Most of what most people know (or think they know!) about the past comes from fiction. People watch movies and read novels set in other times and places to be entertained, to experience feelings of nostalgia, or to learn about the past, for example. Historical fiction often emphasizes problematic slices of the past that ultimately privilege and perpetuate the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist Theistic) Patriarchy.
A most welcome alternative comes from the best of friends and my chosen brother Lee Hutch (pen name) and his recent book Molly’s Song, published by Fireship Press. (You can purchase Lee Hutch’s book here.) Lee Hutch is a retired firefighter and arson investigator. He has a B.A. and M.A. in History along with an M.S. in Criminal Justice. He currently teaches History at a community college in Southeast Texas.
In Lee Hutch’s Molly’s Song, we follow a young woman’s journey from Ireland to New York to New Orleans and back to New York during the era of the U.S. Civil War. This novel shows sides of the past often ignored or forgotten and shows us about the gaps between the United States’ proclaimed ideals and realities have long existed, especially for those not privileged by society. It also speaks to a shared human struggle for survival.
I recently set down with Lee Hutch to ask him questions about this book.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda (AJP): Lee Hutch! Thank you for taking time to talk with me about your second book, Molly’s Song. Let me say that I love this novel! Let’s get started. This is your second novel. How did you get into writing novels?
Lee Hutch (LH): Thank you! I think part of me always wanted to write a novel. When I was an undergraduate student, my minor was in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing. At that time, I was more focused on my fire service career than becoming a writer, and it really wasn’t until 2017 or so that I got serious about writing a book. My first, So Others May Live, was published in 2019.
AJP: What is your writing process like?
LH: The first draft of Molly’s Song was completed before the pandemic. Back then, I would start a first draft on the Monday following the end of the spring semester. Every day, I wake up at 8 am. I eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee, and then start writing at promptly 9 am. I write up until around 11:30 am, and then take a break for an hour. Then, after lunch, I start working again. I do this until I’ve hit 3K words (around a chapter) for the day. Sometimes, I finish before lunch. Most days, I finish around 4 pm. I do this every day until the Summer 2 session starts, which I usually teach. With Molly’s Song, I wasn’t finished by that point, so I had to set the book aside until Thanksgiving Break. My wife was out of town that week, so I wrote all day, every day on the break, finishing the first draft on Thanksgiving Day, 2019.
AJP: As your novels are historical fiction, what kind of research have you done?
LH: With So Others May Live being a World War II novel, and Molly’s Song being a Civil War novel, I picked two areas that I already had in depth knowledge of from a lifetime of reading and also from graduate school. This meant that a lot of the research that went into these books were detail-oriented rather than big picture. For example, with Molly’s Song, I kept a map of the Five Points taped next to my workstation so I could make sure I got landmarks, streets, and directions right.
AJP: Why is Molly’s Song situated during the Civil War and in New York and in New Orleans?
LH: The majority of Irish immigrants who came into the United States during the mid-19th Century entered the country through New York, New York, so it made sense to have her arrive there. Now, as a fun random fact, Boston received the second highest number of Irish immigrants and New Orleans was third. New Orleans was a thoroughly Irish city by 1860. The reason that I wanted to include New Orleans specifically is because one side of my family immigrated from Ireland in 1850 and landed in New Orleans. To this day, there is a neighborhood in NOLA known as the Irish Channel. That name goes back to this time period when the Irish labored on the docks, digging canals, and eventually would take over the police and fire departments in New Orleans, just as they would in NYC and Boston.
I decided to set the novel during the Civil War because, not only is it the defining event in U.S. History, but it is also an era that I know quite a bit about, which made writing the book easier. I did not want this to be a Civil War novel, but rather a novel set during the Civil War, which is why, though the war is never far from the story, the fighting, apart from the Draft Riots, takes place off screen, so to speak.
AJP: Who is your least favorite character in Molly’s Song and why?
LH: I would have to say that Major Timothy Warlow was probably my least favorite character. He is outwardly very friendly and charming, but underneath the surface, he’s a master manipulator. I think we’ve all known people like that in our day to day lives.
AJP: Without giving too much away, Molly’s Song is an intense read. The story involves fires like So Others May Live but also human trafficking, kidnapping, racism, rape, suicide, starvation, theft, and much more. How did you go about connecting all of this together so coherently and powerfully?
LH: The idea for the novel originated with a photo. I came across a photo of a sex worker in 1893 Reading, Pennsylvania, her name lost to history. In fact, it’s the photo that is on the cover of the book. I decided to create a story for her and give her a name. Of course, I set the book thirty years earlier for the reasons mentioned above. I really didn’t write out the full plot ahead of time. I just started writing, though I did go into it wanting to include the trafficking element and also Ellen’s storyline. Being a retired firefighter, I had to work in some fire scenes! As far as the rest of it, I tried to capture the difficulty immigrants had then, and now, in arriving in an unfamiliar country, and I particularly wanted to show the difficulty for women. I like to think that if Molly were alive today, she’d be out there leading some of the marches that we’ve seen on TV.
<<image of Lee Hutch with So Others May Live https://leehutchauthor.com >>
AJP: I think it’s especially important that your story emphasize the hatred Irish people could and did face. One line from the book that really stands out to me is, “we can’t use your given name. Too Irish and some folks don’t like the Irish.”
LH: Right. Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric used today against immigrants from Latin America or Southeast Asia was used, almost verbatim, against Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. I was fortunate to know my great-grandmother who was born in 1898 and lived to be 96 years old. Her grandparents, all four of them, were born in Ireland and experienced the famine years and immigration when they were children. Both of her grandfathers fought in the Civil War. And, perhaps remarkably for that time period, all four of her grandparents lived well into their 80s, which meant that she knew them very well. She listened to their stories of what it was like to arrive in the United States around the same time as Molly did and to experience the discrimination. I distinctly remember her talking about the pain in their eyes as they talked about what it was like in Ireland during the years of hunger. This is why I think that any American who claims to be “part Irish” on Saint Patrick’s Day cannot turn their backs on immigrants now. Culturally, we know what it is like to be driven out of your own country and arrive on a foreign shore, thus we should be understanding and welcoming to others who find themselves in a similar situation now.
AJP: And I don’t want to be too dreary. The story also involves powerful and unexpected friendships and Molly’s emerging singing career. Tell us about this, and I’m especially curious to know more about the song Molly sings.
LH: Friendships are important. They can be an anchor when we need them the most. Consider our own friendship, for example! Molly sings several different songs during the course of the book, but the one that she sings repeatedly is called “Annie Laurie.” It’s a Scottish tune, the origins of which go back to at least the early 1700s. With such an old song, there were many different lyrical versions of it. The one that Molly learns originated in the mid-1830s and was published in Glasgow in the 1850s. Obviously, she would not have had any real reason to hear or learn this song in County Galway, which is why she overhears the Scottish sailor singing it and commits it to memory. The song itself was popular well into the 20th century and was one of my Irish grandfather’s favorite tunes.
AJP: And I think it’s really important to recognize that Molly is a strong, brave, character. She knows how to survive, too. She’s caring. And she’s blunt: “New Orleans smelled like a sewer, but I swear New York is worse”
LH: I have been fortunate to have grown up around very strong Irishwomen. My great-grandmother. My grandmothers. My mother. And my 10-year-old niece, Clare, who the book is dedicated to. Of course, I’m also married to an incredibly strong German woman. In a way, I wrote Molly’s Song as a tribute to the strong women in my family, but also throughout history. Women who persevered and triumphed despite living in a patriarchal society.
AJP: There is one line from Molly that I’ve been wondering about. “And like the prosecutor, I also do not fight fair.” To me, it seems she does fight fair.
LH: Molly learned how to survive on the streets of New York, so I would say that she fights to survive. She’ll do whatever she has to in order to protect herself and those she cares about. What I find inspiring about her is that she knows that the odds are against her, but she keeps fighting anyway. I think we’d all benefit from having a bit of Molly’s character in us.
AJP: Your book also has, what we could maybe call, life lessons. Madam Delacroix tells Molly, “sometimes, a woman has to pretend to be something she’s not to get what she wants. No different than an actress upon the stage.”
LH: Madam Delacroix was a fun character to write. With her, I wanted to show the contrast between a person like Miss Cecilia who is purely there to exploit the unfortunates who work for her, and a person who says, “look, own what you are and use it to better yourself.” New Orleans has a long, sordid history with sex workers, including the notorious Storyville District (1890s-1910s). For some of them, their options were to go to work in a brothel or starve. While prostitution was legal throughout the country in the 1860s, women who did such work were despised and looked down on by society whereas the men who frequented them were not thought ill of at all. I think even today, women are often judged more harshly for things than men are.
AJP: And on the note of powerful lines and your use of language, I really love this line: “the ocean has a short memory. She’ll try to kill you one minute and give you a picture the next”
LH: Given that you and I both live on the Gulf Coast, I think we can identify with this line! (Like the tree Hurricane Nicholas dropped on my house a few weeks back!)
AJP: Another question about writing and style. Molly’s Song kind of shifts from third person to first person. Why this unique but certainly effective choice?
LH: Rather than a typical third person viewpoint, I wanted to go for a deep third person POV. Everything we see in the novel is filtered through Molly’s eyes. This allows you to not only see what Molly sees, but to also feel what she feels. In a way, you get to be Molly as opposed to just reading about Molly.
AJP: How was it writing a story with so many women being a man?
LH: As I was writing Molly’s character, I tried not to think of it as a male writing a female character but rather a person writing about a person. I tried to think of Molly as a character rather than a female character and wrote accordingly. For example, when she would get into a predicament, often through no fault of her own, I would ask myself, “how would a person respond to this?” That said, Molly is definitely a young woman, and I did have to be aware of the fact that this posed certain risks for her in society, especially at that time. She is a young woman trying to survive in a male-dominated world and, in her own way, fights against the patriarchy as best she can. She’s got some great lines in the book, but I particularly like when, toward the end, she says, “by God, you are the last man who will ever lay a hand on me!” And she means it, too!
AJP: I understand that Molly’s Song is a trilogy. When will the next book be out? And will we hear more from Molly’s mom and from Ellen? I’m especially anxious to learn more about Ellen and her thoughts on what is happening.
LH: Yes, it is the first book in a trilogy. The second book will take her across the west to California and the third book will see her return to Ireland in time for the Fenian Rising. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I have no timetable. At this point, the first sequel, tentatively titled Molly’s War is about one third of the way written. My plan was to have it written and edited by the time the first book came out, but I found it so very hard to write anything during the pandemic. It’s kind of funny because writers had what we always wanted: time to sit at home and write. But so many of us found it too difficult to focus on writing.
AJP: It’s also important to comment on the relevance Molly’s Song has today. Immigration and human trafficking remain huge issues, especially where we are in Houston.
LH: Exactly. Houston is a human trafficking mecca. I think the novel is, in some ways, very modern despite being historical. If you changed Molly from an Irish immigrant to an immigrant from, say Central America, and set it in 2021, you could have the exact same story. It’s tragic, really, that we are still dealing with these issues as a society and as a country.
AJP: OKAY! I really want to see this made into a Netflix or Amazon Prime series! How can we make that happen?!
LH: I wish I knew! I’m juggling a couple of writing projects now, and one of them is a script for a series adaptation for a streaming service. I already have a series treatment and a lookbook done. It really is just a matter of getting in the hands of the right people, but unfortunately, I do not know who those people are!
You can purchase Lee Hutch’s book here.
Lee Hutch is a retired firefighter and arson investigator. He has a B.A. and M.A. in History along with an M.S. in Criminal Justice. Hutch currently teaches history at a community college in Southeast Texas. Find Lee Hutch at https://leehutchauthor.com/