Today, 23 February 2010, Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show is published – my fourth novel and fifth book since 2005 (including the non-fiction, Simple Courage). So far the reviews have been pleasingly good, but of course they don’t tell what I alone know – why the book came to be written.
It’s a rite of passage, told in the more-or-less intimate tone of an eighteen-year-old young Irishman, Ben MacCarthy. In the year 1932, when Ben is eighteen, everything changes. His father, a jovial farmer, suddenly quits everything, and runs off with a beautiful young actress from a tacky group of traveling players. Ben goes after him to bring him back.
The story sprang from three sources. First, I recalled a young man from my own past, a friend of mine, whom I won’t (and mustn’t) identify, and whom I watched as he dealt kindly and innocently with two extremely dysfunctional parents. And who then fell headlong in love with a woman many years older than him. For locations, the MacCarthy family house in the novel is modeled on a different farm - that stands about two miles from my childhood home.
Next, we had those raggedy traveling shows that lurched through our villages and towns, all flim-flam, Find-The-Lady card sharks, and drunken old actors, dripping with melodrama, who recited great speeches from Shakespeare (and often forgot the lines).
The third element comes from my own close-to-obsessive reading of mythologies from all over the world, and finding in them so many stories that I have seen being played out one way and another in my own life. Or the lives of people I know.
In terms of weight, Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show isn’t a soufflé - it’s more of a pot roast, or an Irish stew, with perhaps subtler flavors than you think you’re tasting. My brief to myself was this: Create a novel that takes the readers into a world they don’t know; those towns and villages were the stamping-grounds of my own young life. Add in the factual events of a great, boiling General Election, and thereby peel back a corner of the wild and sometimes rueful politics of an emergent western state. Have it played by energetic characters, and have them observed by a young man who wants to do only what is good, but may not be given the permission.
Note: Part of the technical challenge was to have the narrator - now a man obviously in his senior years given the time-line - reflect the events in the less mature tone of the boy he was at eighteen.
And all the time I was looking over my shoulder that the great myths that formed our civilization – from ancient Celtic Europe, from Scandinavia, from Greece. In this case, the Oedipus myth is almost too obvious, but I also wanted to stay with the Homeric and Scandinavian ideas of culture, no matter how low, penetrating remote areas.
Also, I wanted to tell a story that observed three things – the collisions possible when the outside world comes too close to a sealed world of tranquility and “ordinary” good behavior; how political upheavals frequently stick their fists into our personal lives; and the possibility that our journey through the world may once in a while conform in one way or another to the events portrayed in ancient myth.
That all seems to summarize the job I had to do when writing this book. The other fifty per cent of the creative effort – by which I mean the act of reading – is up to you!