Interview: Emma Marns Author Of The Walk
Emma, can you share what initially drew you to the topic of Ireland’s mother-and-baby home scandal? Was there a specific moment that ignited the idea for "The Walk"?
Yes! It wasn’t something I knew anything about, until I came across an article from the BBC called ‘The girls of Bessborough’ – I was living in Dublin at the time and I read it at 3 o’ clock in the morning in absolute horror. The next day, I asked my wonderful Irish landlady about it and she told me an unbelievable story from her own life, which inspired Maire’s storyline for the book. The whole thing came to me in a lightning bolt, and I thought, I have to write this book, at once.
Given the gravity of the subject matter, how did you approach writing the characters of Ailbe and Maire, ensuring their experiences were portrayed authentically?
I did a lot of specific research into ways of life in rural Irish villages; I also spent a good deal of time on Dublin buses listen to the natural way that Irish people speak, which was lovely to do! One of the most helpful and significant texts I read was June Goulding’s memoir The Light in the Window, from which almost all of the Bessborough descriptions and storylines in The Walk were inspired. I also read as much journalism on the subject, especially stories which featured interviews with survivors. It was so important to me that I got that right.
As you researched and delved deeper into the history of Bessborough, were there any particular stories or facts that stood out to you, or that you found particularly challenging to process?
My book, and the journalism of Deirdre Finnerty for the BBC which originally inspired it, focuses specifically on Bessborough in County Cork. There were fifteen homes of this nature across Ireland at various points during the 20th century, and it seems from my research that the worst of these – Tuam – a child died there on average every two weeks. Over 9,000 children have been found to have died in these institutions while they were open – and for what? Why did so many children, and women as well, have to die over this? These are stats that I just can’t get my head around.
Given your background in journalism, how did that experience influence or shape the way you approached telling this story?
Journalism training teaches you to deal in facts only – I remember so vividly a tutor telling us on our first day that our ‘licence to Quill’ was formerly revoked. ‘Quilling’ – that is to say, waffling on at one’s leisure – was no longer allowed, which was a shame, as that’s my favourite thing to do really! Maybe that explains why my journalism career didn’t really go anywhere. I’m trained to research, which I did, but I also love to ‘quill’ – and so I did that too.
Your conversion to Catholicism adds another layer to the narrative, considering the role of the Catholic church in the scandal. How did your personal faith journey impact your perspective while writing "The Walk"?
It was difficult in a way because I felt like I was being disrespectful or even betraying the ‘good’ people that represent the faith to write this book – my local priest, for instance, or the lovely Deacon who baptised my daughter. But the fact is, these atrocities happened and it is no good at all to pretend that it didn’t – that would be disrespectful to the suffering of my fellow humans, and I’d be betraying them if I didn’t do it. But any organisation, whether it be a faith structure, a workplace, a family unit – if there’s levels of power and rank, there is the potential for abuse. Faith is a multi-faceted journey, it is not linear, and it has added nothing but joy and peace to my own life. I believe two things can co-exist – I am delighted with my own experience, but horrified and ashamed that the experience has not been like that for everyone. I cannot change that for them – all I can do is use my skills to bring their truth to the wider world, and hope that changes have been, and continue to be made.
Having given birth to your daughter in 2022, did motherhood shift or deepen your connection to the story? In what ways?
Well, motherhood changes everything. I wrote the book before I was even pregnant with her, but as soon as I felt strong and awake enough after she was born, I went back into the manuscript and made so many changes. Before, I could only guess what a mother’s love felt like – once I knew, so much had to be rewritten. Having said that, I feel like if I had waited until after I’d had a child to attempt to write the novel, I don’t think I could have – I would’ve spent too much time sobbing and not got anything done.
The book paints a vivid picture of 1979 rural Ireland. How did you ensure that your depiction remained historically accurate and true to the period?
Just good, old-fashioned, NCTJ-trained journalism I’m afraid!
"The Walk" does more than just tell a story – it sheds light on a painful part of Ireland's history. What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
I hope the book educates people on how much suffering took place behind closed doors and the injustices not just surrounding the treatment of women and children, but the total lack of accountability for the birth fathers in these circumstances, particularly those whom fathered children through violence and abuse. Aside from that, I wrote it with so much love for the country of Ireland and the people I found there – their kindness, generosity, welcoming homes, musical talents, extraordinary home cooking and a great many other things besides. I really hope, above all things, that that shines through.
How do you handle the emotional weight of writing about such intense real-life events, especially when creating a fictional narrative around them?
Some days – very badly. Others, I just reminded myself that God blesses us all with gifts and abilities, and mine is to write. I can’t do much else – you should see me try to ice skate! – but there is no point in having this skill and ability and not using it for any good. I felt there was a purpose to this higher than simply – ‘writing is my hobby, and I’m indulging that hobby.’ On hard days I thought of those who would love to share their truth, but don’t have the skill, or time, or patience, or the inclination to write it all down. I did it for them - on their behalf, and in their honour.
The characters' journeys are undeniably linked to societal norms and judgments of the time. Do you see parallels or lessons in today's world from the experiences of Ailbe and Maire?
I think society continues to lay responsibility at women’s’ feet for so much and does them a great injustice. In the western world now the stigma of unmarried motherhood seems to have pretty much gone, certainly in younger generations, but still there is so much judgement towards women for every decision they make – to be mothers or not to be mothers, to breastfeed or not, co-sleep or not, go back to work or not. The one constant through history I can always, always find is that it seems women as a ‘species’ simply cannot do anything right – it was true then, and it’s true now!
The title "The Walk" holds significance in many ways – the journey of your characters, the difficult paths they tread, and even the journey of uncovering truths. Can you share more about how you landed on this title?
The original title of the book was simply ‘Maire’ because I felt like so much of the story was dependent on her – but as a few ‘guinea pigs’ started to read the original manuscript I found that people didn’t know how to pronounce the Irish names I’d chosen, and it’d be no good for marketing to have a title that everyone says differently – no one would ever find it! The term ‘the walk’ for what the mothers at Bessborough went through I found in June Goulding’s memoir ‘The Light in the Window’ – one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. In the end it just felt right, for all the reasons you just stated.
Your decision to take on this topic is both brave and necessary. Were there moments during your writing process where you doubted whether to continue? If so, how did you overcome them?
Thank you so much – and yes! Not during the writing, but during the publishing journey, for sure. I had over 100 rejections from agents and publishers on this, but none of the feedback was ever critical of the writing or editing or anything like that. It made me think publishers did not want to publish on this subject matter, because it is very harrowing, so it was tempting to give up then. But obviously I’m very glad I didn’t.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine while crafting this novel? Were there specific rituals or practices you followed?
I wrote a lot of it during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, I was working at home for most of it and found it very easy to stay sat at my desk from 4.30pm to 4.31pm and begin to write! There wasn’t much of a routine I must admit – more of a bolt-awake-at-2am wondering if they even HAD dishwashers in Ireland in the 1980s, and I must get up and research to check before I forget… very fun for my long-suffering husband!
Given the global response and investigations into the mother-and-baby homes that concluded only recently, what has the reaction been to "The Walk" from those directly affected by the scandal?
I have been quite overwhelmed by the amount of people close to me who, having heard about the book’s subject matter or once they’d read it, told me in quiet voices that, actually, their mum or their grandma or their great aunt or someone had in fact been touched by this subject in their recent family past. I don’t think the book is widely well-known enough yet to be garnering attention from the policymakers etc and direct survivors and adopted children, but I am so delighted with the feedback from readers, particularly the Irish ones, who have reached out to tell me how happy they are with the way I depicted Ireland and Irish family life. That means a lot to me.
What's next for you? Are there other historical events or themes you're eager to explore in future works?
Well I have a one-year-old and a new house and a full-time job still, so I suspect it’ll be a while before I have the time to settle down on another project. However, I would love to write another book one day and I love history, I love writing about motherhood and pregnancy and women in the world in general, so watch this space!