An interview with Constance Emmett, author of ‘Heroine of Her Own Life’

  • Constance Emmett, author of ‘Heroine of Her Own Life’ Contributed photo

  • "Heroine of Her Own Life" by Constance Emmett. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 10/3/2019 9:26:36 AM

The reader of “Heroine of Her Own Life” meets Meg Preston as she peels potatoes for the dining room at a large shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Meg is 16, the same age as the 20th century.

Her life isn’t easy.

At home, she contends with seven siblings and a bitter father in a small space. At work, she struggles to conceal her sexuality, but her co-workers sense that she is attracted to girls rather than boys.

Most of them either bully or ignore her.

The novel, by Constance Emmett of Hawley (who, I should mention, is one of my neighbors), follows Meg and her family from Meg’s teenage years into her 40s.

This young woman sees a lot of drama and strife: conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the 1910s and ’20s, the economic hardships of the Great Depression, and the blitz in which much of Belfast is destroyed by German bombers.

Throughout the story, Meg tries her best to be the heroine of her own life: to use her gifts to get ahead, be a loyal sister to her siblings, find love and do meaningful work.

The book takes a little while to establish itself. Meg’s earliest romances appear a bit contrived; even as a very young woman she seems smarter than the choices she makes. Nevertheless, Emmett’s story eventually grabs and keeps the reader with its endearing personalities and its vivid portrait of 20th-century Belfast.

Meg’s family is full of character and characters. She is particularly fond of her older sister Jinny, who stepped in to raise the siblings when their mother died. Meg also has a close but conflicted relationship with Annie, the baby of the family.

Annie was sent to stay with relatives when she was little so that she could live in the country and enjoy more food and opportunity. Unfortunately, the relatives abused her, and she has never been quite the same since.

Annie defies her fiercely Protestant father and chooses to marry a Catholic. Her husband works hard and supports her well … until his business is destroyed by angry Protestants. Eventually, the pair emigrate to New York to raise their family.

Nevertheless, they are always a part of the extended Preston family, and Annie returns for a long visit.

I asked Constance Emmett, who holds dual Irish-American citizenship, about the origins of her novel. She said that “Heroine of Her Own Life” was inspired by stories she was told about her family’s life in Belfast and their emigration to the United States.

“Those stories found a lifelong home in me, formed me as a writer,” she explained. “In the novel, I create characters that experienced dislocation and regret but also had the resilience common to all survivors.”

Meg and her family are hard to resist, and so is their story. Like Meg, the story is multi-dimensional. Commenters on Amazon and Goodreads seem to view it primarily as a lesbian story, and Meg’s love interests are indeed important to the plot. They aren’t necessarily the center of the plot, however.

The center of the plot, I would argue, is the nurturing of family. Family can take many forms. Meg’s best friend Lillian and her dog Laurie become as much a part of her family as her father and her siblings. In the end, Meg learns to care for family of all sorts while caring for herself.

Clearly, Emmett did a lot of research to recreate Belfast in the mid-20th century. She displays that research skillfully; details and descriptions are woven into the plot rather than overemphasized.

She told me that she spent time not just going through archives in Belfast but also going through the physical city to immerse herself in its history.

“I walked every street my family and the characters in the novel walked, the houses and buildings where they lived and worked,” she said.

“I walked most of the city, talking to people in shops and churches of all denominations ... I could feel their presences — both my family’s and my characters’ — as I walked in their paths.”

“Heroine of Her Own Life” is the author’s first book. Emmett writes in the afterword that she tried to write the kind of book she herself would like to read. Fortunately, she has written one that many other people will want to read as well.

“Heroine of Her Own Life” is available in paperback from Amazon.com and also as a Kindle book.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.




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