We had the absolute pleasure of having Eileen O’Finlan join us for an insightful hour answering our questions in our the Behind the Pages Goodreads group. I’m excited to share some of that discussion here with you today. Hope you enjoy the interview just as much as we did.
Hi Eileen, Can you please share with us how it feels knowing that the Pope has a copy of Kelegeen? Do you know if he has read it? Did you receive any feedback from him? Can you give us a little bit of insight into how it all came about?
Thanks so much for having me. I’m very excited to be interviewed by Behind the Pages. I greatly enjoy being part of the Traveling Friends so when you came up with this new group I knew it would be awesome!
Hi Norma, I work for the Diocese of Worcester, so I have a bit of an inside advantage. I asked the bishop (who’s office is across the hall from me) if he could get a copy to the pope. The bishop had already read Kelegeen and loved it, so I thought he’d be okay with that. He was happy to do it and a month or two after I asked him, a priest friend of his who works at the Vatican came to visit brought a copy back with him. I signed it and included a short note. The bishop assured me that his friend had brought it directly to the Pope’s residence.
I did receive a thank you letter from the pope – well actually from his secretary, but on his behalf.
I have no idea if the pope has read it or not. I sent it to him because one of the main characters, Father O’Malley, is a priest. His work among his people embodies what Pope Francis has been calling for more of in regards to pastoral care so I thought he might enjoy it. Also, there has, understandably, been a lot of negativity around priests and the Catholic Church in recent years, but I work day in and day out with many priests and I know that the majority are devout, dedicated, people striving to live out their calling. They’re not perfect, no one is, but they do their best to live a holy life and to live it for the people they serve. I hoped the pope would find it uplifting to see that acknowledged.
If you were to describe Kelegeen in three words which words would you choose?
That’s a difficult question! I’ve thought about it for a while. I think the best three words would be “evocative”, “tragic”, and “hopeful.”
This was an extremely hard book for me to read….it really got under my skin. Did you find while writing it that it deeply affected you as well?
Norma, I take the fact that this book got under your skin as a huge compliment, so thank you for that! It means, as a writer, I did my job. To write about something like the Great Hunger and not have it elicit a visceral response in the reader would be a failure. Not that I was trying to bring my readers down, but I did want to convey the reality of what happened, the massive tragedy of it, as well as the resilience of the people who endured it. I also wanted to show the undaunted spirit of a people immersed in faith and hope in the face of such an event.
It certainly did have an impact on me. Some of my own ancestors came to America to escape the Great Hunger. After researching the history and writing Kelegeen, I have developed a profound respect for them. I’m proud to have come from their stock.
What was the inspiration behind Kelegeen?
I majored in history as an undergraduate. When I was taking a course in Irish history and studying the Great Hunger (aka the Irish Potato Famine) my professor suggested that as a creative exercise I keep a diary as if I were a parish priest in Ireland at the time of the Hunger. After completing that project, I realized I had the basis for a novel and it grew from there.
What does your writing process or day look like?
I can’t describe a typical writing day because at this point, I don’t have one. I still work a full-time job so I fit writing in when I can. I do facilitate a writing workshop on Wednesday nights so I know that from 7-9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays I’ll be writing. I’ve recently started to take my laptop to the town library on weekends or days off. I like to write in long stretches of time so a five hour writing stint is about normal for me.
So of course I have to ask you this question because I am totally a “cover girl”….LOL Did you have a hand in the cover design or a vision of what you wanted it to look like? I think the cover is hauntingly beautiful.
Thank you. I love the cover, too. My publisher, BWL Publishing, Inc. has a great cover artist named Michelle Lee. Michelle sends a link to a stock photo site to BWL’s authors. She lets us chose up to 3 pictures to send to her from the site. Then she does her magic with them. When I saw the picture of the young woman, I just couldn’t stop looking at her. I thought, “That’s Meg. She has to be on the cover.”
Can you share with us how the title came about and what the name means to you? I am not familiar with the name Kelegeen is that an Irish name? I really do like it though!
Kelegeen is the name of the town where the story is set. It’s fictional – there is no real town in Ireland with that name. My original title was The Hungerdance, but that was back when I wrote the first draft over 20 years ago. In the meantime, The Hunger Games became a phenomenal hit and because I didn’t want to cause any confusion I decided I should change the title. I settled on Kelegeen because though the story focuses on specific main characters, the story of the people of Kelegeen is certainly on display in the novel. Father O’Malley is that pastor of all the Catholics in Kelegeen so his concern is for all of them. They interact and depend upon one another. Kelegeen is a very interdependent community and that was a huge key to survival.
How did you come up with the character names? Is there a connection of any kind of why you choose the ones that you did.
The names just sort of came to me. Of course the Irish characters, for the most part, have typically Irish names. Here’s a secret, though – many of the characters’ names got changed in the final draft. My amazing editor and fellow BWL author, Eileen Charbonneau, picked up on the fact that I had a plethora of characters whose names all began with the letter M. She suggested I change some of them. I hadn’t even realized I done that! So, Dr. Martin Parker was originally Dr. Martin Matthews, Brendan was Michael, and Meg’s mother, Deirdre was Maeve. That last was the hardest one for me to change. I still think of Deirdre as Maeve.
I know that you are a reader as well as a writer. Please share with us your favourite genre.
Historical ficition is my favorite genre, but I also like paranormal, some horror (I love Stephen King and Anne Rice). Mostly, I love a well-written story. Great characters and plot are more important to me than genre when it comes to reading.
I’d love to know if you are working on something else and if there is going to be a follow-up book to Kelegeen.
Oh yes!!! I am working on the sequel to Kelegeen. I was planning to write a sequel anyway, but I expected to write another historical fiction book first. However, so many readers have asked for the sequel that I decided I’d better write that one next. Once it’s finished, I’ll dive right into that other book I was going to write next. Right now the characters of both books are competing for space in my head. It’s getting a bit crowded in there! LOL!
How much research went into writing Kelegeen?
A lot! That’s true for any book, but I think for historical fiction it’s especially true. As I mentioned earlier, this book came about from an assignment in an Irish history course. But the research was no where near over when the course finished. I was researching right up to the final draft.
We touched based a little bit above about how this novel affected me deeply and sometimes when I close a book the whole novel is lost to me. But I can say that wasn’t the case with this one, it will always stay with me. It was an extremely memorable and profound read. You definitely portrayed the historical aspect to this novel extremely well!
Hmmm, now I can’t remember where I was going with this to ask a question but I’m leaving this comment in and if it comes back to me — I will edit with my question. LOL
Thank you so much, Norma. That is truly the greatest complement you could have given me.
How long did it take you to write Kelegeen?
That’s a hard question to answer. I began it over 20 years ago. I think I worked off and on for about 4-5 years before I had a completed first draft. Then I took another year or so to edit and write more drafts. When I thought it was ready, I tried to get it published, but it just didn’t happen so I set it aside for a long time (as in several years). But then I connected with the author I mentioned in an earlier post, Eileen Charbonneau, and sent it to her for editing. She did an incredible job. She is so thorough and gives enormously helpful feedback. With her suggestions, I rewrote the entire novel which took about a year. So, all told, it was probably about 7-8 years, though not consecutive years and with a huge break in the between drafts.
Were there any publishing struggles that you might of come across or have any insight into that process to share with us?
As mentioned earlier, when I first tried selling it, I had no luck. Now I realize that’s because it wasn’t ready. It didn’t deserve to be published at that time so I’m actually glad that it wasn’t. It’s a much better book now after Eileen’s editing and my rewriting.
As for finding a publisher, I was extremely fortunate – again thanks to Eileen Charbonneau. She thought it would be a good fit for the company that publishes her novels so she contacted the publisher and asked if they would consider it. The publisher agreed, I sent the manuscript, and before I knew it I had an offer. This is not a route to publishing that happens often. I sometimes still can’t believe it all worked out the way it did.
Is there anything significant that you would like to share with us about Kelegeen? I’m open to anything that comes to mind!
One thing that comes to mind is the amount of comments I’ve recieved from readers who’ve told me that they’d heard of the Potato Famine, but never really knew any details about it. They had no idea how devestating it was for the people who endured it. Several readers have said they were overwhelemed by it and just couldn’t understand why it had been presented as a mere footnote in history classes. So, I hope readers learn a bit of Irish history with which they may not have been very familiar.
Another thing I love is when readers tell me that it reminds them of their parents or grandparents who came over from Ireland and the stories they told. It lets me know I got the “feel” right.
What would you ultimately like to see &/or hear from a reader after reading your book? What is the ultimate compliment to you as a writer?
Norma, you gave me the ultimate complement when you wrote that the story stayed with you after you finished it. We voracious readers gobble up books so fast sometimes it’s difficult to remember them even if we really enjoyed them. So when someone tells me that the story and/or the characters stayed with them long afterwards, that’s huge. It means a lot!
Eileen (Eileen’s Editor) I loved Kelegeen! You inspire me as a writer and reader. What draws you to the historical fiction genre? Do you research before and during your writing?
Hi Eileen! Hey everybody – this is the awesome editor & writer I’ve been lauding in my previous posts!
I’ve always loved history. It seems to be in my DNA. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – we’re all in love with history. Family gatherings could as easily inspire talk of historical events as they could anything else.
It’s difficult to express exactly, but there’s something about history that profoundly touches me. I love learning about how people lived at various times, how ideals, mores, attitudes, etc. changed over time, how people coped with all sorts of events. Life was very different in the past, but at the same time, there is still so much in the human spirit that resonates today. You can write about characters in any time period, keep them very much people of their own time (which I believe is very important to do), and still connect with them on an emotional level.
And, yes, I research before and during the writing period. A lot!
Cindy As Norma said, “Kelegeen” can be a difficult book to read as it really tugs on the heartstrings. As the reader, I felt like I was going though the Great Hunger along with your characters. There was always a glimmer of hope – mostly through the characters’ deep faith. Will the sequel continue on with the strong faith and hope for the future?
Hi Cindy! The Irish were very committed to their Catholic faith. In fact, though some charitable organizations offered the starving Irish food and assistance, a great number of them refused it because it was offered ONLY on the condition that they become Protestant. They weren’t willing to give up their faith even if it meant starving to death. Their faith really did get them through even if “getting through” meant dying with the strong belief of eternal life with Christ – an existence infinitely better than what they had on earth.
Yes, the sequel will have the faith element in it. It has to because when the Irish came to America they encountered a land populated by Protestant Yankees who did not like or truts them. Remember the “No Irish Need Apply” signs in the “Help Wanted” ads? They also faced the political No Knothing party that gained power at that time. The No Knothings were very anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant to the point of wanting to send them all back. So the Irish had their hands full once again with the folks who held the power. And again they relied on a steadfast grip on their faith.
Cindy Do you have a working title for the sequel?
Right the working title is Erin’s Children, but that could change.
Cindy There is so much historical reference that went into the book. How did you research? Online, library, specialists, etc? What is the ratio of time spent on research/writing?
All of the above! When I first started writing I didn’t have access to quick Internet searches or databases like we have today. Most of my early research came from books. I also spent a lot of time in the library and at home reading and taking notes. With the sequel I have more options. I’m still reading a lot of books, but I’m also using online sources. I’m setting the sequel in Worcester, Massachusetts. I work in Worcester and live in a suburb just outside of Worcester. I have access to great resources in the Worcester Historical Museum, the Worcester Public Library, Preservation Worcester, and the American Antiquarian Society to name a few. I’ve met with staff at the Worcester Historical Museum. One of the writers in my workshop is a docent for Preservation Worcester. She recently took me on a private walking tour of Worcester’s historic Crown Hill district which is where my main characters would have worked and lived. She even got me into one of the houses. The owner keeps it very much as it was when it was built in the 1850s. He took me on a private 2 hour tour of the house. By about the time we finished, I had it in my mind exactly where and how that house will fit into the story.
Ration of times spent on research vs writing is hard for me to figure (you just asked me a math question – I’m hopeless at math.) I’d have to guess that they’re pretty close when you figure writing includes first and consecutive drafts. That’s a lot of time and work, but the research that goes into it is pretty close to the same. It’s just a different discipline.
Cindy Since American English is your first language, how do you come up with the Irish brogue for your characters? Do you know someone from Ireland and copy his/her accent or does it just happen within your mind?
I’ve heard the Irish brogue often enough to replicate it in writing so long as I don’t overdo it. I didn’t want to write it in dialect as that’s far too distracting for the reader. I couldn’t have anyway, even if I’d wanted to since I don’t know it that well. I tried to put some of the Irish way of speaking into the novel to give it the right feel without being too heavy-handed and risking stereotyping or just plain sounding silly.
Thank you so much, Eileen for joining us this evening!! I absolutely loved this discussion and for being so candid with us!!!
What Eileen has to say about us
Thanks so much to the Traveling Sisters for interviewing me in the Behind the Pages with the Traveling Sisters group. I had a blast responding to all the well thought out and insightfull questions.
For more Q & A , highlights to Kelegeen you can find the full Q & A here