A Conversation with Damian McNicholl

By Molly Moynahan

Damian  McNicholl

Damian McNicholl was born in Northern Ireland and is an attorney, literary agent and author. His critically acclaimed first novel, A Son Called Gabriel (2004) was chosen as an American Booksellers Association Booksense (now IndieNext) pick and was a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards and independent publishers’ ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. His recently published novel The Moment of Truth: A Novel, from Pegasus Books has been chosen as Houston Chronicle’s 10 Books to Read in June and has been well reviewed by Library Journal, Booklist and Foreword Magazine among others.

Damian has appeared on CBS, WYBE Public Television, National Public Radio and other media outlets in the United States and United Kingdom to discuss his work. A Son Called Gabriel will be republished in Fall 2017 with a new ending and Author’s Afterword. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and is at work on a new novel.

Note-Full disclosure, Damian is my literary agent. I was intrigued by how he combined his being an agent with writing novels. I attended a bullfight when I was eleven and we were living in the South of Spain. It was great fun and then awful.


“McNicholl vividly brings to life the bulls and the brute physicality of the art of bullfighting.”

Publishers Weekly

Q. :What brought you to bull fighting?

I’ve always been fascinated by feminism and male female relationships. I’m a strong believer in equality between the sexes, and I wanted to explore that theme. I came across an obituary in the New York Times, which was a report about the death of Patricia McCormick, who was the first female matador. After I read her obituary I thought, this is the novel I want to write because she was a woman way before her time in the 1950’s. She went into the most masculine arena, no pun intended, to prove she was the equal of any man. Bullfighting is perceived as a very masculine activity. I thought this is the perfect arena to have my heroine go into to prove that she could do this, to survive in a man’s world.

Q: So, it wasn’t so much that you wanted to write about a female Bullfighter but you found the perfect story in Patricia McCormick?

Exactly. Bullfighting was the last thing in my mind. When I read about her character I thought, wow, I’d love to base a story on a petite, pretty woman as the protagonist who wants to strike out and be in this masculine world and portray the bigotry, the sexism and the violence that she encounters. The fifties were extremely segregated in terms of the sexes and what was acceptable in that world.

Q: Did you actually go to Mexico?

I’ve been to Mexico and read a great deal about Mexico but I had to do a great deal of research to bring it to life.

Q: Having made the decision about the setting and her I noticed you were very specific about the organization around her—the Maestro who was her teacher and other elements—was it a combination of imagination and research? How did you find out where a female bullfighter would have gone and stayed?

The stepping-stone was Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. I picked up the skill in law school of how to skim though vast amounts of information and know what I could and couldn’t use. Once I read Hemingway he would refer to other books, which I pursued. Through those I came across Patricia McCormick’s own memoir. It was an interesting read, but in my mind, it was a book of its time because while she faced problems and discrimination she had written her book very carefully, and she didn’t detail all the barriers she’d encountered.

I read between the lines and researched her life because it was very unusual for a woman to be in that world. There had been a famous bullfighter named Conchita Citron. She was an American who became a rejoneadora which is bull fighting on horseback.

Q: Did they actually fight a bull from a horse?

Citroen did. When she fought in Spain and Portugal she could only do it on horseback—they were never allowed to fight on foot. If she had dismounted she could have been arrested. When she came to Mexico, Citroen did fight on foot. My character was based more on the life of Patricia McCormack. She never used a horse to fight in a bullfight.

From Citron’s obituary in The Economist:

“Women were forbidden to fight on foot in Franco's Spain, in case they were gored in unseemly ways. (Ms Cintrón was often injured and twice gored, once in each thigh, but managed to finish off the bull after fainting briefly.) On this occasion, having slipped illegally from her horse, she snatched a muleta and sword from the waiting novillero, raised the sword as the bull charged, and then dropped it, instead caressing the huge black neck as it hurtled past. For this ‘burst of glorious criminality’, as Orson Welles described it, she was instantly arrested and as instantly pardoned, as the crowd rained down hats and carnations. That final caress, with her delicate fingers, was a gesture only a woman might have thought of making.”

Q: Despite all the details about bullfighting the main thing in The Moment of Truth is the story.

I didn’t want the research to intrude. To me the novel was always about emerging feminism. The bull fighting was secondary. Yet, I did have to understand how the matador makes the various passes, how to use the muleta which is the red cape, to make it authentic.

Q: The men in the novel with some exceptions are all pretty awful.

It’s set in Texas and Mexico-at that time men basically ruled the world. I think sometimes unquestioned power can breed complacency. There are incidents in the novel where men are violent and treat women like chattel. I was trying to portray that sense that men felt they controlled everything in their lives including women. They didn’t like to be challenged. But I also showed compassionate men. There were men at that time open to the idea that a woman could appear alongside them; but the majority did not want it and felt threatened.

That period is when you get the nascent feeling that women wanted to do other things. Remember, women were working in the factories during the war. They had gained a sense of self-worth, but when the men returned they were supposed to return to being housewives.  I wanted to portray that frustration in the book. One of my writing partners, now in her eighties, worked in advertising in the 50s. Every time her husband got a promotion she was expected to give up her job. Her role was secondary.

Q: Kathleen’s mother was an interesting character.

Yes, she’s almost jealous of her daughter – the subtext was that she should have done more with her life.

Q: Speaking of mothers, let’s talk a bit about your background growing up in Northern Ireland.

I grew up in the countryside of Northern Ireland in a place called Glenullin – Glen of the Eagle in Irish. It’s a beautiful part of Northern Ireland in the mountains—spectacularly beautiful but it was a very Catholic enclave. The Ulster Plantation meant that the Catholic minority was sent up to the hills.  The Scottish Anglo invaders claimed all the best lands. I grew up in those hills.

My grandfather was an American-born in Philadelphia. He was brought back at twelve and inherited the family farm. He also met my grandmother. My grandparents raised beef cattle and sheep. My bachelor Uncle inherited the farm. My grandmother lived there for years. I was 15 when my grandmother died. My father stayed in the area and built his own house.

My father was a self-made man; he didn’t go to college—he initially started off demonstrating excavators and how they operated—in other words, bulldozers. My mother was a nurse. He worked for a corporation who sold them throughout Northern Ireland. My father was an exceptionally good-looking man, the catch of the town!  All the women were chasing after them while my mother was very demure but also good-looking and conservative. My father dated her sister but then he saw my mom and in the end, they fell in love and got married.

I’m one of five, two sisters and two brothers. My mother was very well read and we went off to catholic day schools. My father started his own business, a construction company, and owned a fleet of excavators. He’d prepare contracts to dig roads and reservoirs. Despite all the discrimination against Catholics in Ireland he was a great success.

Q: So, college was something your parents wanted for all five of you?

Absolutely. We went to good catholic schools, and religion was drummed into us. I regard my school as a stepping-stone, an excellent grounding—I was able to do my exams and go off to law school. I went to University of Cardiff in Wales, which was also law school—we go straight to law school after A levels. I trained to be a solicitor in London.

Q: Did you practice law in London?

I never practiced as a lawyer. Growing up in the north we were discriminated against so the only thing of value was law, medicine, veterinary science, engineering or accounting. Creative work wasn’t encouraged.

Q: Was the idea to return to Northern Ireland with those degrees?

Very few returned because of the troubles. I went off to the continent for a few years because I was fighting lots of issues at that time because I was gay. My sister tells it that I ran away from home.  Growing up in a very catholic home I felt alienated. I stayed away and drifted. I had a lot of pain in my life. Career wasn’t as important because I didn’t know myself as a person. It was easier to be off the grid because there were no cell phones or computers.

Q: So, when did you come out as gay?

I had a strange coming out. I was doing my A levels final exams and I was trying to get into law school and fighting the fact I was gay. One night I was studying for a very important exam, and my mother looked out and saw books flying out into the garden, and I was lying on the bed crying.  I said, “Mummy, I’m gay.”

She literally said, “Don’t worry about your exams; let’s get this sorted out.”

She took me to our local priest, the most understanding priest I ever met in my life. Between you and me, could he have been gay? He may have been. He told me that if I didn’t live a promiscuous lifestyle and I met a man and settled down God wouldn’t judge me. Of course, my mother almost wanted the exorcism where I became a heterosexual straight man.

And then she took me to the doctor, and he was a very strict Presbyterian, well read, but he didn’t understand. He took my blood pressure and vitals. Then he asked me whether I was active or passive when I had sex with a man. When I said I was active he told me I was just going through a phase. Then he prescribed Valium.

Q: And your father still didn’t know?

To ease my mother’s mind, I told her I was cured. Ten years later I became confident and told her I was still gay. She accepted it, worried that I was going to hell, but she was okay about it. She told me not to tell my dad. I didn’t talk to my dad until I came to the States with a green card.  I came over and met Larry within a few weeks. So, I did the NY Bar, which I passed the first time. I networked a job and got into a law firm on Long Island. My parents came to visit. We had a big house. I created the illusion that one of the rooms was mine with an airbed.

My father overheard me referring to “our bed” and then he knew. I didn’t know that at the time. My father didn’t say anything and then, when I took him to the airport, he started crying. He asked me if I was happy and I told him I was. Nothing else was said. A year later I was going to tell him, and I was loading some cases in the car. I told him I was gay. He smiled and said, “Damien, I’ve known that. I’m perfectly happy for you but let’s keep it from your mother.” I was totally stunned.

Q: So, Larry is still your partner?

Yes. We’ve been together twenty-five years in August.

Q: What is it like to be both a writer and a literary agent?

I was never happy working as a lawyer, and I used to commute to New York City from Bucks County on the bus. I was the storyteller in my family. I would entertain my siblings with storytelling—an Irish tradition called seanchai—I would have been that in a past life as a Celtic warrior.

I started thinking of all those stories and detested using my writing skills writing legal briefs. I bought books on how to write fiction and I taught myself on the bus. I’d do the exercises and after eight months I started a novel. I resigned my job and finished the novel. Then I had the story I really wanted to tell about a young boy who is gay. I created a fictional story.

That first novel was called A Son Called Gabriel. When it was polished I sent it off to agents.  It was turned down a lot. Angela’s Ashes had just published. Also, it was a coming out story. An agent called Jim Levine offered to represent the book. It started going out, and all these houses loved the writing “heads above anything else,” but an editor at Hachette wanted it but they didn’t see it as a “break-out” book. I actually approached houses myself. It was the end of 1993, and Joan Greycourt offered to have her distributor publish it.

CBS books printed it in hardcover, and I was involved in calling Independent publishers and asking booksellers to read it. Because it was an unknown publisher the newspapers didn’t review it. It sold decently and then came out in paperback. My little book was orphaned, so I took back the rights.

Because I had all this experience on the agenting side and felt I had done so much hard work, I decided to be an agent. I decided I was only interested in books that I believed in strongly. I started writing The Moment of Truth. A woman in my writing group became an agent with Jennifer DiChira. After hearing her experience, I asked to meet Jennifer. I did a few reader reports for them and they liked what I wrote, and about a year ago, I joined her agency. So far, I’ve taken on about six writers. Some days I do the agent thing in the morning, then a few hours in the afternoon. I’m editing and finishing a new novel and will send that to Pegasus. I love Pegasus. They love books, and they do a great job.

Q: Is the new novel a different direction?

The new novel is set in 1989 and 2009. It’s an exploration of a woman in a not good marriage. It’s set in New York and Ireland. The working title is The Green Card Marriage.

Q: How long have you been in this writing group?

Sixteen years and we meet monthly.

Q: How has this helped?

We’re very critical—not soft. We’ve had a number of members leave, and we’re critical but in a positive way. We tear it down to make it much bet ter. If you want to get

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