Interview with Novelist Christine Gallagher Kearney
by Writing Workshops Staff
4 months ago
What We Leave Behind is a stunning novel. In 1947, war bride Ursula arrives in Minneapolis torn between guilt over leaving loved ones behind and her desire to start a new life--and a family--in this promised land. But the American dream proves elusive--she is struck with polio, and then shocked by the sudden death of her GI husband.
Without a spouse or the child she so desperately wanted, Ursula must rely on her shrewd survival skills from wartime Berlin, and she takes in a boarder to help make ends meet. She soon falls in love with the Argentinean medical technician living in her spare bedroom, but his devotion to communism troubles her--and when she finds herself pregnant with his child, she is faced with a dilemma: how to reconcile her dream of motherhood with an America that is so different from what she imagined.
WW: Can you tell us about your inspiration for writing What We Leave Behind and how your grandmother's life influenced the story?
CGK: My maternal grandmother, Ursula, was a German war bride and polio survivor who inspired my historical novel, "What We Leave Behind". The book explores what life was like for Ursula as an immigrant to the United States after World War II, what it means to live the American Dream and how the war continues to haunt her. As a child, I did get to know my grandmother, but she died in 1998 and I wish I could have had more time with her. In the end I was surprised and pleased how much I got to know her better though the fictional character that came alive in the book.
WW: The protagonist, Ursula, faces several challenges in the book, including polio, loneliness, and an unexpected pregnancy. How did you approach developing her character and conveying her resilience throughout the novel?
CGK: To be honest, in earlier drafts of the manuscript Ursula came across as quite negative. After receiving difficult feedback from two trusted readers, I forced myself to dig deeper into her character and render her more fully on the page. I am now quite proud of the woman who shows up on the finished pages. My mom, who read many iterations of the manuscript, said I had captured Ursula’s essence.
WW: Historical novels often require extensive research to accurately depict the time period. Can you describe the research process you went through while writing this book? Did you come across any surprising or interesting facts during your research?
CGK: In the beginning, the research process was overwhelming because it was hard to know where to start. As the book took shape, the research still seemed endless and I almost gave up. But I kept coming back to Ursula and her motivations, asking myself, what research did the book need to render her authentically on the page? During the writing process, I tacked (and still have) a headshot of Ursula above my desk. When I felt lost, I looked at her photo and reminded myself that she kept going and so could I.
WW: What We Leave Behind delves into the complexities of the American dream and the struggles of an immigrant war bride. How did you navigate these themes in your writing, and what message did you hope to convey to your readers?
CGK: To me, the American Dream haunts the country’s narrative. I wanted to demonstrate how fickle, scary and even false it can be for many people. How the outsider view of it is very different compared to the lived experience. The character of Ursula experiences this demystification process in the book. She creates a fantasy about what it would be like to marry an American man and move to the States with him, but when she sets foot in Minnesota, she encounters a hostile mother-in-law and a modest standard of living. In the novel, her mother warns about the possibility of “it being different” than what she imagines, but Ursula cannot see another way forward for her life and takes a huge chance on this “dream.”
WW: The novel explores Ursula's relationships, including her bond with the Argentinean medical technician. How did you develop the dynamics between the characters, and what role do these relationships play in Ursula's journey?
CGK: Ursula on the page, and in life, was an independent person. She worked from an early age and made the huge decision to leave her country for the U.S. In the book, the male characters become her key to finding some sort of independence, which by the end of the book is no independence at all. I wanted to demonstrate the few options women had during the 1940s and 1950s to direct their lives, including their work and decisions about their bodies.
WW: Pregnancy and motherhood are important elements in the story. How did you approach exploring these themes, particularly in the context of Ursula's dilemma between her dream of motherhood and the challenges she faces in America?
CGK: The biggest question I had about pregnancy and motherhood tied directly to Ursula’s experiences as a child growing up in Nazi Germany. I wondered, how would growing up as a girl in Nazi Germany impact Ursula’s desire to have children when the regime prized motherhood for women above all else? In the book, Ursula has to untangle the messages that were given to her as a girl, so she can hear her voice and decide what is best for her in this new life in America. I think this speaks to a larger question today about women’s choices, and how difficult these decisions are made by outside voices, influences and expectations.
WW: The book touches on political ideologies, such as communism, through the character of the Argentinean medical technician. How did you incorporate these ideological tensions into the narrative, and what effect did they have on Ursula's choices and personal growth?
CGK: Mateo, Ursula’s love interest in part three of the book, is obsessed with communism. I imaged him as a wannabe Che Guevara, who cannot get beyond his father’s expectations and doubles down on his political interests instead. As a teenager, I spent two weeks in Cuba on an educational trip organized through the University of Minnesota. As part of that experience I studied the country and the politics, and have always had an interest in what drives a person, or a group of people, to become enthralled by a political leader. In the book, Ursula is alarmed by Mateo’s passion for communism because of her experiences growing up in Nazi Germany. She talks about the “magnetized masses” and how people around her became more and more fervent in their support of the regime. As Mateo also becomes more fanatical, Ursula cannot unsee the pending disaster if Mateo continues down this path.
WW: Can you share any specific challenges or surprises you encountered while writing "What We Leave Behind"? How did you overcome those challenges and maintain the narrative's authenticity?
CGK: This first challenge was figuring out how to tell Ursula’s story. The novel started as a creative non-fiction piece about the first time I met Ursula. I was a small child at the time and have a vivid memory of that day. However, the more I worked on that piece, the more it became clear I would need to find another way to tell her story. That’s when I decided I would fictionalize more than a decade of her life. Ursula died in 1998 and left photos, letters and short journals with my mom. Those primary materials became resources for the book, but still, there were huge gaps of information. Fictionalizing her story meant I could get to know Ursula on the page through extensive research and imagination.
WW: As a debut novelist, what lessons did you learn during the process of writing and publishing this book? Is there any advice you would give to aspiring historical fiction authors?
CGK: Find a story you want to live with for five to ten years. It took me six years to complete this novel, including the publication process. If I hadn’t been so intrigued by Ursula’s story, I would have given up. Before I started, I had many other ideas, even drafts that made it to 20,000 or 30,000 words, but they never added up to a novel-length manuscript.
I’ve been asked if I would write another historical fiction novel. My immediate answer is “no” but I guess I can’t rule it out. I hope to write many more books and am nearly finished with my second (contemporary fiction!). If it wasn’t for Ursula, I would have started with contemporary fiction. However, Ursula’s story returned to me throughout my adolescence and adulthood. It would not let me go, so I committed to seeing where it would take me—a completed book!
WW: What do you hope readers will take away from "What We Leave Behind"? Are there any particular emotions or thoughts you aim to evoke with this story?
CGK: For me, I hope readers appreciate the complexity of lives lived before us and see how Ursula was relentless about finding dignity in the face of every challenge she met. In the book as well as in life, Ursula pursued independence. I love that about her and hope readers will, too. I also hope readers will ask questions about the family members that came before them. Who were they? What were their lives like? What can we learn from them? Creating a generational tapestry enriches the present by allowing us to face complexities by learning from an earlier world that, although gone, is still very much here.
Christine Gallagher Kearney is a Midwest Review "Great Midwest Writing Contest" finalist, and a semi-finalist for Chestnut Review's "Stubborn Artists Contest." She has published in Wild Roof Journal, Driftless Magazine, ForbesWoman, Fortune, and Cara Magazine and is a former food columnist for the Irish American News. Christine graduated with her bachelor's degrees in International Relations and Spanish from Mount Holyoke College, later earning her master's degree in Organizational and Multicultural Communication through DePaul University. She has a career in the corporate world and writes in her off hours. What We Leave Behind is her debut novel. Christine grew up in Minnesota, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and dachshund.