INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR OF "NORAH: THE MAKING OF AN IRISH-AMERICAN WOMAN IN 19TH CENTURY NEW YORK," CYNTHIA NEALE
Hello Cynthia, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. It is a pleasure to have the chance to get to know more about you and your writing. First tell us about your newest novel and why you decided to write it.
Why did I write Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York?
Norah McCabe, the protagonist in NORAH, came to me as 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). I had been roused to read all things Irish because heretofore I hadn’t been privy to the knowledge of my Irish heritage. As a writer, The Great Hunger period of Irish history grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go. I came to believe this event had greatly affected and altered Ireland, as well as the Irish psyche. And that there was a message, a gift, that had been given to the rest of the world through music, literature, dance, and spirit. There have been horrid “ethnic cleansing” periods in world history, and this event (the worst disaster of the 19th century) was indeed the same. It was believed amongst some government officials at the time that Providence had provided the British a means, through the potato fungus and famine, to rid them of their nasty Irish problem.
This is what I learned through my research and was astounded that the only knowledge of it I had known was a one liner in a high school history book, “Over a million people perished in Ireland from the loss of the potato crop.” People would ask me, “Why would the Irish only eat potatoes, anyway?” 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 with a heart beating fast in learning Irish dancing, as well as my history, I knew this was a subject that would become the vehicle for a story. 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.”
In 1997, although working on other stories, I felt compelled, urged, and inspired to write a story to perhaps play a small part in ethnic healing. I was dancing one evening at an Irish pub and looked up at the well-known poster titled, “Irish Dresser,” which is in every pub in Ireland and in a few pubs in this country. The poster is of a photograph taken in the 1960s of an 1800s Irish dresser (comparable to what we know as a china cabinet). On the dresser, there are china cups, a photo of JFK and the Pope, and a red hen scratching on the floor in front of big cupboard doors. 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!
I had a number of epiphanies that convinced me I was actually writing about a real person who had lived during this period. And so I wrote Hope in New York City 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 my heart was still being clutched and I felt the stirrings of a young woman’s dreams and struggles within me. And the more I read about New York City and America during the years prior to the Civil War and post massive immigration, the more intrigued I became. It was a time of Abolitionism, the Nativist Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement was in its 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.
I could imagine the child, Norah, becoming a vibrant and determined young woman who wanted to desperately climb out of her Irish skin as much as she wanted to keep it. She didn’t want the limitations of her race and dreams of success, but still longed to return to Ireland. The two children’s books about Norah McCabe convinced me she still had a story to tell and so I trusted her to continue her story through me. And so she did!
Tell us about some of your hobbies, things you like to do in your spare time.
Spare time for hobbies? Oh, what a luxury to have spare time. But what a luxury it is to be able to research and write stories, as well. I am grateful. I once had a Victorian tea catering business and I have many original recipes for scones, tarts, and cakes. I love baking desserts that are made with the finest ingredients and decorating them whimsically. I’m working on a dessert/essay book with illustrations made by an artist friend. The title is, Pavlova in a Hat Box. I write in my head while my hands create delectable desserts. Nature is a source of inspiration, comfort, and nurturance. I keep a nature journal and record butterfly, bird, and animal sightings. My husband, Tim, and I do a lot of kayaking. I Irish set dance and attend festivals to sell books and dance. I like walking in the woods, collecting sea glass at the ocean, going to art class and doing oil and pastel painting. I like to learn through reading and getting to know the night sky during every season. Becoming a source of hope and help to individuals through volunteerism or serendipitous experience is important to me.
What is the one most rewarding thing in your life right now?
One most rewarding thing in my life right now would be my husband, my daughter, Hannah, my 84 year old mother, my friends, and my health. That is more than one, right?
When reading for pleasure do you tend to stick to the same genre you write or do you like to read other genres as well?
I do tend to stick to historical fiction for reading pleasure. However, I read a lot of spiritual books, nature books, poetry, history books, and non-fiction. I try real hard to read science fiction and futuristic books, but I become bored. Real life is so fantastical to me and if written with piercings of light, insight, and new vision, it is magical and mysterious.
When was it that you realized writing was what you wanted to do with your life?
I was twelve and entertained the neighborhood with skits and poems I had written. However, it took me a long time to believe I could be a real writer.
When can we expect your next book out and can you give us a sneak peek?
My next book to publicly emerge will probably be Pavlova in a Hat Box because I’m still researching and writing a historical fiction novel called, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters. Queen Catharine Montour once ruled the village of She-O-Qua-Gah, Valley of Tumbling Waters, later to be known as Catharinestown and today known as Montour Falls in the Finger Lakes of New York State. She was a dignified woman who came from a long line of distinguished French and Indian ancestry. In 1779, upon the advance of General John Sullivan’s army under the command of General George Washington to lay waste all Indian towns and settlements to deal a devastating blow to the Iroquois Confederacy, it is purported Queen Catharine led 300 villagers across Seneca Lake and eventually to Fort Niagara for British protection.
Back in your high school career, who was the one teacher you would say made a profound difference in your life, if any?
I’m sorry to say, none of them impacted my life.
What dreams do you have for future generations that you'd like to share with others?
I go into middle schools to discuss my writing and my books. I encourage young people to listen. To listen to their own souls where the Creator dwells and to let gentle, but firm, hands mold them through keen attention to the wisdom of history that comes through our ancestors. I bring in antique hats and we discuss who might have worn them, what their lives would have been like, and attempt to make history come alive. My dream for youth is that they transcend extremism and become visionaries to create alternative energy usage in order to protect the reserves of our planet; and to love truth and beauty that is lined with the gold of love and humility. That youth would not seek to be so individualistic that they become false. That they (in our Boomer slang) “get real, man!” My dream for them is that they preserve in their dreams to leave the earth with the gift of themselves through art, music, education, inventing, and healing.
One off the board question I like to ask, is what are your views as far as 2012, and do you believe in the Mayan Calendar?
As far as 2012 and the Mayan Calendar…perhaps I think interpretations are a little exaggerated and faddish. There is truth between the layers, of course. Of late, I’ve become fascinated with the spiral design in creation. The pinwheel galaxy, our ears, fiddleheads, seashells, for example. I recently completed an expressionistic painting called ‘Spiraling Into Control’ (see my blog at www.cynthianeale.wordpress.com to see a photograph of it). This interconnectedness in nature gives me solace and confidence to know that in the chaos, there is order. Perhaps Jamie Sams is also far out in her writings, but I do like to read much of her work. Here is what she says about the future concerning the whirling rainbow: The Whirling Rainbow is the promise of peace among all Nations and all people. The Rainbow Race stresses equality and opposes the idea of a superior race that would control or conquer other races. The Rainbow Race brings peace through the understanding that all races are one. The unity of all colors, all creeds working together for the good of the whole, is the idea that is embodied in the Whirling Rainbow. When all pathways to wholeness are respected by all cultures, the prophecy of the Whirling Rainbow will be completed.
Finally, do you have any advice you'd like to give to other aspiring authors, also please leave us your links where we can find out more about you.
Everyone should journal write, write letters to loved ones, and perhaps write blogs, but not everyone should pursue writing a novel unless they love working with words, are passionate about them, and are willing to humble themselves to learn, learn, and learn. They need to weigh writing a novel like a soldier going to war. And like Anne Lamott’s title of her book, Bird by Bird, one has to build upon one inspiration, one idea, one sentence, one word, at a time. And if you’re not willing to do all of these things, it is my opinion that you don’t waste time self-publishing and mucking up the way for other writers who have gone to battle and have scars for it. I have a doctor friend who wants to write and he asked me to read some of his stories. In my opinion, they aren’t skilled and honed. I was gently honest with him and then told him that when I decided to try my hand at a little doctoring, I would contact him for advice. I am an extraordinary baker, but I would not apply for a job as a pastry chef at a five star restaurant. But if you feel the Muse chasing you, burdening you, making you anxious, crazy, and as if you can do nothing else, go do it now. And do what D.H. Lawrence said, “Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.”
Links to further information about my work: