| Doc Pruyne
WILLIAMSBURG — Difficult love and disappearing parents are the currency of romance and mysteries for young people, but local author Robert T. McMaster recently published a novel, “Rose of Glenkerry,” rich with elements of both genres. What makes the story really different? It’s set in the emerald hills of County Wicklow, Ireland.
“It’s really gorgeous,” McMaster, a Williamsburg resident, said of the Irish equivalent of the hilltowns. “You’ve got the Irish Sea, the pastures and meadowlands, and you’ve got the mountains, all within 10, 15 miles. It’s a varied landscape and extremely prosperous.”
McMaster, best known for his biography of naturalist Edward Hitchcock, finished a series of four novels set in the 1900s and was casting about for what to write next. Since retiring in 2014 from Holyoke Community College, where he taught biology, McMaster has steadily published books set in the United States. For “Rose of Glenkerry” he harked back to his old family roots in Ireland and combined them with his new ambitions to write.
Main character and recent college graduate Ciaran — pronounced “Karen” — McGurk dreams of being a journalist in London. He reconnects with an old friend, Rosie O’Malley, who’s had a tough time of it, growing up in Glenkerry. Now her mother went missing and Rosie’s father and brothers are making it hard to figure out what happened. Should Ciaran stick around the village and solve the mystery or, like most young people, head to the city for a career?
McMaster’s four book series, the “Trolley Days Series,” also features a young protagonist in the pressure cooker of making big life choices.
“I like to see young characters struggling with the future,” McMaster said. “That seems to be a good hook to drive the story, to solve the mystery but also try to cope with career goals and relationship issues.”
County Wicklow, McMaster said, “would have a familiar feel” among readers from the river valley. The social challenges are the same. The young grow up in small towns they cannot afford to live in, then go off to the city in search of work. When McMaster visited the green hills he learned the exodus of young people from farm to city has always been a big problem.
McMaster drew a map of his fictional town, Glenkerry, that resembles the layout of many towns in the Connecticut River valley. Most have a small commercial center with shops and stores. Pastureland spreads away in all directions. In Ireland, farms produce the food necessary to feed Dublin, just to the north, while Dubliners are moving to the country for the good life.
The migration of older, more affluent city dwellers to the rural lifestyle is also driving sharp increases in the costs of living and changing the traditional feel of Wicklow. The mansions of new residents rise next to pastures full of bleating sheep and lowing cows. The influx of wealth creates a new source of conflict between the lifelong poor and the rich, scooping up property.
How the plot threads come together is an unknown. While some novelists like to plot out the whole story before sitting down at the computer, McMaster’s writing is a process of discovery. He takes a seat with his characters already in mind, and figures out what happens by writing the story. He prefers having plots and several subplots going in every book. When the details get stuck McMaster stands up from his desk and goes for a walk.
“Sometimes problems develop that I have to walk off,” McMaster said. “It’s a trial and error process. Sometimes you get into binds. Sometimes you write a story and you think, how do I get out of here?”
McMaster self-publishes his books, which is much easier now, and enjoys meeting with those who read his writings. His biography of Edward Hitchcock, the only published work about the life of the famous scientist, was easier to publicize and sell into libraries than his novels. He often schedules readings and talks about his fictional people and about Hitchcock’s work and life.
“Biography is tough. It’s really tough,” McMaster said. “Fiction is much more fun…Often, where a character ends up is not what I would’ve guessed at the beginning of the story.”
Robert McMaster’s latest novel, “Rose of Glenkerry” can be purchased at Amazon.com as an e-book or a printed copy.