N. Versailles native's novel explores change
No city of Twin Rivers or Westinghouse Township exists in Allegheny County, but it is no great stretch to imagine such names.
The two fictional towns, which bear much resemblance to communities in the Mon Valley, help to establish the setting for the newly published novel “Between Lives,” by North Versailles Township native Earl H. McDaniel.
McDaniel, 62, draws on life experiences in the Pittsburgh area, writing skills he developed while earning his Master of Fine Arts in writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and working in the newspaper business for publications that include the Greensburg Tribune-Review and the Akron Beacon Journal. He used it all to shape a novel that draws readers in with its characters, places and ideas.
From years in the news business, McDaniel said, “I became wedded to the facts.” As a novelist, he said, “I had to break that mindset and pull back from authorial commentary.”
McDaniel said the book contains autobiographical elements but is not his life story.
The main character, Mick Mackintosh, has a career path not unlike McDaniel's in that it includes stints as a newspaper man and a teacher, but he is not a carbon copy of the author. McDaniel said he and his character have different physical attributes and interests. Mackintosh is the divorced parent of two boys, unlike the author.
One of the character's two sons is joining the military and eyeing a trip to Iraq. Mackintosh, an aging baby boomer who came of age during the Vietnam era, is opposed and gets involved with the anti-war movement. The book contains some sharp commentary on the George W. Bush administration, No Child Left Behind and other political, economic and social issues from the early 2000s, which is when the book takes place.
“I have a political bent. I always have, ever since I was a little kid,” said McDaniel, noting his tenure covering politics as a reporter and writing news editorials helped form his style as a novelist. Firsthand experience with unsatisfying career paths and unproductive job searches contributed to the work, he said.
“I was sufficiently bitter and had a lot of grist for the mill,” said the writer, who began the work while earning his master's degree . But the novel isn't only a study in bitterness. The author describes it as having comic undertones and a stubborn character who, through relationships explored in the book, has an opportunity for a new life by the end of the story.
McDaniel credits retired Pitt writing professor and novelist Chuck Kinder with helping him find an optimistic path for the story, which initially had a darker ending.
Kinder, who now lives in Florida, said he could see McDaniel was “gifted as a writer and knew his chops from his years as a newspaper man. His characters seem to rise off the page and take lives of their own. He knew his craft well.”
Kinder noted that McDaniel stood out in the MFA program because he was older than his fellow students and wrote about the hard knocks of life.
“With his maturity and experience as a newspaper man, he taught me as much as I ever taught him,” Kinder said.
These days, McDaniel works regularly as a substitute teacher in the Norwin School District, a job he describes as rewarding.
Like Mackintosh in the novel, McDaniel has lived outside of Western Pennsylvania only to return, saying the Pittsburgh region is home. “My family still lives here. It's a place of refuge for me.”
“Between Lives” is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the University Store on Fifth Avenue in Oakland.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.