Haunting the house of history

Cynthia Neale at the launch at McSorley’s Bar in the East Village, Manhattan, of “The Irish Milliner,” her latest novel about 19th century Irish immigrant Norah McCabe.


Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

When Cynthia Neale was 12 years old she knocked on her neighbors’ doors to ask if she could read or act out her poems and stories in exchange for quarters.

“This was my first experience writing and querying, albeit I received more cookies than quarters. There was nothing else I desired to do more than writing stories,” Neale said. “There were years of catching a story here and there, like the magic of capturing a firefly that is certainly not bright enough to see by. I needed time and experience and as I learned how to live, I hope I’ve learned how to write.

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“I wrote plays, poems, short stories and essays, but did not have the courage to write a novel. And then I was dancing in a pub in Rochester, New York,” she recalled, “and peering at a poster of an Irish dresser, I imagined a young girl hiding in the bottom of that dresser during the Great Hunger in Ireland.

“From that time on, Norah McCabe has been my inspiration. There’s been years of research and listening to the voices of the past, including tromping around Ireland’s landscape that has absorbed sorrow and created beauty from it,” Neale said.

“Even the Famine ruins and homes have an elegiac beauty of stone and moss that have beckoned me to stay awhile to heed the past. Maya Angelou said, ‘We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.’”

Neale added: “I’m not meaning to sound esoteric or to belittle the arduous task of research and writing, but I have written these novels because they sought me. I did not seek them. And after the first two novels were published, I learned there had been a real Norah McCabe who came from Ireland to New York City in 1847.

“Also, after a pile-up crash of rejections for my first novel, I decided to give up writing this first book. It was then that I received a book in the mail that gave detailed information about the ships some of the Famine victims traveled on to North America,” Neale remembered. “One was the Star and this was the name I had chosen for the ship that my Norah traveled on inside of her dresser to America.

“In the index, the names of families were listed who traveled on this ship and there was a family with my name and a young girl the age of Norah,” the novelist added. “It continues, these nudging, ghostly visits from my characters. And as I climb the mountain of research and writing so I can finally see what I’m supposed to see, a book is born.”

Cynthia Neale

Date of birth: Jan. 7

Place of birth: Albany, N.Y.

Spouse: Timothy E. Neale

Children: Hannah M. Neale

Residence: Hampstead, N.H.

Published works:

“The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger”; “Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser”; “Norah, The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York”; “The Irish Milliner, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser”; “Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories & Desserts.”

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

No ideal conditions, except now in my advanced age, I’m most “with it” in the mornings. I oftentimes circle my writing projects like a hawk after its prey. However, I don’t attack, but just keep circling. It’s fear of not targeting and getting it right and this indeed is a form of procrastination.

I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m a late bloomer, really, but because of being so, I’m circling less. And rather than attack, I try to sidle up to my writing and get comfortable. A writer has to be disciplined to not keep checking emails, horrifying news, phone, and then getting up for another cup of coffee.

For me right now, it’s deadheading my flowers. In the winter, it’s baking. I relish going away for a week or two when I have nothing else to do but write, walk, and eat. Oftentimes this is done with another writer friend I trust. I get a lot of writing done during these times.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

The same advice most authors give aspiring writers, i.e. read, read, and read and write, write, and write. It’s an extremely competitive field and every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to be a writer – as well as every Susan, Judy, and Mary. And it’s easy for people to self-publish, so there’s a plethora of books out there and difficult for readers to find your book, especially if you have small publishers, as I do. I do think there’s a lot of dumbing down in both writers and readers.

Many writers look at what is selling, what is popular. I’d advise to write what you are passionate about and then re-write and re-write. Connect with the right writers’ group that isn’t just another procrastination for you. If you can’t open a vein and bleed over your words, then go do something else. And make room for those of us who have scars from years of pursuing our obsessive dreams of writing words and stories that we hope matter.

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

“The Passion of Artemisia” by Susan Vreeland is a novel about one of the few women in the Post-Renaissance period to achieve fame through painting. She endured daunting roadblocks, a rape, betrayal of her artist father and a husband. It’s set in the back backdrop of Florence and Rome and full of history and inspiration. I’ve read this book twice over the years. And then it was thrilling to view one of her paintings at the Uffizi in Florence – “Judith Slaying Holofernes.”

All of Marlena de Blasi’s books. Her writing is lyrical and Italy is described as an abundant, fertile, and generous goddess. Add to this, some history of Italy and her food. And most of all, she has recipes in the books, for she is also a seasoned chef. It is an utter pleasure to read her books. I always wait for a new one, but they’re a long time coming, of late.

What book are you currently reading?

My bed stand is full of books that topple over in the night. I usually read a couple of historical novels, taking turns each evening until one wins out and I finish it first. Sometimes I only read from one briefly and then read from a non-fiction or poetry book. I thought someday there would be time to re-read some of my favorite classics, i.e. George Elliott (Mary Ann Evans), Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, D.H Lawrence, Henry Miller…even tackle “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace” for the first time. Favorite contemporary authors are Susan Vreeland, Barbara Kingsolver, Colm Toibin, Annie Dillard, and Sarah Dunant. My bed stand books: “Whirligig” by Richard Buxton; “Human Chain” by Seamus Heaney; “Elizabeth Street” by Laurie Fabiano; “Poems” by Robert Frost; “The Girl Who Came Home, A Novel of the Titanic” by Hazel Gaynor.

What book changed your life?

One book? Are you kidding? As a young girl, it was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Little Women.”

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

The Burren in County Clare and really, all of County Clare. Also, the Beara Peninsula in County Cork and visiting Eyeries, a village full of angels.

You're Irish if...

You love to gab. Is it a stereotype? Perhaps, but it’s not any old ordinary gabbing, mind you. The gab has to have wit and intelligence. My mother’s side is English, so I’m a bit tamed, I suppose, but the red hair from my Irish father’s side guarantees some fiery conversation.