New novel explores the results of holding onto the hippy dream

21 May 2024
Woman in floral dress holding up book

What would happen if a peace and love commune from the early 1970s survived into the 21st century with its founding members now approaching their eighth decade? 

That’s the starting point for Birdeye, a new novel by Dr Judith Heneghan, Programme leader of the MA Creative Writing Course at the University of Winchester. 

Birdeye is the name of a fictional colony in Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, held together by the story’s central character Liv Ferrars. 

Well past its heyday, the commune exists quietly within the local community but when a young man, Conor, arrives and is welcomed in, long-buried secrets are stirred up and Liv must deal with the consequences of the choices she has made. 

The novel looks at how we accept strangers into our lives and seek to balance their needs with those of our existing loved ones and dependants. 

“We live in a very polarised world and there seems to be a great feeling of ‘You’re either with us or against us…’ Sometimes this is necessary, but in reality, what divides us is often not as great as we think,” said Judith. 

She said that she chose to set her story in the Catskills because it has “…been a place for escape and re-making for centuries, long before the hippy counterculture”. 

Judith knows the area well as she spent a year living in Woodstock when she was eight while her father was working in the US for IBM. 

The small town gave its name to the legendary rock festival (even though that event happened 40 miles away) and has a longstanding reputation as a haven for writers and artists. 

“It was a transformative experience for a child from Winchester,” recalls Judith. “To me it seemed such an incredibly colourful place.” 

She revisited the Catskills for research and said it seemed relatively unchanged although an influx of second homeowners and holiday lets created an interesting dynamic. 

Judith’s other point of reference is her experience of two years living and working in a community in Kent alongside people with learning disabilities when she was in her twenties. 

“My experience in Kent definitely feeds into fictional Birdeye in terms of the balancing act of tolerance, trust and acceptance,” said Judith. “The novel is about love in its many forms, between parents and children, between friends and ex-lovers and strangers – and how these relationships may be tested or distorted, whether we can make them right again, and how we seek to memorialise what is lost.” 

Judith held a launch night for Birdeye at Winchester bookshop P&G Wells this week which was attended by around 80 people including colleagues and students. 

Judith will be doing a reading of Birdeye with colleague Julian Stannard at October Books in Southampton at 6.30pm on 29 May, tickets £5 via Eventbrite or on the night. 

She also appeared on the Book Club slot on Radio Solent’s Lou Hannah show (15 May). Judith’s interview can be heard here (about two hours 18 mins into the show). 

Birdye is published by Salt priced £10.99. 

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