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Brendan Flaherty on Estrangement, Home, and the Rippling Effects of Trauma in ‘The Dredge’ ‹ CrimeReads

Brendan Flaherty on Estrangement, Home, and the Rippling Effects of Trauma in ‘The Dredge’ ‹ CrimeReads

Cale and Ambrose Casey haven’t spoken in thirty years. The brothers at the center of Brendan Flaherty’s The Dredge became estranged after traumatic events upended their adolescence. Over the next decades, each has crafted a life in which to protect himself and survive. In Hawaii, Cale sells waterfront properties and can’t seem to commit to a relationship. In rural Connecticut, Ambrose still lives in the house in which the brothers grew up, now with his pregnant wife and young daughter.

When their old neighbor’s pond must be dredged to allow for a developer’s expansion plans, the brothers are forced to reconnect to ensure old secrets remain buried. Meanwhile Lily Roy, who grew up alongside the Casey brothers in a far less harmonious home, is the contractor overseeing the dredge. It soon turns out she too has secrets to protect.

In The Dredge, Flaherty has crafted an intense debut novel, tightly plotted in dual present and past timelines, with a trim and three-dimensional cast of characters. At its heart, the novel asks, can we move past trauma without dredging up the secrets that shaped us? I enjoyed an engaging conversation with the author over Zoom and we discussed the psychology of his characters, self-care in writing darkness, and the complexity of finding home.

Jenny Bartoy: Let’s start with a straightforward question: where did you get the idea for this book?

Brendan Flaherty: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the seed of it came in a dream. This was probably almost 15 years ago. I woke up with this picture in my head of a stick of white birch in a dark swamp, and I had this awful feeling that I’d accidentally committed a terrible crime. I wrote a bunch of pages based on that image and it just stayed with me. I could sort of feel the story in it, but it took me years of false starts to do what I wanted to do with it. That image is now just a small detail in the book, but the DNA for all of it was in there. So that’s a long way of saying: a dream of a stick.

JB: This novel’s foundation seems to be trauma and what ripples from it. It can take a toll on a writer to become immersed in the darkness or difficulty of our topic. How did you manage to separate yourself from the story?

BF: The book touches on dark topics, but putting more pain and sadness into this world wasn’t my intention at all. Quite the opposite. I was interested in how people can sublimate those negative experiences into something more meaningful and positive. And though the book has a bit of an open ending that I think is more true to life than anything tidy—to me, it’s hopeful. There’s tragedy, but there’s also a sense that spring is coming, and with it, healing, forgiveness, reconnection, and new life, or at least the possibility of it. So, it helped having that idea and glimmer of light in mind all along.

As a writer, I suppose you’re very alone in that kind of rigorous mental work. There were a couple of times where I did have to stop. Especially during the peak of the pandemic, when everything seemed really bleak and chaotic. I was trying to take another run at the manuscript and working long, weirdly stressful hours remotely. We had a newborn and another small child at the time, and I was kind of slogging through that dark material, those difficult sections. At some point, I needed to take a break for a while and go watch 30 Rock and play with my kids and change the record in my brain.

JB: I was drawn to your novel because it begins with an estrangement between brothers. Here you have one brother who stayed, one who left, and they haven’t spoken in thirty years. For each of them, their choice represents both denial and a desire to rebuild over their traumatic past. I’d love to know more about your perspective on family estrangement, and what this rupture between the brothers meant for you narratively.

BF: Great question. The brothers’ relationship, cleaved in two, is at the heart of the whole thing. These traumatic things happen to them that they could have shared, or helped one another along in some way, but instead blame pushed them apart and each was alone in it. And each had a different response to managing this rupture in their lives. One ran away, and that left the other brother in a position to have to stay to protect this secret. So they’re both in bad spots. One feels he can never return home and the other feels he can never leave. Their differences seem irreconcilable, and the result is a silence between them. I’ve seen this silence, and in the case of the brothers, it keeps them stuck in the past. The brother who leaves ends up figuring out the real estate industry, and he seeks solace in surfaces, in the physical world, his material possessions. That’s how he tries to fill this void in him.

JB: Right. Meanwhile the other brother goes all in and builds a local business and a family, but there’s a palpable dread to him. Each of the characters keeps secrets that define them and their conflicts but that can’t be spoken, for essentially the duration of the book. How tricky was it to plot this story? 

BF: Yeah, it was tricky and took me a long time. Even once I thought I’d figured out how I could make it work with the rotating point of view between the main characters, I still had to keep the rhythm of it and the differing timelines. So there was a lot of getting the timing and the calendar right.

In terms of how I did that, a lot of it was in my head, but I’ve got stacks of notebooks, too. And then for more complex stuff like the present timeline and the one in the past, I used a Word doc to keep it easily editable. A lot of the material accreted over the years, and then I ended up writing the majority of what became the book as it is now in three weeks between jobs.

JB: Your novel covers a lot of depth in a short amount of pages (260 pages). Do you have any tips for writers wishing to keep their work as economical yet intense as yours?

BF: It’s been said plenty before, but just edit ruthlessly. I read my writing aloud over and over, and cut everything, every syllable, that I don’t feel needs to be there. How do you say the most with the least? That’s the whole challenge of language, right? So I spent a lot of time editing and going over it and over it and over it. And that’s because I want it to be as polished as I can get it, but also this is my first book and I wanted to be mindful of people’s time. Hopefully, I can communicate a story to you and you could read it quickly and get right to the heart of it.

JB: It was definitely a fast read, but I was impressed with how much you conveyed psychologically in a tight space. One of your characters, Ray, is rather monstrous, but you create empathy in the reader by showing his traumatic, abusive upbringing and the love that his sister Lily has for him. How challenging was it, morally or otherwise, to write this character?

BF: He was challenging, definitely. But he was also a really interesting character to me, because the way he is isn’t his fault, and yet, he’s becoming a very dangerous person with the potential to hurt a lot of people. A person who has only ever known violence — that’s essentially his experience of the world. To me, the difference in the two families [central to the book] is largely based on how the two fathers respond to their own childhood trauma. Eli Casey becomes a good man, an empathetic person who tries to help others whose pain he recognizes. Ray’s dad, Abe, does not rise above this negative cycle, and instead he perpetuates it, on his own family, no less. This pointless cruelty shapes Ray. But he’s not all bad. The same way that no one’s all good.

JB: These characters for generations have gone in loops over the same landscape—the pond, the roads, the wood, the bridges over the stream. How did setting help enhance the narrative? 

BF: It was very important to me. That setting is based on the woods I knew growing up. There’s not necessarily a pond like the one in the story that exists or anything like that, but my experience with that real landscape was the inspiration for the setting. I’m from northern Connecticut and the house I grew up in was built in the 1820s. There’s a sense of history you can feel there in certain places. Stone walls in the woods, long-abandoned foundations, that sort of thing. To me, it has a certain mood. Knowing the setting like that was helpful because it gave me a shorthand. As I was focusing on characters or relationships or more important stuff to the story, I didn’t have to, in my mind, invent every rock. It was just there. I could see it. I had a sort of set or stage in which to put the characters.

JB: There’s a definite sense of intimacy with the landscape throughout the novel. Your three main characters work respectively in construction, in real estate, and for a suburban developer. Each of those jobs relates to houses and home, to rebuilding but also burying. Of course the dredge of the pond upends all those efforts. Can you tell me about the symbolism inherent in these choices?

BF: Maybe the metaphors of my Catholic upbringing and childhood Bible class are showing there, but yes, each character is longing for a home. Each is searching for a place where they can find peace. The concept of “home” seems to elude them all. As much as Lily dresses up the house she grew up in, it’s still a site of trauma. And as much as Cale can go sell luxury real estate, he still can never buy back the happy home of his childhood. And as much as Ambrose tries to be a homebuilder, like his father, something is still missing.

JB: Technology is largely absent in this novel, which is a bit of a trend I’ve noticed in recent literary mysteries. Tell me about this narrative choice.

BF: So many televised court cases, it seems, have a prosecutor reading text threads. I think, for one, my characters know this and are protecting themselves. They’re wise enough to not create a paper trail with texts. And the silence between the brothers predates the pervasive technology of today. I think their ages factor in a little bit too. If they were 16 or 18, I’m sure digital technology would be a bigger influence. But they’re all more of an analog type of person, of which I know many. And maybe on a personal level, I’m not super interested in the social media space, which seems like concentration-killing brain poison, even as I look at it myself now and find myself entertained. Still, it feels fleeting and not built to last.

JB: Harvey is the older sleuth unable to speak due to a stroke, not taken seriously even by his wife. Why did you choose to silence your “detective” character? 

BF: The simplest answer is that I feel like that’s been done. There’s plenty of detective stories—writers who can do it better than I can, people with a closer relationship with police procedures, who have that sort of knowledge. So, I thought that was sort of well-trod ground that didn’t really speak to me personally. I felt there had to be some kind of police, some sort of acknowledgment of the legal threat, but I liked the idea of his presence being almost a ghostly one. I don’t feel like I chose to silence that character—that was just kind of how he always was to me. Half in this world, and half in another. Half here, and half gone already.

JB: Congratulations on this debut novel. What are you writing now?

BF: I’m working on the next book. I’m kind of going back and forth between two ideas. I like lighter comedy-ish stuff, like Charles Portis and Kurt Vonnegut. So there’s one book that’s light, and another that’s more in line with this one. I’m writing them both in drips and drops each morning and waiting to see which horse takes the lead.