Book Club: Academy Street
My mother came from a big house in the west of Ireland, and I modelled Easterfield – Tess’s childhood home in Academy Street – on that house and farm. As a child it had made a great impression on me; it had two stairs and large reception rooms, a gong in the hall, a coachhouse and an orchard, an avenue with old trees. It’s gone now but the older I got the more it began to preoccupy me. It had been built in 1678 and for a time in the late 1840’s was used as a hospital to relieve over-crowding in the local workhouse during the Great Famine. 179 people died there and the unclaimed bodies were buried in ditches and under trees – these same places where my mother had played as a child.
For as long as I can remember New York has cast its spell on me...
My mother’s mother died when she was three. When I was small I was very close to my mother, and I would sometimes look at her and think: You had no mother, and that thought would almost break me. Later, it struck me how catastrophic the death of a parent – in particular the death of a mother – is for a child. How the trajectory of a whole family’s future can suddenly change. And how, too, the effects might be felt for several generations. My mother’s older sisters were taken out of boarding school to help rear the younger children. They – and maybe my mother too – had been destined for university, but that never happened.
In my novel Tess trains as a nurse and emigrates to America, as so many Irish men and women did in the fifties and sixties. My mother never emigrated, but two of her sisters and her brother did. One of her sisters, Carmel, was a nurse in New York in the early sixties and lived in an apartment on Academy Street in Inwood, the northern tip of Manhattan. She stayed in New York for just four years before returning to Galway. In the novel, Tess shares some geographical settings and biographical details with my aunt and my mother. Unlike my aunt, though, Tess remains in New York and lives a quiet intense life against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century.
For as long as I can remember New York has cast its spell on me – the intoxicating effects of TV, film, music, and photographs of American aunts, uncles, cousins that I pored over as a child, all of them looking more beautiful than my Irish family, my Irish relatives. I’ve never lived in New York but have visited many times and with each visit, something would gnaw, and I would feel the pull of the streets. I was there in the summer of 2011 and went up to Inwood, where my aunt and other Irish emigrants had lived in the sixties, and walked around the streets and the park, the church, the library. I stood across the street from a school one day, as parents waited to collect their children. Something was constellated in that moment and I saw Tess’s whole life laid out before me.
I started the novel in the autumn of 2012. I borrowed stories from my mother’s childhood, and from my aunt’s time as a nurse in New York, but Tess is a fictional creation. Her interior life, both as a child and as an adult, is entirely imagined. The Irish writer, John McGahern, said he could never draw stories directly from life. They had to be re-invented and reimagined, because the imagination demands that life be told at a slant.