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St. Patrick's Day Salutations: Marina Neary on 'Never Be at Peace' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner celebrates Irish history and culture with a chara (“friend”) Marina Neary.

Ms. Neary is the author of five novels, the most recent of which, Never Be at Peace (Fireship Press, $7.50), was published earlier this month. Also an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts & entertainment journalist, dramatist, and poet, her areas of expertise include British steampunk, French Romanticism, and Irish nationalism. Ms. Neary currently serves as an editorial reviewer and frequent contributor for Bewildering Stories magazine. She makes her home in Connecticut.

Never Be at Peace is currently available as a digital download and has received critical praise from early readers. Evangeline Holland, Edwardian Promenade, noted, “M.J. Neary’s Never Be at Peace is a gripping and intense tale of Ireland in the think of the revolution … it will delight fans of women’s history and Irish history.” Further, Abigail L. Palko, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, enthused, “Never Be at Peace gives life to the excitement of the years leading up to and following the birth of the Irish Republic. M.J. Neary has drawn upon a rich cast of characters … to capture the complexity of the relationships and the ever-shifting allegiances that dominated the Irish theater and revolutionary politics.”

From the publisher:

A pugnacious orphan from a bleak Dublin suburb, Helena Molony dreams of liberating Ireland. Her fantasies take shape when the indomitable Maud Gonne informally adopts her and sets her on a path to theatrical stardom - and political martyrdom. Swept up in the Gaelic Revival, Helena succumbs to the romantic advances of Bulmer Hobson, an egotistical Fenian leader with a talent for turning friends into enemies. After their affair ends in a bitter ideological rift, she turns to Sean Connolly, a married fellow-actor from the Abbey Theatre, a man idolised in the nationalist circles. As Ireland prepares to strike against the British rule on Easter Monday, Helena and her comrades find themselves caught in a whirlwind of deceit, violence, broken alliances and questionable sacrifices. In the words of Patrick Pearse, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. For the survivors of the Rising, the battle will continue for decades after the last shot had been fired.

Now, Marina Neary discusses bringing history alive for readers …

1) NEVER BE AT PEACE is your fifth novel. How do you feel that it represents your evolution as a storyteller—and what do you hope that your continued depiction if Irish heritage might instill in readers?

"Never Be at Peace" is actually a companion piece to my previous novel "Martyrs & Traitors" (2011). The same events of the 1916 Easter Rising are shown through the eyes of two individuals who had started off as comrades and lovers and ended up bitter enemies on the opposite sides of the barricade. "Martyrs & Traitors" explores the English and Protestant element in the Irish patriotic movement. Believe it or not, many of the Irish revolutionaries were Protestant, upper middle class and of predominantly English stock, like Bulmer Hobson, the protagonist of "Martyrs" who had actually tried to stop the ill-fated rising. Helena Molony, the focal figure of "Never Be at Peace" represents the archetypical Irish, Catholic and lower middle-class core of the revolutionary movement.

2) Your protagonist, Helena Molony, is a relatively obscure historical figure. Why did you choose her as a conduit for this story—and how did your own experiences (woman, actress, feminist, etc.) allow you to more fully develop the character, if at all?

In interviews I never tire of bringing up my mission, which is to dig up lost treasures and illuminate obscure figures. I don't like to work with iconic figures, because they've already been done to death. There is nothing new to explore. Plus, you compete with your predecessors. When five different authors write about the same historical figure, of course they will get compared against each other. Helena Molony is just one of many historical figures who were allowed to slip into obscurity. Remember the saying, "If you cannot say anything nice, don't say anything at all"? Until recently, Ireland was still a rather prudish society. In case of Helena Molony, there were too many red flags popping up around her image. It would be safer and more convenient to brush her under the rug altogether than to present her as she truly was - a highly unstable and conflicted individual. Historians did not quite know how to tackle the issues of her alcoholism, mental illness, anger management issues and bisexuality. So they focused on her contributions to theater, nationalism and labor. Basically she was dusted off and reduced to a one-paragraph entry in a history book. Naturally, I felt compelled to remedy the situation.

3) In your opinion, does setting function as a character? And, if so, how do you use backdrop to enhance the overall telling of the story?

In order to make soup, you need strong flavorful broth. The setting is the broth. The characters are the vegetables and the beans swimming in that broth. The flavors and textures all interact with each other. The temperature and the concentration of the broth affects the consistency of the solid ingredients. Early 20th century Ireland was very, very hot toxic broth that would turn everything that touched into shapeless mush. Makes any sense?

4) Historical fiction requires a narrative immediacy that is often lacking in non-fiction. How do you endeavor to balance fact with entertainment—and what liberties, if any, are you willing to take for the sake of readability?

Given that most readers have ADHD, modern writers don't have the luxury of moving at an Edwardian pace, even if the novel is set during the Edwardian era. "Never Be at Peace" begins with a girl fight in prison. Come on! Who doesn't like a good girl fight? It doesn't get any more piquant or tantalizing than that.

I find irony and contrast my most effective tools, as well as switching tone and points of view (I've been actually criticized by that). I like to juxtapose the grotesque and the sublime, because the line between these two extremes is very fine. I apply that technique liberally throughout the novel, starting with the prologue. The same women who were eager to give their lives for their noble cause, instantly devolve into growling alley cats. Where there is conviction, courage and self-sacrifice, there is also pettiness, jealousy and revenge just around the corner. When you don't know how much time you have left to live, you spend that time gossiping and settling scores. After you've said your prayers and delivered your flamboyant patriotic speeches, there is nothing left to do except bicker. That's human nature for you.

In a successful historical novel the transition between fact and fiction is so seamless. You don't want you readers to start underlining passages with a red pen and shaking their heads, saying "Yep, this passage came straight from an encyclopedia, and this passage came from the author's imagination." If your readers tell you that they cannot discern fact from fiction in your work, it's a huge compliment.

5) It’s been said that past is prologue. What lessons from the Irish Revolution remain relevant in consideration of contemporary world affairs?

Watch out for those "freedom fighters" who promise to bring equality and democracy in lieu of an existing tyrannical regime. If given an opportunity, these self-proclaimed "defenders of human rights" can prove to be more brutal and oppressive than those they claim to combat. Usually, when you get rid of one abusive regime, you quickly replace it with another one, just as abusive. I know my point of view is not going to endear me to some readers, but a nation that had been oppressed for centuries cannot learn how to handle freedom overnight.

6) Tell us: How can we avoid cliché this St. Patrick’s Day and have a true Irish experience?

There is no such thing as "true Irish experience". Any experience by definition is authentic and subjective. In a sense, a cliché is also an authentic experience. You basically experience someone else's commercial fantasy - cardboard leprechauns and green beer. Your senses are engaged, so the experience is real. If you want to move beyond that and expand your experience, go to Ireland, visit historical sites, talk to authors and historians. Every day you should try to step outside the familiar. Not just on St. Patrick's Day.

***

With thanks to Marina Neary for her generosity of time and thought.

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