Angela Keogh is a writer, director and actor. Her novel ‘The Winter Dress’ (The Harvest Press) was an Irish Writer Centre Novel Fair Winner. I was delighted to interview Angela today about her work. Angela is photographed by Kevin Byrne.
‘I had no idea that the book and the pandemic would materialise at the same time…’
Q. Congratulations on ‘The Winter Dress’ Angela! It has turned out to be a very topical novel. Set at the outbreak of the plague that became known as The Black Death, the book was published last year in the midst of the Covid pandemic, and will resonate strongly with readers. Obviously, that’s not something you could have anticipated, but what are your thoughts and feelings about this?
The first strands of The Winter Dress were woven in about 2010. It was a poem, a stage play and a radio drama. I had no idea that the book and the pandemic would materialise at the same time. At the 2021 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair, on Valentines Day, people joked about the timing. We had no idea what was about to happen.
I’m always aware, as I’m speaking about the Black Death, of the possibility that someone listening or reading may have lost someone they loved through COVID or that they may be worried about someone who is ill. Daily figures or dramatic historical numbers are irrelevant to a broken heart. The numbers don’t do anything to describe the life and love or suffering of a human being.
Q. Irish novelists don’t often delve often into the rich world of the middle ages, hopefully that will change. What attracted you to the era of The Winter Dress? Was there a particular story or piece of history that sparked your interest and inspired you to explore that time further?
Thanks Niamh; fellow time-traveller. There were many things that captured my interest…
- The first lecture of the Castledermot History Society included a piece of theatre about the Black Death. It was performed by John MacKenna and although it was short, I found it funny, desperately sad and hopeful.
- I overheard a group of women from Clonmel discussing a dress they had made that was based on a fragment of clothing found in the Moy Bog. (The Moy Gown)
- Some of the architecture of Castledermot, during the 1300s is still standing and offered itself like a map to me.
- There are the ruins of a medieval monastery in Wells, near where I live.
- Across the road from me is a rath – many of these are casually strewn about Carlow and Kildare, whenever I see one I feel the presence of the ancestors.
- Castledermot was once a French speaking walled town. Incredible.
- I’ve been tripping over medieval steps in Kilkenny for years.
- John Clyn, the Kilkenny medieval scribe, left an incredible description of the arrival of the Black Death in Kilkenny, on Christmas Day 1348.
- I met two people from Castledermot who spoke about local cures. A cure for cattle that had stopped producing milk and another for over amorous husbands.
‘The human concerns of love and family and deeper meaning were companions then as now…’
Q.Was there a lot of research for the novel? Did any of your research throw up any surprises?
I am in awe of how people survived. Life expectancy was short, there were famines, cattle plagues, bad harvests and many long hard winters. Life for women was particularly difficult. Yet, the human concerns of love and family and deeper meaning were companions then as now.
There are two main characters in the novel, Rose, a wild-Irish dress-maker, who grew up beyond the town walls and Brother John, a Norman scribe. Both of these characters had very different histories.
I took a course in Medieval European History in Carlow College which helped put things in the wider context. I read and re-read many of the older Irish stories, to try to get a sense of how Rose might have understood the world.
In medieval times, all over Europe, culture was synonymous with Church. I was enthralled (once again) by the Irish language and the magic within it. The medieval Roman Church was preoccupied with risks involved in consanguinity; this extended to people related through spiritual-relationships such as God-parents.
The European experience of the Black Death is well documented. I was astonished to learn about the persecution of Jewish people – all over Europe. They were blamed for the pestilence, for poisoning the wells, and thousands were murdered. Many others were banished from their homes.
I was struck by the resourcefulness of people. I saw images from medieval drawings in the Luttrell Psalter, of wooden cot-like contraptions with wheels that people used in order to bring babies to the fields, to keep them safe while their parents worked.
Q. Did you always want to be a writer, or was there a particular turning point when you were inspired or decided to dedicate yourself to writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I found old notebooks recently and rediscovered my first attempts at poetry (ouch). When I left school, I studied general nursing. I knew, six weeks into the course, that it wasn’t for me but I wasn’t brave enough to leave it. Six years later, with two small children, I studied English Literature at Sussex University in Brighton. It was life affirming and transformative. I later studied Creative Writing (MUI) with Suzanne Power and John MacKenna and that was incredibly inspiring.
Q. Did the library play a role in your early reading life? Was there a particular book that sparked your love of words.
I was and am a voracious reader. I read everything that I could get my hands on including a series of books about satanic stories that still give me nightmares. The Carlow library was a treasure trove and I spent hours selecting books.
My parents had a complete collection of Somerset Maugham in the house and when the teenage Angela picked that up, the language made her giddy.
‘Hope is the most precious friend of a writer…’
Q. Do you have any writing tips or advice that has helped you along the way?
- Keep going! Don’t lose heart. I’ve heard so many stories of unusual paths to print. Travel in hope. I think hope is the most precious friend of a writer.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The novel is a lonely long road. Write letters, poetry, blogs, short stories, diaries, reports, film scripts, plays…take opportunities and time to nourish your writing life. Everything is practice. Have faith that the road ahead is well lit.
- Don’t be afraid of, or offended by, the editing process. It’s not personal, it’s work.
- Read and keep reading.
- A supportive friend or partner is a tremendous gift.
Q. How has the pandemic affected your writing life Angela?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had a novel and two radio plays out in the last twelve months among other things. But the brakes were put on a few events. A play I’m directing was postponed and my book couldn’t have a launch but these really aren’t life or death issues and others are in the same situation.
I found it comforting to play music over the last year and I’ve spent hours with my cello and tin-whistle, distracted from the ever-rattling news and getting to grips with other unexpected life events that have evolved.
I was delighted to recognise that both of my parents are great teachers in how to live to live well under all circumstances.
Q. What’s next Angela, can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
A novel You Who Sleep Safely, about a Polish woman whose brother goes missing just after the economic boom in Ireland. It is set in modern Dublin and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Thank you, Angela and best of luck with your writing journey and the intriguingly titled You Who Sleep Safely…
For more about The Winter Dress visit The Harvest Press….
By Niamh Boyce