FARGO — Having practiced law for decades, Mark Schneider knows his way around legal texts, but when it came to writing his first novel, the retired lawyer followed the most common rule: Write what you know.
The Fargo man’s debut, “She Has the Right of It,” in some ways takes a page from his own life as a coming-of-age story about a young, Irish American kid growing up Catholic in Fargo during the 1950s and ‘60s.
“I tried to avoid legal writing in the book. It’s so stilted,” Schneider says. “In historical fiction, that’s where the fun comes in, to marry the fiction and the fact together.”
The author will sign copies of the book and talk during a social-distanced release party from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, at Zandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo.
The book’s narrator is also named Mark and comes from a big family, though their last name is Gallagher.
“I gave us all Irish names, even though my surname is as Teutonic as you can get,” Schneider says, adding that his father passed on his pride in his Irish heritage.
His fictional older brother, Sean, is clearly modeled after his real older brother, John, who worked with him in Fargo’s Schneider Law Firm. Both the character and John succumbed to brain cancer at a young age.
The main inspiration for Mark — both the character and the author — is the girl who becomes his wife. Molly Doherty is based on Mary Schneider, the love of his life.
“It’s liked she walked out of the script of ‘The Quiet Man,’ ” Mark says, referring to the Maureen O’Hara character in the film.
Mark followed Mary to Ireland when she was studying there in 1970. He estimates they’ve returned about 20 times already and will once travel becomes safe again.
Their travels helped form his outline for a story, which follows young Mark and Molly from the third grade on as they grow up during the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the "Summer of Love" and the Vietnam War. The story goes across the ocean as the two learn more about their ancestral homeland.
The Gallaghers live just south of downtown and attend the fictional St. Michael’s, a stand-in for St. Anthony’s.
While “She Has the Right of It” is rooted in Mark’s real life, he never wanted to write an autobiography.
“I don’t think, frankly, my life is all that interesting,” he says. “I wanted to write about Ireland because I have become a bit of a historian.”
Particularly he was moved by the role women played in Ireland’s fight for independence, something he says has been swept under the rug by many prominent Irish leaders.
Through his visits, he’s been warmed by spirited talk with Irish men and women.
“Irish people have conversation down to an art form,” he says
The book’s title, “She Has the Right of It,” is an Irish idiom, used to acknowledge someone’s point in a conversation.
To write about the Irish American experience in a small Midwestern town meant the story had to include issues of faith.
“You can’t write anything Irish without Catholicism,” Mark says.
The main characters attend St. Michael’s school, although the youngsters struggle to accept teachings blindly.
Schneider addresses the history of sexual abuse and pedophilia in the Catholic Church, something he says would’ve been difficult to do 20 years ago without significant blowback.
“I wanted the priest character to show the darker side of what Catholicism and the rules of celibacy can do. I had to write about it truthfully,” he says. “The extent of pedophilia was gobsmacking.”
While most of the book is drawn from Mark’s own experiences, he says the pedophile priest isn’t anyone in particular.
“He’s a composite, but I knew priests like that and everyone knew of them,” he says.
Schneider says he left the church years ago after questioning certain dogma, such as the infallibility of the pope.
“I am sorry, but I don’t know how anyone could swallow that. I don’t think anyone is served by believing that,” he says.
He says the storyline of the priest is just a small step in the development of the characters of Mark and Molly and hopes people can see the book for its larger tale.
“It’s meant to be entertaining. It’s certainly not an anti-Catholic novel. There were wonderful teachers, priests and nuns growing up, and it would be painting with broad strokes to say all of them are bad,” he says. “I really felt at the end of the day it was a journey I needed to take, and I’m glad I did. It was a real development for me. If it isn’t humorous, it isn’t Irish.”