Monday, March 5, 2012

Deborah Henry talks about The Whipping Club, research, obsessions and more

Secrets. Shame. Forgiveness. Love. That's my recipe for a novel I want to read (especially the secrets and shame part.) Deborah Henry's new novel, The Whipping Club, is absolutely sublime. As soon as I read it, I wanted to have her on my blog so I could ask her questions, and I'm so thrilled and honored that she agreed.  Thank you, Deborah!

I’m always interested in process. Can you tell me where and how the seeds of this novel sprouted?

I was barefoot in the grass, playing with my children in our backyard.  I was marinating, as I call the pre-writing phase. Born of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother (though not immigrants) it dawned on me: What would my parent’s relationship look like if they had met and married in Dublin in the 1960’s? The answer was not good.  Interfaith marriages were unacceptable. Being a child of a mixed marriage, I wondered about a fictitious child born to such a couple. My budding story evolved into a manuscript rife with uncanny similarities to harsh events that took place in Irish orphanages. The more I researched, the more I uncovered a hidden Ireland, an island in which thousands of adults and children were forcibly separated, many of them “orphans” adopted by American families, and many still live with a vague sense of identity and a yearning for connection to their roots.

Everything about this novel is so alive. What was the research process like? What surprised you?

I remember reading JEWS IN TWENTIETH CENTURY IRELAND: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust by Dermot Keogh at the beach, and a friend saying, “You mean all three of them?” I joined a group called The Irish JIGS – The Irish Jewish Interest Group and had the pleasure of visiting a section of Dublin called “Little Jerusalem.” I also had the great opportunity to meet with a number of the prominent Jewish community in Dublin, including the family of Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, and found their contributions to business, law, medicine and the arts in Ireland far greater then their numbers would suggest, far greater than most people are aware.

I have interviewed Mary Raftery and Mike Milotte, award-winning Irish journalists, and have received firsthand the personal testimonies of the survivors of Magdalene laundries, Mother Baby Homes, Orphanages and the Industrial School Systems, receiving generous help from the best-selling authors, Bernadette Fahy and Paddy Doyle. I spent the better part of two years engrossed in nonfiction titles and writing down questions. I traveled to Ireland when the research and question sheets became excessive and there, I would study the smells in the air, the people, the sounds on the street – all the nuances of Dublin and the suburbs of Dublin where much of the book takes place. Every trip also included interviews with police officers, lawyers and members of the RTE.  Overseas, I would search video stores and find films relating to any of my subjects. Mostly, I found country dramas involving unwanted pregnancies, and converted them to the United States VCR recording system, and listened as well as watched everything, including mannerisms, dress, flora and fauna, and idiosyncrasies of the culture. I spent hours at the Irish Jewish Museum, walking the streets of Little Jerusalem in Dublin, interviewing the elderly at the Jewish Nursing Home. I also spent time with homeowners in Donnybrook.

My grandmother Sara Conroy, who hailed from the North of Ireland and I, were very close. There is a photograph of my deceased grandma above the mantelpiece in my office. She had grown up on a farm and rode horses and ate well, so I was quite shocked and dismayed when I learned about this underbelly of Ireland. The undercurrent of darkness, the anti-Semitism and, especially, the cruelty to children, disturbed me. I read some incredibly well documented books which helped me uncover these sorrowful subjects. Banished Babies, The Secret History of Ireland’s baby export business by Mike Milotte and the late Mary Raftery’s groundbreaking work Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools along with heartbreaking memoirs by Mannix Flynn, Patrick Touher, June Goulding, among others. I realized, too, that this wasn’t an Irish problem alone. This was, and is, a worldwide epidemic and needs to be exposed.

There is a photograph on my desk of 5 Mount Eden Road which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Ellis family residence I had described years before in my novel. There is a drainpipe which Jo used to climb down from her bedroom window. As I walked along the lovely roads in Donnybrook, I stopped in front of this home, which looked identical to what I had written. These neighbors invited me for tea and walked me through their gardens so I could learn more about the natural surroundings, all of which helped with texture in my story. There were other instances of uncanny similarities to chapters I had written years earlier. In one scene, Jo falls though a stained glass second floor window ledge and lo and behold, The Donnybrook Church has stained glass windows and a ledge on the second floor. These were interesting moments; moments of intense synchronicity. Brief but wondrous, like pieces of a puzzle perfectly dropping into their rightful place.

The novel has a great deal to say about the secrets we keep and the ones we feel compelled to reveal. But what really interested me was how grace can be found in the bleakest of moments. Can you talk a bit about that?

 I never really know what the story is about until the end.  The protagonists Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis in THE WHIPPING CLUB feel enormous shame and guilt about the sacrificial secrets they kept from one another during their marriage. There is also loads of anger and resentment toward the Irish society’s social and religious intolerance that this interfaith couple and their children must endure. In the end, though, the characters, battered down in every possible way, let go of their hate. A sense of forgiveness for their younger selves, for the missteps that have shaped the arc of their lives, and for the society in which they live, takes hold of them.  The nobility of forgiving one’s self and forgiving others, in an authentic manner, seems to emerge for me often. It is the highest calling. I tried to find the humanity within each character and eventually, as they began to breathe on their own, many of the characters struggled to find the light within their own secret darker selves.

What was the actual writing like?

It took me well over five years to research and write THE WHIPPING CLUB. In the early years, I would drop my children at school and drive to a deserted field and write in my car until pick-up time. During the summers, I would get up at 4:45 a.m. to write for a few hours before the first birds sang and before my children awoke. As the work developed, I would hole up in Dublin at the Shelbourne Hotel and also, The Killiney Castle Hotel, to rewrite, edit, and conduct interviews.

I like settling into a routine of writing every morning for at least four or five hours. Three years ago, we moved to a different home in the same town of Fairfield, Connecticut, which upset my writing space a bit. My office now is much fancier and sort of in the middle of adjoining rooms – all of which is distracting, so I have built bookshelves in a room in the basement with no heat/air conditioning and no windows, which seems suitable for writing. I need complete quiet to think which is why getting up so early is helpful. Sometimes, I drive to the beach and write in my car.

Other than the intense passion I have for my three children, I have never experienced enthusiasm the way I feel when I write. Although there were only a few moments, “moments of clarity” I call them, moments when those missing puzzle pieces fall into place as if they were always there waiting to be found, these moments made up for all the years of rewriting, all the early hours, all the hard hours, all the grueling day after day and night after night efforts.

 What’s obsessing you now?

I have begun another novel with the working title, MADNESS, which takes place during the French Occupation in Paris and follows the travails of a French woman (married to a Jewish man) who has a relationship with a German soldier. In today’s publishing climate, as authors in both traditional and independent publishers are required to do oodles of publicity, I am busy with THE WHIPPING CLUB, but the budding story is thankfully, growing.


Deborah Henry said...

Thank you, Caroline! As generous as you are gifted, you have already made my first novel experience memorable. You are a true gem.

Jessica Keener said...

So excited for your debut!! Congratulations. I can't wait to read this one. It sounds glorious and enduring.

Deborah Henry said...

Jessica! Thanks! Loved your novel, too. Looking forward to future chats.:)