Monday, March 23, 2015

Writing My Fourth Novel

Emily, Fergus, Madeline and Charles O'Connor of Long Point, Ontario
I want to tell of how I came to write my fourth novel The Paradise Tree. My goal is to create fiction which truly makes the past come to life. My idea of historical fiction has always been to open a door onto history, so that the reader feels they are in the same room with the characters, breathing the same air and absorbing the atmosphere. Historical fiction is an art; it is a painting come to life; we authors paint with our words.

The Paradise Tree tells of Irish immigrants Daniel and Brigit O'Connor and how they struggle to build a new life in Canada. One of the main characters in my novel is a little boy named Fergie, Daniel and Brigit's grandson. He is based upon Dr. Fergus Joseph O'Connor, my great grandfather. As a little girl, I visited him several times at his home on 193 Earl Street in Kingston, Ontario. I am grateful for the few memories I have of this wonderful man, a true patriarch. I recall how approachable he was, how kindly and gentle with small children. A Kingston newspaper article described him in his nineties as being “still active and spry…his eyes twinkling….with short quick steps“ and that is exactly as he appears in my memory. In 1918, Dr and Mrs. Fergus O’Connor, my great-grandparents, moved to 193 Earl Street  with seven of their soon-to-be eight children. A white rose bush from the original that Fergus' grandfather Daniel had brought over from Ireland was planted outside the front door. It was an elegant brick row house around the corner from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where Fergus and Frank had been married eleven years earlier, and where several of their children and even some of their grandchildren would eventually be wed. “One ninety-three,” as the house is still referred to among my relatives, although it passed out of the family in 1988, seemed like a palace to me as a child, with its high ceilings, beautifully carved furniture, and three stories of rooms. It was not a palace though, or even a mansion, just a grand old house. Thus began my experiences with the Irish side of my family, the O'Connor clan.

During the summer of 2001, my late father and stepmother invited me to accompany them and my three half-siblings to Canada where my O'Connor relatives owned several cottages on Lost Bay Lake near Gananoque, Ontario. My dad rented one of the cottages from a cousin and we settled in for a week. At the time I was working on my third novel The Night's Dark Shade as well as suffering through several personal crises. My Dad's first cousin Mary O'Connor Kaiser showed a great deal of interest in my work and  in my life. She was a beautiful and brilliant woman, a retired attorney with four grown children and many grandchildren. She and my Aunt Margaret, as family historians, had collected a great deal of information about our ancestors who had settled in that same area in the 1820's and 30's. Mary suggested that perhaps I write a novel about the early Irish settlers, among whom was my great-great-great grandfather Daniel O'Connor. She gave me books on Canadian history so I could begin my research right away.

Then life intervened; I had a baby and all writing was put on hold. In 2004, I returned north (with both husband and daughter in tow) to work on my book with Mary. We went over family trees and documents and she told me where to go to find more information. She drove me all over the countryside so I could see the original sites where the ancestors had been. We walked through the old cemetery at Bellamy Pond in Toledo, Ontario and explored the old mill at Delta. It was an August day but slightly overcast which gave the hills and fields a pale golden glow. We both felt that we were driving back in time because the people who had once lived in those places seemed so alive to us at that moment. When I went home to the States, I had enough information to get started, and on August 15, my birthday, I penned the first lines of The Paradise Tree.

I worked closely with Mary via email and phone calls and sent her the first few chapters when they were completed. Then came the shocking news that she had cancer. Before I could see her again she was dying. I last spoke with her right after she received the Anointing of the Sick. She was peaceful and cheerful. She passed into eternal life on July 5, 2005. I last saw her at her wake; she was all in white and looked like an Irish Queen.

The next few years were difficult, but I struggled on to write the book when I could, making a few more trips to Canada to gather information, where I received help from other cousins. But when I made it to the chapter where Daniel is called to muster, the book came to a standstill for several years. By that time I was homeschooling, blogging and working in eldercare with little time to spare for anything else. I put the Irish novel on the back burner and focused on getting my medieval novel, The Night's Dark Shade, ready for publication. I had a deal with a publisher but it fell through so I decided to self-publish for the first time.

In the fall of 2013, I was contacted by Wiseblood Books. I sent them a book proposal of The Paradise Tree and they offered me a book deal. Having a contract forced me to break through the writer's block and finish the book. At the time I was taking care of an 81 year old lady who was recovering from an illness. My client had been a producer for the BBC for many years, plus a producer of plays. She encouraged me to complete the second half of the book, reading each chapter as I finished it, editing and making suggestions. As I came to the end, I knew it was the best novel I had yet written.

However, while going over the manuscript with the Wiseblood team, there were major disagreements about certain aspects of the plot, and changes that they wanted me to make which I felt would totally alter the story I was trying to tell. So I decided to ask to be released from my contract and self-publish once again.

The Paradise Tree
was released this Fall of 2014 and is dedicated to the memory of my Cousin Mary. The critical reception has been highly favorable. The Midwest Book Review hailed it as "historical fiction at its best"  and Kirkus called it: "An imaginative, meticulously told history...." The San Francisco Book Review gave it five-stars, describing it as "fascinating" and "stunningly lovely." So I am thrilled that after so many years I finally have a good quality book that honors the family members of times long past as well as those beloved ones whom I myself have known.



Hans Georg Lundahl said...


As in Ua Conchobhair?

So you descend from Conor Mac Nessa, the Pagan king who got so angry he died when he heard from Cathbhadh how the Jews were treating Their King?

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Oh, sorry, two N.

julygirl said...

God Bless your work as you reach out through your novels.