My guest this week, Christine Breen hails from Kiltumper, Ireland, where she lives with her husband, the novelist Niall Williams, in the cottage where her grandfather was born. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review of her debut novel, the just-released Her Name is Rose, calls it, “A poignant tale of love and loss between an adoptive mother and daughter … A moving first novel,” and says, “Breen’s characters immediately invite the reader to go on a heartwrenching journey that’s enhanced by her skillful plotting and authentic, lyrical descriptions of the Emerald Isle.” I’ve not met Christine in person yet—if only I were in New York, where she’ll be reading at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway next Wednesday!—but she is absolutely delightful by email, and I love the story she shares today about publishing her first novel at age 60! I’m definitely going to pick up a copy of Her Name is Rose. I hope you will, too. – Meg
Christine Breen: Putting words together like applying paint marks on a canvas
When I was about 14 I showed my grandmother Nonnie a poem I’d written. A poem I was really proud of. The only line I can remember is: “O room of green keep me always a child.”
Nonnie was a tall woman, elegant and imposing. At age 12, she’d been a prodigy on violin and piano. There had been articles about her in the newspapers. Classically trained, she’d forsaken her career for motherhood, but retained the straight back and posture of sitting at an invisible Steinway. Her long fingers ended in perfectly done nails and her hair was always curled. She only ever wore dresses and heels.
Nonnie sat upright in an armchair in the big pastel living room in Montclair, put down her cigarette and held my poem out in front of her. She read it silently, a thin curl of smoke rising alongside her. I am not sure what I was hoping for, but it was not what happened. Nonnie finished reading the poem. Then she handed it back without saying a single word. She didn’t smile, she didn’t nod, she just held out the poem for me to take, then she lifted her cigarette and half turned to the window and waited until I left the room. I’d failed to impress her. What had I expected? What did I expect from a woman who thought the Beatles were a blight to music? Still it was an important first lesson in why we write.
I grew up in one of those textbook-classic dysfunctional American families. Alcoholism and divorce in ours took up most of my adolescence but I managed to get to a good college and graduate. My highest ever grade was in creative writing.
It’s a mystery why I didn’t take that as a sign and put pen to paper then and there, except I had no confidence. Instead I worked in publishing serving the writing needs of others until eventually I followed my heart to Ireland where an MA in Irish Literature introduced me to my now long-time husband, Niall Williams, an Irish writer. (His last novel, History of the Rain, was long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize.) After another 5-year stint working back in publishing in New York, we moved to Ireland to the cottage my grandfather (not Nonnie’s husband) left in 1910. Here we’ve made a life from books and music and gardening and farming, and reared our children.
I always wanted to write but it wasn’t until I finished my novel, Her Name is Rose, that I understood that for me writing isn’t about telling stories, like it is for my husband, a natural born storyteller. It’s about the creative act itself. Being creative—putting words together like applying paint marks on a canvas. And, it’s about communicating something personal. About connection.
You start with a truth, whether it be a question or a fact. And follow the thread of what if until you find the answer. I began writing my story about a truth—what would happen to my adopted children if something happened to me and my husband? Who would take care of them? Would I want to find their birth parents? (I didn’t make that up. It was a fear I had being an adoptive mother.)
But as I wrote, a kind of magic happened, my quest for an answer turned into a story. Characters started to appear. A man named Hector was suddenly sitting at a breakfast table at a guesthouse in Boston. (He’s a secondary character, but there he was, out of the blue.) I was chuffed. A story began to shape itself. My main character, Iris Bowen, met Hector. I didn’t know that was going to happen until he appeared. Hector had something to tell me. It was perhaps the greatest joy I discovered. Letting the story tell me. We write to find out what we know, and in so doing I wrote a story. When I finished Her Name is Rose I knew that just by writing it I had completed one of the greatest achievements of my life. I didn’t need Nonnie to say a thing. – Christine