Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fact Check

Monday night, the last day of March, my wife and I attended an author's night at the Tenement Museum ( on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Joseph O'Connor, the Irish-born author of Star of the Sea and the 2007 released sequel, Redemption Falls, was interviewed by fellow author Kevin Baker (Dreamland). Star of the Sea, set in 1847, tells the story of a few of the two million Irish who fled their homeland during the great potato famine when over one million Irish died of starvation.

Star of the Sea, which sold one million copies, was O'Connor's first venture into historical fiction. He has written five other novels, two short stories, five works of non-fiction (including The Secret Life of the Irish Male), three stage plays, three screen plays and was editor of a serial novel, Yeats is Dead!, by 15 Irish writers. Not bad for a relatively young man of 44.

Okay, so you get the picture. O'Connor, who lives in Dublin, is an accomplished and successful author. Went to Oxford. Had a year's fellowship to study historical correspondence at the New York City's main research library on Fifth Avenue and Bryant Park. The guy's a pro.

Here's one of the stories he related Monday night.

Pius Mulvey, the main character in Star of the Sea, (not necessarily the protagonist - the book is written in several voices), is walking the deck of the title ship, late in the night, watching the shadow of Ireland fade in the distance, perhaps watching the stars over Ireland for the last time. O'Connor said he wanted to insert some "softer element into what was a rather stark description". So, as Mulvey searched the heavens, he recalled a "nonsense phrase" a teacher had given him to remember the distance of the planets from the sun:

Mary's Violet Eyes Make John Sit Up Nights Praying.

"So, I got a letter from a fellow at the National Astronomical Institute. He said Pluto was not discovered until 1930. Great. The book was selling well, so, before the second printing, I took out 'praying.'

"The second edition comes out, and I get another letter from the same guy at the Astronomical Institute. 'Well, you know, Neptune was not discovered until 1847, so, unless your 'teacher' was an astronomical genius ...' You think he would have told me this the first time.

"So, I changed it again for the next printing. Out comes Neptune. So, my universe kept shrinking the more the book sold!"

O'Connor's point, for which he had many illustrations, is that readers demand accuracy, even in works of fiction. If we're using known places, things, times, people - even though it's a work of fiction - we better get our facts straight.

Or the letters will start filling your mailbox. (Not a bad result, really. At least somebody's reading.)

No comments: