Q&A with Jessie Ann Foley, author of new novel The Carnival at Bray

After finishing Jessie Ann Foley’s first novel The Carnival at Bray, I had the opportunity to get in touch with her for a Q&A. I took the opportunity to pick her brain about her writing process, influences for the story, and even got to find out a little bit of what she loves in her personal life. Foley’s new novel is a Helen Sheehan Ya Book prize winner and will be available to the public in October.

First of all, congratulations on winning the Helen Sheehan YA Book prize. What an exciting honor to accompany publishing your first book! What was going through your head when you found out you received the award?

Thanks! My first feeling was one of disbelief: something I’d been working towards my whole life was now actually happening. My second was one of panic, knowing that my parents were now going to read the novel, complete with sex scenes.

With this being your first novel, can you describe your approach and writing process when getting started?

For me, place is a trigger for storytelling. You can always create characters, but it’s only when you put them somewhere that they become real. A few years ago, I took a day trip from Dublin to Bray. When I walked out of the train station, one of the first things I saw was this carnival at the edge of the Irish Sea. It was summertime, but chilly and overcast, so nobody was around, which imbued the whole place with this forlorn feeling. I thought that it would make a great setting for a story, and I wrote a little description of it in my journal. At that point, I had this cool setting, but no characters to put in it. A couple months later, it occurred to me that the obvious inhabitant of a lonely place like this carnival would be a lonely person—and Maggie was born.

I was kind of surprised the story read in third person. There was a lot of internal thought, but only from Maggie. What made you decide to write from this perspective as opposed to first person?

Oftentimes when I write in first person, I feel like I’m just trying to imitate Catcher in the Rye, and doing a very bad job of it. With first person, it’s easier to mask sloppy, rambling writing or undeveloped characters. Third person writing, at least for me, is a lot tighter and allows me to articulate things better. Toni Morrison advises writers to write the book you want to read, and since as a reader I much prefer third person, writing in that point of view just made more sense to me.

I am very curious to know about the influences for The Carnival at Bray. What inspired you to write a teen coming of age novel?

I’ve been a high school English teacher for ten years, and I think being surrounded by kids all day helps you, to some extent, never forget what it’s like to be young. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to those years, but I still think it’s such a cool age. When you’re fifteen, everything is new and fresh; so much life happens. You really feel the possibilities of your life ahead of you. The process of growing up has inherent drama; it lends itself to good stories.

I personally enjoyed that the story took place in Chicago and Ireland. Being a Chicago Native myself, I always love reading about it. Whereas Ireland is a place I have secretly become obsessed with visiting thanks to the film S. I Love You. Were there any specific reasons behind choosing Chicago and Ireland as the settings?

I was born and raised on the northwest side of Chicago, so the choice to set part of the story there was obvious. I’ve also spent some time in Italy and Ireland—though not enough to ever assimilate to either culture, which is why it made sense to me to write Maggie as someone who was struggling to belong. The original draft of The Carnival at Bray was a short story that I published in the Chicago Reader Fiction Issue in 2010. If I had known then that I was setting myself up for the task of writing an entire novel set in Ireland, I might have made things easier for myself and kept Maggie in Chicago. But then, I guess, she wouldn’t have met Eoin.

I’m Irish-American, but as Maggie learns in the first chapter, that identity has very little to do with what it means to be actually Irish—and I could not have written this book without the help of my husband, who is from County Kerry in the southwest of the country. Throughout the writing and revision process, I peppered him with constant questions relating to slang, word choice, and authentic details: What do you call those bales of hale covered in plastic? What is the hurling equivalent of a quarterback? When you were a little boy and your dad brought you along to the pub, what did you give you to drink? Things like that. He even read all the passages of dialogue from Irish characters out loud, and helped me tweak them to sound more authentic. I was so nervous for him to read the first draft of the book, because I knew I was going to make ridiculous mistakes. But he was polite enough not to make fun of me.

I loved the incorporation of music in the novel and the way it served as a connection between characters. Do you have any music artists in your life that reflect what Nirvana was for Maggie? If not, what is your main vice?

My idea of heaven is a Bruce Springsteen concert on a summer night. And I’m passionate about all the artists, from Liz Phair to Bob Dylan, who were mentioned in the novel. But my taste in music runs the gamut from cool to terrible. Seriously. You should see my iTunes library. I’m the person who requests “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at a wedding—and not ironically.

Why Nirvana as the band in focus?

I know every generation probably says this about its own music, but I just can’t think of any band today that has the capacity for life-alteration as Nirvana had in the early 1990’s. And part of that relates back to social media. How mythical would Kurt Cobain be if he’d left behind a trail of Instagram selfies? If he Tweeted?

I wonder if maybe that’s why he has no equivalent today, and why today’s teenagers still idolize him as much as the young people of his own time did. We just know too much about today’s celebrities—and that makes them far less interesting, far less romantic.

How do you think Maggie’s life and experience would translate today that was different in 1993? Were there certain aspects that drew you to using that time period?

Setting the novel in the 90’s solved some very important plot problems, the obvious one being the absence of social media. In order for Maggie to grow in the way she needed to, I felt like she needed to be truly isolated in Bray—truly marooned in this new country. If she’s following Selfish Fetus on Facebook, if she’s Skyping with Nanny Ei, she’s still got one leg immersed in Chicago, and the need to find her way in Ireland is not as urgent. With the lack of internet access, it’s harder to go back. She’s stuck, and she needs to show her mettle.

I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my writing, but there are some pieces where there is that “ah-ha!” moment signaling it is finished. Did you have one of those moments when reaching the end of your novel?

I wouldn’t say there was a particular moment when I knew it was done. I’m hypercritical of my own writing. I never really go back and read any of my published work because of the compulsion I feel to change everything. But I guess I felt like the book was done when I went back and reread it for the thousandth time and I only wanted to change small words and phrases, not rip apart whole scenes.

I look forward to seeing what you have to share next. Are there any projects currently on your plate?

I just published a new short story, “The Day of New Things,” in Midwestern Gothic that I’m really proud of. I’m also working on a new novel about an all-girls Catholic school in Chicago that is in danger of closing down. I’ve got a short story collection, Neighborhood People, in the works. And I’ve got a million half-finished essays littering the desktop of my computer, about teaching, baby yoga class, The Grapes of Wrath, road tripping, William Carlos Williams, and organic cherries. I had a baby in May, so it’s hard to find any sustained time to write, but if I’m not at least trying to work on something, no matter how terrible or how scattered, I don’t really feel like myself.