Empty stomachs, beaten bodies, and silenced mouths remain still only so long. Then they roar.
–Dead Bird in the Weeds, by J.E. Seanachaí
One of the continuous threads of human history is our unrelenting war upon ourselves.
It is difficult to imagine that there is a nation or people on Earth that has not been both conquered and conqueror in its time. In the spring of 1798, the common folk of Ireland, long the conquered, threw off the yoke of British oppression and became, for a time, the conqueror.
This war for independence, like all wars of all times, was fought not by nations, but by people, by men and women and children whose lives, win lose or draw, are changed forever by the battles they fight.
Dead Bird in the Weeds, the debut novel of J.E. Seanachaí, is not a novel of war, although it follows its characters through a tragic and bloody revolution. This is a novel of people, of life and love, of fear and hatred, of time and the inevitable and irreversible change that every moment brings with it. The people whose stories are told in Dead Bird in the Weeds are irrevocably changed by their months in the battlefields, and this change is clearly rung throughout the book by the periodic changes in their names. When I saw the note in the front of the book warning me that this would happen, I was afraid it would be confusing, unnecessary, perhaps even just a little coy, and yet when Anastasia became Muirghein, it was so thoroughly mandated by the story that it was as simple and as natural as turning the next page, as though I had turned a page in the life of a girl named Anastasia and found, on the next page, a young woman named Muirghein. Later, when Muirghein becomes Aisling, the change is even more powerfully right.
I’m not going to pretend that Dead Bird in the Weeds is a perfect novel. It isn’t, and no novel ever will be. At times, I found the diction to be irregular and confusing, and there were scenes that didn’t seem to fit the storyline. Even as long as this novel is (over 180,000 words, I’m told), there were parts that were summarized that I felt should have been done as scenes. (As a side note to those of you who happen to have seen this book, and happen to know what a stickler I am for the conventions of printing and typography, let me just mention that shortly after I ordered my copy of this novel, I was contacted by Seanachaí, who told me that there was a second edition coming out which would fix all of things you’re wondering why I’m not mentioning.)
Make no mistake, though: J.E. Seanachaí is a skilled and competent writer who, at her best, reaches excellence.
Dead Bird in the Weeds is a strong first novel, a gripping and compelling read from an author I hope to hear a lot more from over the coming years.
I emailed J.E. Seanachaí to ask her a few questions:
1) With a name like Seanachaí, you know you’re going to get this question, so I’m going to go ahead and ask it. What personal investiture do you have in this subject? What brought you to write a novel about the Irish Rebellion of 1798?
My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century and the family farm they established in Ohio is still in existence and operation. When you’re living and working in an environment steeped in tradition, you’re also taking part in preserving history. As a result, I’m a historical nut, reading as many primary texts as I can procure. My family often jokes that I was born two hundred years too late, and sometimes I tend to agree.
Why choose the 1798 rebellion?
First, I enjoy studying about rebellions regardless of their country of origin. I’m also interested in their cause and the passions they arouse in seemingly quiescent people.
Second, after first hearing the revolutionary song "Boolavogue," I was never able to quench the desire to learn more about the cause that "set the heather blazing and brought the neighbours from far and near." When a song can arouse enthusiasm about an event that happened over two hundred years ago, the cause and effect stratagem is worthy of further study.
2) I’ll never write any historical fiction, unless you count my childhood and teen years as history. Actually, my children would tell you that’s prehistory. Anyway, I don’t like the thought of all that research. How long did you put into researching this novel, and what form did that research take? What’s the strangest thing you learned?
For every hour I spent writing, I spent an hour researching. No, let me correct that. For every hour I spent writing, I spent two hours researching. If the writer chooses to time travel, the writer must become one of the natives. If you don’t, the natives (your characters) will be lifeless and living a lie.
To initiate myself into their world, I read every primary source I could find about the 1798 rebellion. I didn’t stop there. I researched every aspect of that time period, including the grammar, clothing, and other writings published during that time. Diaries are also great sources detailing firsthand experiences of everyday situations. I think one of the oddest occurrences I happened upon was the explanation of the making of hair lacquer and discovering its main ingredient was pig fat. I don’t think I’ll be using it any time soon.
3) Recognizing that this is a first novel, and that many authors later feel that their first novels do not hold up their end of the author’s opus, what would you do differently in a second novel?
I think the best way I can answer this question is to give advice I wish I had been given:
- Stay focused.
- Be excited.
- You will always need to research, even if your novel takes place in your backyard.
- Always, always, always get input about your writing and study the craft of other writers.
- Realize that you will never discover all there is to know about writing, but understand that you are responsible for achieving the highest level of proficiency as possible.
- Never rely solely on others for editing or proofreading.
- Never depend on software to perform properly.
- Never give up. Ever. One of my teachers told me I didn’t have the ability or intelligence to take advanced English/writing courses. I’ve spent the majority of my life proving her wrong. Without her negative comments I never would have been so determined to succeed.
4) Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your book? Do you have any upcoming projects we should all keep our eyes out for?
As readers march into this retelling of the 1798 Rebellion, I want them to realize that I don’t twist or fabricate history for the sake of art. I retell the events and battles as they actually happened because I don’t believe in realigning or romanticizing fact for the sake of a happy ending or some other inexplicable or inexcusable reason.
I also believe readers will understand that this story is not just about an ill-fated revolution. It’s about a pivotal moment in life and the search for the courage to love, to die, and most importantly, to live.
My future plans are sketchy, but they do involve another work of fiction. I joke a lot about "writing in my head," but in fact that’s what I always do before committing myself to an outline. "Writing in my head" means I’m compiling images or snapshots of scenes and imagining the characters’ situations (mentally, physically, etc.). Why do I do this? For me it saves time. I don’t want to waste time plotting an outline without direction or losing myself in a project I cannot remain excited about. This strategy prevents me from writing myself into an abyss as the first words hit the page.
Readers can look for the re-release of Dead Bird in the Weeds and my second novel, Haunted Voices from My Past: True Narratives of an Ohio Family. Both will be reissued in an easier-to-read format. Readers can also learn about forthcoming projects at http://jeseanachai.blogspot.com and www.sunflowerfootsteps.com/forthcoming.
This interview has been so enjoyable. I’m glad I had the opportunity to discuss my work and life with you. Thanks for all of the great questions, Levi.