Photograph: Alan Betson © The Irish Times
Three months after the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 Niamh Boyce signed with Penguin and was on the speckled road to becoming a novelist in realtime. Today, as the book hits the shop shelves the author and the story are ‘trending’ on Twitter. The genesis dates back to May 1942 (though the story is set a few years earlier), a report in a local paper of a ‘coloured man’ arrested for serious offences against girls. Irish Times journalist Sineád Gleeson, who interviewed Niamh for the paper earlier this week, says the book is loosely based on a real court case and is all the more intriguing because it’s a work of fiction based on one small abandoned fact.
‘It concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour,’ writes Gleeson. ‘Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.
The novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. The story is set in 1939, and examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.
“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce in her Irish Times interview. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers. Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”
Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. And while we can’t give away too many of the book’s Gordian knots, we can say that it is a magical tale with an ability to capture Ireland at a certain point in time without any caricature or causticity.
What began as a ‘few sentences’ penned in a creative writing workshop with John MacKenna, finished up as a 2,000 word a day bid-to-combat until the story was done. “My children were young and I didn’t have much time to write,” she explains, “But I found the time, often into the early hours of the morning and soon enough I had a first draft completed. When I heard about The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the Fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful!”
The Sunday Times has called it ’an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives’ and Dermot Bolger has commented that the book is ’richly layered and finely realised … compelling’, while reviews elsewhere (Image magazine, RTE Guide and elsewhere) are glowing.
Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now…
What we can say is that we are ridiculously proud of Niamh’s acheivement and are delighted to take part in her Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of this unique and beautifully written book. Here are three questions we put to Niamh about sustaining the writing life, living with your characters and ways to stay sane in the process:
Which character in the book consumed you more than others? In the beginning it felt like I was taking dictation from a quarrelling Greek chorus. I wasn’t sure which of the women was speaking or who exactly they were, let alone if they were telling the truth! So it immediately felt like there was mystery to solve, threads to unravel and I liked that. But as I worked on, Emily’s voice became strong and she became the central storyteller, so if there was any consuming she did it!
Did you ever have any premonitions about being/becoming a writer? Never! I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. I still do! I loved reading, and read constantly but it never occurred to me that I could or would write a book myself. I don’t know why. I started ‘writing’ in 2008, when I fell in love with short stories, but saying that my old notebooks are full of poems and half poems going back to when I was a teenager. I just didn’t consider them as poems back then, not in a real sense. So no premonition!
What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? The ability to retain perspective is important, so that you don’t fall into the very real temptation to use writing as form of a semi permanent escape. There’s a life to be lived, people to be loved, worlds to be seen. (And you’ll need the material!)
It also helps if you love the process, if you love the very act of writing and the way stories reveal themselves; the way characters surprise you, and the very simple and wonderful fact that something exists that didn’t exist before.
Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois.