For Jono Riley, East Providence in the 1960s was filled with hockey games, Marlboros, scout camp, beautiful young girls, and best friends. Growing up in blue-collar families, Jono and his three friends—Cubby, Billy, and Bobby—were inseparable and formed a bond that each of them thought would last a lifetime. But inevitably things changed as time moved on. When he receives a letter from Cubby thirty years later, Jono is living in Manhattan, working as a part-time actor and bartender, and he has not been back to East Providence in decades.
In the letter, Cubby informs Jono that Marie D’Agostino, Cubby’s sister and the first girl that Jono ever loved, has died suddenly. This news inspires a range of emotions and memories in Jono’s mind, and he decides that it is time he journeyed back to the town of his youth. Bestselling author Ron McLarty recounts Jono’s story both in the past and present in Traveler, a novel that explores the nostalgia and the complications inherent in confronting one’s past, set against the vivid backdrop of New England in the sixties. As Jono revisits East Providence, he is also struggling with a question in his present life: he has fallen in love with Renée Levesque, a New York City firefighter who wants to move in with him, but Jono harbors fears and reservations about making such a commitment.
When he arrives in East Providence, Jono discovers that Marie’s death was actually linked to a childhood event that he recalls with clarity: one winter afternoon, when Jono was eleven years old and Marie twelve, she was mysteriously shot by an unseen gunman while they were walking home. The doctors were unable to remove the bullet, but Marie recovered—until, at age fifty-two, the bullet “traveled” from the place it was originally lodged, pinching an artery and causing her death. As Jono revisits old friends and neighbors, he comes across Officer Kenny Snowden, who investigated Marie’s shooting at the time, and who tells Jono that there have been other unexplained shootings over the years.
As Jono, who is joined by the determined and beautiful Renée, helps Snowden look deeper into these shootings and tries to figure out how these incidents relate to his own life, he comes to terms with his memories and realizes that nothing will ever be the same again. Interwoven into his search for the truth are scenes from his childhood, as Jono finds himself caught up in girl trouble, suffers the death of his father, tries to avoid fights with neighborhood bullies, and emerges victorious as a star hockey player.
Ron McLarty has created a memorable and winning cast of characters in Traveler, and he writes with warmth and sympathy about the travails and exploits of a particular kind of coming-of-age in America. The story of the camaraderie among Jono, Billy, Bobby, and Cubby is by turns hilarious and tragic, and it will be recognized by anyone who recalls his own youth in this rapidly changing world.
ABOUT RON MCLARTY
Ron McLarty is an award-winning actor and playwright best known for his appearances on television series, including Law & Order, Sex and the City, The Practice, and Judging Amy. He has appeared in films and on the stage, where he has directed many of his own plays.
A CONVERSATION WITH RON MCLARTY
Jono is a character actor who works as a bartender at night, supplementing his income between roles on television and in the theater. You are also an actor, with television shows like Sex and the City and Law & Order to your credit. How much of Jono’s story is based on your own experiences? What made you decide to write about him?
I never consciously throw my own life into the fictional mix. Of course, writing from that very personal place where ideas and experience blend into words, it’s only natural that some of me will find its way onto the page. Acting is a shaky profession that has been a part of my life for forty years. Any success at all is a combination of training, skill, luck, help, and more luck. I so admire my acting colleagues and the hopefulness and bravery they bring to the artistic table. It was inevitable I’d write about these folks, and Jono is a stew of them all.
Your portrait of East Providence is wonderfully nuanced and evocative. Can you talk a bit about why you chose to write about this particular place and time? How did you come up with these characters and this setting?
I’ve always thought of the sixties and my adolescence much differently from social histories. I never associated it with Vietnam (even though I was drafted) or hippies or the challenge to America’s entrenched institutions. To me it was our last collective breath before cell phones, the Internet, and 500-channel TV came together to homogenize the country. Young people today would be astonished at how the local tone, from music to clothes, was established by them, the kids of the town, not People magazine, bloggers, or Sex and the City. It was the specifics of the East Providence tone I wanted to capture, and the blending of many characters into a few accessible ones.
The mystery of Marie’s shooting, as well as the other shootings that have occurred in East Providence over the past thirty years, is a driving force in the narrative. At what point in your writing process did you decide to make this a part of the book? How much of the eventual explanation did you have in your head before you wrote?
I enjoy mysteries, but I enjoy them much more when the narrative takes place on a larger canvas than a gumshoe, beat-’em-up bloodbath. I want the red herrings dished out with big helpings of people I can wrap my feelings and imagination around. I think Traveler as, first, a coming-of-age novel with a mystery thrown in, and, as usual, my characters gradually revealed the story to me in my day-to-day writing routine.
The politics of the sixties and seventies takes a backseat in Traveler to the events in your characters’ lives. For instance, Jono and his friend Billy Fontanelli fight in the Vietnam War, and Jono returns home injured. Though most of the action in the book takes place before and after that time, Jono says very little about his experience in the war. What made you decide not to include more of the political aspects of history in this book? Could you talk about your own views on that era?
I tried to explain my small-town feelings in Traveler, especially in the conversations among Jono and his childhood friends. The concerns were much more local, and even through historical retrospectives and documentary films often portray young people as activists and deep political thinkers, we know that’s not really true. We might have been caught up in the whirlwind of change, but we clung to the small world we understood.
Your first book, The Memory of Running, was your debut novel, which you wrote after spending many years as an actor. Can you compare the experience of writing your first book with writing your second? How did your approach differ? How long did it take you to come up with an idea for the second book?
The Memory of Running was the third of ten completed novels. I finished it in 1988 and immediately began Traveler. At that time I was discouraged from sending out my work and began to allow my writing (or my attempt at writing) to be the reward in itself. With no hope of publication, I set myself free to follow the characters through the stories rather than superimpose some predetermined point of view. Suddenly they insisted on behaving in their own singular ways, refusing my occasional heavy hand. Every day of writing since my decision not to seek publication became a revelation and a joy. Only help and good fortune brought my work to the publisher’s attention.
In Traveler, the action is divided between Jono’s journey back to East Providence in 2001, and his childhood in the sixties and seventies. What was it like while you were writing balancing those two separate threads? Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
Traveler was written while the experiment I had employed with The Memory of Running was still sorting itself out. The past and present alternating chapters ran easily out of me, probably because I was slowly understanding the real need to let the material of the stories flow through me rather than have it all plotted out. Maybe that’s what sustained my writing through the years. I realized finally that if the work itself isn’t giving you a daily charge, then who cares if it gets published or not? I discovered my own way to work. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
On your Web site, your biography states that you came to New York thirty years ago “to be a writer.” Can you talk about your life over those thirty years and what it has been like living in New York and working as an actor? How have your experiences influenced your two novels?
I’ve always considered myself a writer who acts. Writing has been my creative outlet, but it’s the interpretive act of acting that has paid the bills. I’ve been lucky in a business that demands it. I joined Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.—after two years in the army—and my first play there, Moonchildren by Michael Weller, came to Broadway. I was thinking, “Hey, I’m Mr. Wonderful.” (I was twenty-four and hadn’t yet understood the nuances of good fortune.) If I’ve learned anything through the plays and films and TV series, it’s that an actor employs the same tools as a writer. The world around you and the people inhabiting that world are constantly observed and stored and thought about. Actors are always trying to put on a lot of different skins. Several of my novels are about writers and actors, probably because I admire them so much.
What kinds of books do you read? Who are your favorite authors, and how have they inspired your own work?
One of my favorite acting gigs is narrating books on tape. I’ve done well over a hundred, and the real eye-opener is how many wonderful and different books are being written. I never thought I’d enjoy romance novels, but I’ve found myself in tears at the appropriate spots. Mysteries, horror, classics, nonfiction . . . It’s another example of good fortune to have found my way into this world. I read and get paid for it! Somebody pinch me! For pleasure I enjoy history and have just finished Paul Horgan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Great River. I also constantly refer to The Americans: A Social History of the United States 1587–1914by J. C. Furnas. My favorite novelists, whom I reread often, are Somerset Maugham and Willa Cather. They are both storytellers, and really, what more can one want from a novel?
Can you talk about your experience with the publication of The Memory of Running? What was it like meeting your readers face-to-face? Are there any particularly memorable moments you had while on tour?
The Memory of Running was first a book on tape. I had begged a small talking-book company to let me record it and have the title placed in the firm’s catalog. Never did I dream that Stephen King would listen to it and write about it, and that that would lead to its publication. It’s a story of generosity and, I suppose, luck. It’s also a story people don’t seem to get tired of hearing. Here is another thing I’ve learned through this whole surreal experience: people are wonderful. It’s true! People want you to be successful, which in itself can be very humbling.
Traveler is not just about Jono’s journey into his past and his search for the person who shot Marie, it is also about the fierce friendship he shared with his three friends while growing up. Were there any characters besides Jono that you felt particularly attached to while writing this book? Can you talk about where you got the idea to tell the story of this type of friendship?
I find myself daydreaming about the events of my life. It’s as if I have a need to plumb my memory to be sure I’ve got things lined up in the order that they happened. Before I wrote novels, my plays often had characters speaking to versions of themselves in different periods of their lives. I suppose my theory is that we constantly examine our lives and the choices we made, either consciously or unconsciously. In Traveler, what’s revealed to Jono isn’t as simple as guilt or innocence. It’s a particular kind of love story between people you can’t imagine not being part of your daily routine forever. The problem is, of course, that the world is spinning, and changes in that world are inevitable. I think it’s our common human dilemma.
What are you working on now?
My third book is scheduled to be Art in America, a satire about the writing compulsion. I’ve also completed rewrites on a novel much different from anything I’ve attempted before. It’s called The Dropper and takes place in Barrow-in-Furness, England, where my people started out. I spent the middle of November 2006 in New Mexico researching my nearly completed novel Mislaid, part of which takes place at a rustic hot springs spa beginning in 1911.