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A road well travelled for Dan

Us native, Dan Juday talks to Robbie Brennan about his life’s journey, part of which is revealed in his newly published memoir written from Manorhamilton

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Dan Juday with his new book, Waltzing a Two-Step.

Dan Juday with his new book, Waltzing a Two-Step.

Dan Juday with his new book, Waltzing a Two-Step.

sligochampion

A common piece of advice offered to aspiring writers is to write what you know.

For Dan Juday, a Manorhamilton-based American writer celebrating the release of his memoir Waltzing A Two-Step, there is no subject more familiar than his life.

“I always wanted to write creatively but I had never written purely for myself before now,” he says.

“When I was 22 or 23 years old, I was writing annual reports, promotional copy for ads, fundraising proposals for films.

“I’m 73 now and retired so I had time to write something for myself. I thought I’d write a memoir because I’d already done the research.

“I didn’t have to worry about how the story would turn out because I already knew.”

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Sitting outside a café in the North Leitrim village he calls home, Juday presents as an ageing bohemian, white-haired, moustachioed and pony-tailed, sensibly attired in a waterproof jacket zipped to the chin.

His demeanour is cheery, meaning he smiles with his face and laughs with his body.

As a closeted and Catholic youth growing up in Protestant Indiana in the 1960s, one senses that this easiness is not one he’s always borne.

“I was surrounded by a fair amount of anti-Catholicism back then,” he says.

“My father was born Protestant and he married my mother who was Catholic.

“He converted and freaked his family out. It’s odd to think of that as being a big deal but it was. And you knew it as a child.

“The town I was born in was actually the headquarters of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s.

“You see, there was the earlier version of the Klan in the South but in the 1920s there was so much European immigration, Catholic immigration, and black migration coming up from the South that the Midwest freaked out. Soon enough, they had a Klan headquarters.

“A fair amount of the book takes place in the Midwest.”

Desperate to escape the emotional and economic austerity of the Midwest, Juday first leveraged a little mental space for himself at university.

But America’s isolated spaces and disparate hubs spoke to the country’s individualism, a prevailing orthodoxy which he found miserably insufficient, especially in a time when the promise of change was being brutally put down.

“I went off to university where I did a double major in both English and Spanish literature.

“I did my junior year in Spain. That was 1968, the year of the riots around the Democratic Convention in Chicago. It was also the year that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot,” he says.

One suggests that Spain, still a dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, was an odd choice of destination for a man searching for liberation.

“I found Spain very liberating, fascinating actually. Getting out of Indiana was the goal.

“When I went to Spain, I sort of went into a cocoon in terms of American politics. I became very focused on my own personal life,” he says.

“I took to European life straight away. I loved the scale of the cities. In the States, especially in the Midwest, everything is removed by an automobile drive and a parking lot.

“In Europe, you just step out and you’re on the street, there’s people right there and they get together all the time.”

He points out that while it was a relationship with a woman that took him to Spain, his own life quickly began to reflect the rapid social evolution of the time.

In the end, it would be a man that defined his time abroad.

“I went over to get engaged to a French woman. She was an exchange student at my university and she had gone back to Spain because she was a Fulbright Scholar.

“It was decided that she would leave the country for two years and my big act of chivalry was that I would follow her over to Europe,” he says.

“But I met a young man before I even got on the plane in New York. I was 20 years old then.

“At the time I thought I was totally grown up but in hindsight I hadn’t a clue. I was to have my junior year abroad, get engaged to her and then I met that young man and things got very complicated.

“There was legal fear in Spain because of the Guardia Civil. If they had caught us together in any kind of compromising situation we’d be in prison.

“But I was lost in my own personal little dream. I knew to be afraid of everything but I didn’t stew over it, I was still pursuing my heart and all that. When I got back to the States, I came back with him.”

The reaction to his return with boyfriend in tow was “very mixed”, he says.

“We were tolerated a lot by friends from my former life who sort of understood my situation. To pay for university, we were working at a factory at night with people who didn’t have a university education.

“There was no tolerance there at all. It was probably the most frightening time and place for me.

“Anything you did wrong that proved you were different, it was picked up. And that was terrifying. You did your best not to try and give off any vibes.”

One wonders about the motivation for writing Waltzing A Two-Step, which tracks his life up to the age of 26.

Was it a search for catharsis, a salve for a third of a lifetime of alienation?

“There was maybe some catharsis in it but it was mostly revelatory.

“I thought I knew what was going on when I was a kid but then I started writing about it and I realised that I didn’t. I hadn’t copped on to what everyone else had copped on to.”

Like what?

“My being gay. Or my appearing gay even when I figured out I was probably gay.

“I thought that I was passing and no one was going to figure it out. But they knew. Everybody knew.”

The book ends with Richard Nixon resigning the US presidency and Juday coming out to his father.

“It does not encompass the other 47 years of his life and what brought him to settle in Ireland. He sprinkles a broad timeline with allusions to the mystic.

“Travel first brought me here in the early 1980s,” he says. “Then In 1989, a friend of mine said, ‘I’ve been thinking of getting a place in Ireland, they’re really cheap – do you want to go in on it?’ So, I came over and we shopped around and I found a place in Manorhamilton.

“The idea was that a bunch of us would go in on it and we’d share a little place.

“It was a way of saving money for retirement – plus I had this connection and fondness for the country and for Europe.

“I went home and told my mother I’d bought this house and she asked, ‘Where is it?’ And I said, ‘It’s near Manorhamilton’.

“And she said, ‘Oh that’s where your great grandmother is from’. So, you know, maybe something else brought me here, I don’t know.”

“I lived here in the 90s for a couple of years. That proved very difficult because I was mid-career and non-EU so I couldn’t work.

“I went back to the US then and had another life with another man.

“I was with him for 12 or 13 years and then he died so I moved back here full time and that was about 12 years ago.”

Juday believes he has now found settlement in life. His only regret is that there is not more of it.

“I love it here. Increasingly, the people I know live here. I’m 73, a lot of my friends have left Washington or retired to Florida or simply died off.

“I love the quiet here. I grew up in the country so I’m very much at peace in the country.

“My house is a half-mile off the road. I have the internet and I get the New York Review of the Books and read the Washington Post every morning so I’m not totally isolated.”

“It’s great being in your 70s and in good health, being retired and not hustling for the next month’s rent.

“You don’t have to please anyone else. I’m living in a very low key and beautiful place where people are relaxed.

“In Washington DC, it’s very hard getting to know anybody. I’m at a very happy stage of life, I’m just sorry that there isn’t another 70 years to look forward to.”

Waltzing a Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith and Self is available from Liber in Sligo town as well as online via amazon.

It is published by Calling Card books.


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