I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this?
The Canadian city of 300,000 people that I live in is not one I ever heard about, growing up in Dublin. So sometimes when the small plane starts its descent, I find myself troubled by confusion, which gives way to a sense of arbitrariness. Why am I landing here, out of all possible spots on the turning globe? Why is this home? It’s in my stomach that I register the protest, as the plane dips to the runway: what unfamiliar fields are these? I’ve gone astray, stepped off some invisible track that I was born to follow. How did I get here?
There is an answer: three beloved faces waiting for me in Arrivals. But the unease lingers.
By long tradition, Irish writers emigrate. Not always, of course, not nowadays—but still, many of us fly the coop. It’s a small island, after all. It’s rare to find Irish writers who haven’t spent at least a few years abroad or who don’t pass half their time at foreign universities. I’ve left for good twice, moving to England at twenty for a PhD, and to Canada at twenty-eight for love, and I’ve never regretted it. But still I wonder, what other lives might have awaited me at other airports? What chance or fate led me to this one?
The travelers in Virgil’s Aeneid, quoted in the epigraph to this collection, complain of feeling “driven by the wind and the vast waves” and “ignorant of men and places.” In my experience, migrants are awkward. Sometimes our self-consciousness can take the form of standoffishness. We want to be let in, yet keep our distance. We don’t want to lose our accent, nor be mocked for it. We nurse a grudge, either suspecting the new country of not welcoming us, or expecting it to compensate us for all we’ve given up to get here.
As for settled folk, they have a long tradition of resenting newcomers. Those old towns that charm tourists today were shaped by the need to keep strangers where they belonged, outside the wall come nightfall, beyond the pale. Even worse were those who stayed on the move: such words as “vagabond,” “vagrant,” “drifter,” made a crime of movement itself. The animal equivalent was “stray.”
All we like sheep have gone astray, the sinners bleat in the Book of Isaiah (53:6). Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you’re far from home?
A stranger comes to town. That’s one of the most reliable of plot motifs, and for a very practical reason: it’s hard to describe a town if it’s already banal to its inhabitants. The writer needs the stranger not just to set change in motion, but to reveal the town in all its peculiarity in the first place. Of course, put another way, what the town does is reveal all the strangeness in the stranger.
All this is my best explanation for why, on and off, for the past decade and a half, I’ve been writing stories about travels to, within, and occasionally from the United States and Canada. Most of these travelers are real people who left traces in the historical record; a few are characters I’ve invented to put a face on real incidents of border crossing. Many of them stray in several senses, when in the course of their journeys across geographical and political boundaries they find themselves stepping over other ones: law, sex, or race. Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways— they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.
So many emigrations are at least semi-involuntary that I wanted to begin with a famous incident of resistance, a refusal to leave home. Crossing an ocean seems to me to be an act of daring, even if (in fact, perhaps especially if) you’ve got a gun to your head. Although Jumbo and his keeper Scott had to surrender all the comfortable routines of their life in London’s Zoological Gardens, what they gained was what many travelers to North America have found over the centuries: room for reinvention. “Man and Boy” is about encountering foreignness, whether across the gulf of nationality or that of species. I see it as a love story—a rather queer one, about two different but mutually devoted mammals who find their only lasting sense of home in each other. (Scott’s passionate phrasing about being “father and mother” to his “boy” Jumbo comes straight out of his ghostwritten Autobiography.)
To Caroline Thompson, the protagonist of “Onward,” the motivation to emigrate is a wild hope of shedding nation and name in one go by starting all over again in Canada. I often write about prostitution because it is the ur-job, the job that symbolizes all other jobs. What drew me to Caroline’s case was the peculiar discomfort of this trade carried on so domestically in a lower-middle-class household, visits from clients fitted in awkwardly between caring for her little girl and her brother. In the story I don’t spell out the identity of the “distinguished gentleman” Fred wants to appeal to for help, because dropping such a famous name can be distracting. Charles Dickens, my favorite novelist, was a passionate liberal who believed in second chances. Where others would have seen a whore, he saw in Caroline a heroine who had endured much, about to sail into the unknown in pursuit of a new life.
Sometimes it is easier to write a story if you start by knowing very little about the characters: just a single spark to fall on the tinder. That was the case with “The Widow’s Cruse,” which is based on a single line from a newspaper. I love the idea that it is by parading her utter vulnerability in front of the male legal establishment that this woman manages to trick it into helping her commit an outrageous fraud. The gulf of misunderstanding between Huddlestone and Mrs. Gomez is as much about gender as religion; they share a nation but they will never be akin. He works to rise within the city’s capitalist economy, whereas she, feeling perpetually foreign, resorts to crime and flight.
When I came across the murder that lies behind “Last Supper at Brown’s,” I thought it sounded like either Confederate-nightmare propaganda or wishful-thinking interracial romance . . . except that it happened. (Well, probably. No source is one hundred percent reliable.) I imagine Mrs. Brown, through the eyes of the desperate slave whom she persuades to take her along with him, as a wife who glimpses in the chaos of the Civil War a chance to end the private war of her marriage, and takes a step as bold as— and even more dangerous than—Mrs. Gomez in “The Widow’s Cruse.”
There is an Irish legend about the Hungry Grass, a patch of cursed land that, if you walk on it unawares, will fill you with perpetual hunger; that is a good image for how places hold on to the memory of pain. The notion probably dates from the Famine, the five years (1845–49), that left a massive scar across the Irish psyche. I have never known how to write about the Famine; it embarrasses me, partly because of the mawkish clichés it attracts and partly because I have no idea by what fluke or sleight of hand my own Catholic peasant ancestors came through it when so many of their neighbors rotted in the ditches. I only found a way into the subject when I happened across the letters of an Irishwoman who settled in London, Ontario, a century and a half before I did.
Jane and Henry Johnson in “Counting the Days” are Protestants, and not starving, but they leave Ireland in a bad time for much the same reason their poorer neighbors are crowding in their thousands onto the coffin ships. “Economic migrants,” as we say nowadays, a cold phrase for a passionate wish for a better life—the same drive that would catapult most of my maternal grandfather’s twenty siblings out of Ireland later in the nineteenth century. Out of a mixture of dread and hope, people will always migrate for the chance of a halfway decent life for themselves, and above all, their children—no matter how terrible the journey. Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border, or found suffocated in container trucks, I think of the Johnsons.
But what drew me into Jane and Henry’s letters was not the description of the Atlantic crossing, but something rarer—the sense of a living, breathing marriage. The tensions are audible, but love beats like a pulse between the lines. Thousands of miles apart, husband and wife are welded together through their letters; the irony every history lover knows is that distance is what preserves, by pinning emotion onto paper. Focusing on Henry’s last day, I wanted to bring the romantic and the hideous cheek by jowl, to try to capture the way in which such journeys as Jane’s have something about them of both hell and heaven.
Temporary migrations within North America, such as the one in “Snowblind,” could mean just as overwhelming a change of life as crossing the Atlantic. The Yukon, to most of the “tenderfeet” who tried their luck there, might as well have been another planet, not only due to its daunting climate but also because of its peculiar social codes; for all the lack of fences, it had something in common with a men’s prison. When I learned the dark joke of gold rushes—that it is generally the shopkeepers who make their fortunes, not the miners—it occurred to me to wonder how a partnership between two very young men might have been strained to the breaking point by the opposing forces of ambition and realism.
Jensen, the nameless prospector I invented a handle for in “The Long Way Home,” has come to find marriage less a partnership than a crippling burden. On a long bender, he tries to shrug off the weight of responsibility for hungry children. It’s a pleasing irony—and one Mollie Monroe would have admitted—that it was this hellion, long since gone astray from domestic womanhood, who on this occasion went to such trouble to haul a prodigal husband home.
What fascinates me about Swegles, alias Morrissey, in “The Body Swap” is that he is clearly more akin to the counterfeiters he lives among (if undercover) than to the detectives for whom he works. For this freemasonry of peripatetic con men, the prison system seems to have been like a home to which they were always being forcibly returned, and freedom meant staying on the move, always incognito: a life in transit not just between places but between identities.
Children don’t decide where to live, or what ventures are worth the risk; they get sent around the world as helplessly as parcels. While Lily May Bell, aka Mabel Bassett, zigzags her way west in “The Gift,” both her birth mother and her adoptive father repeatedly stake their claim to her in correspondence with an intimidating bureaucracy. As a mother, I grit my teeth to think of Sarah losing her child forever because she was once poor. As a mother, again, I defend the Bassetts when they insist on the primacy of their de facto, hands-on parenting. So “The Gift” is an epistolary duet between rivals who never address each other directly, because I could think of no other way to honor their bitterly irreconcilable demands to be the girl’s family.
Sometimes settling in seems almost impossible for emigrants, especially if their destination keeps failing to live up to the Promised Land of their imagination. The Puritans, for instance, soon discovered in the “virgin territory” of New England all the horrors they thought they’d left behind in Europe. Like “stray,” the word “lost” has always had a moral meaning as well as a spatial one. The ultimate punishment, in Puritan communities, was to be banished, sent into a literal wilderness that matched what they saw as the spiritual wasteland of the sinner’s heart. “The Lost Seed” is the opposite of a story I meant to write: its inverted mirror image. For years I was intrigued by an odd incident in which two women in Massachusetts were charged with being “lewd” together on a bed. But when I tracked down the source, what began to fascinate me was not the accused but their accuser. Fiction does that, in fact that is one of its most radical strengths; it disrupts the writer’s sympathies as much as the readers’.
A particularly liberating thing about historical fiction is that people rarely guess how autobiographical it can be. I wrote “The Lost Seed” as a shell-shocked immigrant during my first winter in Ontario, when, exactly as Berry remarks, the icicles hung over my front door like swords pointed at my head. “Vanitas,” by contrast, came out of a trip I made through rural Louisiana. In my story, Aimée Loucoul’s whole French Creole clan define themselves by reference to the home country for which they yearn; the cult of Frenchness is their true vanity. If travel is a stay-at-home girl’s fantasy, nostalgia for a lost Eden can be a family’s blight.
Whether in the form of military campaigns or the consequent flight of refugees, war is the root of many journeys. For “The Hunt,” a story about the contemporary-seeming topics of child soldiers and rape as a war crime, I went all the way back to 1776. When you are uprooted from your familiar landscape, and from your home culture, how can you hold on to your sense of what’s right? By telling the story of this fictional boy and girl during a terrible historical moment, I wanted to ask about what it means to be (paradoxically) an unpaid mercenary, sold into service in a far country; about the ethics of obeying orders; about victims who have themselves betrayed others.
Sometimes it is someone else’s journey, someone else’s decisions, that leave a thumbprint on your life. What haunts me about Minnie Hall in “Daddy’s Girl” is the idea of a life lived in a strong character’s turbulent wake; Minnie’s path is shaped by her father’s complicated prior journey. Like Mabel in “The Gift,” Minnie has to live with a parent’s commitment to a secret; she will never know where she came from, nor where Murray did, nor what lay behind Murray’s decision to cross over the highly policed border of sex. So often these tales of emigration turn into tales of transformation, as if changing place is just a cover for changing yourself.
The sculptors in my last story, “What Remains,” have lived and worked together all their lives until the moment Queenie goes ahead of Florence, straying across the line between clarity and confusion. As in “Counting the Days,” this is a story about a couple divided, not by space this time but by a more painful alienation. Florence tries to bridge that terrible distance by means of love and memory, reckoning both the sum of what their long shared life amounts to and the dwindling total of “what remains.”
Her task reminds me of my own. When you work in the hybrid form of historical fiction, there will be SevenLeague-Boot moments: crucial facts joyfully uncovered in dusty archives and online databases, as well as great leaps of insight and imagination. But you will also be haunted by a looming absence: the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost, that can never be recovered.
Unease. Wonder. Melancholy. Irritation. Relief. Shame. Absentmindedness. Nostalgia. Self-righteousness. Guilt. Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form. Migration is mortality by another name, the itch we can’t scratch. Perhaps because moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.
Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch: my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, walk more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same.