The Herbalist is one of my favourite novels to come from Penguin lately and as the winner of the 2012 Hennesssy XO Award for New Irish Writing I was keen to find out a little more. So I was very happy when Niamh Boyce agreed to answer a few little questions for me and here is what she had to say.
What first gave you the idea to base a story around such an enigmatic character?
Actually I first came across the central idea for The Herbalist over twenty years ago! I was nineteen and archiving old editions of a local newspaper from the early forties, they were yellowed and crammed with articles with very small print. One of these articles caught my attention. It was short, two maybe three sentences, and referred to an Indian Herbalist who was arrested for offences against girls. His name was Don Robert Rodriquez De Vere. I was very curious as to the story behind that tiny notice, and years later when I began to write, I began to imagine what that it might be.
The sense of place in “The Herbalist” is excellent, was there a lot of research involved to get a feel for the era?
Thanks Liz! I’ve been doing a lot of readings and older people especially have commented on how accurately the late thirties were captured. I think the sense of authenticity stems from the fact that I grew up in that town in the novel. The factual character and story that inspired The Herbalist occurred in my home town of Athy, so I felt a strong personal connection. And I often wrote the scenes where I set them, down the alley way, by the river, at the courthouse. In addition I watched only films from the era, movies like It Happened One Night, Wuthering Heights, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and many Betty Davis and Greta Garbo pictures. These were the films my character Emily would have seen, the ones that would have transported her from poverty to glamour, if only for an afternoon. I also read and reread the local newspapers from the late thirties which were full of social detail. I also used the internet, the national archives, and of course good old fashioned history books.
Do you have a favourite character from the novel?
Aggie is a prostitute and lives on a barge on the river, though she has a vulnerable life, and quite a brutal one, she is also one of the freest characters in the novel. I really enjoyed her honesty, her earthiness and humour.
How did it feel to win the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards in the Newcomer of the Year category?
It was just wonderful that The Herbalist was voted the best debut novel of 2013, it’s a thumbs up to put it mildly! I was in shock when my name was announced, it still hasn’t really sunk in – it will probably hit me in a week or two when I’m doing something mundane! I’ll be standing in some check out and start whooping!
Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Like many other writers, I juggle work and family the best I can – so I’ve always a few things on the go, (i.e. loads of projects to finish!) and not enough time in the day – but I’m currently working on a novel, a short story collection and a poetry sequence.
Thank you so much for taking the time!
The Herbalist is set in 1930′s rural Ireland and focusses very much on the lives of Women in that place and time – as we follow several of them, including Emily, a picture emerges of just how different life was back then and it is compelling intriguing stuff..
Emily dreams of another life and thinks the Herbalist can provide it for her – however he is an enigmatic and possibly dangerous man and Emily is not the only woman who wants something from him…
Again I don’t want to give too much away – but when Emily discovers things may not be as clear cut as she thought, her inate sense of justice prevails and things get very interesting…
I was completely and utterly immersed in that world during the reading of this wonderful, evocative and heart breaking novel…it does not surprise me in the slightest that Niamh Boyce won an award – the prose is beautiful to behold and puts you right into the hearts and minds of these women and the things they face. Women’s Lib very much a thing of the future, you will end up feeling very strongly about the subjects you are reading of, and its all tied up in a strangely delicious story.
One of my favourite parts of the story, a side issue if you will, was the comment on banned books of the era. One of the ladies “rents” out said novels – Lady Chatterley’s Lover amongst others, and the different reactions of people to said literature is intriguing and adds another depth to the tale.
All in all a wonderful reading experience. Not my usual thing perhaps but as I take on this reviewing lark with gusto, I am discovering some wonderful stories that perhaps might have passed me by. My grateful thanks to Penguin for sending me this one – I loved it.
Find out more here: http://niamhboyce.blogspot.co.uk/
Follow Niamh on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/NiamhBoyce
Happy Reading Folks!