Publisher: Fireship Press
Publication Date: February 1, 2014
Synopsis: Once she was a child of hunger, but now Norah McCabe is a woman with courage, passion, and reckless dreams. Her story is one of survival, intrigue, and love. This Irish immigrant woman cannot be narrowly defined! She dons Paris fashion and opens a used-clothing store, is attacked by a vicious police commissioner, joins a movement to free Ireland, and attends a National Women's Rights Convention. And love comes to her slowly one night on a dark street, ensnared by the great Mr. Murray, essayist and gang leader extraordinaire. Norah is the story of a woman who confronts prejudice, violence, and greed in a city that mystifies and helps to mold her into becoming an Irish-American woman.
About the Author: Cynthia Neale is an American with Irish ancestry and a native of the Finger Lakes region in New York. She now resides in Hampstead, New Hampshire. She has long possessed a deep interest in the tragedies and triumphs of the Irish during the Potato Famine or “The Great Hunger.” She is a graduate of Vermont College in Montpelier, VT, with a B.A. degree in Literature and Creative Writing. Norah is her first historical novel for adult readers. She is also the author of two young adult novels, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850) and Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser. Her forthcoming book, Pavlova in a Hat Box, is a collection of essays and dessert recipes. She is currently researching and writing a sequel to Norah, as well as a novel about Queen Catharine, a Native American of New York whose village was destroyed by General John Sullivan in 1779.
Interview: 1. I can only tell you about the inspiration for Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York by telling you about how she came to me as a child of thirteen in my first children’s novel, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope During The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850). As a writer, The Great Hunger (Irish Famine) grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go. This catastrophic event left deep scars that altered Ireland and the Irish psyche. There have been horrid “ethnic cleansing” periods in world history and this event (the worst disaster of the 19th century) was indeed the same. It was believed amongst some government officials at the time that Providence had provided the British a means, through the potato fungus and famine, to rid them of their nasty Irish problem.
The only knowledge I had about the Irish Famine was a one liner in my high school history book, “Over a million people perished in Ireland from the loss of the potato crop.” After I wrote a short play in 1997 about The Great Hunger and was researching for the first novel, people would ask me, “Why did the Irish only eat potatoes?” OMG! Americans and even Irish-Americans did not know this history. Honestly, I hadn’t known much, either. John Walters writes, “Surveys, I’m told, indicate that the Irish people do not want to hear about the Famine. But it is also precisely why the subject must be talked about until we remember the things we never knew.” As a writer, I knew this was a subject that would become the vehicle for a story. There was no number tattooed on the Irish skin, but the marking of cultural shame was evident. Tom Hayden writes in Irish Hunger, “There are unmarked famine graves in all of us.”
In 1997, I was dancing at an Irish pub one evening and looked up at the well-known poster titled, Irish Dresser. It was a photograph of an eighteenth-century Irish dresser (comparable to a china cabinet). As I danced, I imagined a young girl suffering from hunger and tragedy, but dreaming of a better life when she climbed inside this place of refuge, her hiding place, and place of hope. Norah McCabe eventually travels across the sea to America hidden away in this dresser. After I wrote the first book and found a publisher, I thought I was finished telling her story. But I couldn’t leave her on the shores of America and I also learned through genealogical research that there was a real Norah McCabe who had come from Ireland to NYC in 1847! After many rejection letters for the first book and nearly giving up trying to find a publisher, I also learned there was a real ship called The Star (I had given this name to the ship Norah McCabe travels on to America) with a family traveling on it with my last name, Neale. They had a thirteen year old girl traveling with them.
I became convinced I was writing about a real person who had lived during this period. And so I wrote Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser that continued her story of survival in her new country, a country that despised the Irish immigrant. And then once again I assumed her story was over, but I felt the stirrings of a young woman’s dreams and struggles. And the more I read about New York City and America during the years prior to the Civil War and post massive immigration, the more intrigued I became. Abolitionism, the Nativist Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement were in their heyday. There were uprisings, bank runs and crashes, riots, violence, and xenophobia. Many movies and books portray the Irish woman as an ignorant Brigit who spoils the soup and talks back to her betters. Certainly there were a few of these types, but in my research I learned that Irish women far exceeded other female ethnic groups in education and economics. They climbed up in the world come hell or high water! They paraded down Fifth Avenue dressed in Paris fineries bought from the money they saved (still sending money back to Ireland), and aristocratic Protestant ladies were incensed that these Irish maids looked just like them.
I could imagine the child, Norah, becoming a vibrant and determined young woman who wanted to desperately climb out of her Irish skin as much as she wanted to stay inside it. She didn’t want the limitations of her race and she dreams of success, but still longs to return to Ireland. The two children’s books about Norah McCabe convinced me she still had a story to tell and so I trusted her to continue to tell me her story in Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in the 19th-Century. And so she did!
2. Although I have written short stories, the two children’s books, essays, and plays, I had never written an adult historical novel. It was daunting! There was more research to prepare the canvas for her story. I doubted at times whether I could thrust this child into the world to become an adult. And as much as Norah has me in her, she is her own woman. I was challenged to let her be Norah McCabe and not Cynthia Neale, somewhat akin to letting my own daughter, who has me in her, be entirely herself. There is a real letting go of the story to allow it to meander where it needs to go, even after you have had big dreams for the characters and emphatically prepared for the story and characters’ lives. I felt that I became the time travel machine by which Norah and the other characters journeyed on from the past to the page. I was frightened a few times that the machine was going to crash or run out of fuel, but by the time it landed, I was ready. I gained a certain confidence I hadn’t had before, as well as humility. No matter the labor, tenacity, and inspiration, there was something else at work here. I didn’t have to do it alone! I love this quote by William Trevor, I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning. I write out of curiosity and bewilderment…I’ve learned a lot I could not have learned if I were not a writer.
3. I have a list of writing projects and fear there won’t be enough time for me to write them. I am currently writing yet another novel about Norah McCabe. The working title is, The Irish Milliner, and I’m on chapter seven. I’ve also started a novel about a Native American woman who lived during The American Revolution and have spent years researching for her story. I started a young adult novel about Anne Hutchinson many years ago that I would like to finish. I’d like to write a play based on James Thurber’s short story, The Night the Bed Fell. I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that I’d like to finish. I’d also like to write a fictional memoir and a collection of nature essays.
4. I wouldn’t mind being Norah for a day or two, but no more than that. I’d be her triumphant self all glammed up in Parisian fashion clutching the arm of her beau and wearing one of her hats she designed to wear to a concert or show. But I admit that I prefer to live vicariously through her and the other characters and would be a bit of a wimp to do the things she and they have done!
5. I want to learn to do many things, although I might now be considered getting close my crone years. I love it that in Irish myth, there’s a hag goddess of antiquity. Her name is Cailleach and she represents the maiden, the matron, and the crone. And the good news is that she can become any one of those at any time. I don’t want to be limited by my age and I feel the maiden in me still (without the foolishness). I’d like to learn to sing well. I’d like to learn to tango and do other ballroom dances. I’d like to learn how to speak French without feeling embarrassed.
6. I’ve just finished reading My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (5 stars) set during the Civil War era. I’m also reading The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman, Longing For Darkness, Tara and the Black Madonna by China Galland, Dear Life by Alice Munro, and tonight I’m going to hunker down with a new book, The Fountain of St. James Court by Sena Jeter Naslund. I take turns in the evening with these books, but sometimes I stay with one until 2 a.m. Of course, during the day, I’m still reading books for research, such as A People’s History of The Civil War by David Williams and The Female Economy, The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 by Wendy Gamber.
7. Many books have impacted my life and I can’t choose just one! The books by George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Louisa Mae Alcott, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Bronte, and Daphne Du Maurier, Anya Seton, Chekov…And, of course, contemporary novels by Susan Vreeland, Jena Seter Naslund, Louise Erdrich, and many others, and a number of children’s novels.
8. One thing that gives me the most joy in life? There isn’t one thing. After the labor, comes the birth of a story, play, essay and this is a wonderful joy. Dancing, especially Irish dancing. Walking in the woods with my husband. The birds at my feeder. Baking fanciful desserts, especially cakes. Basking in the warmth of my many friends. Laughing with my daughter and my 86 year old mother. Other people’s triumph over adversity. Flower gardening. And to know even one life has breathed easier because you (I) have lived (Emerson).
9. I would say to my readers a hearty thank you for taking the time to read about this spirited young woman who, in many ways, represents every immigrant past or present, every woman struggling to make dreams real; and to garner courage to step into the unknown to make your own dreams a reality. I would like to leave my readers with these words that I write inside the cover of my book, Hope dances in the darkness and believes in the Lover who casts light at our feet.
There is 1 paperback copy of 'Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York' for giveaway!
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