People often ask: how much does a writer put of themselves in a story?
My mother, you see, was quite the storyteller. She must have been, because all these years later, I still remember the smallest details of many of her tales.
She used to tell me about her life growing up in the poorer parts of East London. She didn’t have the easiest life; she was one of nine children and her father, who I never met, was a violent alcoholic.
So although my own family are Cockneys, not Irish, much of the research for Kitty O’Kane was very familiar to me. I already knew, for instance, that the women who lived in the slums scrubbed their doorsteps every day; my mother had long ago explained to me that just because you lived in a tenement was no reason to let your standards slip.
After all, what would the neighbours say?
And it was no co-incidence that Kitty’s father was a bully and a drunk. I couldn’t have imagined him any other way, even if he only played a cameo in the book.
She seemed to forget that my gran lived in a very different time, and in a very different society. There was also a psychology to it; Gran didn’t think she deserved any better.
Kitty’s story completes the circle; it is about a woman who takes back her own life, and discovers her own sense of being worth something in a forbidding world.
Which means that although there is a lot of my mother and my grandmother in Kitty O’Kane, my own daughters are in her, too. Kitty O’Kane’s journey takes three hundred and fifty pages; in real life it took four generations.
For all the similarities, it is still fiction. My grandmother was never a maid on the Titanic, she never witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand, as Kitty did, or the Siege of Dublin. But she did see the worst of East London and she did get through the Blitz.
Her daughter, eyewitness to it all, finally recounted the stories to a wide-eyed three-year-old boy; they were tales of tough times and hard people and about finding a way to survive long enough to find love at the end of it. When he grew up, the little boy took these bits of soft fact and molded them to something solid in his imagination.
So to answer the question: how much of the writer ended up in the story?
I suppose you would have to say; in the end, quite a bit.
When fiery and idealistic Kitty O’Kane escapes the crushing poverty of Dublin’s tenements, she’s determined that no one should ever suffer like she did. As she sets out to save the world, she finds herself at the forefront of events that shaped the early twentieth century. While working as a maid, she survives the sinking of the Titanic. As a suffragette in New York’s Greenwich Village, she’s jailed for breaking storefront windows. And traveling war-torn Europe as a journalist, she’s at the Winter Palace when it’s stormed by the Bolsheviks. Ultimately she returns to her homeland to serve as a nurse in the Irish Civil War.
During Kitty’s remarkable journey, she reunites with her childhood sweetheart, Tom Doyle, but Tom doesn’t know everything about her past—a past that continues to haunt her. Will Kitty accept that before she can save everyone else, she needs to find a way to save herself? Or will the sins of her past stop her from pursuing her own happiness?