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Acquisition News — New Island Books sign debut author Laura McKenna for Spring 2021

New Island Books pick up Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair Winner Laura McKenna’s debut novel for publication in Spring 2021. 


The true story of an escaped South Carolina slave’s epic journey to the heart of Revolutionary Ireland. 

I hardly remember how I spoke then; that I, that person in the Carolinas. Not as now, that is certain. I took pains to be other than him. Can I now speak for him? He seems so far away, waiting in that ruined hut; a ragged black man, still wearing his stolen boots, waiting for the Lieutenant to recover or die . . . Perhaps I should write as though of someone else, a distant Tony, so that those that come after me, may read the real account. Two accounts then. One for Lady Lucy, in that formal language she insists upon, that parroting of Equiano. And the other, my own…    


New Island Books is delighted to announce the acquisition of Laura McKenna’s impressive novel after the 2020 Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair in February.  

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It is the first fictional account of the deep but complex relationship between Lord Edward Fitzgerald, aristocrat and a leader of the 1798 Rebellion, and Anthony Small – known as ‘Faithful Tony’ – an escaped slave who rescued Edward from battle in South Carolina and became his constant companion until the rebel’s death.   

In the aftermath of Edward’s death and disgrace, his sister, Lady Lucy Fitzgerald, commissions Tony to write about his life in the form a ‘slave narrative’. But Lucy’s real motivation is to restore Edward’s reputation. More than fifty years later, in her will, Lucy has left Tony’s ‘True Narrative’ (including her own notes and erasures) to Harriet, his daughter, the ‘almost respectable’ owner of a boarding house in London.  

From South Carolina to Kildare, Antigua to Canada, the slave-owning territories along the Mississippi to London Hamburg and Dublin, Tony and Edward form an unlikely, co-dependent friendship. Edward is everything Tony is not: beloved by a large family, carelessly sure of his privileged place in the world. With Edward, Tony hopes to begin a new life, to belong, but finds himself a stranger in a strange land. As Edward’s right-hand man, Tony encounters the privilege, power, racism and politics that drive the inequalities of his era. He is forced to accept what it means to be free in a time of slavery while Edward’s democratic ideals become more radical as they gallop towards their inevitable climax in 1798. 

In reading her father’s manuscript, Harriet explores the long-term effects of slavery and realises the true legacy of her father’s past and how her Irish-African-American heritage has shaped her own difficult life.  


Aoife K. Walsh, commissioning editor at New Island says: ‘Words to Shape My Name is just the kind of absorbing and timely novel we at New Island want to publish; drawing the nooks and crannies of history out into the light. Laura McKenna has chosen not to make this a straightforward buddy story, instead probing the uncomfortable truths of an alliance between an idealistic but privileged man like Edward Fitzgerald and a traumatised but hopeful man like Tony Small. This is an Irish story of identity and belonging that was always there, but which has not been told in this way before. And in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive writer such as Laura McKenna, we are delighted to be publishing yet another future gem of Irish literature.’ 

Author Laura McKenna says: ‘The story of Tony Small has been close to my heart for the past five years, tracking down his incredible journey, discovering details of his family and thinking about his life. I am so delighted, that following the excitement of the IWC Novel Fair, my book has been taken up by the wonderfully intuitive and committed team at New Island Books. Added to this, I am represented by the excellent Faith O’Grady of Lisa Richards Agency.’   

Laura McKenna is a writer of fiction and poetry and worked for many years as a child psychiatrist. Words to Shape My Name was longlisted for the 2019 Bath Novel Award and formed the creative element of her PhD in creative writing awarded from UCC in 2019 (her critical paper examined the ethics and aesthetics of voice in fiction). She is the recipient of Tyrone Guthrie, Cork County Council, Arts Council and John Montague Mentorship (Munster Literature Centre) bursaries. Twice nominated for a Hennessy Literary Award and a Forward Prize for poetry, Laura’s work has been published in The RTÉ Guide, Southword, Banshee, The Litro Anthology of New Fiction, New Irish Writing in The Sunday Independent and The Irish Times and THE SHOp

WORDS TO SHAPE MY NAME is an adventurous novel about hope, failure, resilience and the power of telling our own stories that will resonate today. It will be published by New Island Books in March 2021. 

For more information contact: Caoimhe Fox caoimhe.fox@newisland.ie / +353 1 278 4225 

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