A writer of fiction and poetry, Laura McKenna’s just-published debut novel Words to Shape My Name tells the story of Tony Small, an escaped slave who rescued Irish revolutionary Lord Edward FitzGerald in battle during the American War of Independence and whose adventures took him across Europe and into the drawing rooms of 18th-century Dublin and Kildare. Praised by writer Colum McCann as daring, ambitious and reminiscent of Hilary Mantel, the story is told in a series of imaginary letters that vividly imagine Small’s complex relationship with the Irish aristocrat and United Irishman. A psychiatrist, McKenna was drawn to writing from an early age and finally switched to creative writing full time, via both Masters and PhD degrees. Twice shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award, she is the recipient of bursaries from the Arts Council, Cork Co Council and the John Montague Mentorship programme. Her work has appeared in the RTÉ Guide, Southward, Banshee, New Irish Writing and History Ireland. Words To Shape My Name is published by New Island Books, €16.95.
ON MY NEIGHBOURHOOD: Home is a place called Waterfall, just outside Cork city. We moved here from Bristol when the children were very young and they slotted in very easily to the local school, picking up a Cork accent within weeks. I loved the area as soon as I came to look at the house, so close to the city but surrounded by fields and trees. And it came complete with the best of neighbours and a real sense of community. It feels like I was meant to be here. We are just a short drive from the beautiful Ballincollig Park by the Lee in the grounds of the old Gunpowder Mills, within 20 minutes of the city, or south to Kinsale. It’s a great place to live and to write. I have met a fantastic community of writers and a great group of like-minded friends in lots of different settings, including UCC where I did my PhD and the Crawford Gallery where I have given workshops. Cork has always offered so many opportunities for writers from Fiction at the Friary run by Madeleine D’Arcy and Danielle McLaughlin to O’Bhéal and The Munster Literature Centre.
ON FAMILY: My husband Íomhar, a consultant in Emergency Medicine, four children – Oisín, Líadan, Fionnúir and Tighernán – and a dog called Bumble. All of our children were born in England and though I loved living there – first Canterbury, then London, and finally Bristol – the pull of home, of Ireland, was always strong. I think the children have been very fortunate to have grown up here in Cork, in the countryside within a good community. My eldest son and daughter are both junior doctors, and the younger two are both studying medicine at university.
ON MY DESK: My “desk” is one of those plastic foldout trestle tables that you buy in summer anticipating all those gatherings that will take place outside. But circumstances changed in the way that they did in 2020, so in May I decided to take it inside, put it to better use. I settled for a room in the garden, which has lots of light, and all the trappings of what it was once – the barbecue is in there, and a circular saw. As for my desk, it’s a mess. Stacks of books relating to different projects; countless notebooks and A4 notepads. Notepads are for the day-to-day scribbles, planning and lists. Did I mention pencils, those wasp-coloured Staedtler Noris HB? I love them. Other than that there’s a mess of those A4 pocket things which I also love – with all the attendant pangs of plastic-related guilt. But there’s something so satisfying about sliding a piece of written work into the clear plastic and clipping it into a folder. One part of me feels smugly organised. For a moment.
ON MY VIEW: The view from this desk was spectacular early in May thanks to the wild abandon of wisteria. Planted by my mother shortly after we moved back to Ireland, it was allowed to grow according to our gardening principle of benign neglect or more truthfully, just neglect; meaning it was never trimmed and though I occasionally read up about spring and summer pruning, never once did that wisteria feel the sharp cut of a secateurs. And so to early summer when I moved to this table at the window, I was surrounded by a glory of purple. It was spectacular and distracting. A long-tailed tit nested there, and regularly hopped along a branch right in front of me, stopping to turn his peppercorn eye on me. And there were many other winged visitors, butterflies, honeybees, and thrushes. I felt I was living within the wisteria. Even in winter it is such a lovely place to sit. Come summer, a colony of bats above my head in the roof space fills this room with their cheep-cheep, gossiping sounds. At dusk, it’s like watching a squadron taking off in an old black and white film.
ON WHAT’S NEXT: I promised myself I would not write another historical novel yet my work-in-progress takes place in the 19th century and is also based on real people. The lives of others fascinate me. I really enjoy the research. The thrill of a discovery, of something not yet part of the dominant historical narrative, keeps me sharp and even more dogged. My latest project concerns a relatively unknown Irish woman and her involvement with key political and literary figures, and I will stop myself from saying any more.
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