WITH HER SCOTTISH BEGINNING, English upbringing and Irish heart,Kate Kerrigan’s latest novel Ellis Island draws from her expansive heritage to bring to life the trials and tribulations of 1920’s life for a young Irish girl. In spite of the location of her childhood and early adult life, Kerrigan plants her stories firmly in Irish soil, where she has managed to cultivate an impressive bushel of novels. JULIE MURPHY reports on a writer who cites “emotional authenticity and setting” as lying at the heart of her characters.
Kerrigan, whose real name is Morag Prunty, was born in Scotland to Irish parents. Her mother’s desire to provide her children with an urban upbringing – in contrast to her own rural Irish background – saw the family move south to the hustle and bustle of London when Kerrigan was just two years old. Having worked as a magazine journalist and editor in London for many years she moved to Dublin in 1991 to re-launch Irish Tatler. She now lives life in her dream cottage in County Mayo, the beautiful native county of her mother. She shares her life and her seaside home with her husband and two young sons.
In her own words, the first novel she penned “took seven years and is unpublishable”. Indeed, Kerrigan’s love of making up stories endured a somewhat unsuccessful start- entering short story competitions but never winning them. But as a successful journalist she knew she was capable of writing large volumes and getting paid for it, so for her a published novel was a natural and almost inevitable progression. Through her work with magazines, Kerrigan met Marianne Gunn O’Connor, a literary agent who was just starting up herself and after many years waiting to be published her time had now come. Although she admits that as a journalist she always wanted to get her novels published because she was used to getting paid to write, Kerrigan also concedes that getting published is never the whole point. She explains that “ultimately, you have to write for yourself, getting published is a bonus, while earning money is an even bigger bonus.
I could easily still be writing books for the sake of it, and if my career ever dries up, the books will still keep coming!”
Plot and Character
Some authors sit down and let the story flow out of their minds as quickly as it enters and some prefer to plan and know where their characters are going and what adventures they will encounter. Kerrigan is a planner. She describes herself as a “slave to structure”. In order for the story to flow she needs to create a structure. Though she does not necessarily put plot over character (or vice versa) she generally chooses a broad theme and her characters and plot intertwine as they emerge from this theme. She puts it beautifully: “within a structure the writing flows for me – down a stream – into a river with banks and direction. Without structure and plan I am in a whirlpool of creative madness.”
Many novelists deliberate over character names and although Kerrigan believes that “character is key” she does not get bogged down in a name. When asked what she considers most important in creating a believable character she answers simply, “emotional authenticity and setting – At the end of the day you have to take them on an outer journey as well as an inner journey to keep the story readable and exciting.”
Research is essential to Kerrigan’s writing and it is this work that gives life to her characters and infuses their world with sights and smells. She lists the internet, interviewing, reading and watching old movies as great sources of research. “It’s nerve wracking setting something in a period you can’t smell, or see, or touch and have to largely imagine – but it is so rewarding when you get it right and there is little the imagination can’t drum up if you find something you can hold on to from the past”.
The Secret of Success
And so a little wiser and lot more in love with the notion of being a novelist I ask Kerrigan to let us in on the secret to becoming a successful author but as I (fearfully) suspected there is no hidden solution to turning your imagination into a published masterpiece. Ultimately you have to just keeping doing it. Hard work and passionate dedication will help you on your way but for Kerrigan “You don’t need to be published to be a writer; you just need to write every day”. The best piece of advice she has for all budding storytellers is to take positive advice and criticism from editors and agents and not allow rejection to dishearten you.
“Thinking you are rubbish, and will never finish the book, feeling unappreciated and misunderstood are all par for the course, as is believing that you are better – and worse than you actually are as a writer – these are all emotions that are just a part of the writing process”.