Interview with writer Tommy Donovan about his coming-of-age memoir

Writer Tommy Donovan joins me today to chat about
his coming-of-age memoir, The Rail: What
Was Really Doin’ in the 60’s Bronx
Tommy Donovan grew up near
the Amalgamated Cooperative Housing in the Van Cortlandt Park area of the
Bronx. Coming-of-age during the turbulent and questioning 1960s helped shape
his spirit of inquiry and critical thinking. He currently lives in Big Timber,
Montana, with his life-partner, Dr. Kim C. Colvin. Tommy holds a doctorate in
psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is a Faculty Fellow in the
Honors College at Montana State University.
Welcome, Tommy. Please tell us about your current
This is my coming-of-age
memoir that depicts the struggles of the son of an Irish immigrant growing up
in an all-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, between the end of World War 2 and
the shadow of the Holocaust, and the emergence of the turbulent 1960s. At home,
I wrestle with family dysfunction, while in the streets I must navigate a world
where being a goy (gentile) confers a
hurtful, outsider status on him. Eventually, my life hangs in the balance as I
struggle to not surrender to the pull of drug addiction while fighting to break
free and flee the Bronx for good. My confrontation with these formidable
obstacles, on my journey to manhood, takes place center stage at “The Rail,”
where my allies and nemeses gather daily.
What inspired you to write this book?
This is my first book. I
was compelled to write this because whenever my childhood friends and I have
described our growing up, we consistently get amazed reactions and someone
inevitably says, “Your stories should be a book.”
Excerpt from The Rail: What Was Really Doin’ in the 60’s Bronx:
There was one particular
section of the fence that ran along Van Cortlandt Park South, that came to
serve as each generation’s true north and the epicenter for all manner of
social interaction – especially for the postwar baby-boomers. Directly in front
of the park, this portion of the fence stretched east from the retaining wall
to the asphalt pathway leading into the playground area, approximately 60 feet
in length. When we were little, it was just part of the landscape demarcating
the boundary between the street and the park, claiming no particular attention
during our comings and goings. At that tender age, even if we noticed the older
kids hanging out there it had little impact on us and even less interest. As we
found ourselves inexorably thrust into our teenage years, this spot in front of
the playground began to loom larger and larger in our lives and our
imaginations as the place to be. This section of fence was known to everyone
as, simply, The Rail.
* * * * *
I AM THE BASTARD SON of an immigrant Irishman. For this reason, and more
that you will discover in the course of this memoir, I have had a difficult
time locating home, trusting family, finding safe harbor in many of my intimate
relationships. Yet between the years 1956-1972 (spanning the ages between five
and twenty-one), home, family, and a place of safety were located in the Bronx.
I found them not in my own house, but in the homes, schoolyards, playgrounds,
and streets of a tiny, modern-day shtetl populated predominantly by Jews. Beneath
the apparent incongruity of this statement – safety in the streets of the
Bronx, family
people of a completely different religion, and home within others’ homes – a
deep and abiding kinship revealed itself over the course of my childhood, a
kinship with a place and the people who lived there that shaped decisively who
I was then and who I am now. Indeed, this sense of kindredness has informed my
entire life; during these tender and impressionable years, I learned how to
trust, how to share, how to stand up for what I believe, and how to love.
The soil that nurtured
this unlikely, lifelong bond with this place, with Jewish culture, and with the
friendships forged there – many continuing to this day – was seeded by a
variety of episodes, traumatic and elegant, painful and exquisitely loving.
Mine was a coming of age in a peculiar time and place. Wedged between the
nightmare of World War II and the thunderous, shattering Sixties, my coming of
age awoke in me, and many of us, common rhizomatic stirrings to live beneath a
sun different than the one we inherited. Pulled by an indescribable draw toward
a deep mutuality, there arose a desire to band together in ways that would lift
us beyond what the larger world offered as the apparently irreconcilable differences
of ethnicity, class, gender, religion, and race. Our sensibilities were shaped
by a nascent determination to defy a history of fear and the promise of more of
the same and, instead, create something we imagined would be entirely new.
What exciting story are you working on next?
YA fiction based in
Celtic Mythology.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I began writing at age 14.
I would write stories about our neighborhood gang, completely romanticized, and
read them in installments to my friends gathered in the basements of our
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day
like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to
I am a college professor
at Montana State University. I write when I have breaks in the teaching
schedule, mostly on weekends, semester breaks and especially over the summer
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I cannot move to the next
sentence unless I feel the previous one evokes precisely what I want to convey
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Back in my day I imagined
myself being a firefighter or a policeman. By the time the 1960s erupted I
wanted to be a nomad.
Anything additional you want to share with the
If you are writers, keep
reading everything, and write to express your soul-daimon and not for any other

Thanks for being here today, Tommy! Happy writing.

One thought on “Interview with writer Tommy Donovan about his coming-of-age memoir

  1. Glenn from the Bronx says:

    I was born in 1963…grew up on 238th and Bailey Avenue…Irish-American construction worker father, and a German-American mother who worked at St. Patrick's home at 66 Van Cortlandt Park South in the 1970s (after her office at City College was burned down by the student protests in 1968!) We moved to Amalgamated's building 6 in July 1976.. my father had died in 1974 of asbestos-related cancer, Amalgamated's building 6…at 74 Van Cortlandt Park South was across the street from my mother's St. Patrick's home business office job…and a much shorter walk/commute for my older sister who was going to Lehman College for a nursing degree, and starting in fall 1977, for me, as I began Bronx HS of Science.
    We STILL live in Amalgamated all these years later…and over the years, we've come to self-identify as "part Jewish"…from our close contact with our neighbors over the years…especially the older generation…many of them pre-war immigrants from Germany or Eastern Europe. My mother's parents were born in Bavaria…moved to the US (separately) in 1920…economic emigrants from Weimar Germany…often sending money home to their families.
    It seems that the LAST wave of European immigrants to Amalgamated arrived in the mid-80s/90s as the 'wall' fell and perestroika/glasnost allowed the last of the Jews of eastern Europe to immigrate…some eventually to Amalgamated…and also included some non-Jewish people from the same countries…ncluding Romanian and Russian Orthodox.
    As many of Tommy DOnovan's cohorts seemed to have almost wholesale moved out of the NW Bronx…to upstate NY…northern New Jersey, Long Island or further…some have "elevated" enough financially to live in Manhattan….either paying high monthly rents or somehow being able to pool enough $$$ to buy a co-op apartment or even a brownstone.
    Today, as the WWII immigrant population…including the last of the Holocaust survivors with the arm tattoos doe off, our new Amalgamated cooperators seem to be from a veritable UN list of countries from around the world…with the largest "chunks" of our proverbial 'salad bowl'…as described by our late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan in his BEYONG THE MELTING POT come from the Dominican Republic, Korea, African- and Caribbean-Americans There's even some "economic refugees"…WASPs and other European-Americans…escaping the high rental (and retail)prices of living in Manhattan. The children of ALL of our cooperators…as always…seem to congregate on "THE RAIL"…but not in the numbers…nor in such long sittings as the kids of the 50s/60s/70s did…all too many of them are tweeting…texting…playing video games AT HOME…or otherwise staring at some sort of blue screen. You don't heard the BOUNCE of a basketball or an argument over a handball match nearly as often as we used to. (sigh)

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