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Historical Fact or Fiction? Kate Kerrigan on The Lost Garden

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
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By Kate Kerrigan

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With the release of her latest book, Writing.ie asked New York Times bestselling author Kate Kerrigan to take us through the historical novelist’s relationship with fact and fiction in The Lost Garden. Kate first explained her motivation for writing  a book based in Ireland:

“I had just spent five years writing the Ellis Island trilogy, which was part based in America. This had meant several over-and-back research trips that had dovetailed into a (very) late pregnancy. When researching the second book City of Hope I was trawling around New York in a hot May, pregnant – the following year researching Land of Dreams I was in Los Angeles, sweating out my early-stage menopause. I love having had the experience of both trips but they are not the ‘jollies’ people imagine them to be. I was on my own, away from my family – trying to connect with places, some of them unfamiliar. Connecting with history in this physical way is different than researching in books and on the internet (which, of course, I do every single day). It’s entering and tasting a life that isn’t my own; for one or two days that is great but the longer trips had worn me out. I wanted to write something set closer to home.

So The Lost Garden was me deciding to write something so close to home I would not even have to leave County Mayo.”

We are always interested in what inspires books, how the story comes together in the writer’s head, and we asked Kate to tell us a little about how she found The Lost Garden story. She revealed “I love Achill island and, like with all of Mayo, I am drawn to bleak landscapes that smack of hardship and discontent. The endlessly deep black bogs and treacherous cliffs just being up the most terrific sense of drama and emotion in me.

kate-kerrigan‘I live, myself, on the sea in Killala and was out with my eldest son on a fishing trip with our neighbour and seasoned seaman Jimmy. He’s a quiet guy but I began quizzing him about his idyllic childhood on Owey Island off the Donegal coast and as he talked about the life he led and some of the traditions he grew up with, a story just emerged for me. Out of out conversation I got the character of a young man, a reckless young fisherman, who I fell in love with and wanted to take on a journey.”

Kate continued, “‘History is like another heart beating inside us.’ John Banville (I think!) said that and I am aware of this every day because I live in Mayo and write in the house my mother grew up in so I am in constant touch with my own family history.

‘Living in Mayo the history of this vast county is so prevalent in my life all the time that I cannot remember how I first heard the story of the Kirkintilloch Ten; doubtless like everything else it was passed down through my grandmother to my mother or (my storytelling aunt Sheila Smyth). The Kirkintilloch Ten were a part of a crew of potato pickers (or ‘tattie hokers’) who went to Scotland in 1934, to earn money as seasonal workers. The sleeping quarters were segregated and during the night there was a fire and all ten men on the trip died. Having lost three men in my own family over a short period of time, I felt empathy with the women left behind in that story. I was so attracted to it,  I wanted to find a way of writing about the plight of the tattie hokers, but at the same time I knew I had to be sensitive to the family descendants of the Achill families who were affected. I feel, very strongly, that as a historical novelist when you are telling people’s stories you either have to be meticulously accurate in your depiction of the story as it happened (which you can never be because historical events are is so open to interpretation) or really cover your tracks and make it very obviously a piece of fiction.

‘I think this is especially true when writing specifically about a country as small and as sensitive as Ireland. As a novelist inspired by historical events it is my responsibility to find a way of telling deep and compelling truths that respect history without compromising it. For this reason I make the distinction between a book based on a true story and a fictional novel which is inspired by an event – which is what this latest novel is. The Lost Garden is the latter is set years after the event itself happened, during the World War 11 (a fascinating piece of Irish history in itself – especially along the Atlantic Coastline) and with no reference to actual people who were there at the time. The island is a fictional one (Illaunmor) – even though anyone who has ever been to Achill would recognise the stunning landscapes. In the back of the book I acknowledge the men who died in Kirkintilloch.

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As this book is purely a novel – I could have made no mention of Achill, or the Tattie Hokers – but they were too important for me to do that. I wanted to acknowledge what happened to them and not hide, but celebrate the fact that that they had inspired me into writing a piece of fiction about them. To not do so, I felt, would have been an untruth in itself; a deception. In truth – I want for them to be remembered. They were the forefathers of the emigrant workers of today; the students who do a season for cash in a bar in New York; the gang of cousins going over to Australia for casual labour and hang out on Bondi for a few months. The story of the Achill Tattie Hokers reminds us how much things have changed and yet, how much they still haven’t and that is why I write stories set within in the last 100 years – to illustrate that point.

‘I still cry when I look at that list of the names and ages of the boys and men who died in that fire. The truth is always so much more terrible than fiction can ever be which is why it is so important that as novelists we respect it. At the end of the book I make the author’s statement; (While this is entirely a work of fiction) what I hope I have captured, in the broadest sense possible, is something of the resilience, humour, generosity, intelligence and unique beauty inherent in the people who live and have lived on the islands off the west coast of Ireland.

‘At the end of the day The Lost Garden is a simple story of first love between a young boy and girl – but their context is grief, the loss of their loved ones and the loss of their innocent dreams. Through Jimmy and Aileen’s journey I tried to find a way of healing them through nature (in a ‘lost’ garden that Aileen restores) and the redemptive power of true love.

I hope I have succeeded in creating a story that is moving and true – but more importantly than that, I hope The Lost Garden has gone some, small way in honouring the essence of the ten tattie hokers who died in the real fire in Kirkintilloch in 1937 and the families they left behind.”

(c) Kate Kerrigan

About The Lost Garden

Aileen Doherty is leaving the island of Ilaunmor for the first time. She can’t wait to leave the confines of her sheltered life to go on her first adventure, tattie picking for the summer in Scotland, with her father and two older brothers. What she hadn’t bargained for was meeting the irresistible Jimmy Walsh, who falls for flame-haired Aileen the moment he sets eyes on her.

Spending each day working together side by side, Aileen and Jimmy fall passionately in love, until their happiness is cruelly cut short by a tragic accident which will change their young lives forever.

Back on Ilmanour, Aileen find solace in reviving an abandoned garden which has been left as lonely and bereft as she has. Gradually, through the magic of hope, Aileen brings the garden back to life – and herself with it. But it takes a true miracle to finally heal her broken heart. The Lost Garden is a mesmerising story about loss, friendship and the power of true love.

In all good bookshops, The Lost Garden is available online here.

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