Telling people about The Great Unexpected is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, in many ways it’s a very personal story. I’ve borrowed from the lives and deaths of both of my Grandas (Daniel Patrick Mooney and Joe Keane) who were the main inspiration for the book. That personal element for some reason feels fine to me when people are reading the book, but somehow causes me to clam up when I’m asked to talk about it in any way. Probably a psychological thread I shouldn’t pull at there.
The second reason is that it’s difficult to sell people the idea of a comedy that’s based around a man so miserable with his lot in a nursing home that he’s decided to kill himself. The Great Unexpected is supposed to be funny. It’s supposed to be sad too, and tragic and a poignant, but it was never intended to be so heavy that it’s inaccessible and that’s a difficult thing to write or talk about. Elevator pitches have never been my strong point.
In early August 1993 when I was about ten my Granda Mooney died. A massive pulmonary embolism killed him. I still remember after he died being a little boy and overhearing an adult say that he was better off. Gangrene had begun to take one of his legs and it was asserted that a man as independent as he would rather be dead than suffer that. I don’t know if that’s true, I remember him as an extremely resourceful man but that statement has always stayed with me. My Granda Keane died in a nursing home in 1999. His death was sudden, unbelievably sudden. A nurse came in to check on him and offered to make him some tea. A man never to refuse a cup of tea he accepted. She told us later that he was in good form and not complaining. In the time it took her to make his tea he had died. One minute he was there and the next he was gone. Joe didn’t mind the nursing home. I think he’d have preferred to be at home but he needed a lot of care.
Over the years these two moments combined in my head. I think about both of those men a lot. Doesn’t even make me sad anymore, in fact, it’s nice to visit them even if it’s only in my imagination. To me, their independence and their sudden deaths are inextricably linked and that, distilled way down, is the genesis of The Great Unexpected.
Those are pretty heavy themes, and when you add in the suicide element the whole thing seems so weighty that it’s practically inaccessible and that, I think was one of the main challenges to writing a story that ultimately should be uplifting and should resonate with people.
The comedy part happened naturally enough. I wrote the first chapter of the book in 2012 and almost immediately Joel (proximity to my Granda Keane’s name happened entirely unconsciously but is almost definitely linked) struck me as funny. His critical, cranky eye and his distorted worldview made the mundane seem excessively bleak, but that bleakness became so absurd it was comical. A man wearing the opposite of rose-tinted glasses. It’s not that he’s a pessimist, he doesn’t weigh up his circumstances and find them wanting, he literally can’t make himself see anything beyond what’s dreadful.
It was my friend and occasional philosopher Pete Moles who pointed out the Sisyphean element of the story. Poor Joel is rolling his boulder up a hill all day and he’s smart enough to see that’s what he’s doing, but blinkered by his bleakness, he can’t see any way in which he could continue living with that. Frank, on the other hand is living in the same circumstances as Joel, arguably worse off than his new friend and yet he seems to derive endless amounts of fun from where he finds himself.
Pete and I decided we’d write the story as a short film in 2014 as part of Limerick’s City of Culture Film Bursary project. It got shortlisted. Didn’t win. But in the writing of it we found so much to laugh at when we put Joel and Frank together. Their opposing views of the world around them, their failure to keep up to date with technology or a changing society, their growing love and warmth for each other, it all became so very funny to put them in situations and watch them try to struggle their way out.
The hilarity and the high-jinx suddenly became this excellent background to a story about isolation and agency and the looming spectre of death, and because we’d worked so hard on filling out the characters for the script by the time I sat down to write the book in February 2017 the thing practically wrote itself. It took under four months to get an 85,000 word first draft completed.
What I ended up with, I hope, is story about loss and loneliness and isolation for our elderly population and a fear of that great unexpected moment when death takes those we care about. It’s also about love and friendship and solidarity and finding that we have way more room to grow than we think we have. With a healthy few laughs thrown in there for good measure.
I hope you like hanging out Joel and Frank as much as I did.
(c) Dan Mooney
Dan Mooney is a writer and air traffic controller, and an amateur filmmaker with one of his short films broadcast on national TV. Dan is also a fan of amateur dramatics, rugby and is a friend to many cats. He wrote his first piece of fiction for a child-operated local newspaper at age ten and has been writing ever since.
Follow Dan on Twitter @danielmoonbags
He lives in Limerick, Ireland.
About The Great Unexpected:
“If you’re going to end it, you better make it big. No slipping off bridges, it’s undignified for men of our vintage. Go big or don’t bother.”
Joel lives in a nursing home and he’s not one bit happy about it. He doesn’t like being told when to eat, when to sleep, when to take his pills. In fact, he doesn’t like living at all, and he’s decided he’s going to end his life on his terms.
When he tells retired soap-actor Frank about his dark plan, Frank urges him to go out with a bang. Together, they embark on a mission to find the perfect suicide, and along the way, discover the strength of friendship when you really feel alone.
‘’Dan […] introduces us to a shocking post-trauma world where everything and nothing makes perfect sense’. Annie West, award-winning illustrator
‘I’ve never read anything quite like it … funny, moving and terrifying all at once.’ Rick O’Shea
Order your copy online here.