Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Q&A with Melanie Maure



Melanie Maure is the author of the new novel Sisters of Belfast. She lives in British Columbia.


Q: What inspired you to write Sisters of Belfast, and how did you create your characters Aelish and Isabel?


A: Sisters of Belfast is a patchwork of inspirations, really.


I come from a lineage of very strong, very stoic, very Catholic matriarchs. That is a force one cannot help but absorb.


My grandmother’s response to my getting divorced was simple and unforgettable. “I’d like to put you in a box and give you a good shake.” That was it—end of discussion. I knew, even then, that those words would be immortalized somehow, and they made it into the novel.


As did my mother’s moment of choosing between joining the sisterhood or marrying my father. Even after four children and 60 years of marriage, she still claims the decision is not entirely final.


The first time I travelled to Ireland and set foot on that land, a visceral recognition took place, and when I began writing this novel, all the scenes in my mind were clear. Ireland was the home for these characters. Just as it had been home for my ancestors.


The novel started with just Aelish’s voice, and I kept hearing this chippy unruly voice questioning everything. And that is where Isabel came barging in. The two sisters are worlds apart in personality and yet the same person at heart. They need one another, neither complete without the other.


As characters, they revealed themselves to me one scene at a time, insisting on being distinguished yet entwined. Although I am not a twin, I do have a sister and our bond was easy to bring into the writing.


Q: How would you describe the role of religion in the novel?


A: The role of religion in this novel is multifaceted. It depends on whose eyes we are looking through. For each character, religion is a challenge and a catalyst at different times in life, as is the case for many people, including myself.


For Izzy, it is a prison, literally and figuratively. The same could be said for Sister Edel, whose righteousness, and dogmatic beliefs blind her from a broader view of life. Aelish finds a hiding place in the religious life. One from which she must emerge to reconnect with Isabel.


When it comes to Sister Mike, although she struggles at times and is somewhat blind to the heinous acts of the Catholic church, in the end she has more faith in God than the Catholic religion itself.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The research for the novel happened as I went along in the writing. I knew the setting was Ireland and the girls were orphaned because of WWII.


I had not often heard about Ireland’s part in the war and was surprised that the Belfast Blitz, which killed at least a thousand Irish people, was not often spoken of.


While researching this piece of history, the opening scene with Aelish alone in the aftermath of the bombing developed in my mind.


Being raised Catholic made it easy to bring in the details of church life. Memories of staring up at the stained-glass saints, watching elaborate candles flicker on the altar, the feel of smooth wooden pews, the musk odour of incense, these are sensory details that do not leave a person easily.

The abbey and orphanage were a combination of researched images and memories from when my mother worked as a nurse in a care home for elderly nuns.


I was fortunate to have an intimate conversation with a lovely woman who decided to leave the sisterhood and re-enter secular life. This conversation gave me a view into the mental, emotional, and spiritual landscape of such a life-altering choice. A choice that Aelish faced in her own life.


Perhaps the most heartrending research began with an article sent to me by a friend. The article told of a historian in Tuam, Ireland, named Catherine Corless, who doggedly uncovered the burial of 796 children in the defunct septic system of what once was a mother and baby home.


Upon further reading, the stories of Ireland’s mother and baby homes mirrored Canada’s dark history of residential schools. These Irish institutions, run by the state and Catholic church, housed 56,000 mothers, 57,000 children between 1920 and 1998.


The abuse was horrendous. The loss of life was staggering, with 9,000 children dying, most in infancy. From that point on, I knew this to be Isabel’s story.


Q: The Booklist review of the novel said, “The use of multiple points of view adds perspective as well as emotional heft, and the hopeful ending points to a better way forward for all.” What do you think of that description?


A: Our relationships with religion, faith, and spirituality are complex. And I knew that this relationship could not be represented by one voice. The common thread that ties these women to one another is their struggle to either be inside this relationship or, in the case of Isabel, rail against it.


Technically, I found that writing from multiple points of view allowed me to fully embody each character and their truth at any given moment, and right or wrong, it was their truth. It helped me believe in each of these people, empathize with them, and hope this would translate to the page.


Surprisingly, Sister Edel was my favourite character to be with. Not the easiest, but my favourite, nonetheless.


The hopeful ending was purely selfish on my part. All my favourite novels contain hope or have a hopeful ending, and in the case of Sisters of Belfast and the dark history it deals with, I decided to take the liberty that fiction allows—to rewrite history or, at the least, offer a softer alternative.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At this very moment, I am working on promoting Sisters of Belfast and allowing this novel as much of my energy as possible. I promised to support this creation in coming to its fullest expression.


That being said, when I have quiet moments in the morning and before starting my coaching practice, I have been softly writing what I hope is the next novel—a sweeping family saga that spans generations and is infused with secrets past and ongoing that threaten to rot the family tree.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I find it interesting how a story finds its way to a writer, at times the most unlikely conduit.


To understand me is to know that I am not a person who shouts about injustice. I care deeply about humanity and am often moved to tears by the suffering we insist on inflicting on one another (why I don’t watch the news). Still, I’m unlikely to rally the masses and join the protests.


Yet, I found myself writing a story chockablock with human rights issues—women’s reproductive rights, abuse at the hands of religious and government institutions, freedom of choice, and spiritual upheaval.


And I guess that feeds back to the reason for an ending that points toward hopefulness. I choose to add a counterweight of loving humanity to the world, if only through a handful of fictional characters and their desire to love one another, no matter the cost.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. Putting this on my TBR list. Good interview!