The novel I’m currently working on is about a single dad with a severely disabled daughter. When I wrote the first chapter, an Irish nanny muscled her way into the story. A twenty-three year-old graduate student in NYC named Aimee, who was always picking fights with her employer and bringing about new advancements for her young charge by her sheer will and determination. In chapter two I indulged my interest and fondness for this Irish girl by depicting her early life in County Kerry, including the loss of her own mother, her first sexual experience, and her cutting off her hair and moving to New York.
Every other chapter has been about my single dad, Jonathan, his fluctuations between optimism and utter despair, his strained relationship with his ex-wife, his engineering career and new romantic interest, but above all else, his one-on-one relationship with his daughter, Luann. The chapters have all been about Luann, who without speech and without being able to walk, has ruled and illuminated the lives of her parents (and eventually Aimee’s life).
From the time I wrote chapter two, set in County Kerry and in Dublin, in third person but from Aimee’s point of view, I knew it would probably have to go. It read like a short story inserted into a novel. The voice was quite a bit different. Jonathon was not only absent, but we left his point of view, something which I assumed would only happen in the one chapter. I suspected Aimee’s Ireland chapter was backstory that helped me nail the character who was having such an impact in Jonathan’s story, and that sadly, it wouldn’t belong in the novel. This may still be true. But that Aimee chapter had a lot of power as I kept going. The Aimee that was shaped on a farm in Kerry and escaped to Dublin, and found her womanhood, was wreaking havoc in Brooklyn for my other characters and I was increasingly into her. And it began to seem that her story foreshadowed Luann’s. Her girlhood injuries prepared her to help Luann with hers.
Well since then, the whole novel has been outlined, and it suddenly seemed that all I needed was one more chapter set in Ireland, back in the bosom of her family, hopefully with a psycho-emotional collapse that she would bring back to New York, causing further disruption in everyone’s lives, to make Aimee’s chapters work after all.
Great discovery. The whole narrative arc in view. Promptly step away from novel for months.
I didn’t know how to write Aimee’s Irish life authentically. I’m not Irish. I’ve never even visited Ireland. There were numerous reasons I put the novel aside for months, but I know one biggie was that I didn’t know how to depict a small town in Kerry in 2014, nor its inhabitants. But then gradually, without writing, the events that would occur during that week long Christmas visit became clear to me. The psycho-emotional breakdown I wanted surfaced, and better yet, an externalized way to depict it- really bad behavior. Then I wanted to write. In four writing sessions I wrote the chapter, about 6 pages a session, the story was there. Aimee and her brother and her father and the farm, and the breakdown, and the Kerry town, and many details- that didn’t require statehood- were there.
But as I neared the chapter’s end, I very much wanted to get it more Irish. I played with websites that translate words, but they left me feeling I was finding Gaelic or just antiquated expressions and terms. I wished over and over that I had an Irish reader who would read the chapter, and Irishify it. I got up the nerve to ask an Irish writer I know in New York if I could email him a handful of words and if he could let me know if they would be said differently in Ireland today. He very cordially said he’d try his best. I imagined being asked to Americanize some fiction, and I knew how hard this would be. My age, my race, my precise locale and experience in America might not give someone the language they wanted. I couldn’t ask my acquaintance to read the chapter, it was just too much. So I made a list of words including: pick-up truck, boobs, virgin, hot for, shut-up, country hick, undershirt, and so on. I had no idea if I was even choosing the right words in my chapter to be translated.
Simultaneously, I‘ve been getting this blog off the ground. WordPress pretty much places other people’s blogs in front of you every time you log in to write a post. Gradually, I was perusing other people’s blogs, looking for literary or artist blogs that I wanted to read, to follow, and to notify about my own similar blog writing. I found Aileen Hunt’s blog, Here and There, on one of these sessions, and I read her most recent post and looked at a number of photos, admiring her clean writing, her aesthetic, her photography, and general professionalism and the writing voice which spoke to me. I began following her blog. But it wasn’t until I visited her blog a second time, and read her About page, that I realized she was posting from Ireland. Reading her post about two smoke stacks in Dublin, I felt a jolt of excitement. It was the second time since working on my Aimee chapter that something Irish appeared before me, and it felt like a sign. My first thought was- Good, reading Aileen’s blog will help inform me about Ireland. I left a lengthy comment, telling her I was liking what I read and why, she left a lengthy comment back. We shared some personal information about ourselves that we were not writing about on our respective blogs. She emailed me to communicate in a less public way. We shared more. I told her what I was writing. In one of these emails she told me to say County Kerry instead of Kerry County in my fiction. I said, I’d love to exchange writing too, if she wanted feedback on anything. I said I’d love to send her a handful of words to be Irishified. My silly list of words. She offered to read the chapter to point out what might be wrong if I was comfortable with that. Honestly, it felt like a wish put out to the universe was granted. I’d found a smart, funny, literary, generous “friend” who was offering to take a bit of her time- having fun, I hoped- and give a quick read and say yay or nay about some of my choices.
I had to push past a horrified feeling- as I told Aileen- to send her the brand new chapter- horrified that someone I’d just met could do something so giving. I told myself I’d enjoy doing it, and I sent it- even with the attachment, telling her she didn’t have to read it or comment on it. One day later she sent me back the chapter with track changes, in a light and funny voice, giving me just the feeling I’d hoped for, that she did this in a spirit of ease and enjoyment, a quick read, to Irishify- to say what couldn’t go down this way over there- and to offer up some gems of words I would never have found in my universe. There was culchie, and dual-carriageway, wellies, silage and changing truck to jeep and undershirt to vest, and priest to Father, and fried chicken to a sandwich, and many more suggestions. Vocabulary and cultural norms, terms and geographic tweaks.
Now, when I’m visiting Aileen’s blog, there’s a little smile on my face, knowing the person behind the well-crafted writing and behind the well-aimed camera. I’m checking in on a friend in those posts.
Our encounter strikes me as just the sort of good luck that makes our lives richer. The extras that didn’t ever need to happen, but did.
photo courtesy of Aileen Hunt