Niamh, You are very welcome back to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, Her Kind (Penguin: Dublin, 2019) already shortlisted for the EU Prize for Literature. This follows on from your poetry collection Inside the Wolf and your debut novel The Herbalist (Penguin, 2013) which we talked about at our last Writers Chat (republished at the end of this chat!).
SG: I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in 14th Century Kilkennie. Anna Carey in her review in The Irish Times rightly said that ’14th century Kilkenny is so evocative and atmospheric the reader can almost taste the honeycombs in Petronelle’s carefully tended hives and feel the heavy animal pelts that line Alice’s secret chamber…’
Her Kind is set in Kilkenny over the course of seven months and I loved the details you included at the start of each chapter, for example, in September we get a line from The Triads of Ireland, ninth century: “Three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night, the darkness of a wood.”
In your Irish Times interview with Rosita Boland, you spoke about how Her Kind aims to reach out to women like Petronelle. Can you tell us a little about your research – how you came to evoke –what feels so accurately to me – the land, the society, the politics, the divisions, the lives of the women and girls in this place, at this time?
NB: Thanks Shauna, I am really glad you enjoyed the epigraphs at the start of each chapter, I love that ancient triad, it’s very telling, the mist, woods, and night are such liminal spaces. The quotations that start each chapter, are there to indicate the era without hitting the reader over the head with history. I wanted the unfolding story of the sorcery trial to feel immediate and vivid – so research wise, I was seeking out the micro-history – the textures, taste and atmosphere of that time, as much as the politics. The research took a few years – I took a bee keeping course, studied effigies from the 14th century, reading archaeological reports, researched food, wolves, Brehon law, common law, the ancient custom rolls, translations of ancient manuscripts and spent a lot of time in Kilkenny itself. I came across so many fascinating books, highlights included works by John Bradley and John Prim, Cosman’s Medieval Word Book, Coulter’s Medieval Panorama, Maeve Brigid Callan’s The Templars, The Witch and the Wild Irish by Four Courts Press, and Witches Spies and Stockholm Syndrome by Finbar Dwyer, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler; A contemporary narrative by Pegasus Press and the Liber Primus Kilkennius.
SG: Such solid research, Niamh. And what you found in these publications you seamlessly wove into your fictional narrative. Following on from this, the city of Kilkenny and its surrounds are drawn out beautifully in Her Kind.
Just like Hightown and Irishtown, the cathedral itself was behind walls. Kilkennie, it seemed, was a riddle of walls, a stone honeycomb. We climbed steps to yet another archway and entered the grounds. Before us, stood the highest, narrowest bell tower I’d ever seen. Its door was set off the ground, with no stairs or ladder to reach it. The cathedral huddled behind it, like a giant child. I walked towards the church, taking in the coloured-glass windows and enormous oak door. Heads were carved above it, watchful monkish faces, peering down.
You also help place the reader right in-situ through snappy dialogue. This is a long quote but I just love how we really feel we’re there with the women:
The shambles was rowdy with pigs, sheep and chickens, penned or tethered. A pup lapped a pool of blood. Shit spilt from the haunches of frightened beasts. The air was full of flies and feathers. Meat hung on hooks from the butcher’s house front. He was a winky smiler.
Helene elbowed me and grinned. ‘I’d marry him on the spot only for the sound of those knives sharpening.’
We came then to a wide road where houses stood shoulder to shoulder. Shutters were propped like tables beneath each window, laden with bolts of cloth, medicines and bright spices. ‘Paprika. Ginger. Cinnamon …’ Helene chanted, waving her finger, mimicking Dame Alice’s habit of listing her treasures.
Traders shouted their wares, boys pushed barrows of offal, swine ran riot.
It strikes me that you might have enjoyed re-visiting Kilkenny and perhaps took many a stroll through the city to help you?
NB: That’s true! I spent a lot of time in Kilkenny, especially during the first three years of writing the book. I walked the city, following in the footsteps of my characters as I wrote their scenes. The medieval Mile Museum hadn’t been finished then – it’s a must see for anyone visiting Kilkenny – but I spent time examining the effigies on the site. I visited St Canice’s Cathedral itself – where the effigy of Bishop Ledrede is still in place. It was he who instigated the trial against Alice for Sorcery. It’s eerie to stand beside his stone likeness. His remains are no longer inside the tomb, it’s said that Cromwell’s soldiers tossed them on the dung heap when they invaded. The cathedral was also where I came across the anchoress’s grave. An anchorite or anchoress is a hermit who gives up ordinary life for a solitary life of prayer – they are often sealed in between the walls of a church, with only small ‘squints’ or windows to receive food through. The figure of a nun is carved onto the anchoress’s grave stone. Her hands are held in old style prayer position, palm facing outwards rather than palms together. When I placed my palms over her stone ones, I felt a strange sensation, close to the one that Petronelle describes in Her Kind, that of an old truth pushing back – that day the character of Agnes the anchoress came to life.
SG: Oh how wonderfully eerie. The picture of your palms over her stone ones made the hair on my arms stand on edge! I was particularly taken by the portrayal of the inequality based on gender, language, looks, and, of course, wealth. The theme of economic and bodily power runs strong through Her Kind and, as we all know, is not so different to today’s society. Petronelle’s daughter Basila – a teenager in today’s terms – is very aware of this. She states: “Most of the musicians were Gaels, and it wasn’t just their long hair that made me know this – there was something about their faces. I wondered about mine and my mother’s. Did our faces tell on us, too?”
That her true identity will be discovered is a constant worry for Petronelle, yet, without spoiling anything for those who have yet to read the novel, Basilia’s muteness is what proves to empower. (What a last line!) Can you talk a little about this mother-daughter relationship coupled with the power of speech – what people say, or do not say, and the role of the act of naming and re-naming in Her Kind.
NB: The gaps between ‘Motherhood’ as a construct versus motherhood the reality interests me greatly. I enjoyed writing the soothsayer Lithgen most of all, probably because she predates contemporary assumptions about motherhood. She does not follow her daughter Petronelle when she is driven from Flemingstown. She does not even consider doing so. In today’s society she would be considered a ‘bad mother’ – self-sacrifice has become so central to the concept of motherhood. Lithgen however, is herself, first and foremost. It is she who recognises that Basilia uses silence as a weapon. Basilia who becomes mute after a trauma, soon realises she might not even want to start speaking again. It becomes a way of punishing her mother. She has very little leverage, so withholding her voice becomes a sort of power.
Gaels were not welcome in Hightown, which was also known as Englishtown. So, when Dame Alice takes the mother and daughter in, she renames them Petronelle and Basilia. It’s the price they pay when they cross her threshold. Esme the cook calls it being named and tamed. They may have been named, but they are not tamed. When Petronelle says – I am not myself. Basilia wonders where her mother’s real self is…’had my mother and her soul become parted in the woods – could it still be there, caught in high branches, dark from the distance like a crow’s nest?’
SG: Yes, I love how nature reminds the women of who they really are, and their true power, throughout the novel. I really loved Basilia’s narrative voice. You captured her youth, her naivety, but also her powerful observations and ability to survive. This line, for me, so wonderfully summarized her character: “If only it was as easy to stop dreaming as it was to stop speaking.” How did her character to come to you, in contrast to the characters such as Alice Kytler, or Basilia’s mother, Petronelle de Midia who are based on real women.
NB: Basilia is less well known, but is on record as being Petronelle’s daughter. I’ve spent so long with her as a character, it’s not easy to remember a time before she existed, to recall how her character first arrived. I looked back on early drafts of the book to see what the first sentence of Basilia’s was, and found – Dame Alice gave us new names, safer than our old ones. I think her character grew from that line, and as one sentence led to another, she became more real. I free write the first draft by hand, and just let it flow. Initially the character of Basilia was born out of her relationship with Alice, her acceptance of the new name, her delight in Alice’s house, which she saw as like being in court, or what she imagined a court might be. I had the suspicion early on that she would not speak, and I always knew what that last line would be, so her characters arc was available to me (as a very faint line) as I wrote.
SG: I like how you describe her character line as faint – so it was there but you could not quite see it and it became clearer as you wrote her narrative. Your language is very poetic – not surprising given your talents as a poet – take, for example, this description of the daily task of washing that turns from one thing and brings us to another place, entirely:
After some time and an aching back, we lifted out the cloth, dumped it in cool water and wrung it out. When I unravelled the folds, I saw the embroidered nightingales had come up darker than the silk itself. ‘Give it another dunk. Use the stick. No need to soak your hands like that – look at your skin!’ My hands were tinted darkest at the cuticles, next to which my nail crescents gleamed grey. Later, in the kitchen, I tried to scrub my hands clean but my skin kept the blue tinge. I turned up my palms: my life, love and heart lines looked as if they were drawn with a quill. They seemed strange, as if they belonged to someone else. I thought of the lady, her dead baby and her desperate pleas.
Was this use of close, sensory detail that came to you in the first drafts or something that evolved as you went through the redrafting process?
NB: That image in particular, and a lot of the sensory detail came early in the first stage of freewriting, I think of it as an anti-logical phase and just follow the images. I catch them, and record them without trying to fix them into a narrative. I love Jane Hirshfield’s book – ‘Nine Gates, entering the mind of poetry’. She talks about how images hold the shapeshifting wisdom of a dream. The dye on Petronelle’s skin, the way the woad darkened the lines on her hand – was an early image, one of the first that came as I wrote. I recorded it, without knowing where it came in the narrative, or why it was significant. There’s a strong element of trusting the process, and just collecting images.
SG: And that’s something that takes strength to do, I think. To trust the process and follow – often blindly – one image to the next, one word to the next. Lastly, Niamh, some fun questions:
- Kilkenny city or county? (A hard one, I know!) County, then I get to keep both.
- Sun or snow? Snow.
- Tea or coffee? Tea.
- What are you writing now? A novel.
- What are you reading now? Womankind Magazine.
Thanks so much for your generous answers, Niamh. I look forward to your next novel and wish you much continued success with Her Kind.
Keep in touch with Niamh on her blog and on twitter @NiamhBoyce
Awarded Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of The Year in 2012, Niamh’s debut novel THE HERBALIST, was critically acclaimed, won Debut of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for an IMPAC Award. Inside the Wolf, her poetry collection was released in 2018. Her fiction and poetry have been broadcast, adapted for stage and anthologised, most recently in ‘The Long Gaze Back,’ ‘The Hennessy Anthology’ and ‘Hallelujah for 50 Foot Women.’ Her second novel, HER KIND (Penguin Random House) is based on the Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of Alice Kytler. Nominated for the EU Prize for literature, the judges called Her Kind, ‘as searing a critique of our own times as is Arthur Millar’s The Crucible’.
WRITERS CHAT – NIAMH BOYCE – THE HERBALIST
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2013
Niamh, many congratulations on your debut novel The Herbalist which is receiving rave reviews and climbing up the top ten charts! And welcome to my blog!
Now that The Herbalist has been launched, is in bookshops around the country, you’re giving public readings from it. Tell me how you choose which section to read? Do you have a favourite character or scene which you find yourself returning to again and again? I’m thinking, of course, particularly about the female characters which are so strongly envisaged in your novel.
Thanks Shauna, yes, I’m delighted with the reviews so far. As for readings, I try to read from the early sections in the book so as not to give too much away, usually from Emily’s point of view. She’s the girl who falls first and hardest for The Herbalist, and she can be quite funny. Lately though I’ve been drawn more and more to Aggie’s voice, despite the fact that she has less to say in the book, she packs a whack when she says it!
Which character or characters from The Herbalist surprised you the most – in terms of how you had imagined them and how their role in the story transpired?
Emily surprised me. I thought she would lay down, I thought she would be the sacrifice. The other characters thought that too. How wrong we were. And Carmel shocked me to the core, but I can’t say much more without revealing the plot!
That’s great, Niamh, I love how you describe how Emily shocked both you – as the author – and the other characters! It’s really about letting the writing lead. Now I know the genesis for The Herbalist is taken from a real life character. But tell me how important is the role of place for you when writing about an historical Ireland?
Place was hugely important, the town, the market, the lanes, the courthouse but most of all the river. As I wrote by the river I was very aware of the river that ran through the town decades ago; it was the same river, but of course also, not the same river. The pull of what the older river held was very strong, Aggie in some ways gives voice to this. I had the sense as I wrote that we in the present are a mere shadow of what has gone before, of the dead. That we are the ghosts, and not the other way around. So The Herbalist didn’t feel like a ‘historical’ novel when I wrote it- it felt more like a ghost story. Of course, I’m stating this in retrospect, at the time I avoided thinking in terms of genre. Maybe I was afraid of the term historical, especially Irish historical – there are so many connotations to the term that don’t apply at all to my book.
It’s interesting to consider how the publishing industry – or, indeed, the public – can put labels on creative work especially in relation to how the author ‘feels’ the work when writing it and then names it once the story has been told.
Writer Vanessa Gebbie asked me this question in relation to my novel and I think it’s a wonderful thing to ask: if you could have a painting of one scene from the novel which would you pick and why? And who would you have create it?
It’s a wonderful question! It has to be an image that puzzled me in the early days of writing the novel; one of a girl by the river. It took me almost 80,000 words to find out who she was, and why she was important. So my painting would be of that girl in her pale blue dress walking the river path, carrying a child’s suitcase. In the novel she believes that she is walking towards love. Those minutes of her life are so perfect, so full of hope, that it almost doesn’t matter what happens next. And I would have Chagall work his magic for this one.
How beautiful! I can just imagine the blue hues that Chagall would paint. So, tell me, Niamh, what’s next for The Herbalist and what’s next for you?
Well, The Herbalist will be released in the UK in the autumn, so fingers crossed! As for me, I’m working on another novel, and tidying up my short story collection – and I would love to write lots of poetry this year too.
That sounds like a busy but very exciting year for you.Thanks for the wonderful answers, Niamh.
Thanks for such interesting questions Shauna, I’ve really enjoyed answering them.
You’re more than welcome. I wish you continued success with The Herbalist and I look forward to your next publication!