I’m never sure about the extent to which writers choose their subjects. Often, the process seems to work the other way around, so that you wouldn’t even call it a choice, as such, but more of an invitation. An image, literally a picture unfurls itself in your mind, or a line of dialogue, or a situation involving two characters. You might hear an old song, a nursery rhyme, even a joke, and find yourself wondering about the real-life story that inspired it. You might see something in a newspaper or in the streets of your town, or overhear a conversation on a train. Often, while writing a novel, you’ll get ideas for other books too, since that zone of your mind is open to possibilities, and your net is casting around in those sometimes strange depths. Yeats said all poetry comes from ‘the rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. Maybe it’s the same with novels. But there’s nothing mystical about it; it’s only a matter of your light being on, like a taxicab awaiting a fare.
In any case, describing what you were attempting to do in a novel is nearly always a retrospective endeavour, if truth be told. You don’t -- indeed you shouldn’t -- know fully what you were doing until after you’ve done it, or nearly. At one level, you’re writing the novel you would most like to read, for all writers begin as readers, not as makers of grand statements, and this is forgotten at the writer’s peril. More than anything, you want to make something beautiful and new; something that can offer itself with honesty to the reader, not softening the edges of what it describes, but somehow keeping faith with hopefulness. A story of how love can sometimes survive, of what happens to damaged people when it doesn’t.
Redemption Falls began with the image of a young woman walking barefoot across a devastated country. She drifted into my mind as the opening chapter describes her, to the tiniest details of her appearance and clothing, her slingshot, her walk, her head full of superstitions, her way of telling herself stories to kill time. Perhaps she was a refugee, an asylum-seeker: I didn’t know. Perhaps she was Afghani or African. It did not occur to me at the time that she was Eliza Duane Mooney, but as I began to scribble down ideas, attempting to see her more clearly, she seemed to loom up at me through the mists of my halting efforts. She walked into my life like a memory.
Eliza Duane Mooney, the friendless pilgrim. Too young to be on any journey of such a terrifying distance. Where was her home? Why had she left it? Where was she going? Did anyone love her? I had a very clear image of her ravaged feet, I remember. The scars this young woman would carry through the world; the burden of her physicality. She was searching for someone. A brother, it seemed. She had the intuition he might be dead. It soon became clear that this was a story of war, a fact I accepted with a somewhat heavy heart. My last book was about a famine. This one would be about a war. I’m going to do pestilence next.
War and peace were much in the ether when I began to sketch out the shape of the book. In Ireland, my home, it seemed that the decades of Ulster’s murderous troubles were coming at last to an end. But Iraq and Afghanistan were by now on the nightly newscasts; there was constant talk of terrorism, of what needed to be done. There were corrosive new suspicions of entire races and creeds. At one time, the Irish were feared in the lands to which they migrated, whispered about as terrorists, clannish, violent, speaking their strange language and lusting for the past, refusing to assimilate, to be melted. ‘The past is not over,’ William Faulkner famously wrote. There were other untouchables now.
Some of this I wrote about in my Star of the Sea, a novel whose narrator, towards the end of the book, remarks on the immigrant’s willingness to fight in the new land’s wars, the lengths to which he will go to belong. But even a journalist as unshockable as Grantley Dixon would have found the start of the 21st century astounding. The city of London, which I love and feel at home in, had been attacked by British-born bombers. New York, where I have lived with my wife and two young sons, where the happiest times of my adult life have been had, was still suffering the aftershocks of 9/11, as I believe it will for decades. Walking downtown Manhattan, seeing that hole in the sky, reading the memorial plaques to the fire-fighters and police officers who died -- immigrant names, mostly, many Irish among them – this is to glimpse the unforgettable agonies of that September morning, for which so many innocent people, the very poorest of the world, in faraway places, utterly defenceless, would be made so cruelly to pay.
I confess to disquiet about some novels of war, which too often offer the perspective of only one character. Every story has two sides, but a story of war has many more. A novel that doesn’t reflect this self-evident reality is suspect, to me, and runs the risk of using war as a backdrop, an engine for driving a plot. I wanted to write a book that would be multi-faceted and noisy, sometimes arguing with itself, even contradicting its own conclusions. There would be many narrators and conflicting perspectives, of time, character and tone. I had a sense that a book about war should read as if it were somehow stitched together from the torn, scattered fragments of many other books. A collection of shreds. A scrapbook, perhaps, assembled by someone who is clinging to the hope that some kind of sense can be made in recollection, that mercy might be found in story-making. An old professor, JD McLelland, is the collector in my novel. His secrets unfold in the process.
To me, it’s a deeply human need to piece our stories together. We do it in our lives, with our children, our loved ones, and we do it in the long, dark nights, if we have them, when silence summons the child in all of us. War is a tearing apart, an attack on the body, an acknowledgement that there is no one story on which peace can be agreed. ‘The real war will never get in the books,’ wrote Walt Whitman (like Lucia-Cruz McLelland, he had been a nurse in the Civil War, one of the very few men to have undertaken such a role). My book was an attempt to tell the stories with truthfulness, in a structure that would also be truthful, also lively and involving. The single, driving plotline, though always tempting to a writer, would have to be messed-with this time.
So I have ballads, letters, songs, memoirs, reports from spies, newspaper articles, accounts being written in the choking smoke of battle and events being recollected many years later, when time has worked a kind of healing. Allen Winterton, my cartographer, writes a prose of careful clarity (at least he does at the start of his time in Redemption Falls) while the words of Elizabeth Longstreet, my watcher-at-the-door, are rendered by an anonymous transcriber. Jeddo Mooney sometimes thinks in the juicy slang of his birthplace, as the Marshal, Patrick Vinson, talks like a Brooklyn Irishman. And the book is packed with music, with folk song and balladry, which sometimes tells the story in fairly direct ways and at other times is clearly distorting it. No art form is as emotionally powerful as music, which is why it has always been used to make myths and heroes. Ballads sidle up to us pretending to be the product of the archivist who wishes only to remember, to say how things were, but often they are the works of the propagandist’s art, designed to construct a case. The song-makers did then what the spin-doctors do now. If we still made ballads, there is no doubt in my mind that we would all know The Song of the Iraqi Nuclear Warheads, deployable in forty-five minutes.
War is about absence, a hard thing to write about. Fathers, sons, who are not here any more. Husbands who will never come home. The orphans and mourning lovers of 19th century fiction: these are the silent voices. To include them without sentimentality, to point towards their wordlessness – it seemed important to try. So the book is structured around the absences of all its central characters, precisely at the moments when their presences would save everything. The photographs, too, are images of an empty land, but I think the viewer sees their ghosts all the same.
With the darkness of the territory, it was important to find light, and I hope, in the character of scheming, narcissistic Winterton, that the reader will find at least a couple of places to laugh, albeit in amazement at his vanity. To write a credible villain, an author must find something to like in him. I think what I like is Winterton’s almost slappable self-delusion, and also one or two of his jokes. There are reasons for his amorality, as we discover near the end, when we discover many surprising things about the entire story and its principle narrator. Suffice it to say, nobody is quite what they seem. The end of a story is everything.
There are many languages in the book, many dialects of English, but also phrases in the vernaculars of Old Europe: German, Spanish, French, Italian, the Gaelic of Ireland, the rhymed slang of London. One of the beautiful things about English, especially American English, is its capacity to borrow, its openness to the world. It seems to offer the hope that we can walk out of the graveyard of our national, tribal vanity. More than this, I hope the language of the novel gives pleasure to readers. A book about dark things needs to be pleasurable, somehow, and there is sometimes a delight to be found just in words, in the act of reading itself. When I think of the writers whose work I really love, I don’t always remember the details of the story; but I always remember a phrase, a sentence, an image that made an old thing new.
At the heart of the novel is a kind of love story, of a marriage that is far from perfect. Lucia and O’Keeffe have known crippling difficulties, some of their own making, many to do with the past. I hope readers will recognise something in the way I’ve portrayed them. Certainly, I grew immensely fond of both of them as the novel took shape, though neither of them is always easy to love. They might have benefited from couple counselling, or an appearance on ‘Doctor Phil’, had such happily useful therapies been available in the mid 19th century. As it is, I have had to portray them, in the narrator’s phrase, as a marriage made on earth, not in heaven.
And then there are the stories of the hundreds of thousands of Irish famine-era immigrants who took up arms in the American Civil War. Often enough, they knew their deaths were absolutely certain, yet they continued to sign up and fight. And often they fought their own countrymen on America’s battlefields, these desperately poor people who had crossed half the world in the hope of a new life and freedom. Was it hope for acceptance in the Land of the Brave that led so many to the killing grounds of Gettysburg and The Wilderness? Have their stories anything to say about who dies now, in America’s far-flung wars? As with Star of the Sea, it seemed important simply to record this too-frequently forgotten aspect of the immigrant story. Yet documentary is not enough, and I hope this part of the tale has echoes. But enough of the author’s intentions; those are not very important in the end. The reader is always the one who puts together the song. The author only provides the sheet music.
All these vivid stories, these histories and characters, but connecting them was only one. Eliza, for all her absence, holds the scrapbook together, through the kind of selfless love that makes the existence of our species worth continuing. To her author, she says there must always be hope, even in the moral slum, even against hopelessness. Why was she walking that long, hard road? And what would she find at the end of it? These were the questions I wanted to answer, and if the novel has any worth, it is only to the extent that it records the indefatigable grace of human compassion, which somehow continues, despite everything that assails it. There are tyrants in the world; there are hangmen and torturers. But there are also Eliza Mooneys. To have been in her company for the last four years was a humbling thing, a blessing. I will miss her now, as her new journey begins. It has been hard to wish her goodbye.
Reading Group Guide
In the author’s note, Joseph O’Connor explains “the book is structured around the absences of all its central characters precisely at the moments when their presences would save everything.” How does this apply to each of the novel’s main characters—Eliza Duane Mooney, Jeremiah Mooney, Lucia-Cruz McLelland, James Con O’Keeffe, Cole McLaurenson and Elizabeth Longstreet?
The novel includes posters, poems, letters, newspaper clippings, songs, transcripts and other items that relate to the characters or the plot. How did these devices enhance the overall story? Were there any items that confused you? If so, which ones? What other writers use this technique in their work?
“She is walking to stand still, not to travel into a story” (page 6). What is Eliza moving toward; what is she walking away from? Discuss her quest—what does her journey symbolize and how is it crucial to the novel’s theme?
“I have known brave men. I have wished to be one of them. But conscience makes a coward of us all” (page 123). Discuss courage versus conscience in war. How is this struggle reflected in Redemption Falls?
“‘I loved you,’ Lucia writes, ‘before ever your hand touched me, before ever I saw you or heard spoken your name” (page 148). Why do Lucia and O’Keeffe stay together? What makes their relationship so tumultuous? How does the presence of Jeremiah Mooney affect their marriage?
“I never once did kill no man that didn’t need to die” (page 209). What is Cole McLaurenson’s mission and what fuels it?” Does this justify his actions?
“It is a horrible thing to own—to be owned by—a secret, and to walk about with it corroding your spirit as you go” (page 262). What is Lucia’s secret? What secrets own the other main characters of the novel?
What is Elizabeth Longstreet’s role in this novel? Describe her relationships with Lucia, O’Keefe and Jeremiah.
“My collection includes forgeries” (page 443). How did this statement affect you? Do you think it is a fair technique, reminding the reader that history can contain lies? Did you have your suspicions while reading this novel? What does this say about how our history is told?
How are all the main characters linked together in Redemption Falls? When did the connection become apparent to you? Would any of the individual stories stand alone as a novel or are the themes of each of their stories dependent on the other characters’ perspectives?
Does Redemption Falls have anything to say about America’s subsequent history? Does it inform our understanding of the United States in our own era?
If James O’Keeffe, Lucia McLelland, Allen Winterton, and Elizabeth Longstreet were alive today, for which American political parties or candidates do you think they would vote? And why? What do you think they would like and dislike about our own world?
Redemption Falls, although quite long, reads quickly. How long did it take you to research and write this novel?
It slightly depends on how one would count it, since research and writing time tend to blend into one another. Often you have to write a bit just to see if an idea has possibilities. But I had been thinking about the book for four or five years and then I wrote it in about eighteen months. Most of it was written while I was living in New York. I had a writer-in-residence fellowship at the New York Public Library, which was a really wonderful experience.
One character in the novel, Eliza Duane Mooney, is the daughter of two of the passengers from your previous novel, Star of the Sea. Why did you decide to expand on this family’s story? Was it something you planned to do while writing Star of the Sea or an idea that evolved after its publication?
I think the subject of immigrant America is so large and fascinating that I knew it would take three books to do it justice, and the best way to link them was by a sort of family tie. So from before I began writing Star of the Sea itwas envisaged to be the first part of a projected trilogy, of which Redemption Falls forms the second part. But it’s important to say that the books are designed to have their totally independent lives too. So they’re more like cousins than marriage partners or siblings! For that reason, it’s not at all necessary to have read Star of the Sea to read Redemption Falls. But if you had read the first book you would notice certain references to it in the second one. My hope, ultimately, is that the three books, taken together, will comment on one another, and sometimes contradict one another. Just like a noisy family gathering.
Redemption Falls was published in the U.K. before it was published in the U.S. What have been the reactions to the book from the two different audiences?
In Britain, Ireland, and some other European countries, the book became a bestseller. To my great surprise and delight, it has been translated into many languages. I think it was seen in Europe as a story about the characters and about language itself, with many contemporary resonances and echoes of our own era, rather than as a historical novel about specific events. But I was very pleased for the novel to be published in the United States at all. For most of the time I was working on it, I wasn’t certain it would be. I guess I thought some American readers would perhaps feel a little uneasy about the prospect of an outsider writing a novel about their history. Certainly, if things were the other way around, I think many Irish people would be disconcerted if an American author wrote a novel that was engaged with real events in Ireland’s past. Then again, one point the book makes is that the Civil War was a hugely important event in the lives of immigrant American communities, so in that sense it is part of all our histories.
Do you consider this historical novel an Irish, American, or Irish-American tale?
In an important sense I don’t personally consider it a historical novel at all. For me, it’s a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the past. Its structure and approach are very modern, as are its concerns – the things it looks at and the things it ignores. After that, I don’t know if it’s Irish, American, or Irish-American – in one way those labels are not especially applicable, and that, I guess, is one point of the book. Although in another sense, by definition, it must fit into all those categories simultaneously. To its author, Redemption Falls is simply a story about love and loyalty, about trying to live with hope in a world gone mad. And it’s also a story about the fundamental barrenness of many of the national or tribal categories we still employ to define ourselves. The book tries to appeal to other, perhaps stranger solidarities – family, friendship, comradeship, love, the courage of the immigrant, the consolation offered by music. It holds to the hope that there is more to us than our passports, that there are compulsions and aspirations which unite all of us, and always will, no matter our country or background or race, and which still transmit powerfully even when they appear to have been silenced.
What is the story behind the title, Redemption Falls? How did you find this desolate western township?
One of the many beautiful things about American English is the extraordinary poetry of American place-names. I find it powerfully moving to realize that so many of these places were named by immigrants for the places in Europe they had left behind. And then, one of the novel’s themes is the idea of redemption: is it possible to live decently when we have seen and sometimes done terrible things? So a town called Redemption Falls simply suggested itself to me, and once that happened I allowed myself to be led there. I think of it now as a real place. In my mind I can walk around it, and I hope the reader can, too.
Are any of these characters based on real people? Or are they created from a picture unfurled in your imagination?
There was a real person called Thomas Francis Meagher who was a significant figure in 19th century Irish-American history. Like James O’Keeffe in Redemption Falls, Meagher was an Irish-born revolutionary, later a Union General in America, and his operatic life ended with a spell as Acting Governor of the Montana Territory. While O’Keeffe is a fictional character, absolutely not a disguised portrayal of Meagher, I took some of the principal events in Meagher’s career and gave them to O’Keeffe. Jeddo Mooney, while not based on any other fictional character, is in some ways a response to Charles Dickens’ character Oliver Twist. While I love Dickens’s skill as a storyteller, I always found his angelic portrayal of Oliver completely unbelievable. No boy with such a terrible childhood could be as saintly. In another, more personal sense, the portrayal of Jeddo is based on my own two young sons. While their lives, thankfully, are a great deal happier than Jeddo’s, I have often been reminded, since becoming a father, that the drama of being a child has its intensely dark and frightening moments. Not to have the language in which to say what we feel can be a matter of great frustration, even to adults, and to children this lack presents particular difficulties. Other people in the book have traces of characters who appear in Irish and Scottish balladry and in the wonderfully rich tradition that is American blues music.
At 450-plus pages, the original must have been edited down. How many pages was your first draft? What do you do with the work that doesn’t make it through final editing—does it evolve into another story?
I don’t remember how long my original draft was but it was certainly very long. For me, writing is a more or less constant process of re-writing. You sculpt and hone each sentence until you know it’s right. (One way I test its rightness is to read material aloud when I think it’s finished.) As for the work that doesn’t make it into the published text, I file it away in a box and never use it again. I think it would be wrong to use it, and anyway it wouldn’t ring true. But you learn something from every phrase or scene you write.
For you, “it has been hard to say goodbye” to Eliza. Was there a character you were glad to be rid of?
I was glad to be rid of the McLaurenson gang, who to me are terrifying examples of the moral degradation that always happens in war. The other characters are all still very real to me. I sometimes find myself watching TV or reading a newspaper and thinking to myself ‘I wonder what O’Keeffe would make of that?’ or ‘What would Lucia be saying if she were a guest on that chat-show?’ and so on. As an author, you come to understand more about your fictional characters than you can ever know about any actual person, because you know their every secret – also, they are profoundly part of you. They walk around your mind long after the book has been published, still jostling with the characters from your previous books and maybe from your next ones! So it’s like Grand Central Station in a writer’s mind a lot of the time. You drift around the concourse, seeing people you made in the shadows – maybe arguing with another, or kissing, or just hanging out. Fiction is a strange way for a grown-up to make a living, that’s for sure! But it’s become part of my life and I love doing it.
You list many sources in your acknowledgements. If you could recommend one non-fiction book on the Civil War, what would it be? What book stands out as a work that defines the participation of the Irish in the war?
I don’t know any single book that defines the participation of the Irish in the American Civil War; nor, I imagine, could there ever be one single such work, because Irish participation was so enormous and various. To my mind, the greatest history of the war is Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative. Foote was an accomplished novelist as well as a meticulous historian and his extraordinary gifts come together in this epic and gripping book.
You said, “I don’t think writers choose their subjects. The process seems to work in reverse.” What subject has chosen you for your next book? Will a character from Redemption Falls reappear in it?
My next novel will be short, with one narrator, and it will be a love story. I think of Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls as having a sort of operatic or symphonic structure, and I would like the last book of the trilogy to have the purity of a song. Like drinking from a stream of mountain water after two courses of very rich food. Eliza and Jeddo’s mother, a rather elusive and ghostly character from Redemption Falls, might appear in the next novel. But since she will be in a sort of disguise I don’t want to say too much about her at the moment.