Tale of Irish history woven by teacher/author

Posted: Saturday, March 2, 2013
By Ben Beagle Special to Daily News

Peter Troy was still a history teacher when he began writing his debut novel, “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”

But in the course of about two years of writing and editing, Troy became a student again — learning perhaps as much about his Irish heritage as he did the lives of the four distinct characters whose stories are told in is this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project selection.

“My background is Irish, but it’s not a history that was shared. There was not a legacy that was passed down. My generation was more a St. Patrick’s Day Irish — corn beef and cabbage on March 17,” Troy, 45, said in a recent telephone interview from Ocean City, Md. “When I began working on the book, it was a great exploration of that heritage.”

Troy’s family emigrated to the United States in the 1880s, having been in Ireland during The Great Famine, or Hunger, which features prominently in the beginning of his epic historical novel. “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You” also takes in the American Civil War as it tells the story of an Irish immigrant, Spanish princess and two slaves in what has been described as the “quintessential American story” by more than one reviewer.

“They have it in their background, but my family heritage was only about the ones born here in America. It’s not a history that had been passed down and shared, even though it should have,” Troy said. “Those were the differences of the times. They didn’t talk about what they went through. Today, maybe it looks like a badge of honor, and we feel a sense of pride in our ancestors for what they endured.”

Troy will talk about his novel and its development — from a single story spanning 160 years, to the first book in a planned trilogy covering the same span — during a series of events next week as part of “A Tale for Three Counties,” the community reading project organized by libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties, and Genesee Community College.

Tale wraps its 11th year, beginning Thursday afternoon at Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd., Batavia; and evening at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia. Additional talks and signings are scheduled for Friday night at Hoag Library, 134 South Main St., Albion; and Saturday afternoon at Perry Elementary Middle School, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.

Book as metaphor

“May the Road Rise Up to Meet You,” published in hardcover in February 2012, is bookended by the same story: Mary, a slave girl and one of the novel’s central characters, describes the “stitchin’ ” of another slave girl, Gertie. On the backside of the quilt there is a wild tangle of colored threads. But when the quilt is looked at “frontways” there is a distinct, clearly defined picture. The story is a metaphor for the journeys taken by Ethan McOwen, a young Irish immigrant; Marcella, an outspoken Spanish princess; Micah, a strong slave and skilled carpenter; and Mary, a talented dressmaker and slave.

Essentially, Mary explains that life is a mess of knots and tangles that are all connected.

Troy suggested the “stitchin’ ” could also be a metaphor for his own journey in completing his books.

“I dove right in and went down a lot of different paths at first. In the end, the books amount to about 150,000 words, but I probably wrote a million to get there,” he said.

“I’m a self-taught writer. This book was my master’s of fine arts program,” said Troy, who had previously written for his college newspaper and served as a college  sports information director, before turning to teaching.

“I thought as a teacher, I’d have plenty of time during summers to write,” he said. “It didn’t work out that way. Summers with filled up with a lot of things related to teaching and getting ready for the next year.”

Writing, his first calling

Troy taught American history and global studies for 15 years in schools in Brooklyn and Long Island, but said writing was always his first calling.

“In college I wrote a good deal. That’s where I discovered creative writing,” he said. “I had it in me that I wanted to write a book, but no actual story.”

A three-week trip to Ireland that he had taken in high school as part of a group of volunteers building a playground outside Dublin for the travelers — a group similar to gypsies — would ultimately influence “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”

“It wasn’t much. It was right beside a prison. All they had to play on were old appliances, debris really. These were tough kids with a hard life. That become my initial exposure to Ireland. It was an eye-opening view,” said Troy, who also had time to travel around the country.

In that contemporary setting, Troy would late find inspiration for the hard life that Ethan McOwen and his family were seeking to leave.

Troy quit his teaching job to write full time in 2007, expecting to live for a time off money he saved for his 401(k). Then, the recession hit.

“It became a struggle,” he said. “I lived simply for a couple of years.”

Eventually, Troy found an agent who was willing to take a chance on a new writer. She asked for about 10 pages, then asked for some more and within a week wanted the whole book.

Troy also found support from Joe Beyrouty, a friend and former teaching colleague at Kellenberg Memorial High School on Long Island. Beyrouty read excerpts of Troy’s earliest work for “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”

“I was just amazed that he was able to put so many things into the story, into the plot, the characters and dialogue and make it seem so realistic,” Beyrouty said in a telephone interview. “He creates a very clear, distinct mental image to his writing. It’s as if I’m seeing it on film.”

Kellenberg is using “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You” as part of its summer reading program, an audience of about 500 students. The book is one of several that students can choose to read. The book was also featured in a community reading project for Utica-Notre Dame High School, which brought Troy in to talk about the book.

Beyrouty said his friend’s novel is ideal for students.

“I think he does paint a true, vivid picture through the eyes of these four characters,” Beyrouty said. “Students get  emotional appeal of what people were going through. It’s not just dates and places. The book gives a sense of history through an emotional appeal of very personal lives.”

Four characters, four voices

The sprawling tale that is “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You” originally started with two main characters: a historical character (that would become Ethan McOwen) and a contemporary figure who are linked by a house in Cooperstown and a family lineage that reached from before the Civil War through Sept. 11, 2001.

Over the course of two years, Troy saw his story grow — at one point it had as many as nine notable characters. Then, through editing he focused on four core figures. He began with Ethan, the Irish immigrant, and soon followed with Marcella, Micah and Mary.

“Once I had the characters, the story began evolving,” Troy said. “I knew from the start their stories would be linked.”

Ethan’s journey, from an immigrant in New York City to a respected photographer, is the main thread of the story. But the other characters, Troy said, are all “prominent characters on an equal level with Ethan.”

With Mary and Micah, Troy presented contrasting slave experiences.

“I wanted to present a broad spectrum. Not every slave owner was a caricature like (the recent film) ‘Django Unchained,’ ” Troy said. “You saw that with one character, Dunnmore, and his treatment of Mica. But plenty of slave owners considered they were do their good Christian duty. With Mary, her owner considered her more part of the family,” Troy said. “Granted, it was more like a pet.”

The first draft of the “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You” was completed in about 18 months. Then Troy went through the book, spending about six more months deliberately rewriting each chapter so that each character’s personality was reflected in their chapter.

“That was also part of the metaphor,” Troy said. “Each of the four characters became their own colored thread. I needed to give each a distinct voice to match their personality and circumstances.”

Readers will notice that Ethan’s early Irish brogue faded as he became more Americanized. Or Micah, whose dialogue was mostly italicized to represent his thoughts since the slave had learned to seldom speak his mind to his owners.

“He was a man of few words,” Troy said of Micah. “He lived in his head.”

Then there was Marcella, who was strong-willed and sometimes rebellious. She was challenging to write, said Troy, who would put her most sarcastic thoughts in italics to represent Marcella’s thoughts.

“Young woman didn’t say at all what they were thinking. They were expected to be quiet, do as they were told,” the author said. He compared her wily attitude to that of a Jane Austen character, but said he didn’t want Marcella “to be Elizabeth Bennet (the main character in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”). I wanted her own distinct voice and attitude, but to be realistic.”

Mary, he said, was the hardest to write consistently “because she was so inconsistent.” Mary spoke French and often participated in the school lessons of her owners’ daughter.

“She can put on a refined tone, but she also had to be careful because with a slave that could be seen as uppity,” Troy said. “She would alter her voice for the situation.”

The story continues

“May the Road Rise Up to Meet You” is the first of a planned trilogy. Troy said the next two books could stand on their own, but they will also include a few links to the characters featured in his debut novel.

He’s already at work editing the second book, which he expects to be completed this summer. All four characters from the first novel make an appearance as they pass a torch to a new generation. This book will span about 50 years, from 1898 to 1948 and shift to Boston and Lowell, Mass., where Troy’s grandfather grew up and worked in the mills. The third book will take the story up to 2001.

“As I wrote, I had reach a point the book where I had 700-800 pages and still had a ways to go,” Troy recalled. “I could see that it wouldn’t work as just one complete book. But I could also see natural divisions. I was very fortunate that by the time I split the stories there were already such prominent characters. It gave me a chance to explore and develop the whole story.”


‘‘Tale for Three Counties schedule

Five book discussions remain in this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The discussions will be followed by visits next week from author Peter Troy who will present talks and book signings for his debut novel, “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.”


MONDAY: 11:15 a.m., Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd., Batavia, in Room T119; and 1 p.m. Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina.

TUESDAY: 11 a.m., Genesee Community College, Batavia, Room T119.

WEDNESDAY: 7:45 a.m., Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia; and 6:30 p.m., Stevens Memorial Community Library, 146 Main St., Attica.


THURSDAY: 1 p.m. Genesee Community College, Batavia; and 7 p.m. Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia.

FRIDAY: 7 p.m. Hoag Library, 134 South Main St., Albion.

MARCH 9: 2 p.m. Perry Elementary/Middle School Auditorium, 50 Olin Ave., Perry, a program hosted by Perry Public Library, with assistance from other Wyoming County libraries

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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