“And do you like Marcella?”
That was the first important question anyone asked me while I was writing this book. I was in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, working on Something Bigger, my first novel, which comes out this month (July 2021). It tells the story of Marcella Coyle, a fourteen-year-old who travelled alone from rural Roscommon to Birmingham Alabama around the turn of the 20th century to live with her older brother Jimmy, an outspoken human-rights-minded priest. The novel is fiction, but Marcella, in real life, was my grandaunt.
I grew up with her, an old lady by then, who came home and moved in to our house after her long life in the American South around the time I was born. She was, for my brother and me, fascinating, a kind of American grandmother, always in bed, all hairnet and dentures with a slow Southern drawl and a store of candy for children. She taught me to read Brer Rabbit stories, and when the mood was on her, she told stories of her own about her brother, the poet and martyr, the man who was shot by the Ku Klux Klan.
For us as kids in the 1970s, it seemed like a story made for television, complete with good guys and bad guys, action-heroes and guns. We wondered how she could settle back to live on a sheep farm in Roscommon after such an exciting life. It was only after she died that I wondered what the transition in the other direction must have been like, from Ireland in 1904 to Birmingham, Alabama, a hectic, modern city running on steel, coal and the raw pursuit of power. So that was the story I started to write in Something Bigger.
Because Marcella was a real person, I worried far too much at the start about portraying her exactly as she was. I was writing about a young woman starting out while drawing on the memory of her in her bed, or walking slowly with a stick. So when the elderly man in the Big House whose name I never caught asked me over dinner if I liked Marcella, I started to talk about the real old lady who was the spice in our childhood. Eventually, he put down his fork and laid his hands flat on the table, shaking his head until I stopped.
“Do you like her on the page?” he asked again.
It was a far better question, and a far more useful one. I’d been so busy researching, I almost forgot to imagine. The research is such a pleasure, and it’s so obviously useful, that it draws you in completely. But there comes a time when it’s worse than a distraction; it becomes a dead weight that can drag the narrative under. Until that dinner, I’d been chasing accuracy, which is not the same as truth, and truth is what makes a novel sing.
Another pivotal moment for me was attending a workshop on historical fiction given by Niamh Boyce in Waterford. Niamh is so generous with her craft, and simple things like changing names and dates gave me more freedom than I’d given myself before. Eventually, I broke away from purely documenting Marcella, and began instead, to just make her up. The final thing that made a difference was spending time in Birmingham, on the streets where all the action, real and fictional, had happened. I began to see the characters of the novel moving in that space, where the light fell in the same way as it would have then. The city became a film set on which they could take their own actions. Eventually, all the historic detail became like that too – more than a backdrop, but less than a script – a kind of structure through which they could move as they chose.
In the novel, Marcella is a real, living breathing fictional character, finally free of that bed that hemmed her in when I was a child. I don’t know if she resembles my grandaunt when she was young, but she’s real to me now. Her brother Jimmy is fictional too, instead of the public figure he became in his adopted city. There are others in the novel who share names with people who lived long ago, but by now they’ve moved to the bright side of imagination, and past the detail of dry records, gravestones and microfiche. Something Bigger is fiction, not accurate, but true.
The story is at least as American as it is Irish, so it made sense to me to look for an American publisher. Caritas were behind the book from the start. They were amazing at design, and it was really reassuring to have an editor familiar with the South. I hadn’t realised, though, how much of a challenge an American publisher poses to Irish bookshops, and what barriers it puts in the way of distribution to them. I’m very grateful to the Irish bookshops that have taken the novel on, so that people can go and order a copy from their local shop.
I do believe the novel has something to say beyond the story, the language and the characters. There’s something timeless about immigration and identity, finding your way in a new place, navigating love and loss. I hope the novel helps people to see these things in a new way, to understand difference. And I hope they like Marcella. On the page.
(c) Sheila Killian
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About Something Bigger:
When fourteen-year-old Marcella Coyle leaves Ireland to join her brother, a parish priest in Alabama, she could not have foreseen the turmoil that lay ahead. Plunged into the tense cauldron of the early twentieth century’s Deep South, Marcella struggles to understand her outspoken brother and his perilous refusal to alter his mission even as the KKK takes to the streets, spewing hatred at minorities and Catholics. As she strives to rescue some meaning out of her exile in this foreign land, Marcella is swept up into a dangerous friendship, with consequences that shock the city and make an indelible mark on history.
Order your copy online here.