Marita Conlan McKenna is the author of an Irish historical fiction novel, The Hungry Road, set at the time of the The Great Irish Famine.
Inspired by true stories of real Irish heroes, it is a story of unfathomable courage and the resilience of the human spirit.
Today, I’m delighted to introduce this new book about this tragic time in Irish and American history.
Today’s post is extra special, since the author, Marita Conlan-McKenna participated in an exclusive online interview especially for readers of Irish American Mom. exploring her writing inspirations, habits and research.
Plus, I’m delighted to report I have a copy of this new book for a giveaway, thanks to the publishers, Penguin Books. But before I share the details of how to enter for a chance to win, let’s first learn more about this novel, and Marita’s writing.
About The Hungry Road:
Here’s a quick synopsis about the book, from the author’s website:
“In 1845 Ireland’s hopes for freedom are dashed with the arrival of a deadly potato blight.
Seamstress Mary Sullivan’s dreams of a better future are shattered as she looks out over their ruined crop. Refusing to give in to despair, she must use every ounce of courage and strength to protect her family as they fight to survive
Dr Dan Donovan is medical officer to the Skibbereen Union. The arrival of ‘The Hunger’ soon brings starving men, women and children crowding into the town and the workhouse desperate for assistance.
Parish Priest Rev John Fitzpatrick’s faith is tested by the suffering that surrounds him as the town’s pleas for help to the authorities fall on deaf ears.”
Interview With Marita Conlan McKenna:
Marita graciously answered some questions I emailed to her, the answers to which I hope will give you insight into her writing process, and the importance of storytelling and history in her life.
My questions may not be those of a professional book critic, but these are the topics I wonder about whenever I pick up a new book. I hope you enjoy Marita’s thoughtful responses.
What is your favorite childhood book?
My absolute favorite book is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. I read every book in her ‘Little House’ series over and over again.
The book transported me to a log cabin in America and the pioneering world of Laura and her family- a world so different from Ireland. Laura Ingalls Wilder was an incredible writer with a unique and simple style of writing, whose books have stood the test of time.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I find the most difficult part of the process of writing is pulling the whole book together and trying to make it seamless. I always find it really hard to say my book is done and hand it over to my editor.
I am always tempted to add more or another chapter! Every book I write I usually change the last few paragraphs and words of the final page ten, twenty, even thirty times!
I think it is that I don’t want to say goodbye to the book and the characters that I have come to know and care so deeply about.
What was your most difficult scene in the book to write?
The Hungry Road is set in Skibbereen during Ireland’s Great Hunger so there are many harrowing scenes in the book. However two scenes both related to Mary Sullivan, the seamstress who fights so hard to ensure that her husband and children will survive, really had a deep emotional impact on me.
One was the horror when Mary discovers her sister Kathleen dead and the other is when she and her family are on board the ship to New York and tragedy strikes. It is probably one of the saddest things I have ever had to write.
What does literary success look like to you?
For a writer first- off success is writing a book, going from beginning to middle and end and being happy with your work, then having it accepted by a publisher is a huge achievement.
However it really is when the book and readers come together that the true satisfaction comes , knowing you have written a book that has reached and touched others and brought them into the world you have created. Best -selling lists and book awards are the icing on the cake!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Every book I write involves an element of research, for me it is part of the joy of writing whether it is finding out about the variety of old roses in a garden or the architecture of an old house in The Rose Garden, the work of a milliner creating hats in ‘The Hat shop on the Corner,’ or how to deliver a foal in ‘The Fields of Home’. However once history steps on to the page a huge amount of research is always needed.
‘The Hungry Road’ was a massive book , an epic story that involved three years of research and writing about Ireland’s Great Hunger.
The book is set in Skibbereen in West Cork which was probably the worst affected area in Ireland and was at the very epicentre of the Famine. My mother is from Skibbereen and I have cousins still living there and though I visit it regularly it wasn’t until I began researching I discovered the truly catastrophic situation that existed there. Once the potato crop failed the town was soon overwhelmed with the starving and sick, all desperate and begging for help.
Doctor Dan Donovan, the town’s doctor and the medical officer for the Skibbereen Workhouse was heroic in his efforts to save them. He was an incredible man, a compassionate and caring doctor with a meticulous mind prepared to fight for his patients. A first- hand witness he wrote his Diary of a Dispensary Doctor which recorded the events in the town. It was published in a Cork newspaper but then picked by other newspapers both in Ireland and Britain and overseas.
His words shocked people but resulted in not only others coming to see for themselves the situation in West Cork and Ireland but also in a wave of donations to help the starving. He was a true hero and is all but forgotten about. Reading his words I knew immediately I wanted to write about him.
The book was difficult to write, the tragedy greater than I could have imagined but I am so glad that I persevered. The folks at the local Heritage Centre in Skibbereen were great as I immersed myself in discovering more about those terrible times, and the huge courage, resilience and spirit of the people which is often forgotten about.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me. I get lost in the words and the story I am telling and time and place just seems to fly away. When I get to the half or three quarter way stage of a new book I am usually a bit crazy working all the hours I can, often until late in the night , unitl I fall into bed. However next morning I’m up and dying to get working again …. I just want to keep going ….
If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
Since I was very young all I wanted was to write and to be a writer I had absolutely no idea how it would ever happen! But somehow I just kept writing, all kinds of stuff and was lucky enough that some things got published.
I think I would tell myself to believe and to keep writing and doing what you love and you will get there.
I have been writing for years and no matter what else has happened in my life writing still gives me joy and a sense of myself. I began writing for myself, then for my children, and then I was so lucky to find a publisher. I write most days and cannot imagine a time when I am not writing!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I still remember when I was about 12 or 13 a young poet Seamus Heaney came to visit our school and stood up to read from his work in the big Hall. He was wearing a tweed jacket and shirt, his hair was messy and he had big hands. As soon as he began to read and talk I was riveted.
Seamus Heaney read poems of his childhood and home place and as he spoke I could see and feel his words.
He was very different from the famous Irish writers and poets we were learning about in school. He was flesh and blood and on that day made me realize that writers were real people and it was their words and language that mattered.
Years later I had the good fortune to get to know Seamus and he confided how nervous he’d been standing up and reading his poems to a large group of girls. He’d only done the reading as a favor to a relation involved with my school.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
How long is a piece of string? My first book ’Under the Hawthorn Tree’ took only twelve weeks to write as I was so obsessed after hearing about the discovery of three child skeletons from famine times buried under a hawthorn tree that I wanted to get the story on to the page.
However most of my other books have taken a year or so to write. The big historical ones like ‘The Magdalen’ and ‘Rebel Sisters’ with research can take up to three years.
The quickest book that I have ever written is ‘Granny MacGinty ‘a children’s picture book about pets. It took only three days and was inspired by sitting in my back garden watching big snails devour all my delphiniums and flowers.
Do you have a website?
My website, contains links for all of my books, both children’s and adult fiction.
Note from Irish American Mom – I was very interested to read about the launch of this novel at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre in West Cork. Skibbereen is the setting for this story. Both Marita’s mother and my mother were born in Skibbereen, and as readers of this blog know, I often write about the highways and byways of this beautiful part of the world.
We visited the Famine Memorial at Abbeystrewry Graveyard just outside the town of Skibbereen in a previous blog post.
Where can readers find your books for purchasing?
My books are available in good bookshops, online and on Kindle etc.
The Hungry Road is available through Amazon.
If you are interested in Marita’s writing, here are some links for some of her other books, including links for her beloved Under The Hawthorn Tree trilogy for young readers.
One lucky reader will win a copy of The Hungry Road by Marita Conlan-McKenna.
To enter simply leave a comment on this blog post by noon Eastern Time on Saturday, November 28th, 2020.
Any comment will do. What you write does not affect your chance of winning, but if you need inspiration why not tell us if you enjoy reading books set in Ireland.
A winning comment will be chosen randomly. Remember to leave your e-mail so that I can contact you should you win. Your e-mail won’t be published, just used to contact our lucky contestant for mailing of the prize.
The winner will be announced on Saturday, November 28th, 2020, at the bottom of this blog post.
You may check out Irish American Mom’s complete terms and conditions for sweepstakes’ entries by clicking here.
Thank you to all who support this giveaway and share it with family and friends.
Many thanks to Penguin Books for sponsoring this giveaway.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Disclosure: I do not have a financial arrangement with Penguin/Random House. This post reflects my honest and unbiased thoughts about this work. I received a copy of this book from the publisher as a prize for a reader of Irish American Mom to win.
Text copyright 2020 by Marita Conlan-McKenna.
Excerpts and photos reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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