Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Interview with Gina Marie Guadagnino about her debut novel, The Parting Glass, set in 1830s NYC

Gina Marie Guadagnino's debut novel, The Parting Glass, grabbed my attention immediately. After downloading the e-galley, I'd intended to skim the first few pages to get a sense of the plotline before picking it up again later, but the voice and storyline were so intriguing that I found myself reading it straight through immediately. Set in 1830s New York City, it's narrated by Mary Ballard, a lady's maid with several secrets.  She's an Irish Catholic immigrant whose real name is Maire O’Farren, and her twin brother, Seanin, works as a groom on the same property. Maire reluctantly conceals Seanin's clandestine affair with her upper-class mistress, the beautiful Charlotte Walden, all the while wishing that she herself was the object of Charlotte's desire. During her time off, Maire embarks on her own affair with a prostitute she meets in an Irish tavern. The fast-moving story richly evokes the little-explored world of the Irish working class in early New York while delving into period-appropriate issues also relevant for our own time.  The Parting Glass is published today by Atria/Simon & Schuster.  Thanks to the author for answering my interview questions!

I’m an academic librarian, and so it was great to read that you also work in academia, and that your office is within NYU’s library. I can’t resist asking: what are some ways in which library research contributed to your writing of The Parting Glass?

I love working in a library building, and am definitely a familiar sight at the circulation desk during my lunch breaks. Library research was absolutely instrumental to the composition of The Parting Glass. Through my access to the various collections at Bobst Library, I was able to read first-person accounts of Irish servants working in New York in the 19th century, see maps and find property records for the townhouses on Washington Square North, find source texts detailing Irish secret societies, and read many analyses of New York society in the 1830s. In addition to books, I had access to a number of online databases and journals through my library subscription. And while this has nothing to do with research, I appreciate having access to so many quiet study rooms and lounges in which I can write!

Most novels that I’ve read about the lives of Irish immigrants in America center on the period of the Great Hunger or later in the 19th century, but the era in which you’re writing about is equally fascinating. Why was this an exciting period for you to explore?

The 1830s were an interesting time for the Irish in America, in that it saw the importation of various secret societies to the New World. Various secret societies, largely working for social justice against English and Anglo-Irish landlords by committing agrarian violence, had been flourishing in Ireland since late 17th century. By the 1830s, there were enough Irish Catholics in America that some of these societies had begun to flourish on American soil. I found rich storytelling inspiration in those early years for which there is less documentary evidence; I felt I could take more creative liberties.

I also wanted to explore a point in the history of the Irish diaspora where there was greater integration and collaboration with other ethnic groups than there tended to be during the immigration of the 1840s. This period also represented the height of the era in which New York Society was based around the northern part of Greenwich Village and Washington Square, and it was particularly important to me, as a homesick New Yorker when I began writing this novel, to set the story in the place I missed the most. The conflation of these priorities drew me to explore the late 1830s.

I really enjoyed the depiction of the lives of the working class, including servants, in early NYC. Why did this population interest you?

Many of the classics of English and American literature center on the lives of the leisure class, or on the struggles of those living beyond their means in genteel poverty. While there are notable exceptions (Dickens’ street urchins and mudlarks spring to mind) exploring the underclass of society, I was always struck by the fact that the Dashwood ladies open Sense and Sensibility discussing how many servants they can afford in their reduced circumstances, and even while bewailing how dreadful it is to be poor, the March sisters are still supported by their stalwart (Irish) servant Hannah in Little Women. The heroines of 19th-century fiction so often bemoan the constraints that society has placed upon them; they must make advantageous marriages if they hope to achieve economic comfort. But clearly, behind the scenes, other women were lighting those heroine’s fires and dressing their hair and brewing their tea, obviously dependent on their own labor for financial security.

author Gina Marie Guadagnino
(credit: L. M. Pane)
I kept gravitating toward the idea that, in a way, working-class women experienced more freedom and personal autonomy than their upper-class counterparts. Without the constraints of maintaining one’s social reputation, working-class women had the capacity to make decisions that ranged far beyond who to marry, and, for the creative and ambitious, there were opportunities to break out of the restrictions imposed by an inherently classist society. I wanted my book to focus on members of the immigrant working class who were taking advantage of the opportunities of the New World to remake their lives in their own image. I wanted to show the undercarriage of the gilded world: all the gears and cogs that kept the status quo possible. It was the marriage of these ideas that led me to write The Parting Glass.

I was wondering if you could provide some insight into the Irish characters’ dialogue and how you re-created it–it feels relatable (and occasionally raunchy!) as well as appropriate to their social status and background. I especially appreciated the depiction of how Mary becomes adept at code-switching after learning how it can benefit her socially.

I have to confess that some of the less-savory language is anachronistic. Period appropriate cursing at the time would have consisted largely of blasphemy; sexual and scatological cursing is more of a 20th century development. I suppose that demonstrates how the types of language we consider shocking have evolved over time! The word “crikey,” a contraction meaning “Christ’s teeth” sounds almost quaint to the modern reader, though it would have been thought of as quite profane in the 19th century. I took the liberty of substituting more modern profanity in order to signal to modern readers that the characters were using seriously dirty language - crikey just wasn’t cutting it.

Conversely, there were some words and phrases that I used preserving their 19th century definitions, though they might have evolved over time. Liddie, for example, refers to herself as “a gay girl,” not because of her queer identity, but because this was a common way of referring to sex workers in the 19th century. To strike this balance, I relied on heavy use of the OED, and read numerous primary source accounts of the lives of Irish immigrants in 19th-century New York and Boston. While the resulting dialogue isn’t perfectly period accurate with its modern profanity, I believe it achieves my goal of replicating the overall aesthetic of 19th-century Hiberno-English speech patterns.

What appeals to you about writing historical fiction? Do you have any authors or novels in the genre that you especially admire?

History and historical fiction have always been a great love of mine. I have always been drawn to stories set in the past, whether it be the distant past or something more recent. I’ve already alluded to my attractions as a younger reader to 19th-century authors Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, but I also cut my teeth on Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. Oddly, I didn’t really get into historical fiction until after I was out of college. But well-researched, lushly rendered historical fiction will draw me in every time, and there are probably too many authors and novels I adore to list here.

Lyndsay Faye has a perfectly-tuned ear for period language and dialogue. Nicola Griffith does an incredible job of using meticulous research and bringing historical figures most vividly to life. Madeline Miller and Helene Wecker infuse mythology with historical settings to make the fantastic feel real. Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue each have eyes for the grittiest bits of period detail to draw the reader in. Diane Setterfield draws from a breadth of viewpoints to render a holistic landscape as she world-builds. I could, of course, go on. I think we’re approaching something of a golden age for literary-caliber historical fiction - or perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking!


Gina Marie Guadagnino holds a BA in English from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Her work has appeared in the Morris-Jumel Mansion Anthology of Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction, Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader). She lives in New York City with her family.  For more information, please visit www.GinaMarieGuadagnino.com.


  1. Just downloaded this last night, can't wait to get started, once I finish the book I'm on.

  2. Excellent - happy reading!