Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Q&A with Terry Tierney


Terry Tierney is the author of the new novel The Bridge on Beer River. His other books include the novel Lucky Ride. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Q: What inspired you to write The Bridge on Beer River, and how did you create your character Curt?


A: A friend described looking into the filmy window of a dive bar in Binghamton, New York, and seeing a destitute, one-legged man dancing without a crutch. The image of dancing in the face of adversity never left me.


Surrounded by verdant hills and built on the shores of two majestic rivers, Binghamton is a city of contrasts--postcard beauty with the desolation of abandoned buildings and rampant poverty.


When I first moved to Binghamton to attend college, I struggled to eke out a living, taking whatever jobs I could, while facing continuous worries about rent and food. I developed an appreciation for people who retain their humor and resilience while remaining one step from homelessness.


In my writing, I was drawn to this underrepresented group, and the one-legged man evolved into Artie, one of my favorite characters.


Curt’s struggles with drinking, employment, and relationships reflect the social fabric around him. He has the empathy and physical strength to help his friends and the insight to tell their stories.


Although he tends to be edgy and prone to violence, which he directs mostly at people who use violence against others, his stature does not deter his friends from appealing to him when they have nowhere else to go.


His love interests tend to be bright and successful, each in their own way, but Curt is an expert at undermining relationships, just as he has a knack for losing jobs. As a narrator with faults and soft spots, Curt personally experiences all the problems he tries to solve.


Q: The novel takes place in Binghamton, New York, during the Reagan era. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: The economic setting in Binghamton is of primary importance because characters are worried about their day-to-day subsistence, though they typically have the grace not to mention it.


We see it in their scramble to find jobs, the lure of a big payoff, and in characters who bend their moral inhibitions to snatch a quick buck wherever they can.


Binghamton is an example of the challenges faced by rust belt towns and a microcosm of the economic and social upheavals we have endured as a nation.

Although the loss of some industries such as machinery and cigarmaking predates my time living in Binghamton during the Reagan era, I watched several large employers shut down or leave the area.


Jobs requiring skilled engineering and factory labor vanished, and people who lost well-paying jobs often found themselves competing against one another for minimum wages. This puts obvious pressure on families and relationships, not to mention their ability to pay for housing, education, and daily necessities.


Although they live in the 1980s, Curt and his friends share the challenges of today’s workers, and the economic setting of the novel informs their lives and choices.


Q: The writer Lee Kravetz said of the book, “Terry Tierney plies the blue-collar desperation and heroism of William Kennedy with fast-moving prose reminiscent of Raymond Chandler.” What do you think of those comparisons?


A: During the time I lived in Binghamton and began drafting the short stories that eventually grew into the novel, I devoured William Kennedy’s Ironweed. Although Ironweed is set during the Great Depression, it depicts Albany, another city in upstate New York, and I was inspired by how Kennedy’s characters continue to scramble for subsistence despite the odds.


Curt is not as desperate yet, but he is just one binge or one paycheck away from homelessness.


As a narrator, Curt expresses himself by doing, and he shows a hard edge to others as a survival tactic. He seldom reflects internally, but we can read his emotions in his actions.


In this way, he shares similar traits with Raymond Chandler’s narrator Philip Marlowe without Marlowe’s smooth delivery, and I wanted the pace of Curt’s narration to likewise reflect the immediacy of his experience. Kennedy and Chandler are literary icons I continue to admire.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Most importantly, I hope readers enjoy the novel, but there are embedded themes, such as people on the lower end of the economic scale abiding by their own codes and displaying a measure of nobility.


Characters in the novel look to their friends and family for help, having lost faith in trickle-down Reaganomics. As Curt tries to keep himself and his friends above water, he draws support from unlikely sources including drunks and petty crooks who typically show more empathy than authority figures like employers or police.


Overall, the novel tries to portray human resilience and the value of friendship.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Unsolicited Press will publish my poetry collection, Why Trees Stay Outside, in October 2024. My first poetry book took 40 years to compile, and I had subsequently joked that my next one would arrive in 2060, so I am ahead of schedule.


Along with continuing to write poems and stories, I have completed the rough draft of what I hope will be my next novel, The Secret History of Dirt. Here is a brief working synopsis:


An amateur scientist with a passion for dirt uncovers a vast pattern of degraded soil threatening human existence in a novel narrated by his skeptical imaginary friend.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My portrayal of Binghamton tends to be a bit dark, but it reflects the 1980s era and the lives of the characters. I loved my time in Binghamton. I was eventually lucky to land a technical job and a decent salary, but I could see those opportunities drying up.


When I had a chance to transfer to California I took it, and Link Flight Simulation, the company I worked for, ended up shutting their Binghamton area operations, along with IBM, General Electric, Endicott-Johnson, and several other companies.


Curt and his friends were not so lucky. But if any of them are still living there, I hope the novel carries my wish that it might have turned out differently.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Terry Tierney.

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