Whipping up the truth with Irish American author Deborah Henry
Henry's 'The Whipping Club' an Oprah Winfrey Summer Reading List pick
She has succeeded in her aim. Henry’s debut novel is immensely assured, grabbing the reader from the first page. It’s the kind of debut that publishers dream of, confident, clear and appealing to a wide audience.
Perhaps Henry’s own unique background explains some of the interest the book is generating.
Her mother is a first generation Irish Catholic from the Irish enclave of Woodside in Queens, New York. Growing up she was also very close to her grandmother, who was originally from Portglenone in Co. Antrim.
Although it was a typical Irish family on the surface, her background was far from typical.
“My mother somehow met a Jewish man, which was almost unheard of in the 1950s,” Henry says. “They fell in love and got married and no one came to their wedding from either side of the religious divide. On the Jewish side they thought it was horrendous of my father to bring home this blond bombshell.”
It makes Henry shake her head to think that even in our own lifetime, these marriages were considered horrific.
“It’s so hard to make a connection in this world, let alone fall in love. I often think it’s a miracle anyone gets married,” Henry says.
Half Jewish and half Irish, Henry refers to herself as bilingual.
“I went to the Irish side by marrying a nice Irish Catholic man and I’ve always been close to that side of me. But at the same time I was intrigued to discover there’s a part of Dublin that’s known as Little Jerusalem,” she says.
“When I told my mom I was going to try and write a novel set there she rolled her eyes and said, ‘About all two Jewish people there - all of them?’”
But Henry went over to Ireland to research, and she started to uncover uncanny similarities there to things that were occurring in her book. She knew from the beginning that it would address the history of what happened in Ireland in the last century.
“I’m a happy person, but I really like meaty material,” Henry reveals. “I’m not really big on beach reads. I write things that I want to leave behind.”
The subject matter of the book, which involves overcoming abuse and adversity to achieve some measure of forgiveness and a new life, appealed to one of the most famous readers in the world -- Oprah Winfrey. Henry was astounded to be told that the chat show queen had picked The Whipping Club as one of the members of the sought-after Summer Reading List compiled by Winfrey’s magazine, O.
“That was a beautiful moment in my life,” Henry confesses. “I was in the auto shop of all places and I got an email to overnight my book to O magazine. To have a no-name novelist get picked up, it was really miraculous.
“I don’t know how they found the book or me. I have clues. I love New York and go to some writing events there. So maybe through one of her writing comrades?”
After it was published Henry says she treated The Whipping Club as if it was one of her children.
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