Writers Chat 21: Niamh Boyce on “Her Kind” (Penguin: Dublin, 2019)

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!).

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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

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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!

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 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!

 

 

Writers Chat 13: Nuala O’Connor on “Becoming Belle” (Piatkus: UK, 2018)

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

Welcome, Nuala. When we last had a chat in February of this year, you told me that your Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get? Having now read Becoming Belle, I also felt myself falling for her, hoping that the men around her would become as strong and feisty as Belle herself.

And hearing you read from Becoming Belle in August at the wonderful Victorian Afternoon Tea (at No. 1 Pery Square in Limerick) and at your launch at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on 5th September (launched beautifully by Mia Gallagher) – well these readings really brought the era to life.

Becoming Belle UK cover

SG: Tell me firstly about the structure of the novel. We know the end point – Belle is the Countess of Clancarty in 1891 – and the novel brings us into Belle’s life in the four years prior to this point through dated sections and short chapters with wonderful titles such as “A Promise”, “A Performance”, “A Ceremony”, “An Outpouring” and so on. Did you have fun playing with the structure or did the story come to you formed as such?

NOC: Well, the novel I submitted as complete is very different to the novel that’s published today. It’s 40k words longer for one thing. I had started Belle’s story much later – at the point where she is already a successful actress and is changing her name from Isabel to Belle – but my editors urged me to go back to her childhood and tell the story chronologically rather than in flashbacks. There were three re-writes which was rather challenging.

I love using chapter titles, it’s my homage to E.M. Forster who did it so prettily and wittily.

SG: Well, the challenge was worth it – I really loved getting to know Belle as a young woman, away from her destiny yet yearning for it!

One of the relationships which I really enjoyed was that between Belle and Flo. They work and perform together (as the Bilton Sisters) but also have an incredibly deep understanding of each other. “They were as familiar as a cradle song with each other’s foibles and frailties.”

You show their support of each other through their singing warm-ups, and their dress, with wonderful historical detail. I was really taken with the milliner Madame Gilbert who, we are told, “had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth”. What a great description, and of course, most important for sisters who are famous. Did historical records help in this respect or is the heart-warming relationship in Becoming Belle that of your imagination?

NOC: There really are very few historical records about Belle and Flo. There’s the court case coverage and a few theatre reviews. All of that bellowing of life into long dead lungs is where the imagination comes into play. I have sisters myself so it’s not hard to imagine the sisterly honesty and shorthand in speech, I know it first-hand. My research involved a lot of poring over photographs and reading of social history to try to put together a picture of what life was like for the feisty Victorian woman, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ woman of that age. Belle and Flo were bohemians and their lives and personalities had to reflect that.

SG: It sounds like very enjoyable research, Nuala.

Much of Becoming Belle is concerned with the prickly thorns and muddy waters of motherhood that come through as the story progresses and also the mother/daughter relationship that Belle and Flo have with their mother which we see in the first part of the novel. This is a theme that you enjoy exploring in much of your work. She really was a strong and inspirational woman, so sure of what she wanted, a feminist centuries ahead of her time, if you will, something in her which her mother sees early on. As you did your research and wrote the novel did you discover anything about Belle that surprised you?

NOC: I suppose, in a sense, her personality is my invention. In press photographs of Belle, she often looks deeply melancholic but the events of her life show that she must have had deep courage and daring to act as she did (baby out of wedlock, elopement with a viscount etc.) So I wanted to paint a picture of a woman who, initially, was ambivalent about motherhood, who wanted to get on and who pushed herself forwards by every means she knew. It takes ages for me to understand my characters and round them out so that they are nicely flawed but still somewhat likeable or, at least, compelling. I suppose I didn’t fully know Belle until I’d written the whole story because, by the end, she realises what she has wanted all along.

SG: Following on from this, the Bilton Sisters manage to live life how they wish to in terms of earning a living, being true to themselves, and having fun all within the confines of the expectations of family, society and gender. This, despite the fact, as Belle says to Flo early on – “life is different for ladies; we don’t possess the freedoms afforded to men”.

However, the Clancarty family are more concerned about material wealth and appearances and threaten to destroy all that Belle has worked for. Without spoiling the plot, how unusual were the freedom of the Bilton Sisters in Victorian London? How different were they to their peers?

NOC: They were different to their working and upper class sisters but not to the others who worked in the milieu they were operating in. Theatre people had a different lifestyle to everyone – they worked and played by night. Because of that they mixed with the rich, who could afford to socialise often, and that’s how attachments were formed. Belle was one of the early commoner-to-countess women from the theatre world.

SG: Another strand that runs through Becoming Belle is that of friendship. I was particularly taken with the character of Wertheimer and his deep affection and friendship with Belle. He really is her saviour in many ways, and she his (in your novel), and yet she sticks fast to William, even when, at times, it seems he is not the one. From the notes at the back, Isidor Wertheimer ended up living a rather tragic life after Belle left London. How drawn were you to his character?

NOC: Friendship really interests me; I have loads of acquaintances but, because I’m an introvert, very few deep friendships. I crave more of those.

I adore Wertheimer, he’s the solid, sweet best friend we all dream of: classy, fun, a great listener and very helpful. Love is fickle: Belle appears not to have loved Wertheimer the way he loved her and, though William is a bit of an un-catch, in many ways, she seems to have genuinely loved him.

SG: Yes, at many points throughout the novel, I was wishing she’d change, and go to Wertheimer!

Names and identity are crucial to the characters in Becoming Belle, as the title suggests. From the first page we see Isabel Bilton playing around with versions of her name and, as she meets the various people of London, they are all defined by their name – class, religion, wealth – and this extends, somewhat sadly, to her own child who changes from Isidor to Dory, again, to suit his circumstances. Our names are so important and even more so if we are in the public eye, as Belle, Flo, and the Clancarty clan were.  

NOC: I’m obsessed with names, it’s one of the joyous parts of writing for me. Obviously 99% of my characters for this novel already had their names, but I was thrilled when I discovered, through research, the real names of characters like Jacob Baltimore and Godley Robinson. Such brilliant, evocative names. The fact that Belle named her first child after Wertheimer is significant and later, she gave her daughter his mother’s name, Franziska, as her second name. Unearthing details like that always gives me an excavational thrill.

SG: When I reached the last page of Becoming Belle, I really wanted to read on, to stay with Belle in Galway, see how she handled that new life. Is there any chance of a sequel?

NOC: Oh janey, I doubt it. I’m waaaaay into the writing of novel #5 now and I’ve so many other projects I want to tackle, including a contemporary novel that’s been nagging at me for years. But, never say never, maybe Belle will call me back some day.

Lastly, Nuala, some fun questions:

  • Canaries or Budgies (there’s a thread from the novel in there too!)? We had dozens of budgies as kids but as a canary owner now, I have to say canaries.
  • Sand or grass? Oh, that’s hard. I’ll say grass as I grew up in the Liffey Valley, surrounded by it.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea. I can only drink milky, sugary coffee so I just don’t bother.
  • What was the last history book you read? I’m currently reading Jan Morris’s sublime Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, which is social history/travelogue. She is amazingly clever, her sentences are delicious.
  • What are you reading now? As usual I have about ten books on the go including The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is a fabulous Georgian-era novel: great language, very funny. Also Meg Pokrass’s latest flash fiction collection, Alligators at Night (odd, quirky, funny); I’ll be reviewing Lorrie Moore’s fantastic book of essays, reviews and articles, See What Can Be Done. What a generous, flexible-minded writer she is. I just love her. I’m also reading scads of biographies and histories for my novel-in-progress, an Edwardian era, Europe-set story. Loving it.

A fantastic collection of books on the go! Lots of recommendations there, thanks. Tell us about readings and events relating to Becoming Belle happening in the next few months.

  • Galway launch of Becoming Belle, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm. Launch by Mary O’Rourke.
  • Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 3pm. Portumna Library.
  • Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle. 4.30pm, Station House
  • Wexford launch of Becoming Belle, Gorey Visitor Centre, 21st September, 6pm. Launch by Caroline Busher.
  • Red Line Festival, 9th October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin

  • DLR Voices, 23rd October – The Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire – reading and interview with Sarah Maria Griffin. Time tbc.

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

And don’t forget to follow this blog for more featured Writers Chats!

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'ConnorPhoto of Nuala by Úna O’Connor. 

Keep up to date with Nuala on her website.

Writers Chat 4: Nuala O’Connor on “Miss Emily” (Penguin: USA and Canada, 2015) and PREVIEW chat about “Becoming Belle” (Forthcoming from Penguin)

Latest “Writers Chat” – preview chat about Nuala O’Connor’s “Becoming Belle” and re-post of our Q&A about “Miss Emily”

The fourth post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Nuala O’Connor from August 2015 on her third novel Miss Emily and a new preview chat about Becoming Belle which Sebastian Barry has declared to be “luminous”. Becoming Belle will be published in August 2018. 

BB USA cover

What a beautiful cover, Nuala. So tell me about this stage in the publishing process – after the writing, editing, and proofs… and before the publication date (August 2018).

NUALA: This is the easy part because all the difficult work is done. Now it’s time for gentle pre-publicity (sending out advance copies to key people: journalists and literary types of all hue) before the real PR push starts. I’m taking a week out in May to write articles, essays etc. about the book for promo purposes; I’m hoping by devoting a week to it, that I’ll get a lot done. It’s a time consuming business. I won’t be able to write much on my novel-in-progress during the promotional months for Becoming Belle. That’s maybe the only downside as the act of writing keeps me balanced in myself. And sane…

SG: The story of Belle sounds utterly fascinating. Tell us how you came to write about her and her links to Ballinasloe.

NUALA: Like a lot of things, I tried her out first in a poem (a pretty crappy vilanelle). Then I wrote a flash about her. When I keep returning to a subject, it’s begging for more. I moved to Ballinasloe 13 years ago and researched the history of the town and soon came across this music hall girl who had married the local Viscount amid some scandal. She was a beauty and much loved in Ballinasloe; I was interested in knowing more about this maverick English woman who ended up in rural Ireland as the Countess Clancarty, despite being a dancer and not being from gentry.

SG: When can we get our hands on Becoming Belle

NUALA:  It is published here, there and all over in August 2018. I really can’t wait for people to read about Belle – she is feminist, feisty and fresh. I gave my parents an advance copy of the book and my Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get?

Wow, that is surely the best review any writer could get – that your reader falls in love with your heroine. I can’t wait to read it in August 2018!

 

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Q&A (originally published in August 2015) with Nuala about Miss Emily 

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I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:

“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”

Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.

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Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!

There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.

“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”

The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.

NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.

I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?

 NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.

That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.

“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”

In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website? 

NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).

How wonderful – I’ll try those recipes out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.

“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”

NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.

NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.

Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.

And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?

NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!

Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?

NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)

Other confirmed appearances:

  • Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
  • Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
  • Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Thursday 29th October: Blackbird Books, Navan, Co. Meath
  • Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.

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THE DRAW FOR A SIGNED COPY OF MISS EMILY TOOK PLACE ON AUGUST 28th ….and the winner was Shirley McClure.