I was born Alfred John Denny in 1941 in
Wallasey, England, the heavily bombed docklands across the Mersey from
Liverpool. My parentage was considered mixed at the time -- my mother,
Anna Cecilia (nee) Brooks, being an Irish Catholic and my father, Alfred
James Denny, being an English Protestant. My first memories are of the
countryside where I was sent with my brother Anthony to escape the bombing.
In 1947, Alfred James, who had fought in North Africa, Iraq, and Italy
during the war, died of leukemia. And as Anna Cecilia was seriously ill
with tuberculosis, we spent a good deal of time in orphanages. In late
1948, we left redbrick, war-ravaged Merseyside to cross the Irish Sea
to live with our grandfather in the midlands of Ireland. Anna Cecilia,
who had remained behind in England, died in August of 1949.
My memories of that time spent in Ireland remain vivid and quite literally
green. Grandfather John Brooks, a white-haired, gruff, happy man, met
us at the train station in Ballinasloe with a pony-and-trap. It was not
an affectation. I was scarcely to see much less ride in a car during the
year I walked with my brother to the local school or went to Mass in the
trap or helped with the haying or with the cutting of turf on the vast
bog that rose like a mirage beyond the pastures in front of the house.
That bog, a tawny, black-peated, wind-swept place covered with gorse and
heather, has remained, as Seamus Heaney so beautifully puts it, an “outback
of my mind.” And even today the smell of a turf fire has a poignancy
that reduces me to an eight-year-old again.
In September of 1949, we left Ireland for England en route to Boston and
a new home with foster parents in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Charles Walter
Alcorn and Mary Brooks Alcorn, sister of my mother, owned a hardscrabble
dairy farm on one hundred acres in the southern part of the town, on land
that has since become part of the large suburb that is eastern Massachusetts.
Tony and I adjusted quickly; we helped out on the farm with the chores
and took the yellow school bus to the grammar school in Chelmsford Center
where, I noticed, everyone wore shoes.
While the characters of my first novel, The Pull of the Earth, are entirely
fictional, I confess to having lifted the setting -- the house, the pastures,
the sunshine and shadows, the very nails in the planks of the barn --
from my memories of that farm. I lived there from 1949 to 1960, and while
not all of those memories are pleasant, they are detailed and rich, and
I carry them with me like a treasure.
I attended Keith Academy in Lowell, a Catholic high school run by the
Xaverian order. Despite the efforts of the good brothers, I was an erratic
student. I did better as a football player, gaining an average of 5.5
yards per carry in my junior year and becoming captain of the team. This
football prowess along with high board scores helped me receive a scholarship
to Harvard, where I was even more erratic as a student. I concentrated
in Government, a waste of time in retrospect, and woke up mornings wondering
what I was going to do with my life.
Life provided its own answers and before I graduated in 1965, I had married
Sally Remick, whom I had known in grammar school. We moved to Montgomery,
Alabama where I worked as a reporter on the Alabama Journal, one of the
city dailies. Two years and a baby daughter later we moved back to New
England. I wrote editorials for the Herald before moving over to do the
same at WEEI/CBS. Now the father of two girls, Margaret and Sarah, I still
woke up mornings wondering what I was going to do with my life.
During a trip to Europe in the summer of 1969, I revisited England and
Ireland quite by happenstance. There, long-forgotten scenes, faces, voices,
smells, even the taste of butter, revived the past, and I began a kind
of archaeology of the self, reconstructing a lost life from fragments
of resurrected memories. About this time, both Mary and Walter died under
tragic circumstances. The farm in Chelmsford had been sold and houses
were being built in the hayfields and pastures. While discovering one
past, I mourned the loss of another. It was then that I began to write,
I realize now, to stanch this loss, to recapture somehow, even to relive,
if only in words, all that was no more.
In late 1971, with savings and a couple of small inheritances, we moved
to Ireland, eventually buying and moving into an old stone Georgian farmhouse
about twenty miles south of Dublin in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.
For the next four years, I worked on the house, got to know some of the
Irish writers, and read Joyce, Yeats, Flann O'Brien, Waugh, H. E. Bates,
Patrick Kavanaugh, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, among others. I also
started writing novels. My first effort I quietly buried behind the barn.
And if my second one wasn't much better, I knew I had begun to master
We returned to the States in 1976 to look for jobs and find another place
to live. We settled in Cambridge. I started a third novel and did odd
jobs while looking for work. In 1979, I became managing editor of the
Harvard Gazette, the university's house organ. Around this time I began
The Pull of the Earth, a novel in which I feel I both accomplished and
transcended the goals I set for myself when I began to write. Vestments
followed in 1988, by which time I had left the Gazette, spent a year teaching
freshman composition at Harvard College, and then became an assistant
in the travel program at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I kept
that job until 1999, retiring as director and after dozens of trips all
over the world.
During this time, we had moved to Belmont and I kept writing. The bibliography
appears below. As of this time, I am well into a fourth in the Norman
de Ratour series and have several other novels either in halted progress
The Counterfeit Murder in the Museum of Man, Steerforth Press and Zoland
The Love Potion Murders in the Museum of Man, Steerforth Press and Zoland
Books, 2009 (serialized on Salon.com, 2001)
Natural Selection, Colrain Press, 2008
The Long Run of Myles Mayberry, Zoland Books, 1999
Murder in the Museum of Man, Zoland Books, 1997; paperback 1998
Vestments, Houghton Mifflin, 1988
The Pull of the Earth, Houghton Mifflin, 1985, Penguin Paperback, 1986,
Bodley Head, 1986 (various foreign translations)