No green beer and crowded pubs for me today – I’d rather curl up and lose myself in a good yarn. (And I’ve got a couple bottles of Guinness in the house – no fighting my way to the bar). So, what better way to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to feature an Irish author who can spin a good yarn?
I recently read After The Rising by Orna Ross and it was one of the most captivating books I’ve read in a long while. I was gripped by the story and it gave me a fresh perspective on what I thought was a well-worn topic. It illustrated how bitterly the Irish Civil War divided families and friends and tore apart communities. I hadn’t fully appreciated how complex the issues were and how they still affect individuals and communities. I’ve posted a review of the book on Amazon and I enjoyed it so much that I asked Orna to visit Ascroft, eh? to tell me a bit more about the book.
Welcome Orna. I’m looking forward to learning more about After The Rising. Shall we get started?
Tell us about your novel.
OR: ‘After The Rising’ and ‘Before the Fall’ are a pair of linked novels. One is sequel or prequel to the other and each can be read separately. The same characters and settings inhabit both: 1920s & 1990s Ireland, 1970s London, 1980s San Francisco. They are stories about the struggle between men and women, war and peace, freedom and belonging, set against the background of the Irish Civil War of 1922/3. I very much wanted to include the female experience during that war — called ‘The War of The Brothers’ though women were more involved in it than in the Independence struggle — and draw parallels between that and other sorts of private, more intimate and personal wars, around sexuality, and family, and love. So it turned into a family saga, with a contemporary (1990s) narrator tracing her family history back to a similar event and coming to terms with the layers of silence around a particular murder, the consequences of which has haunted four generations and had deep ramifications for her own life.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
OR: Isabel Allende once said, ‘Write what should not be forgotten’. That’s my guiding principle as a writer. I grew up in a small Irish village where one half of the people seemed to be ‘out’ with the other half and my father’s uncle had been shot during the civil war though nobody was able to say by whom. The event gave me an outline for part of what I wanted to say about silence and the struggle that every human being experiences between belonging and freedom.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
OR: I trained as an historian so I’m a stickler for facts, too much so probably for a novelist. I invent situations and characters and feelings, of course, but I always need to find out what’s known and researched first. Hilary Mantel once said it took her a long time to realise she could just make stuff up and I can identify with that. As I write more books, I’m getting better at letting the demands of the story lead the process.
What research did you do for this book?
OR: Ooodles! County Wexford is blessed with the greatest group of local historians in the country — possibly the world. I drew on much of their work – especially those books that acknowledged the contribution of women. The local newspapers of the time were another wonderful source. One of the problems with researching the Civil War aspect of the book is the silence around the event. It wasn’t so much ‘Don’t mention the war’ as ‘There was no war’. Even in our schoolbooks, it was a blank; we jumped straight from the glories of the War of Independence to 1924. But there was lots there at the local level, if you knew where to look. I also travelled to San Francisco to research the background to that part of the book, investigating life there in the 1980s, trying to capture that unique moment of sexual and social liberation.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
OR: I find real life historical figures harder to write, because of my sense of responsibility to the facts! Except in ‘A Dance in Time’, real life characters tend to be very much on the periphery in my books. I’m too careful, too aware of the fact that they once lived and breathed, always wondering would they really say or do that? It’s inhibiting. Having said that, there’s a thrill when you feel you’ve got it right with a historical personage.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
OR: It’s the small, sensory details that count, the telling detail. Milk in a churn, the click of a bicyle wheel, the feel of a pony-and-trap under you. The world I write about was still alive, to some degree, in the 1960s when I was growing up, so I can draw on memory as well as research and imagination. I love to recreate these physical details of clothes and transport and daily life. You have to get it right in order to provide the right background to those permanent things that never change — the ocean, stars, the birth of a child…
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
OR: I don’t prefer to write one sex over another, what I’m always on the lookout for is whatever character I’m writing, male or female, to get up on their legs and walk. I write about – and to – the female dimension. In my understanding, every man and woman is a mix of both ‘male’ and ‘female’ — which is why many men also read my books and find them worthwhile. Articulating the female experience is very much one of my reasons for writing, that which should not be – yet so often is – forgotten.
Thank you, Orna, for your thorough and honest answers.
When I finished reading After The Rising a couple months ago I wanted to know what happened next to the characters so I was keen to read the sequel. But I had to wait until February for it to be released as an ebook. Both novels were originally published as Penquin paperbacks and they have now been released as ebooks. I’m halfway through Before The Fall at the moment – so I may have even more questions for Orna soon.
Readers can learn more about Orna and her writing by visiting her website. She’s hosting Before The Fall’s launch party on Facebook today and everyone is invited to drop by.