Tag Archives: Ireland

Writers on Wednesday: The Horrific reality of the Magdalene Laundries, how writing is like ‘a madness that cannot be shed,’ and more from amateur pianist & author of THE MAGDALEN GIRLS V.S. Alexander


By Leslie Lindsay 

Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of Dublin’s Magdalene Laundries. Once a place of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses, shielding “fallen women” from ever showing their faces to their families. Some of these women are unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Others are there because their “sin” is being too pretty, too independent, or having a crush on a priest.the-magdalen-girls-cover

Such is the case of Teagan Tiernan, who’s youthful grace and beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young, handsome priest.

Teagan befriends other Magadalen inmates, Lea and Nora, and together, they plot their way out of the institution. Still, the outside world has dangers, too.

THE MAGDALEN GIRLS (Kensington Publishing, Dec 27, 2016) explores experiences of “fallen women” imprisoned within the walls of the Magdalene Laundries in 20th century Ireland. I was completely moved by this historically-accurate, vivid accounting of one of the most troublesome aspects of the Catholic Church; yet ultimately, it’s a story of friendship, hope, and courage.

Join me, as I chat with V.S. Alexander on his beautiful, richly layered, though horrific historical novel.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for taking the time to join me, today. I’ve long had a fascination with the Magdalene Laundries, but I couldn’t really tell you where that originated from. Maybe it was the 2002 movie, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, but I’m not entirely sure. What spurred you into action when writing a novel about it? What were you hoping to discover or accomplish?300px-magdalen-asylum

V.S. Alexander: Thanks for having me! I could tell you that the idea for THE MAGDALEN GIRLS was mine, but that would be a fabrication. My editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, suggested the concept. He had specific ideas about what he wanted to see in the book, but it was up to me to come up with the characters and the plot. The initial idea came across my desk as an “historical novel set in Ireland.” So, that was my beginning. I wrote three chapters and a synopsis, which were well received. The book grew from there. I had also seen the 2002 movie before I wrote the book, but that was the extent of my prior knowledge about the laundries.

As far as what I was hoping for—I feel my job as a novelist is to be as true, as faithful to the characters as possible in every book. Hopefully, the reader will sense that and take away my desire to tell a “true” story that is fair to every character. I didn’t want, in any way, for the novel to be cartoonish. The Mother Superior is an evil witch…Teagan is goody two-shoes with no faults. That kind of novel. Life doesn’t work that way. Much of the human parade is a shade of gray tinged by human heroism and failings. All characters have their histories of good and bad. I hope I succeeded in getting that truth across to the reader. Also, I believe that at the heart of any great novel is a love story. While THE MAGDALEN GIRLS is not a love story per se, it sheds light on these characters reactions to that emotion.

L.L.: In reading your “author’s note” at the end of the book, I learned the laundries weren’t specific to Ireland; they also were part of America, Canada, Scotland, England, and Australia and mostly run by Catholic nuns. The last laundry was apparently shut down in 1996, and the first came into existence nearly 200 years before that. What can you tell us about the history of the laundries? What fascinating tidbits did you uncover during your research? 

V.S. Alexander: When writing my historical fiction, I keep a three-ring binder for notes and research. I often fill it up by the time the book goes to a first draft. Oddly enough, if you do a subject search on the laundries (books included) you’ll find that the amount of available material is fairly limited. My binder was thin. One of the things I constructed was a list of non-fiction and fiction books that related to the subject. I came up with nine, and several of those were tangential to the laundries. My point is that there wasn’t a wealth of material—and I think that’s because the subject has only recently entered public knowledge. Even today, some readers have mentioned that they had no idea such an institution existed.

So, the history is literally being written in our time, much of it after 2002. The earliest entry referring to the laundries that I could find was a play written in 1980, less than forty years ago! My novel’s details came from my reading: what the girls wore, how they worked, how they were often “broken down” by the system. Videos from women who worked in the laundries were a great help too. One chilling fact—the Magdalens who were interviewed after THE download-33MAGDALENE SISTERS movie came out said their experiences in the laundries were “more brutal” than those depicted in the film. These women endured so much: guilt, shame, fear, isolation, poverty.

L.L.: I’m curious if a character “spoke to you” first, was there a vision or a concept you wanted to explore in THE MAGDALEN GIRLS? Can you talk about that, please?

V.S. Alexander: I wouldn’t say a character “spoke” to me first because, as I’ve said, I knew going in what the parameters of the book would be. One character, however, found her way into my heart in unexpected ways. I found myself admiring the courage, the resilience, the unconditional love demonstrated by Lea. She, who has the gift of “spiritual sight,” sacrifices the most for her friends. Lea is an awkward, gawky girl who passes her time copying the Book of Kells. She is a favorite of the Sisters because she is artistic and compliant. She was also a favorite of mine, a delight to write. Oh, and as a gift to your readers, I’m revealing Lea’s real name. She says in the novel that she doesn’t even think she can remember it because she’s been in the laundry for four years. So, for the first time, character name reveal: Ava Byrne.

All of my books deal, to some extent, with love. One of the themes I explore most often is the misrepresentation of love by any of the values we give it: sociological, psychological or physical. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, wants to reform the girls through love although her methods hardly speak to that. In one of my previous novels I explored how love can be perverted through physical intimacy. It’s a theme I keep returning to.

L.L.: Long ago, I read an accounting of “The Butter Box Babies,” about a maternity home located in Canada in which the matrons who ran the country birthing home and orphanage would wrap deceased infants in small butter boxes for mass burial on the grounds. In some cases, this was an attempt to hide the pregnancies, in others, a form of punishment to the unwed mother. Were you aware of this? Did it inspire any of the plot points in THE MAGDALEN GIRLS?

V.S. Alexander: I was not aware of “The Butter Box Babies;” therefore, it didn’t inspire a plot point in the book. However, a similar occurrence did. That was the discovery in 1993 of 133 corpses in a mass grave on land formerly owned by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Dublin. Later, 22 more corpses were found, bringing the total to 155. It’s Lea who sees the burials late at night from a window and tells her friends. They, at first, don’t believe her. Who would believe that the nuns and the caretaker were burying “small bundles” on the convent grounds? download-34

L.L.: Do you believe the nuns who ran the laundries really felt they were doing a “good deed” with these girls? Have there been accounts of regret or wrongdoing on their part?

V.S. Alexander: THE MAGDALEN GIRLS is by nature a controversial book. You have on one side, the women; on the other, the Catholic Church. Both sides have held to their stories. As I wrote in the note, as far as I know, no compensation or formal apology has ever been offered by the Catholic Church regarding the laundries or the actions committed there.* In fact the Church, as an institution, has defended its actions as necessary and beneficial. However, you’re asking my opinion, and I do believe that some of the nuns truly believed they were helping the women who ended up under their auspices. My character, Sister Mary-Elizabeth, comes the closest to being one of those nuns—as a former penitent herself. It would be hard to deny that many of the nuns participated wholeheartedly in the system, possibly as intimidated and broken by their tasks as the girls. [*This article from The Catholic League may be of interest regarding myths and investigation into the Magdalen laundries]

L.L.: What is inspiring you these days? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

V.S. Alexander: Well, we’ve certainly been through the strangest election cycle I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t inspiring, but it grabbed my attention. My inspiration these days comes from within. I find myself increasingly grateful to have the opportunity to share my stories with the world. For that, I’m thankful. I’m also an amateur pianist. The piano is a balm for me. I’m currently working on a sonata for cello and piano. I know! It sounds so pretentious, but I approach composition with humility, and also an understanding of my weaknesses as a composer. Music, like writing, is hard work, but I love it and its ability to invoke emotions. 

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but didn’t?

V.S. Alexander: How long have you been in this business? I’ve been working at the craft far longer than I care to admit. Writing is a business of creation, editing, re-writing, submission, rejection, eventual publication (in whatever form that might take) and marketing. PLENTY of rejection. Writing is also a business of patience and working through rejection. My words of advice for someone who dreams of writing would be: Read as much as you can in all genres, and never give up. You must be an avid reader, one who loves literature, to be in this game. There are some who play at writing, but true writers never let go of their dream. In some ways it’s a madness that can’t be shed. download-35

L.L.: What’s next for you?

V.S. Alexander: I’m very excited because I’m under contract to Kensington for three books, and possibly a fourth. My second novel for them, THE TASTER, is scheduled to come out in January, 2018. I can’t give the plot away, but the book is set in World War II Germany and is told from a viewpoint that’s different from most novels set in the period. What’s next? To keep on writing until the ideas or the body wears out. And, I think most writers will agree, there are always more ideas, more books, than you have time to write.   

L.L.: Thank you, it was a pleasure chatting with you! Happiest of New Years.

V.S. Alexander: Thank you, and the same to all your readers!

For more information, to purchase THE MAGDELEN GIRLS or to connect with V.S. Alexander via social media, please see:

v-s-alexander-author-photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: V.S. Alexander, who also writes under the name Michael Meeske,  is an ardent student of history with a strong interest in music and the visual arts. Some of V.S.’s writing influences include Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Brontë sisters. V.S. lives in Florida and is at work on a second historical novel for Kensington.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:


[Cover and author image courtesy of Kensington Books. 1902 image of a Magdalene Laundry retrieved from Wikipedia, women ironing in Magdalene Laundry retrieved from daily mail.co.uk, both on 12.05.16] 

Writers on Wednesday: International Bestselling author EMMA DONOGHUE talks about the “fasting girls,”Nightingale nurses, how her kids are sort of an editorial board, and her THE WONDER


By Leslie Lindsay 

Emma Donoghue will probably always be remembered for the poignant—yet horrific—2010 International bestseller ROOM, a child’s point-of-view of being raised in captivity and then his amazing escape adapted for film in 2015.WP_20160920_11_28_31_Pro_LI (2).jpg

But Donoghue writes other narratives—seventeen published works, to be exact—those which stretch back in time to explore scandal, relationships, the Old Country, famine, class, and equality. All books–and all writers—Donoghue says, are political. Her new book, THE WONDER (Little, Brown September 20, 2016) is based on the real-life “fasting-girls,” a historical and religious phenomenon reported across the world from the 1500s to the 1900s: women and girls (often pre-pubescent) who claim to subsist on, well…nothing.  Whether these girls were mentally imbalanced, spiritually-driven, or something else, they drew crowds (and donations!) from tourists, eavesdroppers, medical and clerical professionals, and more. It’s at once, a wonder.

When Anna O’Donnell claims to live with no food since her eleventh birthday—nearly 4 months ago—Nightingale-trained nurse Lib Wright is commissioned from England to sit vigil, observing the child in hopes of revealing a hoax.160px-sarah_jacob

Donoghue presents the grayed landscape of post-famine Ireland in rich detail, a sort of Gothic horror and rich fascination in which one can sense the peaty landscape, feel the damp breeze, and taste the salty sea air. It’s a book you won’t want to miss, because it will change you.

Hope you have time to join Emma and I for a spot of tea a steamy scone and jam. Because neither one of us is willing to give up luscious baked goods.

Leslie Lindsay: Emma, it is such a delight and honor to have you pop by today. Thank you. Some will say it’s bad manners to ask a writer where she gets her inspiration for a particular work. But I have to know—what inspired you to write THE WONDER? Why now?

Emma Donoghue: I’m not sure why now, because I first came across the Fasting Girls Fasting Girls twenty years ago and have been fascinated by them all this time. I suspect I was just stuck in a habit of always basing my historical novels on one real person – whereas the breakthrough moment for THE WONDER was when I realized that no one of the cases was quite right for my purposes, so I needed to let myself write a completely fictional story. Albeit one that’s haunted by the real Fasting Girls.

L.L.: I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of “the fasting girls” until THE WONDER was brought to my attention. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of the Salem Witch Trials download-18in the late 15th century America. Can you speak to how it might relate to your story?

Emma Donoghue: Yes, I’m sure Arthur Miller’s play about Salem, THE CRUCIBLE, was one of the texts that influenced me. But so did many other examples of groupthink and mass hysteria, and not all of them historical ones either; only the other day I read about a 13-year-old girl who’s died in India after a 68-day fast.  When I was writing THE WONDER I thought a lot about teenagers (with all their passion and idealism, and gullibility too) who get caught up in bad causes – from cults to ISIS.

L.L.: In my former life, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. I was certainly no Nightingale…still, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about nursing and medicine through the eyes of “your” nurse, Lib Wright in late 1800s. What research did you do to get the details ‘just so?’

Emma Donoghue: I read a lot about the nurses in the Crimean, who really transformed the
job in a single generation. They may not have had much authority (having to apply to doctors for permission to do anything) or many effective tools (no thermometer, even), but a book like Nightingale’s NOTES ON NURSING shows an amazing insight into the nitty-gritties (psychological as well as physical) of how to nurse well.

L.L.: I find the character of Anna O’Donnell quite fascinating. I also happen to have a little redheaded, blue-eyed 11-year old girl just like Anna, well, minus the fasting. Being a mother, I find parts of THE WONDER a challenge to read, dark and slightly disturbing. I’m not sure how I would respond if my daughter claimed to be fed from manna from heaven. Can you share your thoughts on that, please?

Emma Donoghue: My thoughtful nine-year-old daughter was a big inspiration for THE WONDER; a sort of inverse inspiration, in that her radiant health (mental as well as physical) gave me a vivid appreciation for how grueling it would be like to watch over a child whose41iqqgj5pnl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ entire system is beginning to fail. She also supplied me with the riddles the nurse and girl exchange. To answer your question, something I researched in a lot of detail was the agonizing dilemma of the parents of children with eating disorders, who get such conflicting advice about the extent to which they should back off and allow the young person more autonomy, or step in and try to save the young person’s life. I suspect that in that situation I would blunder badly.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit, do you have any writing rituals or routines? What is your work space like?

Emma Donoghue: Right this minute it’s a chair in a hotel; tomorrow it’ll be a taxi, then an airport lounge, then an airplane, then a cafe; when I’m home it’s a sofa or a treadmill desk. I don’t care where I am. I just open my laptop and plunge down the rabbit hole.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from THE WONDER?

Emma Donoghue: I never have a one-line message. I hope they have the rich experience of living through this intense two weeks in the lives of my characters.

L.L.: I understand your writing life is quite varied. You have a Middle-Grade (8-12 years) illustrated novel coming out in the Spring. Can you share a bit more?

Emma Donoghue: Sure. THE LOTTERYS PLUS ONE is my first for young readers, and my [own] kids (9 and 12) have been not just its inspiration but a sort of editorial panel for me.  The book aims to handle a very contemporary premise (a gay couple and a lesbian couple have seven kids together) and some painful material (dementia) with a breezy tone.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up these days? What gets you out of bed in morning? It doesn’t have to be literary…

Emma Donoghue: Book tour is what makes me lurch out of my hotel bed before five in the morning! But I have been enjoying lots of reading time on the road, including the sparklingly witty family stories WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple and FATHERMUCKER by Greg Olear.

L.L: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Emma Donoghue: Nothing springs to mind.

L.L.: Emma, it was a complete pleasure. Thank you so very much for your lovely interview.

Emma Donoghue:  Thank you!

For more information about Emma Donoghue, THE WONDER, or to connect on social media, please see: 

emma-donoghue-nina-subinAbout the Author:

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, Emma Donoghue is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic). She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). She moved to England, and in 1997 received her PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in
eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, she has earned her living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since she was ‘sacked’ after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, 41qzk6svewl-_ac_us160_and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with Chris Roulston and their son Finn (12) and daughter Una (9).

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various media channels:


[Special thanks to K. Myers at Hachette Book Group. Cover image of THE WONDER from L.Lindsay’s personal archives. Image of E. Donoghue retrieved from author’s website. Credit: Nina Subin. Cover image of Notes on Nursing, The Fasting Girl, both retrieved from Amazon on 10.17.16, The Crucible image retrieved from pinterest also on 10.17.16] 


Write On, Wednesday: Back on the Saddle


By Leslie Lindsay

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Since May I’ve waffled. I didn’t want to write. The kids were home from school. I simply didn’t have the time–and on some days–the inclination to haul out the laptop, open the manucript doc and tap away on the keys.

“Once I go on my retreat at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” I told  myself, “Then I’d want to write.” I  didn’t. In fact, the whole week in Madison just drilled in the fact that writing was hard. Damn hard. Perphaps I’d be better off without it.  My well-meaning and devoted critique partner supported me.  No, she encouraged me to re-think my statements, my intentions. I hated her for it. Throwing my laptop out of the window and lathering myself with Hawaiian Tropic sounded like the better option.

Yet for some dumb reason, I persisted. Maybe it was because I had already. spent so much time and effort on the manuscript? Sunk cost and all of that. Maybe it was because I knew there were only about 2 or 3 chapters left to write before I could consider the thing done, nevermind that editing and more rounds of revisions were needed, plus the agent submission process before it actually (hopefully) became a book.

And then I went to Ireland, home of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, other well-known literary figures. Maeve Binchy, Jonathan Swift. Ireland loves their writers. They used to have their faces on dollar bills, before the Euro. My darling hubby would look over at me in the tiny rental car, me the passenger on the opposite side of the car from what we are accustomed to here in the U.S., on the other side of the pond and say, “So, what stories would you write about this area?”

I sat the guidebook down, marking my page on castle ruins of County Limerick and looked to him, “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously,” he responded.

“Well, I…don’t know.”

“Too foreign for you?” He pressed.

“Something like that.” More like, I’m on vacation and how dare you try to make me work. But the fact was, my brain was already spinning tales, asking questions, looking for answers the muse would provide. It was too much almost to recount those story ideas to my husband, because doing so might actually mean I can’t get away from it, it might actually mean I had to write.

The words and descriptions of the countryside filled my head as it blurred past in a series of green and brown and blue. And even though I toted my journal along, I didn’t really use it. Blasphemous? Maybe. But honestly I was too busy reading the guidebook, taking in the sites, experiencing things that I just wanted to get away from it all.

And when we returned to the States, my fingers were itching to write. Not on the laptop, mind you but on notes, paper, lists…just something to whet my appetite. I wrote travel reviews on TripAdvisor. Does that count? Eventually, several days after being home–and several dozen loads of laundry, picking up the dog from the kennel, the kids from the grandparents, I anxiously opened the manuscript.

It wasn’t half-bad. In fact, it wasn’t nearly the mess I thought it might be. Being away from it actually renewed my passion, let me look at it with fresh eyes. And that, is a good thing.

So what are you waiting for? Write on, Wednesday!


The Emerald Isle: They may not be Irish…but the bagpipes are cool


By Leslie Lindsay

I wonder if I can pound out a blog in the next twenty minutes before I run off to pick up my daughter from preschool?  Hummm…sounds like an emperical question.  In fact, that was what my now husband-then-boyfriend used to say when I would have some psychology-related question (more like musing).  I thought I was being particularly astute with an observation or insight and then he would sort of smash it when he cocked that grin and suggested it could actually be studied.  (Where’s the fun in that?!)

But I digress.  Sort of.  You see, when I first “met” my husband, he was away in Ireland/Scotland.  With a friend.  Who was a girl.  (I know now that it was completely platonic, but at the time, I had no idea).  I had just started working at the same place as my would-be-honey.  I didn’t know I’d fall in love with the guy.  But I heard about his travels and it piqued my curiosity.   I love to travel, as well.  Alas, I have never been to the Emerald Isle.

Jim has and he liked it.  And he came back with stories of haggis (sheep stomach filled with parts that people “over there” eat and like), bagpipes, castles, rock walls, and beer.  And of course, the bagpipes.

I owe due credit to my Scottish Laddie who has taken up the art of squeezing on a plaid bag filled with air from his own sacs (we call lungs) and squeaking out a sound that is supposed to be music to your ears.  Well…it is.  And some like it more than others.

It’s not I don’t like it.  I do think it’s kind of cool that he has such an unique hobby.  He loves it.  Or, did.  You see, bagpiping is time-consuming.  There’s the practice, the group, the parades one must march in, and other special events like weddings and funerals.  (Yes, I walked down the aisle to the tune of bagpipes; alas my groom was not the muscian).  And so when we had our own little lassies, he hung the pipes up to focus on his growing familiy.

But I know there are times–and March is one of them–that gets his toes a tappin.’  The thoughts of pulling out the bagpipes is at the forefront of his mind.

Where did the bagpipes come from?  What’s the deal?  Well, I wish I had time to succinctly summarize a little research, but I don’t.  I have 8 minutes left to blog and that’s it.  12 minutes have already passed.  Here are some links for your browsing pleasure:





The Emerald Isle: All Things Green and Small


By Leslie Lindsay

It’s the month we celebrate all things green and little.  As in leprecahns and four-leaf clovers and emeralds.  Or, peas.  Or endamane.  And perhapsps even Thin Mints.  Though they aren’t really green.  They just “taste” that way–but they do come in that iconic green box.

What’s that you say?!  Oh?  You’re not Irish.  Well…who cares because this month, we’re all Irish!  In fact, I recall as a kid my parents didn’t really support the whole “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” thing either.  It was always “we’re a little of everything.  There’s no way to tell that we’re really Irish, anyway.”  True, I grew up with an un-Irish last name and always believed I was of German/Austrian ancestry.  But, as time went on I learned that we are, indeed Irish.  It comes from my mother’s side (and maybe dad’s side if we ever got the the bottom of that surname change way back when.  I think we may have derived from the McLean clan, but who really knows?!)

The thing is, I’ve got two redheaded children to “prove” my celtic ancestry.  (Actually, red hair may  also come from the German side of my family, too).  But, in all fairness (and we are fair), I think it’s a safe bet to say that there’s a wee-bit Lassie to me as well.

Each Friday this month, we’re going to discuss all things Ireland:  How about some Irish step dancing?  Guiness beer?  Red hair?  Four-leaf clovers?  Leprecahns?  Rainbows?  Potato Soup?I don’t know…let’s see what else we can come up with!

Stay tuned and Top O’ the weekend!