Julia MacDonnell, author of the Pushcart Prize nominee short story “Soy Paco,” makes her return to novel writing with the feisty matriarch Mimi Malloy. Surrounded by her meddling sisters and daughters, who are desperately trying to involve her in a family genealogy project, 67-year-old Mimi spends her days listening to Frank Sinatra, chatting with the handsome superintendent of her building, and trying to ignoring troubling memories.
But some memories don’t want to be forgotten, like what happened when her sister Fagan was sent away by her wicked stepmother, Flanna. A missing sister, a mysterious necklace, and Irish folklore begin to come together in ways Mimi couldn’t possibly imagine as she and her sisters, the glorious Sheehan girls, look back on their shared history. In this interview, we talk with MacDonnell on her 20 year break from writing, her own love of Sinatra, and fairies.
Bookish: Mimi Malloy, At Last! is your first published novel in 20 years. Was it just like riding a bike—easy to get back into the groove—or did you encounter unexpected challenges?
Julia MacDonnell: Well, I never stopped writing. I was pedaling that bike as hard as I could for the entire two decades!! During that time, I wrote about a dozen short stories, two novellas, a book-length memoir, and another half of a novel. I’ve submitted the stories and published eight or nine. One, “Dancing with NED,” will be in the spring/summer 2014 Alaska Quarterly Review.
But I’ve been also teaching full-time, and raising three children as the chief wage-earner. In the middle of it all, my marriage fell apart, I was diagnosed with breast cancer (15-year survivor!), and just a few weeks later my sister Veronica was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. During the three years she survived, I drove 316 miles to New Hampshire at least once a month to help her and her family.
Bookish: What caused your break from novel writing? What brought you back?
JMD: I don’t feel that I ever took a break from novel writing. I took a break from trying to get published. Crazy, maybe, because writers hunger so for publication. But my experience with my first novel, A Year of Favor, was heartbreaking. Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. Of course, I longed to publish again, and I always knew I would, but I also knew that I’d have to be strong enough within myself to weather whatever happened or didn’t happen with the next book. I realized I was ready when Mimi herself began to kick me in the butt and force me to move forward. Mimi wanted her story to be told!
Bookish: Mimi’s troubles start when her family begins prodding at her for help with a genealogy project. Have you ever traced through your own genealogy?
JMD: I’ve never traced our family’s history. However, ages ago, someone in my family did one, and it was quite startling. Then, as years passed and more research was done, every fact we thought was so marvelous turned out to be untrue. I guess that’s the interesting part: At the end of all that searching, we didn’t know any more for certain than we’d known at the beginning.
Bookish: The chapter titles are Frank Sinatra songs. Was that to represent Mimi’s love for him, or did it come from your own?
JMD: Both of my parents adored Sinatra and all of that era’s popular balladeers. My father, who earned his living as an educator, was a musician who played trombone in swing bands and big bands. My mother also loved music and loved to dance. It was something that drew them together during the post-WWII years. So, I grew up listening to Sinatra. And when I began to write Mimi, I kept hearing a soundtrack, all those great enduring songs. The chapter titles came about because of Mimi’s love for him. She even says, “He’s singing my own feelings.”
Bookish: Those glorious Sheehan girls and Mimi’s own diverse bunch of daughters are bursting with personality. How did you go about crafting each one? Do you have a favorite outside of Mimi?
JMD: For starters, I grew up with five sisters and two brothers, as well as 25 girl cousins, 11 aunts, a maternal great-grandmother, and paternal grandmother, all living in close proximity. I had no shortage of models for pungent female personalities!
My favorite of Mimi’s daughters, Malvina, her “lost child,” doesn’t appear in this novel, though she is mentioned several times. She’s the family rebel, an urban homesteader and public health advocate in the Bronx. I’ve already written quite a bit about her!!
Bookish: Mimi is an unwilling member of the Yik Yak club, the nickname she’s given to her sisters when they get together to rehash old times. Did you have your own group of Yik Yakers that you went to when ideating and writing this novel?
JMD: I grew up eavesdropping on Yik Yak clubs that were a constant in my childhood. That, I believe, gave me an understanding of how women talked together and what their talking meant to them. But, perhaps ironically, I did not bring any part of Mimi to either a writing group or a workshop.
Because of parenting and full-time work, I’ve never had time to participate in those kinds of groups, as valuable as they can be. In the early stages of writing Mimi, I worked privately with Molly Peacock, who is as extraordinary a teacher as she is a writer. Otherwise, until I got my agent, Janet, nobody else ever saw the manuscript.
Bookish: The novel incorporates Irish fairy folklore. Was this something you’ve been interested in before, or did you begin your research for this novel?
JMD: I’ve always been interested fairy folklore, and Yeats’ research on it. I grew up in a deeply religious Catholic family and, until I was an adolescent, I believed that my guardian angel was always with me, even though I couldn’t see her. My sisters and I talked a lot about our angels, and we had not the slightest doubt that our world was full of potent unseen “spirits” who could help or harm us. For me, the space between angels and faeries is very small. Both are invisible winged creatures with a lot of power.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
JMD: Long live the independent bookstore!! I have two favorites, and it would be very hard to pick only one because they’re different in many ways: Big Blue Marble in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, and Northshire in Manchester, VT. Both occupy old houses, though the Northshire is much bigger and has been added onto over the years. It is a venerable indie and one of the cultural gems of southern Vermont. During the summer of 2011, I spent many hours there working on revisions of Mimi. I love this place, though it sometimes gets too crowded on holiday weekends and during ski season.
Big Blue Marble is smaller and newer but has also established itself as the literary center of a very vibrant city neighborhood. Two amazing writers, Minter Krotzer and Hal Sirowitz, serve as unofficial “writers in residence,” offering a variety of readings, workshops, and other services for writers. Big Blue Marble has a “community room” for use by groups that want a warm place to gather. It also hosts every type of book club imaginable, including YA and “Women of the World.” Just a marvelous place, and fingers crossed it can survive.