Friday, February 14, 2014

Interview with Cynthia G. Neale, author of Norah

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Cynthia G. Neale to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, Norah. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Cynthia. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Norah.
Norah McCabe is a young woman living in New York City in the 19th-Century, post massive immigration and pre-Civil War period. As a child, she fled Ireland to escape the Irish Hunger, but hunger prevails as she becomes a young woman. Hunger for worth, for love, and a desperate desire to overcome poverty and prejudice. She is proud of her Irish skin as much as she is ashamed of it. She is a woman of fierce contradictions and passions. She opens, A Bee in Your Bonnet, a used clothing store in Five Points, and strides delicately through the squalor of the streets of Five Points, New York where there are rotting horse carcasses, roaming pigs, and rag pickers’ greedy hands clutching at her elaborate re-made gowns. She defies the roles and limitations of her race and gender, throws off the washer woman’s apron and seeks to become someone as worthy as any Protestant woman. She joins a rebel Irish organization, writes for a small Irish newspaper, attends the Seventh Annual Women’s Rights Convention, and falls in love with an essayist and rebel. She is attacked by a vengeful police commissioner and travels with rebels to free Ireland from British domination. Norah stumbles and falls into her real self as she tries to strip herself from an impoverished past in a city that is both corrupt and enchanting. She is a survivor, headstrong and foolish, but eventually she is molded into an Irish-American woman. 

What inspired you to write this story?
The inspiration for Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York grew out of writing about Norah, a child of thirteen in my first children’s novel, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850). As a writer, The Great Hunger (Irish Famine) grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go. This catastrophic event left deep scars that altered Ireland and the Irish psyche. There have been horrid “ethnic cleansing” periods in world history and this event was the worst event of the 19th-century. In 1997, I was dancing at an Irish pub one evening and looked up at the well-known poster titled, Irish Dresser. It was a photograph of a 19th-Century Irish dresser (comparable to a china cabinet). As I danced, I imagined a young girl suffering from hunger and tragedy, but dreaming of a better life when she climbed inside this place of refuge, her hiding place, and place of hope. Norah McCabe eventually travels across the sea to America hidden away in this dresser. After I wrote the first book and found a publisher, I thought I was finished telling her story. But I couldn’t leave her on the shores of America and I also learned through genealogical research that there was a real Norah McCabe who had come from Ireland to NYC in 1847! After many rejection letters for the first book and nearly giving up trying to find a publisher, I also learned there was a real ship called The Star. I had given this name to the ship Norah McCabe travels on to America. On the real Star, there was with a family with my last name, Neale, who had a thirteen year old girl. I became convinced I was writing about a real person who had lived during this period. And so I wrote Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser that continued her story of survival in her new country, a country that despised the Irish immigrant. And then once again I assumed her story was over, but I felt the stirrings of a young woman’s dreams and struggles and wrote Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York.

What research went into Norah and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
The research was extensive from the beginning because I’m not a historian. I had to immerse myself in reading many books, primary sources, and taking copious notes. I have piles of legal pads filled with facts. But the facts have to serve the story and not the other way around. I started with a dream of a young, hungry, girl living in Ireland and had to go from there, emboldened by a few epiphanies. The only knowledge I had about the Irish Famine was from my high school history book, “Over a million people perished in Ireland from the loss of the potato crop.” After I wrote a short play in 1997 about The Great Hunger and was researching for the first novel, people would ask me, “Why did the Irish only eat potatoes?” OMG! Americans and even Irish-Americans did not know this history. Honestly, I hadn’t known much, either. John Walters writes, “Surveys, I’m told, indicate that the Irish people do not want to hear about the Famine. But it is also precisely why the subject must be talked about until we remember the things we never knew.” As a writer, I knew this was a subject that would become the vehicle for a story. There was no number tattooed on the Irish skin, but the marking of cultural shame was evident. Tom Hayden writes in Irish Hunger, “There are unmarked famine graves in all of us.” This was a surprise! And then the setting was New York City and the myriad of events transpiring during the time Norah becomes a young woman. Abolitionism, the Nativist Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement were in their heyday. There were uprisings, bank runs and crashes, riots, violence, and xenophobia. Many movies and books portray the Irish woman as an ignorant Brigit who spoils the soup and talks back to her betters. Certainly there were a few of these types, but in my research I learned that Irish women far exceeded other female ethnic groups in education and economics. They climbed up in the world come hell or high water! They paraded down Fifth Avenue dressed in Paris fineries bought from the money they saved (still sending money back to Ireland), and aristocratic Protestant ladies were incensed that these Irish maids looked just like them. This was a surprise! 

What drew you to this particular period and why use it as the backdrop of your story?  
I was new to Irish dancing and new to learning about my own Irish roots. And then the period of the Irish Hunger took hold of me and I traveled all the way to America with the Irish diaspora in New York City from that time period. But after all my interest in learning Irish history, it was the character, Norah McCabe, who drew me into her world and setting. 

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I don’t want to create a spoiler, but one of my favorite scenes is after Norah has lived through tumultuous events and is sitting in the New Labor Employment Bureau to apply for a job as a domestic. She is handed a pamphlet about the upcoming Women’s Rights Movement meeting and finds the words of Margaret Fuller printed on it, It is not woman, but the law of right, the law of growth, that speaks in us, and demands the perfection of each being in its kind, apple as apple, woman as woman. Norah had come upon these words earlier and because there is a huge chasm between herself as an Irish Catholic immigrant woman and Protestant feminism, she is both intrigued, challenged, but befuddled. Nevertheless, she befriends the Protestant pamphleteer and eventually attends the convention. Remember, not all of these Irish Catholic girls were ignorant domestics!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
There is an attempted rape scene and later in the novel, there is an abduction. It was very difficult for me to describe this kind of violence. I thought my worst fear in writing historical fiction would be getting the history right and making sure there were no anachronisms, but writing the details of violence proved to be my greatest challenge in this novel. 

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the overall story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on? 
Norah McCabe travels fast and furiously through many scenes and events. Most of the time, I felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride with her and although thrilling, there were times I wanted to get off and slow down. I know many writers speak about their stories taking on an entirely different life than they expected. It’s true. I had to go where Norah led me, but would have liked to explore the women’s rights movement and the big gulf between immigrant and nativist further. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Perhaps Norah’s love interest, Murray, who is an educated, sensitive visionary, but also a rebel willing to get blood on his hands to free Ireland. I would want to discuss Ireland’s history and the motives for dying for one’s country. I’d also like to do a bit of flirting with him, as well. I’d be wearing one of Norah’s fabulous gowns, sitting in an Irish pub where the Irish revolutionaries meet, and carrying on like I was “one of the boys.” 

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I would like readers to be taken captive by Norah’s story and whisked away to another era, forgetting the present. And when they return, to give thanks for their ancestors, to learn from the ignorance and hate of the past, and to have empathy for immigrants and the struggle for people to belong and thrive. Mostly, I’d like readers to know that in spite of tumultuous times and errant ways, there is hope. I write in the jacket of my books, “Hope dances in the darkness and believes in the Lover who casts light at our feet.”

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’m currently writing yet another novel about Norah McCabe. The setting is New York City during the Civil War and the working title is, The Irish Milliner. I had a few nudges and dreams and in spite of my initial resistance, I’m again traveling at a fast pace with Norah down the corridors of the past. She’s still headstrong, the times are heartbreaking, but she has a worthy story to tell. Another project that is finished is a cookbook, Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories and Desserts, which is a tribute to my eighty-six year old mother. It is a collection of essays, dessert recipes, art, and there’s a music cd to play while baking. I had a Victorian tea catering business at one time and these recipes are ones I created, as well as ones my mother passed down to me. I’m trying to raise funds on to have this book self-published. I’ve also written a screenplay about Norah’s life from the three novels titled, The Irish Dresser. And I’ve started a novel about a Native American woman with French blood who lived during the American Revolution. I’ve researched for many years, but now I’ve put this story aside to finish writing The Irish Milliner.

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About the Author: Cynthia Neale is an American with Irish ancestry and a native of the Finger Lakes region in New York. She now resides in Hampstead, New Hampshire. She has long possessed a deep interest in the tragedies and triumphs of the Irish during the Potato Famine or “The Great Hunger.”  She is a graduate of Vermont College in Montpelier, VT, with a B.A. degree in Literature and Creative Writing. Norah is her first historical novel for adult readers. She is also the author of two young adult novels, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850) and Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser. Her forthcoming book, Pavlova in a Hat Box, is a collection of essays and dessert recipes. She is currently researching and writing a sequel to Norah, as well as a novel about Queen Catharine, a Native American of New York whose village was destroyed by General John Sullivan in 1779.

About the Book: Once she was a child of Hunger, but now Norah McCabe is a woman with courage, passion, and reckless dreams. Her story is one of survival, intrigue, and love. This Irish immigrant woman cannot be narrowly defined! She dons Paris fashion and opens a used-clothing store, is attacked by a vicious police commissioner, joins a movement to free Ireland, and attends a National Women's Rights Convention. And love comes to her slowly one night on a dark street, ensnared by the great Mr. Murray, essayist and gang leader extraordinaire. Norah is the story of a woman who confronts prejudice, violence, and greed in a city that mystifies and helps to mold her into becoming an Irish-American woman

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Tuesday, January 28
Review at Daisy Row Diaries
Friday, January 31Guest Post at The Little Reader Library
Saturday, February 1
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Review to appear in Montreal Examiner
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Tuesday, February 4
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Wednesday, February 5
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Thursday, February 6
Review at Me, Bookshelf and I
Friday, February 7
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Monday, February 10
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Tuesday, February 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Interview with Cynthia Neale February 14
Wednesday, February 12
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader
Thursday, February 13
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Monday, February 17
Review at Mary Donnarumma Sharnick
Tuesday, February 18
Review at TheBookAddictedHousewife
Interview with Cynthia Neale February 20
Wednesday, February 19
Review and Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time


Judith Starkston said...

Great interview. Thanks for the in depth view of Cynthia Neale

Anonymous said...

Thank you Judith. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)