Cork author's debut novel about 'what gets recorded and who is responsible for producing history'

Cork author's debut novel about 'what gets recorded and who is responsible for producing history'

Laura McKenna's debut novel Words to Shape My Name is out on 28 January.

LAURA McKenna returned home to Ireland and began exploring her passion for writing, completing a PhD at University College Cork. 

Through her research, she has dived deep into the world of historical fiction and the lives of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Tony Small to create her debut novel; a concept initially sparked by her own curiosity.

'Words to Shape My Name' follows the epic journey of a former South Carolina slave into the heart of Revolutionary Ireland and aristocratic society, focusing on the events of the life of Tony Small, former South Carolina slave and companion to Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

“Tony Small was a man who had escaped slavery in South Carolina and he rescued Lord Edward from the battlefields in the 1780s and saved his life actually and so, over the next few years they were together all of the time really,” explained Laura.

“They had what I think was a very interesting relationship and hopefully that comes through in the novel.” 

The historical fiction novel opens in London in 1857 with Harriet Small, the daughter of Tony, receives a collection of papers which reveal her father’s narrative and re-telling of his life after escaping slavery and his adventures with Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

By including the character of Harriet, readers also gain some insight into her perspective on things years later as the novel explores different outlooks through Tony’s depiction of a co-dependent, sometimes turbulent friendship as he learns that the sacrifices to be free are never-ending.

“It is really about what gets recorded in history and how and who is responsible for producing history and how that might be edited for certain personal reasons, political reasons,” said Laura, “and it takes us through the relationship of Lord Edward and Tony from the time they meet.” 

The novel utilises the historic facts as a base for the story, however, Laura explored the possibilities of the life of Tony Small after 1798, after a biography of Lord Edward Fitzgerald left her longing to learn more.

“I knew I wanted to write this novel about Tony Small because I had read a biography by Stella Tilllyard and she alludes to Tony Small in it and at the very end, she kind of wonders about him and what became of him and his children and their children and there was something about that – it was almost like a challenge. I just wanted to know him and I started researching it.

“The facts can be great, and they gave me insight into characters…but it’s in the space of the gaps that you can do something creative and other possibilities can arise and they did.” 

Despite having written poetry and short stories in the past, publishing a novel is a first for Laura, who worked as a child’s psychiatrist for about 20 years.

Laura McKenna's debut novel Words to Shape My Name is out on 28 January.
Laura McKenna's debut novel Words to Shape My Name is out on 28 January.

After moving to Cork in 2003 and having gotten the opportunity to complete a PhD in creative writing, Laura has wholeheartedly given into her passion for writing.

“It’s something that was always there, a hankering for writing.

“I’ve written short stories and poems and some of those have been published but really when the opportunity came to do the PhD that was when I decided that was going to be it, almost like it gave me permission to write.” 

However, her career as a psychiatrist aided her character development and the exploitation of the life of Tony Smalls and the motivation behind different characters.

Alluding to its title, names and identity play pivotal roles in the novel and the analysis of Tony’s life as a former South Carolina slave and the impact that had on his life and the generations that followed.

The novel follows and explores Tony's life, combining adventure and travel as it traces his epic voyages and journeys across the globe.

“There is a lot of travel and it touches on nearly three revolutions. 

"It opens at the tail end of the American Revolution and then it goes to Paris in the aftermath of the French Revolution and then of course in Ireland for the 1798 Rebellion, so it is quite a wide sweep of countries and events.” Laura’s debut combines history, adventure and friendship, circling questions as vividly relevant today as they when the novel is set, such as identity, race, class and just whose version is the true story.

'Words to Shape My Name' is Laura McKenna’s debut novel, and it is sure to both resonate and entertain readings, having been longlisted for the 2019 Bath Novel Awards.

Words to Shape My Name is out on 28 January and can be pre-ordered from New Island, Waterstones Cork and local booksellers.

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