NI writer Laura McVeigh’s second novel, Lenny, details a magical tale of family and imagination. She explains why having a global outlook helped her writing
Lenny is the story of a young homeless boy in the bayou, who helped by the classic tale The Little Prince, seeks to repair his broken family and save his hometown, Roseville, from destruction. Meanwhile in the Ubari Sand Sea, a pilot falls to the earth in the desert and is rescued by a young boy. The two storylines travel between Libya and Louisiana in a story of family, love, hope and the power of the imagination.
I was influenced early on by themes of conflict and peace, having grown up in the North, and am often drawn to writing about the impact of conflict on individual lives, on societies and countries.
In the novel Lenny’s father Jim, who grew up as a child in Northern Ireland, stargazing near the Antrim coast, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his military service. Previous international research has shown Northern Ireland to have one of the world’s highest rates of PTSD to population, and one of the things I sought to explore in the story was the lasting effect of such trauma, both for the individual character and others around him.
I have always also had a global outlook, even as a young girl, learning foreign languages and travelling from an early age. Later I chose post-graduate study in Global Politics, learning about the impacts of globalisation, development economics, and issues like conflict and reconciliation. These concerns carried through into my career prior to writing – when I worked in human rights and for children’s charities, on education and environmental projects and development issues, both nationally and internationally. Now those same interests and concerns continue to inform my writing.
Years ago, I lived in Fuerteventura, an island just off the coast of North Africa (indeed the earliest forms of writing discovered on the island were Libyan-Berber script) near to where the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would fly planes for Aéropostale across the desert. I fell in love with his lyrical writing full of humanity and heart early on – and for a long time knew that I would like to write a book ‘in conversation’ with his writing. In 1935, Saint-Exupéry, crashed his plane in the Libyan desert along with his co-pilot, and was rescued by a Bedouin on a camel. And so from there came a narrative echo and the starting point for Lenny. The Little Prince too, with its simple desert imagery, is itself full of echoes of Amazigh storytelling, perhaps tales told in the desert night round a fire.
But there are always many reasons for choosing a setting for a story – and beyond the connection of Libya to Saint-Exupéry, and while I was interested in the impacts of the First Libyan Civil War, the hopes for a fresh start held within the country, and the role of external countries in the conflict, I was also – as Lenny is very much a story about the environmental state of our planet and how we treat it – interested in the desert itself, as almost another character within the novel.
Once, around 6000 years ago, the desert was green, lush, full of vegetation, trees and lakes. Ancient rock drawings in the Acacus mountains along the border between modern-day Libya and Algeria show giraffes, elephants, aurochs, antelope and we gain an entirely different sense of the land, and how it would have been.
The Ubari Sand Sea, where part of the story is set, was once home to many lakes. Even now, you can find seashells on the dry lake beds. There is a belief in the possibility, that perhaps in the future the desert will once more turn green. And then there is the mystery of what lies beneath the desert sand – great aquifers of freshwater stored under the ground, a resource to be exploited or protected?
Libya today sadly continues to be divided following the aftermath of the uprising. The trade in people smuggling is only one of the many challenges the country faces. Each year many migrants die as they make the journey north across the sands towards the coast. In the novel, we see some of these travellers disappear, lost to the desert sand.
Yet for all the hardship and heartbreak, there is always so much beauty and hope – in the landscapes, the warmth of the people, the music, the desert poetry and the night sky full of stars visible to the eye. I was able to witness a little of this on travels to North Africa, sleeping in tents on the desert sands, watching the sky light up with stars as darkness fell, and I have sought to capture some of the sense of that mystery and awe at the beauty of nature in the writing.
Louisiana, on the other hand, drew me for its contrast to the desert, and then once I discovered that landmass was disappearing there to the sea more quickly than almost anywhere else on earth I was intrigued, and began to read and research, and immerse myself in the stories and accounts of ‘Cancer Alley’ and environmental pollution and health impacts all along parts of the waterways. In the novel Roseville is an imagined town on the river, and the sinkhole that threatens it is imagined too – but if you travel further downriver, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, you will find many communities speaking out about how they have been devastated by illness, affected by the toxic environmental damage and industrial pollution that have blighted the area for decades. For anyone with an interest in such issues there is much reporting and many accounts available to read or watch and reflect upon.
Louisiana too however has much natural beauty, and with its Cajun French legacy, it fascinated me as a linguist, and I found many echoes with the French of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), the story Lenny lovingly reads in the novel.
The story is Lenny’s for many reasons, but there is something in particular about that time between the end of childhood and approaching adulthood where we are able to see the world perhaps as more full of promise and possibility, that was helpful to me in writing this story. There is also a clearsighted way that children can approach problems and challenges.
Life is stacked against Lenny, and yet he remains full of hope and love. In the past I have worked with several charities supporting children and young people who were often dealing with very difficult circumstances, and then and elsewhere I have always been struck by the incredible resilience of the human spirit, and by our desire to imagine better futures. Lenny embodies that childlike spirit at the heart of each of us.
He is in fact his mother Mari-Rose’s ‘little prince’ and he is able to imagine other worlds, similar to our own yet different all the same.
Other characters share the storytelling alongside Lenny. The narrative pivots between the points of view of different key characters – Jim, Lenny’s father, Mari-Rose, his mother, Lucy Albert, the town librarian, Miss Julie, his elderly one-time neighbour – each struggling with their own battles, each looking for love in different ways. The novel seeks to embrace and empathise with our imperfect lives. For after all, aren’t we all broken in different ways? Isn’t that what it is to be human?
In the writing of the novel, I also sought to play with notions around time and reality. So much of life remains a mystery to us – the story both explores and celebrates that sense of infinite possibility.
Lenny by Laura McVeigh, New Island, £13.99, is available now