Guest Post: Author Peter Behrens on The O’Briens

Peter Behrens

I posted my review of The O’Briens yesterday. Thanks to his publisher, House of Anansi Press, KevinfromCanada is honored to present a guest post from author Peter Behrens.

Family connections in The O’Briens

The O’Briens is a novel — it’s fiction — but also a family story, for me. My previous novel, The Law of Dreams was based on the story of my great-great grandfather, of whom I know very little, other than that he was an O’Brien and emigrated from Co. Clare to Canada during the Great Famine in Ireland. In history, the stories of the very poor are usually lost, so I had to make most of his story up: but I always had that real person in mind.

Now, that emigrant’s grandson was my grandfather, also an O’Brien; and this book is his story. And his wife’s and children’s stories, too. The O’Briens is not a history or memoir, and large chunks of it come straight out of my storyteller’s imagination — but many of the scenes are borrowed from the history of our family. My grandfather worked in the railway construction business in Western Canada during the railway boom before WWI. The scene of Mike coming home from the war, and appearing at the house in Westmount while the family was having dinner, and them all thinking he was in North Africa — that’s a story I have known all my life.

My mother’s name was Frankie O’Brien. I always thought it was a great name for an Irish bar — but my mum was a Montreal debutante. My family have always seemed mythic, to me. My grandparents lived in a big house, over the hill from our house. Their silences were awesome, and the sense that they belonged to another world, was intriguing and mystifying. My aunts and uncles were the most glamorous people I knew. Those generations have slipped away now, and maybe that’s what allowed me to write their story, and to tell it as a novel.

Frankie O'Brien

The other thing was, no one in my family ever talked about things like motives; about why they acted the way they did. No one ever interrogated their own behavior, habits, compulsions. I think that generation of Canadians were pre-psychological: they weren’t much interested in analyzing their own behaviour. They just acted.

I’ve always known that I was going to write this book. Just had to figure out a way to tell it.

I’ve attached a photo of Frankie O’Brien.

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6 Responses to “Guest Post: Author Peter Behrens on The O’Briens

  1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Peter;
    This is a most interesting post. I must say I do long for the days of pre-psychology, where people acted on their authentic impulses, and just kept on keeping on. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As most regular visitors here know, Sheila O’Brien is Mrs. KfC. And just as Peter Behrens thinks “Frankie O’Brien” would be a great name for a bar, I think Kevin O’Brien (as opposed to my real name, Kevin Peterson) would have been the perfect name for a writer. Having said that, Canadian author Alden Nowlan has already introduced Kevin O’Brien as a great fictional character — I’ll be getting to the first of Nowlan’s two novels featuring Kevin soon.

    Mrs. Kfc”s family history does have some parallels with those in this book and I am sure she will find it interesting when she gets to it.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Thanks for hosting Peter’s thoughts Kevin. If he’s taking questions, I’d be interested to know: has he ever been back to the Old Sod? and, What’s his extended family’s take on his version of their shared history?

    • Peter Behrens Says:

      I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland over the last 35 years….much of that time doing research for my Famine novel THE LAW OF DREAMS, which won the G-G in 06. The family’s take is varied–some of them feel dizzy: reading the book, while knowing the real story, the family hsitory—because my fiction is fiction; I’ve taken huge liberties; characters may be based on real people…but I’m trying to compose a Canadian mythology, not write anyone’s family history or genealogy.

      • leroyhunter Says:

        Thank you for the reply Peter. The scale of your ambition is evident in Kevin’s review. I’ll be in Ballyvaughan in a couple of weeks myself, so I’ll raise a glass to the success of The O’Briens.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    We did not have an agreement for Peter to take questions, but I am sure that if he drops in he will respond.

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