Niamh Boyce is from Athy, Co Kildare. She won Hennessy XO Writer of the Year 2012 for her poem Kitty. She’s currently editing her short story collection Wild Cat’s Buffet and writing her next novel. I met Niamh first at the Hennessy Awards 2009, where we were both finalists and again at a book launch where I was thrilled to hear about her forthcoming release. A talented and versatile writer and a lovely person, I couldn’t be more pleased to have her here on the blog to talk to us about her debut novel The Herbalist which has just been published by Penguin and launched in Athy just yesterday. First my thoughts on the book…
The Herbalist is a vivid and compelling tale told about a town in 1930s Ireland which witnesses the arrival of an exotic stranger – the Herbalist who sets up his stall and begins to enthral, influence and unsettle the women of the town, beginning with teenage Emily. Mindful of the social constraints of the times and the real difficulties that women found themselves in, this novel conjures up a cast of strong female characters (a great strength of the book) with various desires and hopes which they bring to the Herbalist’s door. Without giving the plot away, the Herbalist’s activities become more sinister and the final outcome depends upon the action of the women in the story, particularly Emily. This is a finely told tale, with lovely details of the times that will keep you turning the pages until the satisfying conclusion.
I asked Niamh three questions to delve more into the novel and its characters.
Alison: I found I had great sympathy for the female characters, Carmel,Aggie, Sarah, Emily, Mai etc who all displayed various character flaws but who were strong and vivid women. What did you hope to achieve with your female characters and by including such a range of these.
Niamh: I initially planned for just two main characters but the book had different ideas! I think the strong female characters that eventually emerged reflect the very nature of story itself; that of a man who was known by many women, but who was essentially a different man to each of them.
I began the first draft writing from the point of view of both Emily and Sarah, but very quickly other voices began to clamour to be heard, and as they became more distinct, they became more recognisable as Carmel and Aggie. Rose’s voice was very faint, but I knew instinctively that she was important. So in the end I threw out any ideas I had about who should tell the tale. Actually I stopped trying to tell the tale at all; and just let them tell it to me.
Alison: I also admired how you weaved detail of the times including the fashion, music, film etc into the book to make it a rich tapestry. Did do your research up front or alongside as the story developed?
Niamh: I left most of the research till the final draft. I used the films from the era as a touchstone as I wrote the initial draft, movies like It Happened One Night, Wuthering Heights, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and all the Betty Davis and Greta Garbo pictures. I also read the local newspapers from the late thirties on microfiche in the library. That’s as much research as I allowed myself at that stage. I trusted the story to reveal itself, and left the more serious research till the final draft stage when I used the internet, the national archives, old newspapers and of course good old fashioned history books.
Alison: How did you come up with the character of The Herbalist?
Niamh: He was inspired by a real person that I came across years ago when I was archiving local newspapers. I read an article that referred to an Indian Herbalist who had been arrested for offenses against girls and was curious as to what the truth behind the article might be. I recall thinking, even back then, who were you the scapegoat for? That was in 1990, and I didn’t start writing till 2008 but when I did begin writing I remembered that man, and became curious again about him. I decided to base my first novel around the idea of him. So though The Herbalist was inspired by a real man, the herbalist of my book is a completely fictionalised character.
Niamh blogs at niamhboyce.blogspot.com where you can find out more about the Herbalist, her blog tour and other literary matters.
I highly recommend The Hebalist as a really great read, it’s available in all good book shops and here.
Thanks once again and huge congratulations to Niamh Boyce!