I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since I visited the country. Yet, I cannot quite get over it. I still see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren, and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns.
I see the North Atlantic ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but as the boat got closer to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere.
I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane, flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear our cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong cold Atlantic winds. No matter where we go, there are verdant fields and groves of trees and lazy cows in meadows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a fairy may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like eco-themed fiction can.
So it was with such experience after my journey there that I also began to seek novels and stories that would take me back to my time in Ireland, or perhaps further my experience there. And last summer I found the perfect tale: Evie Gaughan’s The Story Collector. Goodreads describes it as:
A beautiful and mysterious tale from the author of The Heirloom and The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris. Thornwood Village, 1910. Anna, a young farm girl, volunteers to help an intriguing American visitor, Harold Griffin-Krauss, translate “fairy stories” from Irish to English. But all is not as it seems and Anna soon finds herself at the heart of a mystery that threatens the future of her community and her very way of life…Captivated by the land of myth, folklore and superstition, Sarah Harper finds herself walking in the footsteps of Harold and Anna one hundred years later, unearthing dark secrets that both enchant and unnerve. The Story Collector treads the intriguing line between the everyday and the otherworldly, the seen and the unseen. With a taste for the magical in everyday life, Evie Gaughan’s latest novel is full of ordinary characters with extraordinary tales to tell.
Yes, that was something I had to read, and I was lucky to chat with the author about the novel and its strong connection to the wilds of Ireland, and the cultural myths, particularly that of fairies. So take my hand, and let’s go to the waters and the wild, as we talk with Evie.
The natural environment of Ireland has a strong presence in The Story Collector. When we meet Anna, from the journal that Sarah finds in an old tree, we learn that Anna feels close to nature. “The story of my childhood was etched all over this familiar landscape. Living this close to nature, I felt as though I was part of it; as much as the river flowing through it or the ever-changing clouds passing overhead. We altered together with each season, transforming…”
Part of it may be that during Anna’s time period in the early 20th century, there were more natural places than there are now. But Sarah, who is going through a tough time, also is inspired by the natural beauty of Ireland. How important is it to you to have this strong connection between story and environment in fiction?
For The Story Collector, the rural environment was always going to be a strong character in its own right. Irish culture and tradition is so intricately linked with nature, that it would be impossible to write a story like this and not pay homage to the natural world. One of the first books that really drew my attention to the environment as a main character was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The Yorkshire moors play a pivotal role in mirroring the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff and I wanted to create that parallel in my own book.
Relating to the above question, part of the plot centers around a Hawthorn tree – revered by fairies – being cut down by a landowner, which subsequently resulted in a fairy curse (or maybe just bad luck, depending on perspective). In your studies, how is the Hawthorn tree important? And do you think we have a new lore, or narrative, to create – that maybe we shouldn’t be cutting down trees at all? I learned some things about Hawthorn trees that I never knew, like you could eat the flowers and make wine too.
The Hawthorn tree is a sacred tree in Ireland. They grace every hedgerow and woodland across the country, blooming majestically with little white flowers every May. On many farms, you will come across a large, open field with animals grazing and one solitary tree providing welcome shelter. This will undoubtedly be a hawthorn, because no farmer would dare take a saw to it for fear of bad luck. Farmers are the true guardians of the land and her secrets, and that is why I wanted Anna and her family to be a part of that tradition. It’s hardly surprising that the hawthorn has become my favorite tree now and even though it blossomed late this year, it was just in time for my book launch, which I took to be a very good sign!
I hope that’s a good sign! There’s reference to William Butler Yeats – one of my favorite nature poets – in The Story Collector. While foraging in a used bookstore in Doolin, Ireland – one of those old cluttered places that are really beautiful – I found an old book by him, one of his books about fairies. How did you draw from his work for your novel?
Growing up in Ireland, it’s easy to take things for granted. Yeats was just another poet whose lines I had to learn off by heart at school and coldly analyze for exams. It was only when listening to an old record (remember those!) by The Waterboys, that I fell in love with The Stolen Child. They set the poem to music and really seemed to bring the words to life.
Novels are funny creatures, because you realize you’ve been collecting knowledge all through your life without realizing where it may lead. A few years ago, I visited Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ tower home in my home county Galway. I was with my sister, who I always say is the poet in the family, and so I figured this pilgrimage was more for her than for me. But once there, I experienced such a sense of ease, of playfulness and yes, magic! I could completely understand how he had been inspired to write about The Good People. Maybe the spell was cast even then to write this book!
Speaking of The Stolen Child put to music, Loreena McKennitt also did a nice version of it. I felt the same way you did, when visiting Thoor Ballylee, when we sailed to the real “Lake Isle of Innisfree” in Lough Gill, so I understand that feeling of being under a spell.
There’s a place in the story where Sarah is thinking about Anna’s journal. She has observed that in modern day County Clare, people still protected their fairy tree, a sacred place guarded for centuries. This protection was also preserved in story. Anna’s friend Harold says, “If we lose our stories, we lose ourselves.” I’m struck by preservation and continuity of story, and wonder about your thoughts on that.
Folklore, I believe, is our collective unconscious and something we must preserve in order to retain a sense of ourselves and our place on this earth. I’m not an expert, but I do feel that the further we move away from our past, our ancestry, our heritage, the less human we become. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you think of how we are often described as “robots” sitting in front of screens, or “zombies” with our smart phones, it makes sense. There is so much beauty in the natural world, where we can find solace and (as Sarah did in the book) healing. At its very essence, my inspiration for writing this story was to re-engage people with our folklore and mythology, so the idea of preservation is very important to me.
I agree. There’s a sense of humans needing to connect to place in your novel. I have felt this so strongly myself, and sometimes living in cities makes a person feel a little lost. Yet, when I was in Ireland, near Doolin, I felt like Sarah finding ground there. I guess it’s because in Ireland, if you get away from the cities (and even in them, but particularly out in the wild) you find things unchanged: the ruins sticking up from the grasses, the elders walking down a road with their cattle, great places of natural and seeming untouched beauty – the woodlands, wildflowers, natural peat lands and Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, for example. This is good for the soul. I guess my question would be, given that your novel fields this experience, do you personally find solace in the country’s back places?
Absolutely! I live in a suburb, but I’m very lucky because I can walk five minutes down the road to a small inlet surrounded by woodland. I call it my soul space, because it’s where I can go to just breathe, listen to the birds in the treetops, or watch the herons perch upon the rocks. I love walking the dirt track, criss-crossed with roots and feel the wind on my face because my shoulders instantly drop and my mind can wander.
I was watching a program recently on the effects of living in an urban environment on our health and the expert being interviewed said that this is not our natural environment. For centuries, we have lived side by side with nature, according to her seasons and our belief system grew out of that natural affinity with the cycles of the moon, of life and death. So I really wanted to explore that and as you say, bring the importance and relevance of the natural world into the modern day segments of the book.
This exploration is so important. The continuity in The Story Collector makes life seem timeless, in the sense that what a woman experienced in 1910 and another woman in 2010 had similar foundations and outcomes – discovery, learning, appreciation of the natural landscape, and so forth. The premise of preserving stories and myths is also important here. How do you think we can survive in terms of connection to our past?
I love writing dual timelines and all of my books deal with the legacy of our past and how it can inform the present. It’s an important theme for me because I think it helps us to understand the cyclical nature of life and gives us a sense of continuity. Maybe it’s just me, but I love hearing old stories! I spent a lot of time chatting to my parents about what life was like for them growing up and what (if any) superstitions my grandparents believed in. Lots of these made it into the book and I feel really proud to have kept my ancestors’ stories alive.
I’d love to hear those stories sometime! I’d like to ask who your favorite authors and stories have been?
Oh, I’m always finding new favorites, so it’s hard to narrow down, but I have always loved Joanne Harris (especially Chocolat and Blackberry Wine) and of course, as I mentioned, Wuthering Heights. Special mention for Jackie Morris, a writer and illustrator whose book, The Wild Swans, is a firm favorite of mine. Anything with a hint of magical realism or gothic romance and I’m sold!
Is there anything else you would like to add – what are you working on now?
I’m taking a small hiatus at the moment, but I have already begun my fourth novel, which is like a colourful patchwork quilt – full of different stories and characters, all bound by one thread!
I’m hooked already, and can’t wait to hear more about the new story. Thanks so much, Evie.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.