I first met Honor Molloy at a salon sponsored by the Irish American Writers and Artists, a foundation that counts both of us as members. She was still in the process of cobbling together a fictional account of her life that would later become Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage, a novel that eventually saw the light of day earlier this year.
On this particular evening, writers at all levels of experience and pedigree gathered to expose one another to their embryonic words by reading them aloud for feedback. Since many writers are introverted and introspective, you can imagine how tedious listening to them in succession can sometimes be.
I guess that’s why Molloy struck me as such a breath of fresh air. When she opened her mouth, the air seemed to disappear from the room as she leaned into the words and brought them to life from the page with a shameless theatricality. If you weren’t in the room, you lost out, plain and simple.
For those of you that might have missed Molloy on her recent book tour, you can get a sense of the masterful storyteller on the recently released audiobook of Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage.
Despite the sometimes heartbreaking accounts of abuse and alcoholism that stain the family’s life story told in Smarty Girl, Molloy’s voice bends the words like lyrics of a song. Molloy chalks that up to her musical background.
“My father discovered the Dubliners,” she explains. “He brought musicians and buskers off the street and put them on the Dublin stages. Our house was filled with people who came in the middle of the night and the middle of the day, middle of everything, and a concert could break out at any moment in our tiny house.”
Our own Cahir O’Doherty, no critical pushover by any means, fell over himself praising her book in these pages when it was released a few months ago.
“Reading Smarty Girl can give you a sensation of vertigo as you realize what the young and all too innocent narrator cannot -- that her situation is broken beyond repair and whatever her future holds her present is blighted,” he wrote.
“The richness of the telling and the lessons of it can be weighed in every line. Many Irish books will be released this year, but few will be this candid or this complete.”
Those stories of encounters with musicians bring much merriment to the sometimes tumultuous aspects of her family’s life, and singer/songwriter Susan McKeown, no stranger to the theater herself, creates some musical magic on the audiobook.
“I met Susan in the early 1900s when we collaborated on New George’s luminous production of Maiden Voyages, a play I wrote with the Irish midwife Bronagh Murphy that was set on a Dublin maternity ward,” Molloy explained in an interview with the New York Foundation for the Arts earlier this year.
“Susan sang and portrayed Moira Fury -- a ghostly presence. She provided music selections and arrangements of traditional Irish music that added a raw power to the play.”
“Honor's work shows that she is deeply conscious not only of the Irish mind but, of particular interest to me, of Irish women's stories,” explained McKeown in an email exchange over the weekend.
“Irish women's voices and stories have largely been absent throughout history, and it's exciting to me when I come across artists who are bringing those voices and stories alive in a way that gives greater depth to Irish women's characters than we have generally been used to seeing.”
In the audiobook for Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage, McKeown breathes life into the musical dialogue that pumped through Molloy’s pen. When she’s not reading some passages and adding a variety of voices to the production, she’ll break the dialogue with a haunting sean nos tune in some spaces.
“Oh happy is the mother/who never had a son/for little did she ever think what hardships would come/not a quilt nor a blanket for to cover my skin/but an old, broken sentry box where the tide drifted in,” McKeown sings.
“The whole book itself is like a piece of music in my mind,” Molloy reasons. “I listened to Susan McKeown, the Dubliners, Leonard Cohen, sean nos singing, all sorts of Irish music while I wrote this. So, music was part of my life growing up and it was essential in the writing process as I was putting this book together.”
The writer and musician collaborated on a pair of songs, “Goosetown” and “Dartinne,” which are featured within the audiobook. McKeown was thrilled with the results.
“When I'm working with Honor it's not a big shift from the kind of subject matter to which I am naturally drawn. Honor has known me for so long that she asks me to do work that is always of great interest to me,” McKeown says.
“For Smarty Girl she told me she was often listening to my album Sweet Liberty as she wrote, and I could identify parts of songs sometimes literally, or referred to in parts of the book.”
Anyone looking for more of McKeown’s music won’t have to wait. Of course, she has a collection of solo albums dating back to Bones in 1995. She is in the process of completing her next album, tentatively titled Belong.
She’s working with Pledge Music, a website that allows fans to support the creative process. The video clips of her in the studio would have you believe that the Irish songstress is moving away from the traditional influences from her past albums and more into a bluesy-jazz vibe.
McKeown’s warm, supple voice makes her a perfect candidate to become the Norah Jones of Ireland!
McKeown is rocking for a cause, with the portion of the proceeds she is raising going to the relief organization Madre.
“Madre goes into places into the world where there has been unrest or disaster and helps the women and children there,” she explains.
“The new album is a collection of my own songs written over the past decade. Begun in 2008, this is the most American-sounding album I’ve made, with songs that I’ve been performing recently such as ‘No Jericho,’ ‘The Cure’ and the brand new ‘Stars and Stripes.’”
You can join the campaign to have Belong see the light of day by logging into http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/susanmckeown.
I just pledged my money and can’t wait for the new music to come! The new album features great Irish musicians, including Brendan O'Shea and Justin Carroll, who are assisting her in the making of the final four songs. She released a single and video, “No Jericho,” which can be found on YouTube.
“It's like asking your fans to buy the album in advance or help a little more if they can, and I love communicating directly with the pledgers, updating them on the process and hearing their comments,” McKeown says of the Pledge Music experience.
“Of course it helps if an artist has previously been on a major label, however I'm fortunate and grateful to have wonderful fans who support my work and make it possible for me to continue making my life in music.”
Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage can be purchased as an audiobook on audible.com or as a traditional paperback online, on Kindles and Nooks, and in better bookshops like Watchung Booksellers in New Jersey.