Feature: Write about Buffalo
Authors Timothy Bohen and Mike Farrell
Author Timothy Bohen and I have a few things in common.
We both have a dedicated interest in our Irish and Buffalonian roots. We both have enough first cousins with names like Kathleen, Patrick, and Colleen to field an entire football team, with separate starters on offense, defense, and special teams. And, back when we first met inside South Buffalo’s Irish Center in March of 2012, we found out we’d both written Buffalo-set books—albeit in different genres and time periods.
My debut novel, Running with Buffalo—about a Queen City-loyal college student whose life is turned upside down in the nine months following his 2001 graduation—had already been sitting atop coffee tables and toilet tanks for three years by the time I was introduced to Bohen. He’d just finished Against the Grain, a comprehensive and fantastically detailed history of one of Buffalo’s most clandestine neighborhoods, the Old First Ward. After exchanging particulars between passed bowls of St. Patrick’s Day luncheon potatoes and carrots, we swapped contact information and continued through the afternoon.
Eighteen months later, Bohen’s fascinating book has been lauded locally and internationally for shining a light on the overlooked landmarks and legends that lead barroom conversations inside Gene McCarthy’s. Over fourteen intensely researched chapters, Bohen introduces readers to the innovative elevators that stored the world’s grain; to neighborhood-organized events like the failed 1866 Fenian raid into Canada; and to such formative Ward characters as tavern owner Michael Quinn, boxing champion Jimmy Slattery, and World War hero General William “Wild Bill” Donovan.
So, with Against the Grain about to be joined on local bookshelves by a new edition of Running with Buffalo this fall, I met up with Bohen inside Parkside cafe Sweet_ness 7 for a small-scale writers summit. Under the iPod-issued echo of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” we sat at a secondhand wooden table to not only discuss his work and the Ward, but to also exchange some insight from our first published paperbacks.
MICHAEL FARRELL : Who did you write Against the Grain for?
TIMOTHY BOHEN : The intended audience was current and present residents of the First Ward, as well as their descendants. I attempted to write what I wanted to read. I wanted to find out how my paternal ancestors lived, and there wasn’t one source where you could find out all I wanted to know about day-to-day Ward life. That’s what I hoped this book could be. What about you? Who did you write Running with Buffalo for?
MF: I started writing it when I was twenty-six, so I guess I was writing for people my own age, going through the same type of quarter-life issues I was going through at the time. I was navigating a post-college landscape of professional and personal frustration, whether with underwhelming jobs, failed relationships, or a post-9-11 world that ushered in a new kind of fear and uncertainty for every young adult I knew. We all seemed to be looking for answers, so I tried to inject our relatable feelings into the story’s characters and situations. And these frustrations ultimately motivated me to write the novel. Can you describe the moment you decided to write Against the Grain?
TB: It started off as me trying to find out about the spelling of my last name [originally Bohane], and it led to me wanting to find out more about the history of my family in this Buffalo neighborhood. I realized this would be bigger than a simple exploration of my family history when I walked into South Buffalo’s Irish Center and saw a collection of handwritten memoirs people had compiled about their families and about what life used to be like around here. There’s a lot of Buffalo history that no one’s adequately captured, so that changed my focus from a family genealogy project to the history of the whole First Ward neighborhood.
MF: And it just took off from there?
TB: Exactly. It evolved into an effort aimed at providing a historical record of the lives of ordinary and extraordinary residents of this small neighborhood. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the Ward is that, due in a large part to its geographic isolation, it maintained its Irish ethnicity longer than most similar blue-collar Irish communities in the United States. In fact, for such a small geographical area, the First Ward produced a remarkable number of famous and infamous characters.
MF: Over the entire historical narrative of Against the Grain, is there a central issue your characters have to deal with?
TB: I’d say it’s a mix of perseverance, endurance, and success in the face of obstacles. When the Irish immigrants came to the Ward, they faced a lot of the same discrimination that their peers did across the country. The fact that this group was geographically isolated added to that discrimination. So, when it came to things like labor disputes, they had to take care of their own, whether through the political system or labor unions. Those alliances helped them endure through their struggles.
MF: Among this collection of Ward natives you came across, which one was your favorite to write about?
TB: [William J.] Fingy Conners was probably the most interesting character in the book, although “Wild Bill” Donovan isn’t far behind. Conners’s life was a classic rags-to-riches story. He dropped out of school at thirteen, worked on the docks, and eventually became one of the largest private employers on the Great Lakes. He was also one of the hardest characters to write about because he instigated the [Grain Scoopers’] Strike of 1899, which adversely affected the majority of Ward residents.
MF: And that history makes for a very complex character. No creative construction necessary.
TB: Absolutely. So who was your favorite character in Running with Buffalo? The protagonist?
MF: Joseph Cahan was the most relatable [for me], but if I had to go in another direction, I’d go with Cahan’s friends, Duff and Terry. These characters were meant to be emblematic of Buffalo’s blue collar/white collar dynamic, with each one carrying the issues or concerns of one particular background, yet still finding common ground in music, football, and friendship. Since I viewed this type of cooperation essential to eventually move Buffalo forward, it only made sense to make them essential in moving Cahan forward, which was fun to write. And, speaking of moving forward, have you been keeping track of the Ward’s ongoing revitalization?
TB: I have. The Ward is certainly on the upswing, and Buffalonians should be proud. There are two beautiful new parks, a new museum, a soon-tobe opened brewery at Gene McCarthy’s, activities at Silo City, the return of rowing to the Buffalo River, the upcoming beautification of Ohio Street, and rising home prices. Of course, my book had nothing to do with any of these encouraging events. Just good timing, I guess—and a bit of Irish luck.
MF: But that raises a final question: after seeing the local and national interest in a Buffalo-set book like Against the Grain, how vital a role can both nonfiction and fiction writers serve in both the promotion and advancement of this city?
TB: There is no doubt that books can help promote a city. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did a tremendous service for Savannah’s tourism, as did Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence for that region of France. [When I was] on a trip to New Orleans, a local bookstore owner told me how much she loved Lauren Belfer’s City of Light. She didn’t know about Buffalo’s rich history and, after reading Belfer’s work, hoped to visit sometime.