Friday, October 19, 2018

The Flight of the Wren

The Wrens were a community of women who lived brutal lives on the plains of the Curragh in the 19th Century. They worked as prostitutes, and earned their name from the hollowed out nests under the furze in which they sheltered. The Wrens of Kildare have long intrigued novelists, poets, historians and artists, including Maria Luddy, Rose Doyle, Martin Malone, and Ann Egan. A first hand account was published in Dickens newspaper, The Pall Mall Gazette in 1867 and remains a fascinating document. Today, I'm talking to award winning writer, Orla McAlinden who was inspired by this community of women to write her exciting debut novel, The Flight of the Wren. 

The Curragh Wrens lived a fascinating and brutal life, did you feel a spark, a strong desire to write about them, from the second you learned of their existence, or was it something that developed over time?
I knew very little about the Curragh wrens for the first ten years that I lived in Kildare, despite living within a brisk half hour walk of the Curragh. I knew of their existence but little more. However, the turning point in my relationship with the story came during the bicentenary of the official founding of Newbridge Town. Newbridge 200 was celebrated in 2012 with a plethora of art, history, walks and music. I found myself walking through the She-barracks (the old brothel district) with local historians; poring over old drawings and photos that showed a military installation fit to rival Collins Barracks in Dublin; and learning to discern traces of the past in the architecture, the street names and the shop-fronts and signage. Co-incidentally, 2012 was also the year in which I first started writing, after the death of my father. Prior to his death, I had been an avid reader, but never had put words on a page before. The writing, which had begun as a secret catharsis, soon turned into first a hobby, then an almost-obsession.   I instinctively knew that I wasn’t ready, had not yet the skills, to attempt the story of the Wrens. It took two years before I felt able to start fleshing out their tale.
Jane McNamee Sings of the Wrens of the Curragh...

How important was sense of place in writing the story of Sally Mahon - do you think living so close to the area, gave you an essential sense of connection? Is place important to you in general as a writer?
A sense of place is everything to me. My first book, a short story collection called The Accidental Wife, is set in a fictional village outside Omagh in Co Tyrone. Although the village, and the farm at Drumnagort, do not exist, I see them clearly in my mind’s eye. Those characters cannot walk through the world as they do, or use the magnificent language they use, unless they come from the very real landscape of rural Ulster. Likewise with The Flight of the Wren, the landscape of Kildare and particularly the Curragh, permeates every page of the Irish sections of the book. I have stood in the howling wind which rushes off the Dublin mountains, sweeps unhindered across the Curragh Plain and slams into Newbridge. I have heard the thundering hooves of a dozen horses at full tilt across the short cropped grass of the Curragh, as Sally Mahon in 1849 would have heard the Cavalry. My Tasmanian chapters are all set indoors. I have never been to Tasmania, and rather than risk inauthenticity, I brought my Australian characters inside, into the domestic environment.

I am interested in how you began The Flight of the Wrens. Did Sally's voice come to you with ease as you began to write the story? Or was it something that evolved as the story developed? How was she to work with as a character, did she surprise you at any point?

People are sick to death of hearing how I started writing The Flight of the Wren, probably because the story seems too neat to be true. The bones of the novel, the general narrative arc, and the social milieux of the characters fell into my brain in the local history section of Hodges Figgis bookshop. I picked up a small non-fiction book by Catherine Fleming entitled The Transportation of Women from Kildare to Van Diemens Land, and the novel was firmly fixed in my brain by the time I had paid for the book and walked back to the car park. I knew I finally had my route into the exploration of the Wrens of the Curragh.
I found Sally’s true voice very late in the process. The entire book was rewritten at least five times in numerous voices and points of view. For a long time my preferred voice was of the twelve year old Sally, extremely na├»ve and trusting, relating baldly the facts of her existence. I also tried a universal, omniscient POV, second person, third person. Sally did not find her authentic voice until the final rewrite, when I thrust her forward in time by almost 70 years, and let her tell her story with the full strength, wisdom and clear-sight of the crone, rather than the maiden.  
I adored Sally and she surprised me at every turn. I don’t plot, and although I knew before I started writing that she would survive her journey and triumph, I had absolutely no idea how. At the end of each writing session of the first draft, I would sit back and say, wow… I did not see that coming.
Your book explores the famine as well as the Curragh Wrens. Have you any tips for emerging writers who may be interested in exploring an aspect of social history or a real event from their own lives?
The most important advice I could suggest to any emerging writer is to read. Read voraciously in your time-period and locality. For those writers approaching historical fiction, the local library networks are amazing, covering genealogy, land-leases, censuses, contemporary photographs etc. Get stuck in. But, very importantly, remember that a novel is not a text book. As long as you know everything, your reader doesn’t have to. Use your research lightly.
What's next for you in terms of writing?
I’m lucky in one sense. Because it was such a monumental and time consuming effort to find a publisher for The Flight of the Wren (4 years and 70 rejections), I already have my next book written and ready to go, so I am not under the enormous pressure that other writers often find themselves; promoting one book, while trying to write another. Full of Grace is another short story collection, which re-introduces us to some of the characters from the award-winning stories in The Accidental Wife, and new characters have arrived in the village, or come to my attention for the first time. I wouldn’t call it a sequel, more a companion to The Accidental Wife. Full of Grace will be published next Spring by Mentor Press. 
Thanks so much for the interview Orla, for more about The Flight of the Wren and Orla's work check out her Blog.

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