Paddy Buckley and his story with Vincent Cullen has been with me for twenty-three years. The basic spine of the plot came to me as a single idea while I was sitting with a bereaved family, making arrangements for their son, who’d been killed in a hit-and-run accident the night before. As I sat there with his family, I thought to myself how ironic it would be if I had been the one who’d hit him and had come into work the following morning only to be faced with the devastation I’d caused, and nobody the wiser. Then to up the stakes, I imagined myself sitting with someone who was equipped to kill me if they knew of my culpability. And the story took hold of me.
As an undertaker, you see death from a whole host of angles, and you cater for them all. All creeds, all classes, all ages. You get used to burying mothers in their thirties struck down by cancer. Young people by drug overdoses. The murdered. People who’d been killed in accidents. Suicides. Others who’d dropped dead playing golf, or hopping on a train, or in their sleep. You even get used to burying children. Not that you ever become inured to it – you don’t – but it becomes the landscape of the working hours of your day. And though you feel enormous sympathy for the bereaved, your mind (or certainly mine) is subject to wandering around different possibilities, as mine did when I stumbled across the story that would later become Paddy Buckley’s last four days.
The story medium I was most drawn to at the time was film, so I wrote it up as a screenplay, and painted Paddy Buckley as a relatively happy character with little to trouble him save for his accidental crime, and Vincent Cullen as the dangerous brother of the man killed by Paddy’s car.
On a personal level, at the time I was in the throes of an obsessional love affair with the bottle, along with a variety of mind-altering substances. I wrestled with addiction for years until I eventually threw in the towel and hung up my gloves for good. But while I was drinking, I was subject to occasional moments of pause and reflection, and during one of these little inward reprieves, having been away from the page for a period of years, I wrote my way into the world of Paddy Buckley through the portal of a short story. And I walked around this parallel Dublin and visited Gallagher’s Funeral Home where I met with Paddy Buckley and Christy Boylan and Frank Gallagher, and told them I hadn’t forgotten them, that they were never far from my heart. Not surprisingly, I had their undivided attention, and Paddy and Christy made me tea in the back office and leant against the counter while listening to their absentee landlord. To be there with my characters, interacting with them, to have them looking at me, was, in a funny sort of way, like having the mirror talk back to me. I drank tea with them and luxuriated in the time we spent together.
I got a slightly different reception from Vincent Cullen in his darkened study in Terenure. He kept it deadly serious and wanted more than explanations and apologies: he demanded commitment and action. I told him the same thing I’d told Paddy and Christy, that I’d do what I could to get them out there.
In 2008 my brother Zeb died. And all that sympathy I’d felt for the bereaved during my time as an undertaker retroactively turned to empathy.”
Not long afterwards, I returned to the drink in the rollercoaster that was my Dublin in the late nineties. Wrestling with the constant discomfort I felt with being in my own skin wasn’t something I was consciously aware of, but it was a war waged with passion nonetheless, and it wasn’t going away. If anything, it was getting worse and keeping me hostage. The way out of the pain was through it, and eventually, after hitting rock bottom, I emerged from the haze with two very clear intentions: to get well and to write.
When I came back to the page, it was to focus on other stories, to bridge other worlds to mine, screenplays, the lot of them. But writing screenplays turned out to be a little like sending fireworks into a night sky that stayed dark and silent. And so ten years ago, I reworked Paddy Buckley into a novel. I introduced more subplots and characters, and wrote it in the third person. I brought it up to a third draft, but something about it wasn’t sitting right. It was lacking in heart and soul.
In 2008 my brother Zeb died. And all that sympathy I’d felt for the bereaved during my time as an undertaker retroactively turned to empathy. And I grieved like you can only grieve when death has cut you to the bone.
Shortly after Zeb’s death, a film company optioned two of my other scripts, which I worked on solidly for a year, but like my previous encounters with film companies, nothing came of it. After that I found my way into teaching for a few years. And the page seemed very far away.
During my time teaching, my sister-in-law got my manuscript to an editor-friend of her mother’s in America. When I heard back from the editor, she said that although Paddy Buckley was a good story, she felt there were a number of things that weren’t working. I listed all the things I thought needed to be done to put it right, and she told me that I already knew what to do, that I didn’t need her at all. And a clear and lucid thought took root: I have everything I need to finish this story.
In 2012, I rewrote the book and delivered a definitive draft. Changing from the third-person narrative to the first brought about the catharsis the story needed, and injected humility into Paddy’s character. As a figure wounded by the passing of his pregnant wife, I found that by sitting into his heart and vicariously weaving in some of my own grief, I brought about a more authentic voice for Paddy as a character, and a more immersive experience for me as a writer. When I’d finished it six months later, I knew it was ready.
I was forty-two when I finished writing Paddy Buckley. One of the biggest differences between being in your thirties and being in your forties is that all the room for messing and waiting around is gone; the buffer of playtime between your dreams happening and your allotted time here is smaller than it’s ever been. So sending my manuscript out to the odd agency here and there, or waiting for an introduction to the right agent, weren’t roads I was willing to go down.
While googling literary agencies, I stumbled upon QueryTracker, the internet database of literary agencies, and I pored over it on a nightly basis, selecting the agents I thought would be a good fit for Paddy Buckley. And out went my pages. First, I focused on London and sent it to forty agencies there. Then I targeted New York and sent it to another thirty-five, and finally I got my agent.
With two of the three major milestones behind me, it was time for the third and most elusive: a publishing deal. Up until the point of getting an agent, I’d been leading the crusade, but now that I had representation it was time for me to hand over the reins and put my faith in my agent. Six months later she delivered on her promise and landed a deal.
Now, at last, the story is out there. And another pilgrimage is underway, for other characters in another world. And the game begins again.
Jeremy Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked with his father for many years at the family firm in Dublin. A screenwriter by training, Massey has lived in London and Los Angeles. He currently lives with his wife and three children in Australia. The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley is published by Riverhead Books in paperback and eBook.
Facebook: Jeremy Massey
Author portrait © Benn Jae