Focáil: A Literary Gathering, This Sunday at Chapel Restoration

Cold Spring’s Kevin Fortuna joins Irish author Kate Kerrigan in a reading celebrating Irish writing

By Alison Rooney

The spare yet artistically luxurious image of a writer at work, seated for hours at a table by a window overlooking the woods, or its more contemporary twin — ensconced in the corner of a coffee place, hopped up from the energy of a city, camped out for hours accompanied by a latte or six … well neither of these are the reality of Kevin Fortuna’s writing life. Fortuna has hewn closer to a more realistic model, emblematic of our busy times. He wrote his just-published debut collection of short stories, The Dunning Man, in fits and starts of grabbed time: on the train at night, during plane rides, more or less whenever he could.

Kevin Fortuna, pictured during a trip to Haiti made in conjunction with Irish NGO Concern Worldwide, for which he is a board member (photo provided)

Kevin Fortuna, pictured during a trip to Haiti made in conjunction with Irish NGO Concern Worldwide, for which he is a board member (photo provided)

As a businessman — he is founder and CEO of two online wine-related businesses, the wine club Tasting Room and the store Lot 18, as well as a manager of real estate holdings — and as a father of three young girls, the “whenever he could” time was at a premium.

Yet, in a relatively short period, Fortuna not only wrote his collection but obtained his long-deferred MFA in creative writing (the collection was derived from his thesis), obtained a publisher and garnered some glowing advance reviews from well-known media entities like Esquire and Vanity Fair. Fortuna, who lives with his family in Cold Spring, will read from his collection at the Chapel Restoration on Sunday, Nov. 2 at 4 p.m.

Also reading will be best-selling Irish novelist Kate Kerrigan, who has flown in from Ireland expressly for the occasion.

The story of how this all came to pass could have been written by Fortuna himself, although the tale might be too upbeat for his gritty, more hard-boiled style. A company he was working for was purchased by a larger one, and as part of the merge, extensive background checks were done on all employees. “I got a call from their office asking for a transcript,” Fortuna related. “I had started an MFA program in 1994–95, but never finished. When I went to the school’s website to figure out how to request the transcript, and [on the site] a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade was staring back at me. He had finished his MFA on time. I tracked him down, met up with him again and he convinced me to finish my MFA.”

The school involved, the University of New Orleans, happened to have a tailor-made “low residency” MFA program, requiring his presence on campus just six weeks a year, with the balance of the work done externally. Fortuna was able to utilize his earlier credits and emerge with an MFA to complement his undergraduate bachelor’s in English literature, obtained from Georgetown University.

“It felt like fate,” Fortuna said.

The face he saw staring back at him was that of Joseph Boyden, a prize-winning, multi-published Canadian author, whose latest book, The Orenda, won the Canada Reads award last year. In fact, Boyden was originally set to participate in this Sunday’s reading, but had to cancel when he was nominated for another award; the ceremony conflicted with the reading.

In his stead, Kerrigan will read from her recent volume, Land of Dreams, the third of a trilogy that follows the (fictional) life of an Irish immigrant, born in 1900, and her personal journey through the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and World War II in both New York and California. Brought up in London by Irish parents, Kerrigan worked there as a magazine journalist and editor before heading to Dublin, where she spent 10 years as editor of Irish Tatler, shifting then to her own writing and enjoying great success. She currently lives in a small fishing village in County Mayo.

Fortuna said Kerrigan is sure to be “a great, great reader, and she’s very taken with the Chapel Restoration. The Irish community in New York knows her, and there will be people coming up from the city to hear her read.”

Fortuna will be reading some of his work, and he has also asked local actress Beth Shanahan to read, feeling she could do better justice to one story, written from a female perspective. Shanahan was seen last year in the Depot Theatre’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her previous performance credits include roles in Juno and the Paycock, a national tour of Romeo and Juliet, Top Girls and many others.

Once Fortuna had completed his book, it found rather a charmed path, being accepted for publishing at a small New Orleans–based press, Lavender Ink, which he said is “making a big bet on it.” Fortuna also acquired an agent whom he called “very successful.” Some of this unusual success for a first-time author can be traced to some good connections, Fortuna acknowledged: “Because I was referred by people with good credentials, I think it was assumed I had already been published. The way your writing is presented has such an impact on how it is read.”

Nevertheless, the string of positive reviews The Dunning Man has earned since its release cannot be ascribed merely to connections. Witness Esquire’s: “The stories pulse with life, and the men and women who figure in them are real people, regular people, working people. People like you and me.”

Kevin Fortuna Dunning Man book coverThe Dunning Man consists of six stories, all featuring characters of Irish descent, most of them Irish-Americans. Set in disparate locations, including Atlantic City, Manhattan, New Orleans and the Hudson Valley, Fortuna knows from what he writes, having lived in or near all of those places (his family had a summer place near Atlantic City; he went to high school in New Orleans). After moving “all over the place” growing up, Fortuna lived in New York City (he says he likes Manhattan best of all as a setting for his work), and moved up to Cold Spring with his wife, Fiona, who grew up in Fishkill, first in 2001, and then, after a break in Maryland, returned in 2005 with their three young daughters in tow.

Fortuna thinks there’s an “Irishness” that travels through all of the stories, noting “a sense of death awareness and a questing for larger truths and meaning” throughout. He cites his influences, literary and otherwise, as “James Joyce, Thom Jones, Jennifer Egan, William Trevor, John McGahern, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Martin McDonagh, in no particular order.”

Sunday’s event, which Fortuna has dubbed Focáil, which is a Gaelic word meaning “words,” is free. The Chapel Restoration is located at 45 Market St., and parking is available at the adjacent Metro-North train station in Cold Spring. Books will be sold and available for signing at the wine and cheese reception that follows the reading.


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