An emigrant wife's tough choices

Malachy McCourt doesn't take much prompting to break into song, but last week Kate Kerrigan, one of the guest readers at the Irish American Writers & Artists monthly salon, got in ahead of him. She is currently visiting New York to promote her latest novel "Ellis Island" (Harper Collins), the story of Ellie Hogan, a young girl who emigrates from Civil War-torn Ireland to work in America for one year to earn money to pay for an operation for her husband.

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"Once there she becomes infatuated with the freedom and glamour of Jazz Age New York," Kerrigan said, "and when her husband refuses to join her there, Ellie must make some tough choices."

Kerrigan herself was raised in London of Irish parents and began her career there as a magazine journalist and editor. She moved to Dublin in 1991 and then again 10 years ago to her mother's native County Mayo.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

I work from 9-5 every day in a small shed at the back of my mother's house - reading her over everything I have written that day. She is my sounding board and first critic.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write for the love of it. Money comes and goes - writing is a constant. If you are a true writer - the writing will continue regardless of whether you are published or not.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

I read "Catcher in The Rye" as an adolescent and can still remember the color and smell of the scrappy paperback. "The Dead School" by Pat McCabe is my favorite of his books. Pat is this generation's Joyce as far as I am concerned. Frank Ronan is a very underrated Irish writer - his first book "The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton" blew me away and I have devoured everything he has written since.

What book are you currently reading?

"The Man Who Never Returned," by Peter Quinn. He is such an awesome writer and meticulous researcher that his books are at once a gift and a curse to me as a writer of historical fiction. It's such a stunning blend of fact and fiction that I got intimidated and had to put it away until I had finished the book I was writing when it came out.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

No. I do my own thing. I set my own bar a bit higher with each book and try to clarify and improve my craft and skill set as a writer as best I can. You can't wish to be somebody else. If my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle is the expression that comes to mind!

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

Belinda McKeon's "Solace." What an accomplished first novel. I loved it.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Hands down, Agatha Christie. I have always had a vague yen to write crime fiction and she is still the master of the whodunnit.

What book changed your life?

"Recipes for a Perfect Marriage." I wrote it. When I was finished the, like, umpteenth edit I thought - "not bad - maybe I can really do this..." Writing something I was pleased me and held meaning for me made me realize, on a much deeper level, that I was stuck on my path as a writer - kind of whether I liked it or not.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Killala, in my house by the sea. Everyday I look out the window and feel lucky.

You're Irish if . . .

you've ever heard a relation say "Have you switched off the immersion?!!"

Kate Kerrigan will read at the Tenement Museum tonight at 6 p.m. and the Bookmark Shoppe in Brooklyn tomorrow, Oct. 13, also at 6 p.m. For more information about her go to