A compilation of questions I often receive during public presentations.
Q. When did you move from Ireland to the U.S?
A. I was teaching primary school in the Irish midlands when I left and moved to upstate New York at the very end of 1986. Thousands of young Irish were coming to the U.S. during the 1980s; Boston alone saw over 30,000. From 1981 to 1990, an estimated 200,000 people left Ireland. Many of us left for a better job--or any job at all. But others left for what the British author and journalist John Walsh called, "existential reasons." I was half way between those two reasons, as I write in my collection of essays, Green Card & Other Essays (Wising Up Press, 2019).
Q. You write fiction and non-fiction. Why?
A. I've always switched back and forth between both genres. I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick, but now I’m back working on my third novel.
Ever since my days in college when I discovered the essays of British writers Addison and Steele, I have loved the essay form. I respect the essay's rigors, and the demands that it places on our intellect as much as our hearts. Then, after I moved to America, I met my friend Thoreau and I continue to enjoy some fine essays in American literary journals such as Creative Nonfiction and Under the Sun. I'm also pleased to see a fine crop of publications that publish essays on the intersection between medicine, healthcare and creative writing.
Q. Where do you live and write now?
A. On Boston’s North Shore, though I am lucky enough to travel back to Ireland frequently. The North Shore of Boston is a truly beautiful and very historic region. It includes Atlantic beaches, salt marshes, forest lands and perfectly intact homes (some of them visible right now, from my writing-studio window) dating back to the 1600 and 1700’s Colonial era.
Q. Your own literary tastes and influences?
A. As a rural teenager, I used to enjoy reading Walter Macken and Taylor Caldwell and John McGahern and Edna O’Brien — not just because you weren’t supposed to (which you weren’t)--but also for these writers’ dexterity with language and story. Also, in the case of Macken and McGahern, these rural authors assured a country girl like me that writing was a subversive act, a route to escape.
I’ve always loved Thomas Hardy--especially his poetry.
Some of our U.S. literary journals showcase the most provocative, well-crafted and lively writing that’s out there.
For my own leisure reading, my tastes lean heavily toward British novelists. I’ve read everything that Booker-prize winner Penelope Lively has ever written. I admire most of Ian McEwan’s writings. I enjoy the British authors Margaret Drabble, Maggie O'Farrell, Tessa Hadley and Rose Tremain. I’m also a fan of the Canadian author Carol Shields and the Indian-born authors Jhumpa Lahiri and the late Bharati Mukherjee.
Q. Not many American novelists in the list. Why?
I love Olaf Olafsson, Nicholas Evans and Khaled Hosseini (wait, none of them is American born!), and I've recently read and loved "The Watch" by Indian-born author (though living in the U.S.) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and certainly plan to read a lot more of this extraordinary writer.
Generally, I often don't "get" the American authors’ cultural references and why they matter. I will say, too, that, particularly in some (male authored) books, there’s a kind of distancing or abstraction at work. I sense a resolve to pen THE American experience, or the "great American novel." It's as if these writers are saying, "Look! See? This is us in America."
Q. Not many Irish authors on your list either. Again, why?
Actually, I do love the works of Sebastian Barry and John Banville. ‘The Sacred Scripture’ and ‘The Sea’ are two of my favorite novels ever. I’m also a fan of John Boyne and the late Josephine Hart. And, of course, nobody can ever be as good as the late William Trevor.
Also, I’m eagerly waiting for some immigrant-in-Ireland authors to dazzle us all and to headline the contemporary Irish writing scene.
Q. Do you consider yourself as an Irish author? Or are you a New England author? A Massachusetts author or writer? How important are the labels to you?
A. My writing and writing voice are very informed by my life and upbringing in Ireland. Certainly, the fact that I grew up there--in a very articulate, talkative and bilingual family--influences how I use language. To this day, I sometimes get stuck for the English word for something, simply because the Irish (Gaelic) word is a more accurate, textured or venomous way of describing something or somebody. And believe me, there are times when venom is good!
If I own any of the hyphenated writer-labels, I think it would have to be “immigrant writer.” There's a simple reason for this: Moving across the sea to a new country has defined who I’ve become as a person and as a writer. Daily life in an adopted country influences how I see both the U.S and the home country--and, indeed, the very notion of “nation” or “country.”
Q. Did you always want to write?
A. Yes. As a kid growing up on an isolated farm, I was a voracious reader. I was also lucky enough to live with my maternal grandfather who loved to tell us stories. He had this deft narrative technique in which he would start out with how he was walking up through our fields, where he met this fox, and the fox told him this story ... And so would begin another fox-narrated story that would go on and on.
Later I discovered that this is a common storytelling technique across various cultures and countries.
So from an early age, I learned that (1) Stories had the power to transport us to delightful places; and (2) That there was a real synergy and affection between the narrator, the author and the story.
All that said, outside of writing in my journal, I never really wrote "publicly" until moving to the U.S. Even then, I was long published in the U.S. before I dared send my work back home to Ireland.
Q. When were you first published?
A. My first piece of short fiction was published in a literary magazine, “Eclectic Literary Forum” in 1996. I still have that acceptance letter. I regard each publication as a surprise, a blessing and a privilege.
Q. You write about place. Why?
A. One of the most ludicrous rejection letters I ever got from an editor was, “This piece is too rural.” I spent a large part of my younger life in rural or isolated places, which left lots of time to intimately know the internal contours of my own mind. I believe that our external and internal geography mutually influence each other.
Q. How long does it take you to actually write something? Say a short-story?
A. I'm writing when I'm not writing--as in, at my actual desk. I work a very busy and enjoyable day job, so I've adjusted to writing on the fly or in quick, bedtime stints or in short, scribbled pieces that are later transposed or studied during my day off or on weekends. Every piece goes through multiple drafts and much of my writing happens when I'm not actually writing.
Q. I know you've published a how-to book about it, but can you really have both careers--(writing and a day job) and still be a serious writer?
(Chuckle). In the first place, let's try and avoid that "serious" writer tag.
I don't know any writer who isn't doing it with some measure of intent or seriousness—including comic writers. Everybody has to find his or her own way to keep writing. What works for some is a disaster for others.
I know this about myself: I hate being poor. Also, I like the challenge, discipline and successes involved in having a non-writing (though my job involves a lot of business writing) job. As I write in this blog post, the other huge value of a stable paycheck is that I don't have to compromise my own creative vision. I write something because I want to write it, not because this next piece or book might help me pay the rent.