What led you to choose specific heritages? Well, first of all, many thanks for your kindness about the book. I suppose I chose specific heritages or national groupings to include in the story, partly by looking at which groups were present in large or growing numbers in America at the time. While the narrative moves backwards and forwards a bit, it”s largely set towards the end of the Civil War and in the Reconstruction era; and by those years you see the Irish being present in truly astounding numbers in America. The historian Roy Foster has calculated that, by the 1870s, 39% of all those alive who had been born in Ireland were living in America. So you could really speak in earnest about “an Ireland abroad”. And you see other immigrant groups arriving in larger numbers: Germans, later Italians, many English and many others. And of course for decades there had been a truly massive population of slaves. It seemed important to shape the book in a way that would at least attempt to be true to all these realities, reflecting the fact that, for example, some people with Irish blood had black skin, some spoke many languages, some were very proud of their Irishness, others wanted to forget it, and all found themselves struggling in a society they did not yet understand ” because pretty much nobody did. As for what you say about “100 proof” Celts, I would very respectfully wonder how many of those there truly were. By the middle of the 19th Century, Ireland had long since known assimilations of various kinds. We still see this is Norman and Huegenot placenames in Ireland, for example. Certainly, my central character James O”Keeffe, although he is an Irish nationalist, feels all sorts of allegiances to other cultures. He is half-Italian (married to a woman is half-American, half-Nicaraguan), was educated in England, has traveled widely in Europe, speaks and writes French. He sees himself as a world citizen and his true desire for Ireland is not that the country becomes a narrowly Gaelic island but that it takes its equal place among the free republics of the world. The Confederate Duggan and the Union General O”Keeffe (both Irish patriots) present a powerful example of rifts that are never reconciled, and they also underpin the fact that the Irish in America were never a geographical, political or social monolithic block. I think this feature in Irish-American literature is often underemphasized. Do you agree? Yes, I do, very much. There has been a good deal of writing about the kind of Irish immigrant who always regretted being in America, for example, and not enough about those who were content enough to go. In that context, it”s always struck me as odd that in the literally thousands of traditional ballads of Irish emigration, there isn”t one where the narrator is delighted to be in the new land, far away from the poverty and misery of Ireland. You do see this aspect in immigrants” letters, fairly often, but not in more public forms of literary endeavor. I think the history of literary writing about Irish-Americans has often been beset by clich”, the reductive idea that every Irish immigrant voted Democrat, was Catholic, was poor, missed home, lived in a ghetto, drank too much, etc. For me, the most interesting Irish American stories are often about those who had a profound desire to assimilate, who changed their names and histories, wanting to disappear into America. The picture is always far more complex and interesting than most of us realize. You could say the ground upon which almost every Irish-American stands is constantly shifting. So many characters, so many backgrounds, so many tongues! How did you prepare for the assortment of voices and their testimonies? I guess by a lot of planning and careful thought before I sat down to write. What was happening to America”s language in the 1860s was really fascinating and it became clear to me early on that a way would have to be found of the book”s text reflecting, indeed sometimes embodying, the extraordinary process by which a language as beautiful and expressive and endlessly various as American English forms itself. But really, all the voices are included in order to give the book texture and music and hopefully to make it a richer reading experience. That”s the main concern I have always, what the reader wants here. As I work on a book I”m pretty much always thinking about the reader and what he or she wants, which is vital to know. If you can discern that, you can play with readers” expectations ” you don”t always have to supply what they want at the time they want it, but you do have to know what it is they want. So, sometimes we want the music loud, and sometimes soft, and sometimes the whole orchestra, and sometimes just one voice. You clash the cymbals or you lilt a lullaby ” it all depends on what the reader wants. And on what you can do! The book places the Mooneys in Louisiana and follows them, along with other southerners into the American West. So much Irish and Irish-American writing concerns itself with folks on the east coast. How did you decide to take the story into the West? Well, I was aware of the silence you mention and that seemed to suggest the story of the Western Irish really needed to be told. We sometimes think the story of Irish-America is exclusively a narrative set in the Atlantic cities and Chicago, but of course it isn”t. Billy the Kid himself was the child of Irish immigrants and was born in the Lower East Side of New York, only heading west in his teens. I”m intrigued by the idea of the Irish cowboy, and also by the huge numbers of Irish western stories yet untold, for example about miners, prospectors, and other settlers in the west, especially the enormous numbers of Irish who headed west in the years after the Civil War. Those are as much a part of the Irish-American story as are the New Yorkers and Chicagoans. Tell us a bit about your research in America ” which states? I went to Montana for a few days in December of 2005, a truly fascinating place for those interested in the history of the Western American Irish. One early Governor of the Territory, before it was incorporated as a state, was the Irish-born revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher, and shades of that interesting and complex man appear in General James O”Keeffe, a central character in Redemption Falls. And with my wife and our two young sons I lived in New York for a year, researching the history of Irish involvement in the American Civil War at the New York Public Library, where I had a writer-in-residence fellowship. As well as that, over the years I”ve traveled pretty widely in the United States and anywhere I”ve gone I”ve usually done a little rummaging around for the Irish history of the place, if there is one, which there usually is. Since the novel is set during the Civil War, I read a great many first-person testimonies of the conflict. Perhaps 150,000 Irish-born immigrants fought for the northern side and perhaps eighty thousand for the south. There are stories of immense courage in the face of almost certain death, but I think, at least I hope, that Redemption Falls is animated by an insight into what made many of them fight. There was a fear among many of the Irish Americans of the era, who had endured a great deal of abuse in the United States, that the new country would never truly accept them as equals. My own sense is that this is what lay behind the decision of the Irish to sign up in such vast numbers. I think they wanted to demonstrate a loyalty to the adoptive land, which is what makes what they did so poignant. And of course, I learned that there was a whole range of other reasons why people fought, too. For the money, or out of boredom, or out of a sense of adventure, or out of loyalty to the state as opposed to the whole country. The letters written by the soldiers are often very moving indeed. In that pre-media age, they had so little idea of the realities of warfare, and many were so young, really little more than children. And the stories of the women in the soldiers” lives ” wives, sweethearts, mothers ” are often absolutely riveting and powerful. I don”t think enough has been written about Irish and other immigrant women in the war, and the often staggering sacrifices they made. It was really important to me that the three central women in Redemption Falls are as important to the story as the men are. Most Americans feel that the country has strong regional, cultural differences. Do you find this to be true? Please share some observations. Oh yes, that”s manifestly true. To me, America is like a series of adjoining countries rather than one unchanging entity. That it functions at all is one of the most fascinating things about it. You see this very pointedly, I think, in how English is spoken in America, just the vast variety of influences on the spoken word. Think of the French-Cajun history of Louisiana, the Spanish of contemporary Los Angelenos, the drawl of Texan English, the slang of urban hip-hop, the beautiful economy and precision of the Chicago blues, which is itself a sort of translation of the folksong of the Mississippi delta, and an encountering of that music with the realities of northern life, as well as with the technologies of recording and electronic music. All this hit me powerfully one day when I was visiting the Sun recording studio in Memphis, where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins had worked. The way the studio is organized, as you walk around they play recordings of the musicians laughing and joking and clowning and tuning up. One woman on the tour, a very nice Bostonian, joked to me that she could hardly understand a word that Elvis and the others were saying, because they were southerners! And yet she could understand me, a non-American. So I”m not sure “E Pluribus Unum” is really an accurate motto. Out of many, America is many, which seems a wonderful thing to me. Who are your favorite authors and why? What daily reading do you do? This is an almost impossible question, since its answer would change very often. But among the authors who mean most to me are Charles Dickens, for his exceptional gift at creating unforgettable characters, Richard Ford, for his skill in writing a sentence at once simple and beautiful, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who can make those little ink-stains we call words seem as explosively exciting as a firework display. But there are lots of other authors whose work I love: J.D. Salinger”s “The Catcher in the Rye” is a book I absolutely treasure, since it”s the novel that made me want to be a writer myself. And a couple of years ago, I read all of George Orwell”s work in sequence, and found it a fantastically enriching experience. I don”t read fiction every day, especially when I”m trying to write it, but I do try to read a little poetry most evenings. I love Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Durcan, Emily Dickenson, Paul Muldoon, John Donne, Derek Mahon, Simon Armitage. When I was a teenager, a novel I loved was John Fowles”s The French Lieutenant”s Woman. Fowles wrote that he had begun working on the novel because of a persistent visual image he couldn”t explain or make sense of. In Lyme Regis, in the south of England (where Fowles lived at the time) there is a Victorian-era pier and the image came into his head of a young woman standing on the pier looking out at the sea. She was dressed in a black hooded cape and was always facing away from him. Fowles said that his reason for writing the novel was “to make her turn her head and look at me” and in a way that”s what I felt about Eliza Mooney in Redemption Falls. I wrote the story to make her turn and look at me. Favorite music? I cannot imagine a day without music and I love all sorts of genres of musical expression, from grand opera to punk rock, from American blues to Irish ballads. For me, America”s greatest achievement in the arts has been in the field of popular music. No other country on the face of the earth could possibly have produced geniuses as diverse as Stephen Foster, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Gene Vincent, Brian Wilson ” the list is endless. I love the bel canto operas of Puccini and have sometimes been moved to tears by them, but there”s no aria in the world to compare to Roy Orbison singing “Crying”, and no lament to compare to Billie Holiday”s “Strange Fruit”. And it all comes from the most beautiful and valuable aspect of the American democratic tradition: the notion that ordinary lives are worthy of celebration, that a story need not be about a duchess or a king to have merit. Any poet in the world would have given his right hand to have written a line as beautiful and haunting and absolutely truthful as “there”s no love-song finer/but how strange, the change from minor to minor.” So if I absolutely have to choose (which I”m glad I”m don”t have to) give me an American song any day of the week. If it”s sung by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday, I feel I”m in the presence of something truly miraculous. Please tell us about your early education and how you came to be a writer. Well, my first teacher (when I was aged four) was a very tough old nun, who had old-fashioned views about education. She drummed the ABC into us and we were all a little scared of her ” but actually she was a wonderful teacher and not nearly as strict as she seemed. Later, I attended Blackrock College in Dublin, and then University College Dublin, and then Oxford University. But I think my early interest in literature comes from my parents, especially my father. My parents were Dubliners and they were always interested in books. When books are in a house, children grow up thinking literature is nothing strange. So we would have grown up with paperbacks of the works of people like John McGahern and Benedict Kiely around us, and collections of Yeats”s poetry, and Patrick Kavanagh”s books. My father was a great lover of Victorian English poetry, and would read to us at night from the works of Tennyson and Robert Browning. Those, really, were our bedtime stories. So I grew up thinking the English language was a beautiful and magical thing, and that fiction could bring you to all sorts of extraordinary places. And I guess I still think that now. Certainly I believe in the power of fiction to shed light and bring news, since fiction, at its heart, is a kind of invitation to empathy. It”s the strange paradox of fiction that somehow in imagining briefly what it is to be someone else we can come to know more deeply what it is to be ourselves. That”s true of any kind of good storytelling, from the nursery rhyme to the literary novel, to the movies, or even a good joke. It”s why a really good novel can never be about style alone. It always has to be about people. Favorite travel destination? France, Italy, the United States, London. Ireland is so different today from when I first visited in the 1980s. Your feelings about the Celtic Tiger? I think anyone who grew up in the Ireland of the 1970s and early 1980s remembers a fairly depressed country, lacking in any kind of self-confidence. These days that has changed utterly, I think largely for the better. Ireland has almost full employment, a very successful economy, and in fact has become a destination for a considerable number of immigrants. Younger Irish people have grown up in a vibrant and outward-looking culture, knowing they will never have to emigrate ” although cheap air travel has meant that almost all of them visit other countries regularly, so there isn”t that awful sense of insularity that benighted the Ireland of my childhood. That said, many of us have reservations about some aspects of Irish life now. There is no doubt that Ireland has become a far more materialistic society than it used to be. There is an obsession with consumerism, and with having the right car, and the right designer label and other such nonsense. But I think this is what happens when people have been poor for a long time and
hey suddenly get a few bucks ” there”s a bit of a party, and everyone rushes the candy-store, and only the very joyless would worry too much about it. But my own feeling is that the party has now lasted for ten years and it”s time to move on to the next stage: we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we would like to have. A lot of Ireland”s recent wealth has been wasted, I feel. We could have done so much to make the country a fairer and more equal place, and we didn”t. But it”s not too late, and I always hold to the hope that the best is yet to come! Favorite place in Ireland (besides home)? Cashel Bay in Connemara, County Galway. What of Mary Duane from Star of the Sea? I presumed she was the mother of Eliza and Jeremiah, and kept hoping for word of her throughout the book. Ah, but that might be a future story. You are quite right! The story of what happened to Mary Duane will be revealed in my next novel. I always conceived of Star of the Sea as the first part of a trilogy of Irish-American life. Redemption Falls is the second part. The third and final part is in my mind at the moment and I hope to write it next year. I would very much like to call it “The Dawn”s Early Light” but I can”t help thinking there must already be a novel called that! THANK YOU!”

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