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Taking Editorial Direction: Over PJ Clarke’s

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Over P.J. Clarke’s: Tales from New York’s Famous Saloon is a book I have wanted to write for a long time.

I always thought that Clarke’s saloon, founded by my granduncle Patrick Joseph Clarke in l912, held an interesting story, especially because my father and his five brothers lived over the saloon from l916 to l937.  There were other reasons that made Clarke’s bar worthy of a book: the film “The Lost Weekend,” an academy award winner about an alcoholic writer, had its setting at Clarke’s; the New Yorker magazine featured Clarke’s on their November 1971 cover; and numerous celebrities from Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe to the Kennedy clan have loved dining at Clarke’s.

At one point I tried using my granduncle’s saloon as a centerpiece of a novel.  Then a journalist friend in Texas who had been a customer of Clarke’s said to me: “Why don’t you write a memoir?”  I objected, explaining that I only knew Uncle Paddy until the year I turned ten years old and he died.  “That doesn’t matter,”  said my journalist friend.  I took his words seriously and began my memoir project, including in it parts of my own life, distinct from the saloon.

Then a “fairy godmother” stepped into my life.  Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin of writing i.e. persuaded me that I should concentrate on the story of Clarke’s and how my life intersected with the saloon.  Vanessa suggested that I write a separate memoir about my Irish-American childhood and other important landmarks in my life.  That memoir is entitled Through the Ladies Entrance:  Tales of Schools, Sanctuaries, and the Auld Sod and is a work in progress.

Working with Vanessa on Over P.J. Clarke’s was a delight because Vanessa goes beyond editing and provides sound writing advice. It is so important to have a mentor during a writing process. Soon there were several chapters for her to review.  The first one covered my memories of visiting Uncle Paddy at his saloon.  Subsequent chapters featured the life of my father and his brothers living over the saloon, the Prohibition period, and the filming of “The Lost Weekend.”  Because my husband John Molanphy had worked at Clarke’s bar under the supervision of my father’s brother Charlie Clarke, I was able to incorporate John’s memories of life at the saloon during the height of the celebrity period in the l960s and the 1970s.  The final chapter concerned the present owners, Clarke’s Group, and their expansion and renovation process.

I found a local Santa Fe writer who specialized in memoir-writing and he reviewed my manuscript.  Joe advised me to research the history of New York City during the early days when my Irish family first came to the city.  I had done much research on the Prohibition period when my granduncle’s saloon remained open, but I needed now to flush out the period when my paternal family lived over the saloon.  Once I had accomplished this and reorganized the chapters I sent the manuscript back to Vanessa.  At this point Vanessa suggested that an agent in northern Ireland might be interested in my book.  Paul Feldstein had lived in Manhattan and enjoyed the ambiance of P.J. Clarke’s saloon.  He offered me a contract which I happily signed.  Within a short period Paul wrote that a subsidiary of W.W. Norton, Skyhorse Publications, had made an offer to publish my book.

Paul and I reviewed the Skyhorse contract, made some changes, and I signed the agreement.  I felt that Irish luck was at play.

Now I had a new editor, Jenn McCartney at Skyhorse.  After a few months Jenn sent me a lengthy reaction to my manuscript.  The Skyhorse group felt that there were several issues to be considered.  First, they wanted to be sure that only pertinent material concerning the saloon should be in the book.  Under consideration for change, or even removal, were some of my references to Irish history, based on the fact that Uncle Paddy ran an authentic Irish bar with portraits of Irish heroes on the walls – I had wanted to include their stories as a backdrop to Irish emigration.  Eventually, I was able to move these pieces to more appropriate parts of the book.  I could see that the Skyhorse editors were right – their aim was to make the book the best that it could be, to ensure that it met the needs and desires of the reader, and ultimately sold well.

I had also developed a chapter on my father and his five brothers who lived over the bar.  I wanted to show the reader what these men’s lives were like subsequent to their leaving the room over the bar.  The Skyhorse editors felt that this chapter did not fit and was not well-written.  Determined to keep this material in the book, I rewrote the chapter and ran a thread through it – my Dad and his relationship with his brothers, thus eliminating the objection that the chapter was just a list of information about the Clarke brothers.  Again their advice greatly improved the story.

A second issue was that the Skyhorse editors wanted more material on the various celebrities who were frequent customers at Clarke’s.  So I spent more time researching old newspapers and talking to my husband who had a birdseye view of the bar.  I was able to provide more stories that enlivened the material and made for a better finished product.

Finally, I needed to provide the editors with family pictures, and help them place these photos in appropriate places throughout the manuscript.

The editorial process was sometimes challenging, but at every stage has improved the book. As a new writer having spent many hours working on the story and the writing, I had not expected so many changes – now though, I can see the benefit editorial input has brought to the book. As a writer its very hard to distance yourself from your project and it takes an unbiased eye to see the strengths and weaknesses of a draft.

Over P.J. Clarke’s was published in November of 2012 – it is a hard cover book with a colorful look.  When it arrived I was very excited to see the story I had longed to write come to fruition, it is a wonderful feeling to see your work in print.

About the author

(c) Helen Marie Clarke

Helen Marie Clarke is the grand niece of Paddy Clarke, founder of the legendary P. J. Clarke’s Bar in New York City. Her father and his five brothers were brought up in a tenement flat on the second floor over P. J.’s, and Clarke’s bar forms an intrinsic part of her family history.

Helen Marie, a mother and a grandmother, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband John Molanphy. She has her doctorate in humanities from the University of Texas and teaches in the liberal arts departments of Santa Fe Community College and Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Helen Marie has written a second memoir, Through the Ladies’ Entance: Tales from Schools, Sanctuaries and the Auld Sod. She is completing a historical novel, Leaving Lissadell, which is a rendering of the life of Irish heroine Constance Gore-Booth Markiewicz. Helen Marie enjoys offering a workshop entitled “Healing through Writing” at various locations in the Southwest.


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