Morris Awards Finalists- An interview with Jessie Ann Foley

When the Morris Award Finalists were named I was very excited.  You see, this is one of my favorite awards given each year.  The Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author and the short list is always full of exciting titles.  This year was no exception.  In fact, this year’s list was made up entirely of books I had not read yet!

The book that caught my eye immediately was The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley. The Irish setting and the 90s music focus were unlike anything else I’ve read and I knew I had to get my hands on it. And the good news is that it totally lived up to my hopes and wishes!

coverThe Carnival at Bray is well-crafted, beautifully written, and will transport you out of your world and into Maggie’s world.  One of the best parts of the novel is the way Jessie Ann Foley captures Ireland.  Her descriptions, poetic at times, make you feel as if you are standing in the fog with Maggie.  I’ve visited Ireland twice in the last few years and Jessie Ann Foley’s words immediately brought me back.  I could smell the sea in the air, feel the damp fog on my skin, and hear the hum of the earth below me.  Anyone who has been to Ireland knows it’s unlike anywhere else on earth and it’s not easy to capture that in words.  Jessie Ann Foley does, though,

Maggie and her family move to Ireland when her mother and her new husband return to his hometown of Bray, Ireland.  This is a coming-of-age story that has major crossover appeal.  It’s a story of friendship, love, and what it’s like to be a teenager.  Maggie is trying to navigate a new life in a new country, a new family dynamic, and a new set of friends.  Her voice rings true and will grab the attention of teens and adults alike.  Jessie Ann Foley is a voice to watch!  Ireland is magical and so is The Carnival at Bray.

I’m thrilled that Jessie Ann Foley agreed to an interview today because I was dying to know more about her writing process.  She’s a high school English teacher, a debut author, and a Morris Award Finalist!

Hi jesse!  Welcome to thereadingzone and thanks for agreeing to this interview! Reading your book I was immediately transported back to Ireland.  I’ve been there twice and I even got engaged in Dublin!  What made you pick Ireland for the setting?

Thank you! I love Dublin! As far as my choice of setting: The Carnival at Bray was originally a short story that I wrote after visiting a forlorn carnival fairground in County Wicklow in 2010. I’m Irish-American, but as Maggie learns in the first chapter, that identity can have very little to do with what it means to be actually Irish, and if I had known then that I was setting myself up for the task of expanding it into an entire novel set in Ireland, I might have made things easier for myself and kept Maggie in Chicago. But then, I guess she would never have met Eoin.

I’ve been to Ireland several times, but that alone was not enough experience to allow me to write this book. My husband, who is from County Kerry, was a huge help to me. I tortured him with constant, nitpicky questions relating to word choice, slang, and authentic details: What do you call those bales of hale covered in plastic? What is the hurling equivalent of a quarterback? What kind of beverage would a young Irish kid drink if his father took him to the pub? Things like that. If there was a passage that contained lots of dialogue—Eoin’s long monologue about his mother comes to mind—my husband would read it aloud and help me figure out what needed tweaking. I was so nervous for him to read the first draft of the book, because I knew I was going to make ridiculous mistakes. But he was polite enough not to make fun of me.

Haha, that’s awesome!  The other part of the setting that I loved was the music that pulsed through the background of evey scene.  Were/are you a Kurt Cobain fan or did you find your way to him while writing?   Did you write to a specific soundtrack?

One of my favorite parts about writing is how the story can surprise you: you think it’s going to be about one thing, but then you start to discover it’s about something else. I didn’t know that my novel was going to be about music when I started writing it. But as Uncle Kevin developed into an important character, the musical angle grew with him. I had so much fun going back and listening to all my 90’s music–some of those albums I hadn’t listened to for years. I listened to a lot of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, the Lemonheads, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course, Nirvana, I listened many times to the live album of the Rome concert that is portrayed in the book. It all definitely brought me back–the music of your youth seems to have that power. I barely remember my first kiss. But I’ll never forget the first time I heard Pearl Jam.

We clearly have a lot in common. 🙂  I feel like all of my memories are set to music, so I totally understand.

Congratulations on being a Morris Award finalist!  I am so impressed that you wrote such an amazing book while being a full-time English teacher.  As I’m sitting here looking at the pile of grading I have to do I can’t imagine how you did it.  What is your writing schedule like?

Oh God, do I ever sympathize with that Sisyphean paper pile.I don’t think anyone truly understands the grading situation of a high school English teacher except other high school English teachers. My writing schedule has changed after the publication of The Carnival at Bray because I had my first baby shortly after we finished the edits (talk about a non-negotiable deadline!). Now I just write whenever I possibly can. When I was teaching full-time, pre-baby, it took me about a year to write the book. I worked every day when I got home from school, usually until my husband got home from work. On days off or school breaks, I wrote as much as I could, unless, of course, I had papers to grade 🙂

That leads me to my next questions. Have your students read your book?  Or are you a secret celebrity? 🙂

Well, I’m currently out on maternity leave, but my school’s book club is reading the book right now! Some of my former students have read the book, and it was really cool to hear from them about it. Last year, I showed my class the three potential covers of the novel, just to get their input. Their favorite cover was the one that my publisher ended up choosing, so that was really fun!

I can imagine!  What an exciting time for you and your students!  Thanks again for agreeing to this interview.  I know I will be waiting with bated breath on the day the award is announced. And just for fun, one last question. What is your favorite food to snack on while you are writing?

Those sugar cookies that have like an inch of colored frosted on the top, washed down with an ice cold Diet Coke. I’m a health nut, clearly.

Thank you to Jessie Ann Foley for writing an incredible book and agreeing to today’s interview!  Be sure to check out the rest of the Morris Award Finalists blog tour this week!  You can see the schedule on the Cinco Puntos Press blog.


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