John Kelly is the author of the acclaimed bestseller The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, Three on the Edge: The Stories of Ordinary American Families in Search of a Medical Miracle, and The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People.
From his Q & A with Caroline Leavitt:
Can you talk about the title?--Marshal Zeringue
The title comes from William Butler Yeats's play, The Countess Cathleen. In the first scene, one of the characters says:
They say that now the land is famine struckI choose it as title for two reasons. One, It's a haunting image in and of itself, and two, I thought it would give the reader a feel for what I was trying to do in the book, which was to convey a sense of what the famine looked like and felt like for the people who lived through it.
The graves are walking
What was the research like? What surprised you?
The research was exhausting. Combined, I estimate I read about 8,000 letters, government documents, and contemporary newspaper accounts. However, the hardest part was the writing. How do you turn all that documentation into a compelling narrative history for the general reader? There were days I was so frustrated, I felt like taking out a restraining order against the book.
What surprised me is how sophisticated the international economy was in the 1840s. With nothing but letters and ships, merchants were able to guide an economy that stretched from the Ukraine to the Ohio Valley. It was a remarkable...[read on]