MA: I’m delighted to introduce today’s guest-blogger, Mary Slaby (AKA Molly Roe), who hails from the same neck of the woods where I grew up: northeastern Pennsylvania. Mary’s stories use this region as their setting, and weave aspects of the local history and culture into their plots. I am intrigued by her focus on the Molly Maguires, a group if Irish immigrants in the early coal mining days of Pennsylvania’s history. The Molly Maguires fought for better treatment of the Irish community, sometimes using violence as a means of making that happen. My father was a coal miner in this region when he was a young man in the 1940s, and occasionally after a pint or two of ale, he’d spin a tale about the Mollies and the last remnants of the group he ran with back in those days. I was always fascinated by this history – a living history for my dad — so having Mary Slaby visit me and guest-blog about her writing is such a treat. Mary, thanks for coming by. Tell us about your background.
MR: I’ve lived most of my life in Pennsylvania, only about 60 miles from where my ancestors settled when coming to this country from Ireland during the 1840s and ‘50s. I had a wonderful childhood, growing up with an extended family in the old homestead. My husband John grew up in the same home town, but we did not meet each other until college. I attended Immaculata College and Penn State University as an undergrad, then Wilkes and Temple for graduate school. I’m currently a reading and language arts teacher at Lake-Lehman School Junior-Senior High School near Harveys Lake, PA.
MA: Given your academic background and love of history, why did you choose to write novels instead of capturing this history in a non-fiction book?
MR: I’ve always been a book person, and novels have been my favorite genre. I never seriously considered writing a book, but my genealogy hobby sparked a desire to share the insights I gleaned about the lives of my immigrant ancestors and coal miners in general. I was encouraged by my aunt who felt their story needed telling.
MA: Tell us about your books. I think my readers will find your choice of protagonist interesting.
MR: My stories have female protagonists who struggle with the way of life in the hard coal region. The time setting was seething with tension of all kinds: immigrant and nativist, North and South, labor and capitalists. Both of my books focus on the Molly Maguires, a secret society dedicated to meting out their own brand of justice for the suffering Irish mine workers. There is a lot of mystery and controversy about the Mollies which makes the topic fascinating to me, and hopefully to my readers!
MA: Tell us about Kate of Call Me Kate.
MR: I styled Kate after some of the women in my family. Her name is the actual name of my great grandmother, Katharine Mc Cafferty, and her mother’s name, Mary McCall, was also my great-great-grandmother’s. Since we don’t have a huge amount of information about Katharine’s life, I interposed information from many historical sources into the novel to round out her character. The research took me in all kinds of directions, so I ended up with a brain full of 19th century trivia.
Kate is impulsive and quick-tempered at the beginning of the story, but she matures somewhat over the course of the book. In that way it is a coming of age novel. She is strong and feisty and hates injustice. Kate is also a hard worker who is very loyal to friends and family. She has a crisis of conscience because she can see both sides of the issue, but has little power to make an impact.
MA: What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” of some kind?
MR: In some ways the setting is the antagonist because so many factors of the times worked against Kate and her community. One “bad guy” is Benjamin Bannan, the editor of the local newspaper who hated the Irish immigrants. He promulgated antagonism by blaming every problem in the area on the Irish. On the other hand, there is Joe McDermott, a zealot who is willing to sacrifice his followers and resort to violence for the cause. Kate wants to free her friend, Con, from McDermott’s clutches.
MA: You mentioned how your genealogy hobby informed your writing, but did any real-life experiences – either your own or your ancestors – inspire your stories?
MR: I suppose indirect experiences rather than real life experiences shaped the plot. Many of the stories I heard from aunts, uncles, and grandparents surfaced as I wrote and those events seemed to just flow into Call Me Kate.
MA: So what’s next in your writing future?
MR: I’m still writing the second book featuring Kate’s sister, Sarah. The setting for this book is Centralia, PA where a mine fire which devastated the town still burns. This story includes the Molly Maguire murder of mine superintendent, Alexander Rea. After that I’ll tell Maymie’s story which will take my readers to the time of the Molly Maguire trials and hangings. After the trilogy is finished, I may switch to nonfiction books for elementary and middle level schools to supplement textbooks.
MA: Since Sarah is Kate’s sister, does Kate surface in the second book?
MR: Kate is indirectly involved in the plot of the second book in the form of letters and stories, but she is in NYC during the actual events. Since the family and friends are the same in all three stories, minor characters will reappear regularly.
MA: I know there have been two significant results from your writing: a mentoring opportunity and an award. Tell us about them.
MR: One of the more satisfying things about having published the book has been the number of students who have expressed their own desire to write. Mentoring them has been inspiring to me, in a different way than teaching has been.
At the end of January I received notification that Call Me Kate won a Silver Medal in the Mom’s Choice Awards. The judges were highly respected individuals in the world of writing and child development, including the founder of the PBS show, Reading Rainbow. I was delighted to be so honored.
MA: Congratulations on both! If anyone would like to learn more about Mary Slaby, please visit her blog: Conversations from the Side Porch. Thanks, Mary!