Author On the Bookcase: Kate Kerrigan, author of Ellis Island

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Author On the Bookcase
Kate Kerrigan

Kate KerriganThrilled to welcome Kate Kerrigan, author of Ellis Island, to On the Bookcase. In Ellis Island, Ellie Hogan and her husband John were childhood sweethearts, destined to live together on his farm in Ireland. But when John, a soldier for the Irish Republican Army, becomes too injured to work, Ellie must take drastic measures in order for them to survive. Like many other young Irish women in the 1920s, she immigrates to New York City, to work as a maid for a wealthy socialite.

In New York, Ellie is introduced to a sophisticated lifestyle, tempted by this glittering new world of fine clothes and parties, money and mansions. Soon she is faced with the most difficult choice: to stay in a country full of hope and promise, or to return home to a life of poverty … and love.

Kate chats with us about her "Hermitage a place where I can be utterly alone and free to enjoy and explore the characters and adventures that inhabit the strange world of a writer’s mind."

My Writing Den

Today I am sitting in my writing den in my mother’s garden. Built for me as a child by my grandfather, what we call the “chalet” has been converted into my writer’s cottage. In the small back bedroom there is a bed, covered in my grandmother’s old woollen blankets, and a rickety table painted a bright blue to match the windowsill which it sits in front of. On the wide sill itself is a dried nest with a few pebbles and a clay robin sitting in it, and a load of scented candles that my mother leaves for me. At last, until three o’clock today when I have to collect my baby from the childminder, I can hide in my writer’s nest.

I have been trying to get in here and get going on my new novel for weeks now. Family life offers so many distractions--a mischievous toddler, a sick husband that I seem to have gone for months without a proper routine. Writing has happened at the kitchen table between shopping and feeding, in cafés, on trains, fit into short spurts while half-living my busy life. I know I can’t write a novel this way. I need room to breathe, and think, and ruminate. I call it my writing den the Hermitage, a place where I can be utterly alone and free to enjoy and explore the characters and adventures that inhabit the strange world of a writer’s mind.

Ellis IslandThe laburnum outside my window is in full bloom, the drooping yellow fronds dropping their pod-shaped petals to the ground. There is a blue tit pecking at the bird feeder that hangs from the window, its pert quiff raised as it hammers at the brown nuts, and a half dozen more are flitting in and out of the lush branches waiting for their turn. This tree that my mother planted five years ago is their world. She planted it in memory of her father, but the blue-tits don’t care why the tree was planted, or how it came to be here. Their life’s work is foraging and nesting, feeding their young. Contented opportunists, they scavenge my mother’s shop-bought nuts; I envy the simplicity and sureness of their lives.

My brother who died last year was a musician. Tom’s life was music--his art was transitory; unless it is perfectly recorded music exists only in the moment it is being played.  I use words to try and make sense of things, to force shape and meaning onto my feelings. I want everything to make sense so that I can control it, so that I can make myself feel happy and more secure. Writing is my craft, but it’s also my therapy.

I miss my brother Tom and like many bereaved I try to find him now in nature. I listen for him in the whispering of wind through the trees, look up at the night sky and hope he is up there with the stars for company. When I sit very still I can feel him here with me. I’m not angry with him anymore for dying. I am glad he is at peace, and grateful for his sitting quietly with me in my writing den. I look out at my mother’s garden and am reminded how life goes on. The laburnum sheds, blossoms, and sheds again--growing stronger and more beautiful with each passing year.

My mind hurries along, worried about the number of words I have to write to meet my looming deadline. Worried about abandoning my baby to the kind childminder he grows fonder of with each passing day, worried that my other son doesn’t get enough of my attention, that my house is too big and expensive to run, that the car tax need renewing, as do the passports, the dog license. Then I remember that Tom is dead, and that, despite all the crazy, terrible, wonderful things that have happened since I sat here last summer, I am still writing. Perhaps life is just, after all, like nature, a process of renewal.

Thanks so much, Kate, for sharing your thoughts about writing, loss, and life. Ellis Island creates so many ideas for reading group discussion -- marriage, American and Irish history, immigration, and the "process of renewal."

"Kerrigan is excellent at evoking both rustic Ireland and 20th-century New York."—Publishers Weekly
"... A love story shot through with a perfect sense of the period, it is a rare combination of historical enlightenment and sheer enjoyment.
"—Peter Quinn, author of The Man Who Never Returned

Kate Kerrigan is the author of two previous novels in the UK. She lives in Ireland with her husband and their two sons.

Learn more about Kate.

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