In April this year my debut novel, Her Name is Rose, was published in the U.S. It was a long time
coming. Two days earlier I had passed my 61st birthday here in the west of Ireland where I live. Between the jigs and the reels (and a few bouts of chemotherapy, but that’s another story) I made it to NY for one week to launch the novel in the largest Barnes & Nobel store I’d ever seen, and to do a library reading in my hometown of Katonah, NY. I went to celebrate, but also, because as I have yet to be offered a UK/Irish book contract, part of me feared I might not otherwise see my novel on a bookshop shelf. (That is, unless I go to Poland in the spring of 2016 when my novel is published there.).
All writers know the challenge of getting attention, so when ‘The Irish Echo’ newspaper in NY published a piece I’d written about me and my life and the novel, and titled it: Half Irish Half American, All Writer I was very pleased. It about sums it up. I’ve lived half my life in the west of Ireland married to the Irish novelist, Niall Williams. Ireland has been good to me in many ways. It gave me my husband and my children and I live in the cottage where my grandfather was born. But there isn’t a week goes by that some shopkeeper in the town of Ennis doesn’t ask me how I am enjoying my holiday. There are many things about me that speak of my American-isms. I’m proud of them all, from my straight teeth to my voting rights as a Democrat. From my liberal education in Boston to my love of wide open places.
My novel opens in the west of Ireland in a cottage garden whose owner is an adoptive mother, a woman in her early 40s, also a widow. Her only child, Rose, is a violinist in London at the Royal Academy of Music. They are both Irish. Although the central character travels to Boston (and back again) and another central character is from New York, the novel takes place largely in Ireland between Dublin and the west coast of Clare. There is Irish music. Irish landscape. It’s an Irish adoption story. But… it is written by an American. Has that mattered in the publication process? I believe it has. Has it further mattered, for publicity, that I’m 60 plus? I think so. It can sometimes feel like I’m invisible.
Friends and neighbours ask me when is my novel coming out here, or in the UK? Where can they buy it? Is it available as an ebook? Is it on Kindle? Curiously, although only published by a major New York publishing house, my novel is available on amazon.co.uk, and not by way of the U.S. It’s available as an ebook and on Kindle in the U.S., but not in the UK.
It some ways it all seems in tune with how I’ve lived my life as an expat, an American in Ireland. Is it a question of identity? In our family it seems so sometimes. My son is an Irish law student studying for his masters in London planning to go to NY with his partner to study for the New York Bar. My daughter is in Brooklyn on a visa but can’t get a green card, never mind citizenship, because she is adopted. (The laws have now changed but not to her advantage.)
As I begin to write the opening sentences of my second novel I wonder if I should centre it between America and Ireland. Some think that that might be my ‘brand’, my writing identity, which is something readers will want. And there’s a voice that says my publishers will expect it, although they also claim me to be like Maeve Binchy. I don’t know. Her Name is Rose is in part about the central character Iris searching, unbeknownst to herself, for her identity — beyond being a widow, beyond being an adoptive mother, although being a mother is, thus far, her greatest achievement. By the novel’s end Iris is discovering her identity as a woman in the prime of her life. She is a woman with an open heart.
Whether or not I get a UK/Irish book deal is not within my power. I mustn’t worry about that because it doesn’t change the fact that I am a writer. I have to just write. It is through writing that I claim my identity. Just like when I went to NY to celebrate having written a published novel — at my age — beyond the fact that I am a mother, a wife, and a woman diagnosed in January with colon cancer.
If I am a writer then there is nothing more for me to do but sit myself down and write. Identity, publication, branding, marketing will take care of itself.