Award-winning journalist Rachael English tells us about the inspiration behind her debut novel Going Back, a heart-warming story of family, friendships and love.
Elizabeth wanted to experience America. Not that she harboured any fanciful notions about seeing the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas or New Orleans. What she enjoyed were the small differences: groceries in brown paper bags and big traffic lights, steam rising up through pavement gratings and women wearing runners with business suits.
Say ‘J1’ to anybody in Ireland and, I guarantee you, they’ll reply ‘summer in America’. Most likely they’ll then regale you stories of the amazing time they had in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Usually these tales will involve twenty-five people living in a one room apartment, the making and spending of large sums of money and a lot of wild partying. It’s also inevitable that somebody in the apartment will have had their heart broken by an American.
I should explain: a J1 is a type of visa that allows young people to spend time living and working in the United States. And while it’s a programme that’s also open to British students, for some reason they’ve never taken to it with quite the same enthusiasm as the Irish. For Irish students, a J1 is a rite of passage. Even if you don’t go to America, you’ll still have to spend your college years listening to other people’s stories about their summer of excess.
Three or four years ago, I went for a drink with some old college friends. After a couple of hours, the conversation turned to the summer we spent working in Boston. This was back in 1988 when Ireland could be a pretty grey place and when going to America felt as exotic as going to Mars.
A few months previously, one of the group had had the opportunity to return to Boston. Superficially, he said, a lot had changed. The diner where we ate most of our meals was now a McDonald’s. The dive bar where we drank was long since closed. Despite this, he was taken aback by how familiar the city felt. Without the help of a map, he found our old apartment. Even the smell of the underground was instantly recognisable.
I began to think about how we remember people and places. Anybody returning to a city where they spent several eventful months would find memories being rekindled. But what if you had never stopped thinking about the significance of that time? What if you still wondered about the people you left behind? And what if you went a step further and decided to track them down?
Going Back tells the story of five young Irish people who go to Boston in 1988. One of them, Elizabeth Kelly, has a summer she will never forget. More than twenty years later, a crisis forces her to return to the city. She finds herself being drawn back into the life she once lived. But can she reconcile the dreams of her twenty-year-old self with the woman she has become?