Peter Quinn was a speechwriter at Time Warner and also wrote for New York Governors Carey and Cuomo. Quinn is an Irish-American historian, an expert on all things New York and an accomplished novelist. He also happens to be my father.
He and my mother were both born and raised in The Bronx and our family has deep artistic, political and personal ties to this city. I asked my father some questions in order to more clearly understand his relationship to New York and the city’s continuing evolution.
You were the Grand Marshall for the St. Pat’s for All St. Patrick’s Day parade this year in Sunnyside, Queens. This parade is open to anyone and is specifically geared to members of the LGBT community. This seems significant considering the Irish-Catholic community is not typically associated with welcoming those in the LGBT community. As a Catholic, how do you feel about the way many people this day and age use religion as a tool in the opposition of gay marriage?
We’ve all had a lot of learning to do since the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement. It hasn’t been just Irish Catholics. In fact, I think it’s pretty amazing that there’s a good chance the first openly gay mayor of New York will be an Irish-American woman (by the name of Quinn to boot!). It saddens me to see religion used to oppose gay marriage. In the Gospel of St. John, it says, “God is love” Not straight or gay. Just love—pure and simple. St. Francis of Assisi figured that out a long time ago. I don’t know why so many people have a problem with it. That said, I think the people who have the most problem are in the pulpits, not the pews. Most Catholics I know—Irish and otherwise—have gay friends, relatives, co-workers. They not only accept the idea of gay marriage, they welcome it. I think in a hundred years, people are going to look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
What seems to have been the most dramatic change or shift you have witnessed in New York?
New York is a much more global city than it was when I was growing up. The city of my childhood was largely Jewish, Irish, and Italian. The great migration of African Americans from the South and the arrival of huge numbers of Puerto Ricans were quickly changing that. Now the city has been further enriched by the arrival of Mexicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, East Asians, Africans, and others. Despite the high cost of living, young people seemed to flocking here in record numbers. There seems to be a kind of artistic renaissance underway. A generation or so ago—during the days of the fiscal crisis—New York felt like it was on the ropes. People were pessimistic about the city’s future. Today, New York appears to be well on its way to being one of the great megalopolises of the 21st century. I hope so. May the changes keep coming. And may they all be good.
How has New York City shaped your work as a writer?
New York is in my bloodstream. I think my brain is divided into five boroughs. (The Bronx being the largest; Staten Island, the smallest.) My hero as a writer is James Joyce. He found the whole human story contained in the ordinary life of Dublin and its people. In my novels, I travel to places like Berlin and Havana. But New York is always at the heart of the story. I find all the raw materials I need for my work in this city. The supply of stories is inexhaustible.
What are some of the toughest challenges you faced as an artist working in New York?
The immigrant experience and the Great Depression shaped my grandparents and parents. Things like art and literature were extravagances. The emphasis was always on having and holding a job. When I set out to become a writer, my first challenge was taking myself seriously. There’d never been any writers in my family. We all worked in labor unions, or politics, or civil service jobs. Even when I finally got started on a writing career, I faced the same old challenges—paying the rent, feeding and clothing myself, getting medical insurance. The climb only got steeper when I started raising a family. New York is an expensive place to live.
Do you think these are similar challenges faced by the new generation of artists or are there new problems facing them?
It’s always the same old story: How do you make art and at the same time make a living? It’s never been easy. It’s never going to be easy. I learned that the hard way. I was a political and corporate speechwriter for thirty years. I got up every morning at 5:30 A.M. to do my own writing. It was never easy. Maybe digital media will change that. But I doubt it.
You were born and raised in the Bronx, lived in Manhattan and raised kids in Brooklyn before moving further up the Hudson. Did these “chapters” spent in different neighborhoods of New York affect the work you were producing?
The honest answer is that I’m not sure. On a purely conscious level, I don’t feel as if these “chapters” had an impact. But on a deeper level, they most surely did. New York isn’t just different neighborhoods. It’s different worlds. The ethnic Bronx I was raised in was a place apart from the East Side neighborhood I lived in during my bachelor days. Park Slope and parenthood were brave new worlds of their own. One of themes that runs through my novels is the fleetingness of all things. Day to day, we delude ourselves into assuming there’s a certain permanence to the world. But there isn’t. The older I’ve got and the more I’ve moved around New York, the stronger this sense of impermanence has become. Treasure the people and places you love. Nothing is forever—especially in New York!
Your books have all featured New York in many different stages of its existence: from its tumultuous years during the civil war, through the depression and the eve of World War II. Would you say that you write about New York because it can serve as a backdrop to so many different kinds of stories or is your connection to it more complex – has the city become a sort of character that appears in all of your work?
The city isn’t just a backdrop for me. It’s part of the substance of my books. My first book, Banished Children of Eve, is a 600-page novel set during the hugely destructive Draft Riots of 1863. It follows a cast of about a dozen characters through the build-up to the riots and their aftermath. One critic claimed the book “Lacked a central character.” (God, I hate critics!) But he missed the point entirely. The central character is New York. The city touches, transforms, transfixes everyone who comes in contact with it—enriches, debases, exalts, crushes, renews—so that, one way or another, no one comes away unchanged.
Do you think its influence goes beyond your work? How did New York help shape you as a person?
My primary existential identification (right after human being) is New Yorker. I grew up in the Bronx half a century ago when ethnic tribalism ruled supreme. But even back then, we were always banging up against different people, other cultures—Italian food, Latin music, and those irresistible members of the opposite sex, girls of all colors, races and religions. New York instilled in me a fundamental sense of the beauty, vitality, creativity, and diversity of our species. It made me curious, and in the end, whether you’re a butcher, baker or a writer, curiosity is a great asset to possess.
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