If you’re going to look to your family for inspiration for your novel, author Kevin McEnroe has some very fertile ground to sift through. The son of tennis legend John McEnroe and actress Tatum O’ Neal, and grandson of actor Ryan O’ Neal, Kevin has enough compelling material right there for a few volumes, sequels and prequels. Yet instead, he centered his novel, Our Town, on a relatively lesser-well-known relative, whom he has deemed his guardian angel.
The tumultuous story is based very loosely on his maternal grandmother, Joanna Moore. If you’re keeping score at home, she would be Tatum’s mother and Ryan’s first wife.
Needless to say, being married to Ryan O’ Neal (in a co-dependent kinda way) may not have been a sunny picnic. O’Neal offers an a la carte menu of human frailties, famous missteps and stunningly bad parenting, and Moore was the lucky girl who got the guy (and got in the way of his mighty fists). Sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? As well, in a situation right out of A Star Is Born, it was O’Neal who surged ahead, leaving Moore to toil semi-steadily in Hollywood until drugs and alcohol got a producer credit for her slow fade.
Though barely remembered today, her crash-and-burn has become the stuff of Hollywood legend among those who obsess on such things, a textbook cautionary tale: just say no to alcohol, drugs and a handsome ex-boxer with a temper and a taste for sexual conquest. With the unwanted help of her dysfunctional ex-husband, a family legacy began to roll downhill, really fast and without mercy, gleefully observed by countless tabloids and gossips who didn’t know or care about the backstory, the ingredients for the tragic stew.
Moore died in 1996, but her version of the story (and the need to tell it) was still alive, vibrant, and begging for her now-adult writer/grandson to give it some attention.
The challenge, however: She never told the story to him.
“I only met her a couple of times in my whole life,” Kevin says. “She died when I was about six, but writing about her is what made me want to be a writer and kept me writing. So I always thought about her as an important part of my life and part of my story as a writer. She became a reason to keep going.”
The ability to keep going is no small feat in Kevin’s family, and the stunning fact that she survived as long as she did, as his other family members have, inspired him to dive deeper into his own gene pool.
“I think it’s because we share some characteristics too,” he said. “I was able to emphasize with somebody like that, someone who has a hard time getting out of their own way.”
Another strong reason for writing the novel was to give some gray to the black-and-white that was conventional wisdom for way too long.
“She was considered a kind of cautionary tale, a waste of potential,” he said. “No one really wanted to look at why or how it became that way, what motivated her. It was instead a sort of ‘don’t end up like her.’ I didn’t think that was fair. I thought there must be more to it than that. That trainwreck image never really seemed fair to me. There was something about her story that really connected with me.”
Of course, Kevin could have done what everybody else does when they want to climb the family tree, but asking mom would only offer its own weak branch. Tatum had her own demons to wrestle regarding her mom, as did Kevin with his very own set of mother issues.
“It reminds me a lot of feeling like I thought my mom was choosing drugs over me,” he says of his mother’s longtime and well-publicized battle with dependence. “It’s hard when you’re a little kid, without a lot of life experience, to think anything otherwise. The way you are raised and your genetics can get in the way of all of this. That certainly has been a running point. I needed to figure it out on my own. I did some research in terms of [Moore’s] public image. I didn’t want to just ask my mom. I wanted it to be my own understanding of it.”
Also possibly struck from the ask list was grandfather Ryan O’ Neal, who is actually reimagined in the novel as as a perpetually annoyed former boxer who brings his fighting skills to his marriage, and his intensely competitve nature to his extracrurricular relationships and his skyrocketing acting career . A lethal combination indeed, but this character was more of a quick study for Kevin.
“I didn’t find myself necessarily trying to find all the reasons why he was a bad guy,” Kevin says. “I was okay with him being a bad guy. [My grandmother] falling deeply, deeply in love and having her heart broken at that age — she just wanted a family more than success. She was unable to understand that. He also had a physical prowess. He was a boxer who didn’t like to lose and is not somebody who you necessarily want to tussle with.”
More fuel for the fire: the constant prying eyes of the general public, tsk-tsking over Kevin’s family and asking why, with all their money and gorgeousness, they can’t just get it together already.
He says, “Unless you know it, it’s hard to reconcile that ‘what the hell is your problem?’ If you haven’t been through it, it may sound like whining, but for people who have been through addiction, hopefully there can be some empathy for this character. [If you have experience with addiction,] you can recognize the ‘I know I’m doing the wrong thing, but I want to do it and so what?’ You can recognize that you have some of that within you. Hopefully, you can realize that it’s not just good-looking people whining.”
Fortunately, Kevin had the life experience and the sensitivity to paint his grandmother with the proper brush (his exceptional writing skill) and the most eye-opening hue (his heartfelt love for his grandmother). He found the sweet spot: he understood.
“When you’re stuck like that, you can’t see the forest for the trees,” he says. “There are a lot of huge attempts at overcoming adversity rather than looking at yourself in the mirror. She was always trying, though. I think she realized, as I did, that what was holding her back from success as a mother was herself. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault. I think that’s one of the reasons I think of her as a guardian angel, because she helps me think about it.
“When you’re in the throes of alcoholism, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and victimized. It becomes hard to look at yourself in the mirror and to look at the mistakes you’re making. It’s a lot easier to have another drink if somebody else is wronging you. It’s a lot easier to [have another drink] if [you believe] it’s not your fault.”
It’s also what makes the novel tragic, and yet so readable, as it recognizes, simultaneously, both the light and the dark of the human condition, and the partly cloudy in between.
“A lot of times she is attempting to reach the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Sometimes along the way, the light just seems too far away, so it’s easier for her to just turn around. Even though it’s dark behind her, she knows what’s there. It’s not going to surprise her. It’s not going to be something that she has to overcome.”
No spoiler alert here, but Kevin’s own history made him clear-eyed about endings, especially happy ones.
“I went through some custody issues with my parents,” he said. “There is not really a happy ending to any of that. It’s all very difficult. It’s never going to be particularly healthy.”
Yet the novel was therapeutic, carthardic, a working through. And he hopes it can resonate for others as much as the discovery process had done some great good for him.
“I’m obviously priviledged in a lot of ways, growing up the way I did,” he says, “but I also had to grow up quickly and understand a lot. I had to figure a lot of this stuff out. Hopefully, the book can help somebody with a friend or a family member who has trouble, and look at them with new eyes. It was important for me to understand why I was so interested in this woman, and just figuring it out made me feel like it was entirely worthwhile.”
Find out more about Kevin here.