was attributed more to my divorce than anything — but also my father. I think everybody fails in this way but never gets credit for the trying. I remember my mother was dying and my father came to visit her. He sat by her bedside for a little bit. That was me imagining what that must’ve been like.
Have you ever written anything set in Richmond?
Yeah, I wrote a story for this quarterly magazine [Into Quarterly] about the Fan. These two publishers got together and decided to do fiction and nonfiction about cities. They did Austin first and Richmond was second. [My story] was called “Evenings in the Fan” just a story about living in the Fan. … These cars the way they’re parked, you’re taking a risk every time you pull out. I remember seeing someone whip around the corner and plow into three cars and take off. Saw that from my porch one night.
It’s weird. I’ve seen Richmond change just from 2009 when I moved down here. I live in Lakeside now. S
Patrick Dacey reads from his novel, “The Outer Cape,” and will sign books at Chop Suey Books in Carytown on Tuesday, June 27, from 6 to 7 p.m.