Full disclosure, I’m not impartial in the case of this particular interview. It’s not an exaggeration to say that guest author Laura McKenna is the reason I’m writing today. Back in 2014, I spotted a sign on the noticeboard of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. It was for a six-week writing class, using the artworks as inspiration. Laura was the facilitator, and such a kind and encouraging one that she brought out the best in us. The class gradually evolved into a writing group of six, including Laura, and we have continued to share our work ever since, with the inspiring Crawford as our home base.
I’ve watched Laura’s lyrical writing go from strength to strength, which has been satisfying not only because she’s talented but because she’s also extremely generous to other writers, an all-round good egg. So it’s fantastic to see her minutely researched historical debut picked up for publication and already featuring on many of this year’s must-read lists.
Inspired by true events, Words to Shape My Name tells the remarkable story of former slave Tony Small, whose connection with Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald took him from South Carolina to the grand drawing rooms of Kildare, from the colonial politics of London to the intrigue of Dublin.
Laura, congratulations on the publication of Words to Shape My Name. Could you describe your journey to publication?
Firstly, I want to say thank you for asking me onto your blog. It’s such an amazing thing to be here with you and talking about my novel.
It may seem like a long journey if I say that I began writing the novel in 2014, but it was a pleasure to be immersed in the research and writing process. The novel formed part of my PhD in Creative Writing at UCC [University College Cork], so the doctorate itself was for many years also an end in itself.
When I finished that, I submitted the manuscript to a few agents, but had no luck. At the same time, I entered novel competitions and was really delighted to be longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and shortly afterwards a winner at the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. And that is where I met both my agent, Faith O’Grady, and my publisher, New Island Books. After that, it was all systems go and the book has been published within a year of that meeting.
What drew you to the true story of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his man servant Tony Small?
I really enjoy finding out about past lives, and when I read Stella Tillyard’s 1997 biography of Fitzgerald, Citizen Lord, I thought it had all the elements of a thrilling narrative. On a grand scale it has revolutions – American, French and the Irish Rebelllion of 1798; incredible journeys – across oceans, continents, down the Mississippi; political intrigue, a host of spies and yes, romance and tragedy. But at the human level, it’s the story of two men – one an aristocrat turned revolutionary, the other an escaped slave – and their seventeen-year friendship. I became intrigued, then obsessed with the need to find out more about Tony Small, about his life in Ireland, how Ireland might have been for him, about his family, his children and what became of them.
I know you’ve done an enormous amount of research into your subjects and the period. Did this offer you a way into their heads, or was the distraction of research something to be overcome in order to get words on the page?
It’s probably a bit of both. I do get very absorbed in research, very dogged. And sometimes I have to resist the inclination to check something and just push on through the not knowing and write in spite of it. At the same time, I am a great believer in the little facts because it is these, not the wider historiography, that were key to finding a narrative voice. Facts and gaps – the gaps in research allow so many elusive ideas to take shape.
What resources were useful to you in putting together a picture of their lives?
Stella Tillyard’s biography was like my original map, but as I ventured into unknown territory the archives in the National Library really helped to round out the female characters of Pamela, Lady Lucy and Tony’s wife, Julia. Small things like Julia being referred to as impertinent in one letter, and Pamela revealing her sense of humour in another. The details of Tony’s life after Fitzgerald died have been the subject of some speculation, but using a combination of genealogical sites, Old Bailey records and other legal records, including the incredible detailed accounts online of the convicts in Tasmania, I was able to discover more about Tony’s children and their descendants.
One of the book’s POVs is Tony Small’s daughter Harriet. Was much of her life documented?
Harriet’s life has not been documented at all. Most accounts heretofore have mentioned that Tony may have had a child named Moirico, but I could find little other than speculation to link this name with him. Instead there are records of an Edward Small and a Harriet Pamela being baptised as young adults in London, children of Anthony and Julia Small. There are other details that also connect them. Harriet was so interesting. She gave evidence at her son’s trial for larceny and the Old Bailey transcript is fascinating. Her voice came to me in a strong and insistent way, and demanded a place in the novel where she was not in the earlier drafts.
[Here’s Laura reading an excerpt from the book which gives a taste of Harriet’s distinctive voice:]
Did you rigorously stick to the real-life events your research threw up or did you have a lot of information gaps to fill in?
I stuck to most of what I knew to be true. The research, all those events and facts, are somewhat two-dimensional. What I have written is fiction. I can make no claims to have reproduced anyone’s voice or consciousness. But fiction can, hopefully, approximate some sort of truth about how it might have been; to be someone like Tony or Harriet or Lucy in that time, with all the limitations and constraints that they faced. So those things that I made up had to at least have been possible, within those parameters. It felt more respectful to work within their life circumstances. To do otherwise seems to me to suggest that they had not done enough with their lives.
Your novel has been endorsed by writers such as Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor and queen of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel. That must feel pretty good?
You said it, Anne! It feels great and surreal. I think when you’ve been writing for a while (and I have an unpublished first novel buried in the garden), even though you’re hoping something will come of it all, you also – ok I’ll use I! – I also (mostly) manage to suppress that hope, to keep a heavy lead lid on top to offset disappointment. So in some ways now that good thing has happened, and there’s an actual book, and those writers you mention, whose work I admire so much, have said such good things, well it still seems a bit unreal. Perhaps I need to get a crowbar to that lead lid.
Where do you like to work – other than next to me with a plate of pastries, obviously?
That setting in the Crawford Art Gallery, with yourself and our writing group fellows, and with the full range of pastries, is definitely my favourite place to write. But not necessarily my most productive! I need certain restrictions to write, to get stuck in. It used to be in the car, waiting for my children while they had training or matches etc. The car, the computer, nothing else to distract me, perfect! Then I’d sidle to the sidelines during the second half and cheer!
Before lockdown, it was the local Costa, and I could spend two or three hours there. Now, I’m like Wandering Aengus, trying to find the perfect spot in the house that is not already occupied by all the other locked-down members of the family.
What advice would you offer to anyone wondering how to go about writing historical fiction?
Find a story that really interests you, that seems worth the digging, that will excite you with the discoveries. Or make you cry. But more than anything find a person/people (who will become your character/s) whom you enjoy being with, whom you are really invested in because he/she/they will take up years of your life and occupy a disproportionate amount of your headspace. Harriet spent a good while telling me I knew nothing, but she calmed down when she got her own say in the novel!
Your top five books, if you please
An impossible task, largely because of my terrible memory, but these are definitely in my top twenty! The Collected Stories by William Trevor; Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; The Vanishing Act of Esmé Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell; Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller and The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I am writing another historical novel set in the 19th century, and the main character is a woman. It is also based on real events, but beyond that I will resist my usual temptation to tell all, and instead just be sort of… enigmatic!
Laura McKenna worked for many years as a child psychiatrist, and has a PhD in Creative Writing from UCC. Words to Shape my Name , her second novel, was a finalist at the 2020 Novel Fair and longlisted for the 2019 Bath Novel Award. Her first (unpublished) novel was also a past Novel Fair finalist and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2016. Laura’s short fiction has won the Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide Short Story Award, and was shortlisted in the Doolin Short Story Competition among others. She has been nominated twice for a Hennessy Literary Award in poetry and also for a Forward Prize (single poem).
Words to Shape My Name is published by New Island Books. It is available to buy directly from their website and from bookshops nationwide.