by LAURA HAYES
A bombing that suddenly leaves a man the guardian of a two-year-old girl, a family pub tucked away in a small town in rural Ireland, a visiting scholar who shares the protagonist’s love of Irish poetry — these are some of the components of Kathy Peterson’s new novel “Girl on the Leeside.”
The novel, which was recently released, follows a 27-year-old woman named Siobhan, who grew up in a pub in a small Irish town with her Uncle Kee after her mother was killed in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing. The pair love Irish literature. One day, an American scholar comes to the village. “Meeting a stranger — and she doesn’t meet a lot of strangers — who shares her own passion opens up these strange feelings and a new window in her world that gives her a glimpse of what life could be beyond living in the pub with her uncle for the rest of her life,” Peterson explained.
Ireland, Peterson said, is an evocative place. “What I want [readers] to take away is how our sense of place can fundamentally influence who we are as a person,” she said.
Raised in Milwaukee, Wis., Peterson began seriously writing in high school. She comes from a large Irish-Catholic family, and, growing up, Peterson said that she listened to her family discuss the IRA. “The Troubles” is in the background of “Girl on the Leeside.” For decades, there was conflict between the mostly-Protestant Northern Ireland which wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom and the mostly-Catholic Republic of Ireland which wanted to separate.
Her family came from Cork, which is in the southern part of the Republic of Ireland. Growing up, her father kept up with the conflict in Northern Ireland. “It was really something I learned about my whole life,” Peterson said. The tensions, she said, are still being felt today.
When her daughter, Kate, graduated from high school, the family took her to Ireland as a graduation present. The Petersons rented a car and drove up the Western coast. “It’s really everything that people say it is. It’s really evocative, mystical, and beautiful. And the people are so amazing and friendly,” Peterson said.
During one of the family’s other trips to Ireland, they stayed in Northern Ireland with an Irish girl who lived with Peterson’s family in Winona as an exchange student. While they were there, the Petersons attended an “Orange Parade” typically held by Protestants. “There we were and I said, ‘I’m probably the only person born Catholic in this whole crowd, and I wonder what would happen if they knew that,’” she recalled. On their way home from the parade, Peterson said they saw a car on fire. “At least we got a little glimpse of what it was like to live there all year round,” she said.
During one of the trips to Ireland, the family stayed in a town called Roundstone for three days. The village, Peterson said, inspired her to write “Girl on the Leeside.” Peterson began writing novels around 20 years ago. In total, she has written four novels including “Summer for the Taking,” which was published with Winona’s Bookshelf Editions. Her other two novels are tucked in a desk drawer. “I’m a firm believer in not throwing anything away. Keep your old stuff,” Peterson said, explaining that those drawers may contain a character she could use in the future.
Peterson was the youngest child in her family. She said that she was sheltered growing up, on which she drew for her main character, Siobhan. “[I had this] concept of this young woman raised in this very isolated rural area, who maybe had some trauma in her past,” Peterson said. Siobhan, she explained, was sheltered to the point that it affected her development.
“All of my writing is really character-driven,” Peterson explained. The most challenging part of writing the novel, she said, was writing characters who readers would care about from the beginning. When creating her characters, Peterson maps out the characters’ basic traits — age and backgrounds. She likes to weave character development throughout the story. Peterson said that during events, she’ll often watch for people’s quirks while interacting with other people.
“Girl on the Leeside” has undergone approximately eight rewrites since she started writing the novel 15 years ago. Peterson said that she’ll write the first draft by hand before typing the manuscript. There have been several substantial changes to the book. For example, in earlier drafts, Peterson neatly wrapped up Siobhan’s story at the end, but she said that in the final draft, she left the ending more ambiguous. Other minor characters — such as a traveler who comes to town and a horse breeder in love with Siobhan’s Uncle Kee — became more important in later drafts. Peterson explained that if the writer is interested in the minor character, then the reader will probably be, too.
During one of the earlier drafts of the novel, Peterson decided to weave in pieces of Irish poetry by writers such as William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. “That took a long time, but it was a lot of fun because I love to read poetry,” she said.
“Girl on the Leeside” is available for purchase at Paperbacks and Pieces and online by visiting http://kathleenannekenney.com/.