Novel Or Memoir? New Book Mirrors Author's Family Story

Jun 5, 2015

The cover for `Annabelle and the Sandhog' features the author's real-life grandfather, Raymond, and his wife Ina.

The title, Annabelle and the Sandhog, introduces two of the book's main characters, so let's take them in order:

Annabelle is a nursing-home aide who befriends the sandhog, in the novel and in real life. We'll learn more about her in a bit.

"Sandhog" is American slang for a person who works underground at an urban construction site.

The sandhog in this story is John O'Malley, modeled after author Ray Paul's grandfather, who made a career of blasting bedrock to carve the foundations of tall buildings in the early 20th Century.

O'Malley (like the author's grandfather) began by hauling debris out of the still-smoking craters. Later, he became a supervisor. "That job," Ray Paul says, "was almost 100 % Irish in the East where my grandfather worked." Because of the danger involved, only unskilled immigrants applied, but soon black migrants from the South and Caribbean joined the ranks. According to Paul, "there was war in the pits" between the ethnic groups, which was part of the reason for his grandfather's success: "He wasn't Irish, and he wasn't black. He got along with both groups because he was a very outgoing and very fair man." 

Like John O'Malley, Paul's grand-dad found sandhog work in cities throughout the U.S. And, like O'Malley, Grandpa Raymond moved his wife and son Mike with him, interrupting his son's schooling so much that Mike repeated two grades. Mike's peripatetic childhood led to a lifelong resentment of his father -- much like the real Mike, the author's father.

Reading a story that borrows so many details from the author's family, you might wonder why Paul wrote a novel instead of a memoir. He has an answer for that, which we'll get to in a few paragraphs.

When we meet the fictional Sandhog, John O'Malley, it's 1975 and he's living in a nursing home in Rockford, recovering from a stroke which severely affected his speech. Recently widowed, O'Malley is recording his life story on an Ampex reel-to-reel provided by his grandson, Tim, who transcribes the garbled words for a memoir called Diary of a Sandhog.

For Tim, the project provides much-needed distraction after he lost his daughter to bacterial meningitis. Soon Tim's father, Mike, gets involved, eager to reconnect with his father and son. Mike is a heavy drinker, which alienates the other family members. But Mike's participation in the Sandhog project begins to restore the relationship with his father and son.

The more time Tim and Mike spend with John O'Malley, the more time they spend with Annabelle, an aide who likes to joke with John. Annabelle is black, and their friendship scandalizes the other residents and staff. Occasionally, John gets a little out of hand. One morning, as Annabelle makes his bed, he slaps her on the behind:

All she says is, "Why did you do that, Mr. O'Malley?" Since I trust my hearing, and there's amusement in her voice, I don't get all panicky because I'm sure she doesn't really need an explanation or even want one. She knows a harmless pat on the fanny is about the only manly thing I can muster up these days. I wheel back to give her more space and say, `Cuseywatato.' I know it comes out garbled and is probably incomprehensible to her, but I hear her chuckle, and she doesn't rush to move away even though she's finished with her tucking and smoothing.

Finally, she straightens and pushes my chair slightly so she can move to the window and pull up the Venetian blinds. The light glares off my cataracts ... A shadow crosses my face, and I feel her lips briefly brush my forehead.

"Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. O'Malley? Maybe push you to the window? It's a beautiful spring day. A day that would turn any young man's fancy to love."

"Why did you kiss me?" I say, although I'm sure she doesn't understand my words. Hell, I just said them, and I don't understand them. How could she? Damn, it's so frustrating not being able to talk to her.

Gently, she places a soothing hand on my shoulder and mimicking my earlier garble, says, "Because I wanted to."

Later in the story, Annabelle gets in trouble -- an event that unites the O'Malley men who rally to her side.

Ray Paul, reading an excerpt from `Annabelle and the Sandhog.'
Credit Carl Nelson

When an author draws heavily on real-life people for his characters, it's natural to wonder why he wrote a novel and not a memoir. Paul explains his choice in an interview with WNIJ:

"I'm sort of opposed to memoirs," he says. "To me, they're a little bit self-serving." Paul adds he's not trying to conceal anything unflattering in his family. "I just don't think a lot of what goes on in other people's lives interests me, so I don't know why something in my life would interest them," he says.

Paul says writing a novel allowed him to focus on things that might interest a reader, and develop characters exactly the way he wanted them.

So, you might be thinking, if the story closely mirrors the author's family history, who's Ray Paul?

"I'm Tim," he says, referring to the grandson.

Annabelle and the Sandhog is the author's sixth book. In the Morning Edition interview (above), Paul explains why he chose to self-publish the novel.

Next Friday, June 12, the Summer Book Series continues with the true story of a group of U.S. Navy veterans -- average age 72 -- who restore a World War II fighting ship and sail it home from the island of Crete. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:52 and 8:52, and then come back here for an author reading, photos and more.

Credit Maria Boynton