They say if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. That’s what Sarah-Jane McKenna did when she wrote her first novel, Dreaming in Irish. McKenna said that she wasn’t seeing the types of stories she wanted to read. “Everyone I know, their life is going in cycles and changing and I wasn’t recognizing that in the popular fiction I was reading,” she said. So she wrote such a story herself.
Dreaming in Irish tells the story of university professor Kate Doyle, who returns home to Brooklyn to care for her young niece, Molly, after the death of Kate’s sister and brother-in-law. The transition from her solitary life of the mind to raising a child in her family’s old haunts is a challenge, but she finds that she can put her researching skills to work when she runs across a family heirloom. While picking through her mother’s basement for furniture, she finds a table that’s been passed down from her family. Engraved on its top is a St. Brigid’s Cross and inside the drawer are a bunch of letters, written in a combination of English and Gaelic. Kate knows there’s a story there, and she’s determined to track it down and learn about her family history in the process.
The idea of that table was also what inspired McKenna to write the novel. McKenna was doodling at the airport one day while waiting for a flight, and she started to draw a table. She started to imagine the story of this table, and things fell into place. Dreaming in Irish is a story of a woman whose life is flipped upside down.
“I wanted to explore how someone used to living a life of the mind adjusted to not being in her comfort zone anymore,” said McKenna. “Starting over has always interested me, and it’s something I’ve done myself several times: either in moving to a new city, switching careers, or returning to university later in life.”
To accomplish this, McKenna has two major things happen, both at the very start of the novel: Kate’s sister and brother-in-law die unexpectedly, and she is named guardian of their young daughter, necessitating a move back to Brooklyn.
In Kate’s new role as Molly’s guardian, she finds herself concerned about all sorts of new things that she’s never worried about: what Molly will think of their new apartment, how to decorate her room, and the not-entirely-small matter of being there for her always. “I also have so many friends who put careers on hold when they became parents and then started over. I wanted to champion them, too,” said McKenna.
After finishing the novel, McKenna set it aside for three months to work on a nonfiction book. All told, she did five major revisions cycles – each printed and bound in a spiral bound book, since she prefers to work on edits by hand. Throughout those revisions, a lot changed.
In earlier drafts, she had a total of six siblings and another niece, all with their own quirks, tensions and subplots. They got cut from the final version because they weren’t central to the plot. “Kate’s journey was getting lost. So the first order of business was to trim that family down to characters that could be followed more closely.” This meant that she had to go through the novel to smooth out and rewrite the parts that involved those characters. In the published version of the novel, Kate has two just siblings, both of whom live in Brooklyn.
Those siblings provided the touchstone of family and love while leaving enough room for Kate to explore her various roles. McKenna refers to the book as a ‘cozy mystery.’ “I wanted to create an environment where characters are not perfect, but they are kind. I was looking to write some ‘comfort’ fiction.”