Finding sudden success

Event: Irish celebration in Columbia to feature best-selling author.

February 07, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

In 1996, Nuala O'Faolain was content to write her weekly columns in The Irish Times in Dublin, Ireland, and thought that, being in her 50s, her career would be slowing down.

But then a small Irish publisher offered to print her columns in a book. She began to write an introduction for the columns, but it grew longer and longer, turning into a 215-page memoir titled Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman.

"I realized that the introduction to my opinions was my life," she said in a telephone interview from New York. "So I wrote a memoir that no one had asked for."

After this "obscure introduction to an obscure collection ... escaped into the world," O'Faolain, surprisingly, became the author of a No. 1 New York Times best seller.

O'Faolain will share the story of her sudden success during the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's (HoCoPoLitSo) 24th Evening of Irish Music and Poetry tomorrow at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia.

After the success of her memoir, O'Faolain set out to write a novel with no knowledge of writing fiction and still not viewing herself as an author.

She moved into a one-room apartment in Manhattan, N.Y., "to borrow American optimism," adopted a cat from a shelter and began writing her novel with "infinite difficulty." The result - My Dream of You, another New York Times best seller.

The book focuses on Kathleen de Burca, a middle-aged single woman traveling to Ireland to research the real-life Talbot divorce case after her best friend dies. The case centered on a three-year affair between Marianne Talbot, the wife of a British landlord, and an Irish stable groom during the potato famine 150 years ago.

The story turns into the main character's search for passion as she returns to her homeland, which she had been avoiding for years, and revisits her past and her people's past, O'Faolain said.

"It's about the things women will risk - well, people will risk - for passion," said O'Faolain, who lives in Ireland but usually spends winters in New York.

O'Faolain said her novel was sparked by Marianne Talbot's struggle to balance the expectations and passions in her life during the 19th century.

"Marianne's plight is the plight of many people," she said.

O'Faolain said the divorce case prevents the novel from becoming a "fictional rerun of the memoir," but maintains that the novel's main character, Kathleen, is not autobiographical. She said Kathleen is similar to herself in the beginning of the novel, which has an atmosphere much like her memoir, but she evolves into a character that becomes quite different.

"So much more has to happen on the page than in real life - in real life you just spend so much time doing nothing, but you can't just have pages and pages saying nothing happened," she said. "Development is accelerated. It was amazing to me to discover that because I know nothing about writing fiction."

Tomorrow, O'Faolain will be introduced by Irish ambassador Sean O'Huiginn. After her speech, a concert of traditional Irish music, featuring jigs, polkas and hornpipes, will be presented.

HoCoPoLitSo has been holding the event, its largest of the year, for more than two decades to celebrate the high Irish population in the area, said Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, the event chairwoman.

Writers who have participated include Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien, Michael Longley and Paula Meehan. "Ireland is home to some of the best writers in the world," McLoughlin-Hayes said.

She said O'Faolain gives an honest insight to life - specifically how women live - in Ireland.

"It's not all pleasant, but it's all true rather than the notion that everything we have is wonderful," McLoughlin-Hayes said.

O'Faolain is still a columnist for The Irish Times, a position she has held for the past 12 years. She said that was the one positive aspect in her life before her book career began.

"I think it's an incredible privilege to issue a particular sermon once a week, particularly when it's about government follies or the multiple foolishness of public life," she said.

O'Faolain - who would disclose her age only as "the region of late 50s. I just find it very hard to say the actual number" - said the moral of her life story is "take a chance." While she was writing the introduction to her columns, she said she felt she had nothing to lose because "no one was going to read it anyway."

"I couldn't be more surprised," she said. "I thought I'd be very much winding down. ... But instead I'm living the life of a very happy girl."

The 24th Evening of Irish Music and Poetry begins at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Tickets are $24 by mail or $25 by phone. Information: 410-730-7524.

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