Kate Kerrigan is the bestselling author of five novels. Recipes for a Perfect Marriage was shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year in 2008 and has been translated into twenty languages, The Miracle of Grace has been adapted as a film script with funding from the Irish Film Board, Ellis Island, the first of a trilogy which was selected as a TV Book Club Summer Read in Britain and launched in the U.S. with Harper Collins in July 2011, City of Hope the sequel to Ellis Island and Land of Dreams the final part of the Ellis Island trilogy which is set in the 1940s and sees female protagonist, Ellie Hogan, following her adopted son to Hollywood.
Hazel Gaynor caught up with Kate recently at Waterford Writer’s Weekend, where Kate read from Land of Dreams and spoke to a packed crowd at the stunning ‘The Book Centre’ bookshop. Having written the final part of the Ellis Island trilogy, Kate explains how the idea for her memorable character, Ellie Hogan, first came about: ‘The inspiration for Ellis Island arrived while I was on a New York holiday weekend with my husband. I was visiting Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and it occurred to me that this would have been one of the first places a young Irish immigrant girl would have come to on arriving in New York.
‘The contrast of the simplicity of a cold, country church in Mayo, to the gold-domed ceilings and papal proportions of St. Pat’s New York was so enormous that I began to think about the effect this conspicuous wealth would have had on the hearts and minds of the young women who came here in the early part of the 20th century. My central character, the passionate and adventurous Ellie Hogan, came alive for me that afternoon and started me on her journey from rural Ireland to Jazz Age New York and back again.’
Since that first spark of inspiration, Kate has taken Ellie through three very different decades in Ireland and America, but she explains how she didn’t set out to tell Ellie’s story as a trilogy.
‘I had no idea this was going to be a trilogy. In fact, the first book seemed to be a complete story in itself. When Ellie settled back into her life in Ireland at end of Ellis Island I really thought that would be that until I actually got her there and found that I still had a lot of questions about her. I just did not feel ready to let her go. Plus the setting of Ellis Island mirrored the wealth and progress of American electrification and the glamour of their Jazz Age with our own Irish Celtic Tiger years. Times changed suddenly, and I felt inspired to do the same with the Depression years – bring Ellie into a situation that would reflect what is happening here during the slump. City of Hope brings Ellie back to New York but during The Great Depression – when everything changed so very quickly. Ellie finds a completely different city to the one she left behind and this taps into the rural poverty of her own background and she feels compelled to help people.
‘In both these books I tried to mirror Ellie’s inner journey with the circumstances of history happening around her and I found that process so interesting that I went for a hat trick!’
So, where does Kate take Ellie in the final part of her story?
‘In Land of Dreams we have the Hollywood heyday of the 1940’s battling it out with the horror of World War II. This was such an interesting time and Ellie is more mature, although she still has very important lessons to learn. She has reinvented herself as an artist and is now mother to two boys, so she has evolved as history evolves around her. When I started the final part of the trilogy I actually had two more books planned to bring Ellie into old age through the 50’s and 60’s (I could never kill her off!) but in the end I think Land of Dreams is the last one. For now anyway!’
Having written stand-alone novels prior to Ellis Island, Kate is not afraid to admit that writing a trilogy presented its own, particular challenges. She told me, ‘The challenges are all technical. In terms of creativity/storyline it was a breeze. I trusted Ellie, I knew her – she is like a good friend at this stage. Research is always fun but it was certainly challenging. I put Ellie through two wars and although I never intended writing about wars there were so many in the twentieth century that I kept running into them.
‘By far the worst part of the writing a trilogy was remembering what I had written before. I was utterly dependant on proof readers and editors to point out inconsistencies. With Land of Dreams I was nearly driven demented trying to remember things like Ellie’s father’s Christian name so there was lots of stopping and starting to check old manuscripts which affected the writing flow. If I had known this was going to be a trilogy I would have kept notes and made charts. But I didn’t. So it was hard! I am completely paranoid now and tracking and making charts on my new novel as a result, even though it is a one off. I think!’
The Ellis Island trilogy was written over a period of five years, during which time Kate had a baby and also suffered great personal loss, losing both her brother and her father-in-law in one year. Those experiences affected her writing hugely, as she revealed, ‘There is no question that my life experience affected my writing. 2009 was a terrible year for me personally, so bad that I felt unable to write fiction for the first time in my life, although I still needed to write my way through it. I spent 2009 and part of 2010 writing a diary column about my life (which I continue to do in the Irish Mail every Thursday) and a grief memoir called Little Bursts of Happiness which has yet to be published. City of Hope and Land of Dreams followed. Both books were deeply informed by the grief I experienced in losing Tom (my brother) and the joy I now have in mothering Tommo (my voracious toddler).’
‘I used to be more cerebral in coming up with ideas. I always wrote from the heart but I was slightly ashamed of that I think. Now, I know that there are only three things worth writing about – birth, death and love. If you don’t cry at least once reading one of my books I have not done my job. I cry writing them – with sadness and happiness – every day. Grief teaches you not be afraid of your feelings: new life teaches you the same thing.’
Despite having not set out to write a trilogy, and despite the technical and very personal challenges which influenced her during the period she was working on the three books, Kate admits that she has found great enjoyment from the experience. ‘I have loved it but it’s been an unexpected journey creatively, with surprises every step of the way. I loved getting into the details of the history of the period I covered and although I have forgotten most of it now, Ellie took me on a journey through from the War of Independence and the fascinating but disturbing Great Depression, but best of all, I have to say, was Land of Dreams. This opened my eyes to all sorts of inspiring stuff from Pearl Harbour to the blossoming of the modern art scene in Guggenheims New York to the internment of the Japanese by the Americans in WWII. Together, we travelled by train across the U.S. and out into the desert. I loved every minute of it. I went to Hollywood myself to research the novel but it is the journey I took in my own mind with my dear friend that resonates. Somehow leaving my husband and kids for a fortnight to travel to modern-day L.A. seems less real than the fictional trip on the Broadway Limited train (which is long since gone!) that I took with Ellie!’
Having spent many years constructing a character with real feelings, emotions and experiences, it is inevitable that an author develops a very strong connection with them. Kate is no exception to this, as she told me, ‘I don’t feel sad having completed the trilogy because I left Ellie in a great place in her life – happy and with a great future ahead of her. I will never say goodbye to Ellie – that would be too sad. One of the great things about fictional friends is that they live forever and I have lost too many good friends and family in my life to not take advantage of the fantasy of that at least. Although I doubt I will write about her again (I have told as much of her story as I feel I can, certainly for now) in my imagination, and my heart, Ellie is still living where I leave her at the end of Land of Dreams.’
With 2013 being the year of The Gathering, I asked if Kate drew any parallels between the issue of emigration being faced by so many today compared to the1920s when Ellie first leaves Ireland to go to New York. ‘My grandmother – whose life story we taped and I use a lot in my research to date – said that her sister’s emigration to American in the 1920’s was ‘like a death’. Even though Mary did return to Ireland, then London, you just never knew back then.
‘Now we have Skype and cheap flights. There is heartbreak at not having your kids at home but there is no comparison to how it was then. Funnily enough, one of the things I think we lose less now when we go away is our sense of identity. While we have always sought out ‘our own’ on emigrating abroad, there was also a lot of pressure to assimilate. Young people left Ireland in their droves throughout the 1920’s, but while poverty was the driving force – many used enforced emigration as an excuse to avoid cloying Catholicism – the prospect of being pressurised into religious life or marrying some toothless old farmer their parents had lined up for them! Others left sweethearts behind or, like my heroine Ellie, simply went to earn money to build a better life for themselves back home.
‘What was interesting to me was not why they left but why they stayed. How they became seduced by the glamour and the freedom that they never wanted to come back because life at home was so miserable and restrictive in comparison. If they did make it back (which a few did) returning emigrants were expected to shelve their big city ideas and ‘notions’ and disappear back into the damp, boggy landscape as if they had never been away. Now the only thing driving us away is jobs – it has made emigration an entirely fiscal and therefore much simpler issue yet – much less interesting I think.’
And having completed Ellie’s story (for now!), I wondered what is Kate working on next? She told me, ‘Two Islands is the story of a boy and a girl who fall in love from their homes on remote islands off the west coast of Ireland. Set against the backdrop of World War II it is the most intense novel I have written so far, yet the premise is a simple love story. I am very excited about this one and hope to have it ready for publication in 2014.’
(c) Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie’s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance journalist. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as regular features for writing.ie.
Her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ was self-published in March 2012 and went on to become a number one bestseller on the Kindle Historical Fiction and Historical Romance charts. Staying with her passion for historical fiction, Hazel has just completed her second novel, for which she hopes to find a publisher very soon!
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel has lived in Kildare for the past seven years with her husband and two young children. Hazel was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012.