Crying For The Moon
Mary Walsh (HarperCollins)
In town: Mary Walsh will be at the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Friday April 28 at 8:30 p.m. She will be on a panel with Heather O’Neill at Christ Church Cathedral. For more information on this event and tickets, please see writersfestival.org.
Mary Walsh had a secret desire to write a novel, but she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do it.
“I have always been a voracious reader and I feel that, in many ways, books saved my life. I just always wanted to be a novelist. I never really felt I had the real chops for it, but I was between jobs and I had 200 pages. I took them to my agent and he took me over to HarperCollins. They said yes. That was five years ago,” Walsh said in a phone interview about her book Crying For The Moon, with ARTSFILE.
“I got a contract with them to deliver a first draft within a year. I missed that one and the next one and the next one and the one after that.
“It was very daunting I have to say. I think in the end there was a series of miscommunications. HarperCollins thought I was done but I wasn’t.” The publisher went ahead and started planning for publication and Walsh just had to bear down.
“I didn’t like to say that I wasn’t ready.” Turns out she needed a deadline.
“Between the jigs and the reels and a lot of help from a lot of people it’ll be out on April 18 in the stores.” That’s today.
The well-known actor and comedian has been intimately involved in some of the best comedy television ever produced in Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Her character Marg Delahunty, the Princess Warrior, is iconic.
“I think that in publishing, it’s good to have a name. I don’t think I felt pressure. I guess if I had been smart enough to think I would have felt that, but I didn’t. I simply had the same terrors that I have had all the time, that I just couldn’t do it.
“I have spent an enormous amount of time on the short form and I’m not bad on that but the long form was difficult and longer.”
Judging by reading the book, she’s not half bad at the novel either.
Crying For The Moon is dark story with a sense of humour. One would expect from Walsh.
It’s central figure is a high school teenager from a working class Irish Catholic family in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Maureen Brennan had an overwhelming desire to get to Expo ’67. That prompted her to talk her way into the alto section of the high school choir despite the best efforts of Sister Mary Imobilis. The choir was off to Montreal to sing at Expo. When she got to the big city Maureen went off the rails, drinking under age with a friend and having sex with a guy she met in the bar.
First time was the charm and Maureen became pregnant. That’s just the start of her long slide.
Maureen’s story “is familiar to me. It’s a very different story than my story. Getting knocked up in high school was the terror of every Holy Heart of Mary Regional High School girl in 1967-8,” Walsh said. That’s her alma mater by the way.
“What could you do?” she said. “You’d just have to kill yourself … before anyone found out. It was just overwhelming, even though it didn’t happen to me, thank God.”
Just the fear of a teenaged pregnancy was an on-going presence in the life of young women of that time, she says.
“I did grow up in St. John’s at that time. I did try to get try to get to Expo with the convent choir but I was found out before I got to go.”
So the novel is about a world Walsh knows well. Some of the characters are amalgams of people she knew, she said.
“I started out to do a ‘coming-of-age’ story. That must be a first novelist’s kind of thing. But as it went along I became more interested in making it a kind of mystery to drive the narrative more. I started out, as a lot of us do, reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and stuff like that.
“Then I got into serious literature and wouldn’t be caught dead reading Harlen Cobden or Lee Child or The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo because that was so beneath me. But now I’m absolutely back. There were a couple of years I did nothing but read Lee Child books featuring Jack Reacher.”
Expo ’67 is a marker for Canadians of a certain vintage. Society was changing and starting to discuss and try to understand a whole raft of issues that confronted young women of the day.
“When I was reading books in the 1970s I was wondering, ‘Where is my story? Where is somebody who grew up like me?’ It wasn’t there.”
So she has set out to provide such a story.
It’s not an easy life, Walsh is describing. Maureen’s mother is a harridan known as The Sarge.
“I didn’t grow up with my mother.” Walsh came from a very large family with an alcoholic father, but she was raised by two maiden aunts and an uncle who treated her well, she says.
“But there are people, there are mothers who are like that and there are many of them. And there are daughters who have to grow up with that and children who are full of resentment.
“I wanted to tell a story that was closer to the reality that I knew.”
Maureen’s life was changed forever by the pregnancy. She was kicked out of school because of it. Then her mother had the child adopted after delivery. Then she was kicked out of the house and told to get a job.
She fell into an violent relationship with a small time drug dealer who one day is bumped off. Unfortunately for Maureen she’s the last person to see her beau and therefore she becomes a suspect. To stave off prison, she sets out to solve the killing.
Maureen’s character experiences a lot of pain in her short life but she’s like a rubber ball, she always seems to bounce back.
“I would say that most people go through a lot of pain. Maureen is an every woman, or every young girl. You have to learn and move on. You either die or you move on. There is not a lot of choice.
“Coming from that hard-scrabble place Maureen knew you can’t lie down because you’ve got to keep working. So many people are depending on you.”
Somehow, she says, “you have to learn how to be open-hearted and compassionate, that’s something I would like to be.”
Walsh is certainly thinking about another novel.
“I do have a start on another one. I did think, not with a lot of ‘serious’ thought yet that, since Maureen used her nosiness to help solve a killing that I could use that again. Maureen could become the hapless detective.” But what that second novel might be, Walsh wasn’t saying.
“There were good things to writing the novel and there were not so good things. Sometimes when you are struggling to find the way to express a feeling it’s almost like being on a knife’s edge walking a very fine line.”
But she learned to just write and fix and fix over and over again.
“And, finally, on the 73rd iteration, it’s right. Sometimes it just comes and it’s exactly what you meant to say, but mostly it’s a slog.”
Walsh believes her theatre training helped her polish her prose.
“I wrote it out loud. I wrote it by hand and then I read it out loud to somebody who put it in the computer. As I read it, I changed everything. I tend to get a little pretentious and try to pretend I’m not who I am and try to have larger thoughts than I actually capable of having.
“As you read that out loud you recognize right away that that phrase doesn’t sound like Maureen at all.
Some characters almost burst out of their author’s brain and they take over a novel. Not Maureen.
Walsh said she had to work at developing Maureen’s story. It didn’t just flow out.
Feelings were hard for her to express. “I’m not sure what I am feeling at any given time. It usually takes about a year and then, ‘Oh, that’s what I was feeling then’.”
The feelings in this novel are intense. It includes a very frank description of the rape culture that Maureen was surviving.
The criminal justice system of the time was no help. In fact it worked against women’s rights, Walsh says.
“It’s all very new that women have some rights over our bodies and now very quickly people are desperately trying to take them back.”
Walsh knows something of this violence. She says she was locked in a violent relationship when she was young.
“It was not the same as Maureen’s but I had some experience in that. It was very difficult for me to write that, I’d be very upset and I wouldn’t know why and then I’d realize I did that kind of scene today.
“When I was in that world I was trying not to be in that world. Being out of it and having to go back into some place I never wanted to be, was daunting.
Was it cathartic? “Call me in a year and I’ll tell you how I’m feeling about that.”
Despite it all, the novel is hopeful.
“I don’t want everything tied up in a nice bow, but I want there to be some hope at the end. As a reader, I’ve spent a few days with this person and I have come to like them.
“When you are young, your Aunt Mae would always say, for gosh sakes couldn’t you just show something good. And you’d go ‘Listen Aunt Mae, enough of your hypocritical BS. But as you get older, the hope of hope is there in some way.”