BackStory: Five Questions with Aileen Hunt
Author of A Falling from the Sky
What inspired you to write ‘A Falling from the Sky’?
I’ve been working on a series of flash pieces about the Famine in Ireland. The impetus came from a visit to an agricultural museum in Wexford a few years’ ago. I was wandering through the museum with my youngest daughter when I came upon the original door of an old workhouse. I wanted my daughter to understand how mothers were sometimes forced to knock on the door to ask for admission for themselves and their children, and I thought the easiest way would be to demonstrate. So I took her by the hand and walked up to the door, fully intending to reach out and knock. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. The visceral reaction was so strong, my hand shook. If there’s such a thing as collective memory, I experienced it that day in a museum in Wexford. I’ve been reading about the Famine ever since.
What are your favourite pieces of historical fiction, poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about them?
Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire is the story of Latin America told in short, beautifully vivid vignettes. Galeano wasn’t sure if his work could properly be described as ‘history’, but each vignette is based on a documented source.” Reading his work has given me a framework for my own. I enjoyed Nessa O’Mahony’s In Sight of Home, a novel-in-poetry that’s part-based on unpublished letters from the 19th century. It’s such a treat to read someone whose equally talented at writing poetry or prose. I just finished The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys, a series of vignettes about the 40 times in history the River Thames has frozen. I loved the premise of this book, and its meticulous research and lovely, lyrical language made it a joy to read.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I’ve been researching the Irish Famine for the past two years, concentrating on works by contemporary historians and primary sources and documents. (Superstitiously, I avoid any fiction set in the period.) What I’m looking for are odd, throwaway comments about unusual people or events that pique my interest, like the crow mortality in Co. Offaly in 1846 that this piece is based on. (The primary source for this piece is a brief account in the Spectator newspaper.) There are a great many contemporary accounts of the Famine from official sources (workhouse records, government debates, official correspondence) and from visiting writers and reporters, but very little from the poor or marginalised. Those are the voices I’m most interested in finding.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
My favourite part of the writing process is the moment I find a way into the piece I want to write. That might be finding a character who can offer an unusual perspective or isolating an event that can act as a fulcrum, allowing me to move backwards and forwards in time. It usually takes a while to become apparent, but once it does, it’s like unlocking a door. The rest of the piece usually follows fairly quickly.
What do you like most about writing flash?
For me the attraction of flash is trying to compress an entire life or period into the smallest possible container – without sacrificing the reader’s understanding or engagement. When flash works well, it has a tremendous energy, but if it’s too compressed, it risks becoming unintelligible. Finding the sweet spot is the challenge.
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer with a particular interest in flash forms and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in various journals online and in print, including Hipppocampus, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Entropy, and Compose. You can find her at aileen–hunt.com.