New Voices: Helen Fripp, Michelle Grierson, Hilary Hauck & Eimear Lawlor
WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK
Debut novelists Helen Fripp, Michelle Grierson, Hilary Hauck, and Eimear Lawlor journey into the past using research and imagination.
Dublin’s Girl (Head of Zeus, 2021) by Eimear Lawlor is the end of a journey that started in 2013, when she did a creative writing course at her local university and her second child, Ciara, told her “to do something with my life other than drinking coffee in town with my friends”.
Shortly after Ciara was born, Lawlor continues, “I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I became a stay-at-home mum and left teaching. I was an avid reader from my early childhood, and our house was full of English literature and historical books.”
She can remember that as a child her father “had been immensely proud of his aunt Vera McDonnell and her time fighting in the War of Independence, and especially after independence. Vera became the private secretary to Eamon De Valera, President of Ireland from 1959-1973.”
However, Lawlor’s interest in her great aunt Vera came while on the creative writing course. Her cousin, who was researching their family tree, sent her “a copy of Vera’s statement to the Irish government in 1954.The Irish government took statements from everyone involved in politics in Ireland from 1912-1922, and they are online in military archives.”
Reading Vera’s statement, Lawlor discovered that Vera “went to Dublin at 17 and worked for the political party Sinn Fein (which later branched out to Finna Fail and Fine Gael). She had been in a building under attack from students, delivered a gun to a priest, and was captured during the civil war and possibly going to be shot. The country was split into anti-treaty and pro-treaty. She was anti-treaty and captured when delivering a letter.” At that point, “Eamon De Valera intervened, sending a letter saying under the Geneva Conventions, it was illegal to detain couriers. She was released.”
During the course Lawlor wrote a short piece, and this developed into a novel. “Vera never had any family, but I felt more comfortable changing her name to Veronica McDermott, and the story flowed.”
Unfortunately, Lawlor’s daughter Ciara died suddenly in 2016. “Grief robs a person of so much, not just the person you have lost but also the person who you were. I couldn’t concentrate, let alone think of writing. But, I was pulled back to the novel in 2018 and looked at it again.”
Hilary Hauck drew the inspiration for her novel from Pennsylvania’s coal history. From Ashes to Song (Sunbury Press, 2021), she explains, “is inspired by the true story of three Italians who immigrated from Italy to the US ninety years before I did.
“I came to Colver, a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, because of my husband’s work. It wasn’t the America I’d expected, yet I was fascinated by how it brimmed with nostalgia. In its heyday, everyone here was an immigrant. The locals had a deep sense of their history; everyone had a family story to share.”
There was one story told to Hauck by Irene Smylnycky that hooked her from the beginning. “Her dad was a musician, coal miner, and composer—a compelling combination. There was an intriguing love story, too. Irene had often thought her parents’ lives the stuff of novels. She generously gave me permission to write their story and adapt events to build a compelling plot.”
For Hauck, it was almost, she says, “the perfect story for me to write, but there was one disconnect. My musical repertoire includes Chopsticks on the piano, and I once came third in a ‘worst singer’ contest. Yet here I was, tackling the story of a man who merited the title, Maestro. So talented, he would still the liveliest of dance floors with his legendary clarinet solo. He composed songs for young Irene, the ‘Shirley Temple of Colver,’ scores for weddings and other celebrations—rumor had it he even wrote a symphony.”
Writing Pietro’s viewpoint was intimidating to Hauck until she realized that “he most likely learned music from a family member—in the story, his grandfather, Nonno. He had no classical training. In the evening, he’d perform; in the day, he was just another coal miner—an ordinary man. And so, instead of using terms such as overture, cadence, cantata, Pietro processes life around him through sound, expressing those sounds in terms even the less musically inclined can comprehend.”
“Though not without challenge,” for Hauck the novel “was a joy to write, immersed in the setting where I now lived, following the journeys of people whose immigrant experience paralleled my own. It also pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, inspiring me to experience the world through a new lens—that of sound.”
Sound and research were blended together by Michelle Grierson when writing Becoming Leidah (Simon & Schuster, 2021), which, she says, “was born out of my reverence for water.”
“Even in landscapes that are bone dry,” Grierson can hear water’s call. “Some of my favourite places in the world are shorelines. To me, the ‘in-between’ space of sand and sea is a threshold: a magical portal that leads to realms unknowable, the mysteries of the deep singing like a chorus of sirens in my blood. Researching and writing Becoming Leidah felt like taking a long, luxurious bath; I soaked in tales of Norse gods, mythological creatures, and magnificent landscapes; my fascination with fairy tales and folk medicine offered both magic and realism to the story. But underneath all of that, water itself was the force pushing me deeper. The story is my way of honouring the sacred feminine in all of us.”
When trying to “trace the trajectory of Leidah,” she continues, “it seems like she has always been inside me, an undertow that pulled me deeper and deeper into my own ancestral secrets, into the watery realm of blood memory. As the story began to really take shape, I was in the midst of researching my family roots, fascinated by the concept of intergenerational memory.”
For years Grierson had been “gathering family photos, letters and objects, trying to piece together some semblance of what it must have been like for my great-grandparents, who eventually left Norway to live in Canada.”
She didn’t know exactly what area her family came from, so Grierson planned a trip with her nine-year-old son, “trusting my intuition to guide us. We spent at least half the trip traveling on water, and the other half trekking up mountains. There were so many moments of strange familiarity and awe for both of us; we came back to Canada, feeling homesick for Norway and its deep fjords.”
It was only much later that Grierson found out they “had indeed floated on the path of our relatives, through landscapes where our family had worked farmsteads and fished for centuries. This important journey tightened the stitches in the storyline, and infused the manuscript with what it needed: a return home.”
Her hope for the reader is that they allow themselves “to wander into the ‘in-between’ space of the shoreline, to luxuriate in the liminality that is Becoming Leidah. Who knows what ancient secrets might float to the surface, should you dive in?”
The French House (Bookouture, 2021), Helen Fripp’s debut novel, focuses on a different journey. “I came across Veuve Clicquot’s story on a tour of her underground wine cellars in Reims. The whole thing set my imagination alight; from the alchemy and mystique of wine-making, which is so subject to the vagaries of the weather, to the taste of the terroir and the pride and rivalries of the people who produce it. What motivated a rich young widow to build a champagne empire in the way she did? It was totally against the conventions of the time, and she could have faded into an easy, gilded life.”
Fripp followed Barbe-Nicole Clicquot’s pathway to her domination of the champagne market through detailed research. “Veuve Clicquot et Cie have extensive archives, and they gave me unlimited access. I devoured the neatly kept ledgers, all in Barbe-Nicole Clicquot’s hand, which document the ups and downs of the business throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Letters between her and her ebullient salesman, Louis Bohne, tell tales of perilous sales trips to England, Sweden, Prussia and Russia dressed in his wolfskin coat, always accompanied by his copy of Don Quixote.”
Fripp walked “the chalky paths amongst the vines, visited her rustic house and press in Bouzy and the grand family mansion in Reims, strolled along the banks of the river Vesle rendered a pale green by the chalk soil, and imagined her story… when I came across an account of the Year of the Comet Champagne, it felt like gold-dust.”
Fripp discovered that “in 1811, a comet passed over the sky, clearly visible for the whole summer, heralding the best champagne harvest in a generation. As I researched, I could just see the Champagne Comet with a fizzing tail, a constant day and night, hanging over the vineyards as the workers toiled to bring in the grape harvest that year, overseen by a determined Barbe-Nicole Clicquot.”
Then “the rush was on to break through the trade blockades to the big markets in Russia. Whoever made it first stood to make their fortune. Add to that a renegade band of fallen aristocrats, desperadoes and her ever-faithful salesman, Louis, and who could resist telling such a story of loss, love and triumph over all the odds?”
Enabling their readers to travel alongside their characters Fripp, Grierson, Hauck and Lawlor have provided them with a route map to a rich historical past.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have been captivated by the writing of a debut novelist you’d like to see featured.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 97 (August 2021)