Here are the answers to some questions I was asked recently about my new book, Lifesaving for Beginners (out in Ireland and the UK at the beginning of October 2012). Hope it gives you a taste of what the book is about without giving too much away…
Tell us a bit about the new book.
I got the germ of an idea from a friend of mine who, one night, told me the story of her father’s unmarried sisters, both of whom died within months of each other. Her father was going through their personal effects afterwards and found a birth certificate. One of his sisters had given birth to a baby years before and had given the child up for adoption.
The minute I heard the story I knew I wanted to write it. The idea of a woman who gives her baby away and gets on with the living of her life, never referring to it, never talking about it, perhaps never thinking about it. It is almost as if it never happened. And although my story begins many years later, in 1987, things in Ireland hadn’t really changed. I mean, in 1984, Ann Lovett, a 15-year old girl, gave birth to a baby boy, all alone, in the grounds of a church. She brought a scissors. To cut the cord. It didn’t matter. They both died. I was fourteen then. I never forgot it. The loneliness of it. That kind of loneliness stays with you. You don’t forget loneliness like that.
Half of the book is told from Kat’s point of view, and half from Milo’s. Was it challenging to write in these two very different voices? What was it like to write from a nine-year-old boy’s point of view?
Kat is approaching forty, which is not something she’s looking forward to. She is a writer except that nobody knows she’s a writer. She is a mother except nobody knows she’s a mother. She is in love with her man-friend except nobody knows she’s in love with her man-friend. She is a tricky, tricky character and so, was tricky to write.
Every second chapter is told by Milo. Milo is nine and not nearly as tricky. He is much more loveable than Kat. Much easier to write. Perhaps it is because children are easier to love than adults.
I told the story in two parts because I felt it was broad enough to warrant that. Also the technical aspect of it interested me, ie. How to tell the same story in two parts? From two different perspectives. I think a story like this appeals to readers. They can see both perspectives which deepens understanding and, hopefully, empathy. If a reader has empathy with a character like Kat, you know you have done something right because she is not the easiest person to like.
Why did you decide to show us Faith through her brother Milo’s eyes rather than Faith narrating herself?
Faith is a young woman who, at the beginning of the book, loses her mother and then discovers that the woman she lost is not her birth mother.
I tried to write Faith. I tried many times. I have a GIGANTIC file called ‘Faith’ with notes on her character, what she has in her fridge, her CV, what she wears, what she watches on the telly, the colour eye-shadow she favours, stuff she has in the pocket of her jacket. I tried everything. But she wouldn’t come to me. I was always grasping. I spent months reaching for her but in the end, I had to concede that she just wasn’t someone I could write. Perhaps it was her age (she’s 24 – it’s been a long time since I was 24). Perhaps I felt that her situation was so dramatic that if I wrote it, it might become melodramatic.That’s when I came up with the idea of writing her story through a third party – her little brother Milo. I wondered how Faith’s story would look through the eyes of a nine-year-old. Once I started writing him, I couldn’t stop. His character felt like something I didn’t have to make up. He was just there. In my head, waiting to become words on the screen. I fell in love with him from the start. He was my way of telling Faith’s story.
Your books often include a difficult relationship with a family member – particularly a mother-daughter relationship. What is it that you find particularly interesting about this dynamic?
Well, it drives my mother crazy, as you can imagine. When I start to write another story, she ‘casually’ enquires if the mother is a ‘baddie’ again…
I don’t know who said it but it’s true; happiness writes white on the page. A loving, fabulous relationship is all very well but it doesn’t make for riveting reading, I’m afraid. A fractious relationship is a lot more absorbing. This is where the good stuff is. The cracks on the pavement that nobody wants to walk on. This is where the writing has to go.
The themes you explore in your novels can often be quite difficult and moving – bereavement in Saving Grace, abandonment in Finding Mr Flood – and yet the books are full of warmth and humour. Do you think it’s important to balance the light with the dark?
Absolutely. You have to have a balance. Or at any rate, I have to have a balance. Between the dark and the light, otherwise it’s too much, or it’s too little. Just like life.
You like to write love stories between characters who seem quite mismatched on the surface. Is the love story in Lifesaving for Beginners similarly unusual?
I’ve never really written a ‘leading man’ type of character. You know the ones; tall, dark and handsome with fabulous, slightly dangerous jobs, and luxury hair. To be honest, I don’t think I’d know what to do with a fellow like that…
There are a few love stories in Lifesaving for Beginners. There’s Kat and her younger brother, Ed. There’s the love story between nine-year-old Milo and his mam, Beth, even though we never meet Beth in the story. There’s the love between Milo and his big sister, Faith. And then there’s Kat and Thomas. Thomas (who I love) is mad about Kat but, because of Kat’s past, she feels she is undeserving of this. She can’t handle him but he is perfect for her and I think the reader will see this, even if Kat – who is an unreliable narrator – can’t.
Do you know what is going to happen before you start writing, or do storylines develop as you go along? Did any aspect of the plot or a character surprise you while you were writing?
I never really know what’s going to happen. I always start with a character. Character is vital, in my stories. It would be nice to have it all planned out – I think I would feel less anxious as a writer if I had A Plan. The ending is always a surprise to me. For example, I never knew who the father of Scarlett O’Hara’s baby was until I got to that chapter at the end of the book. And I never knew – until Dara got to Manchester – if Mr. Flood would be alive or dead or if she would find him at all. And I certainly had no idea that the epilogue for Finding Mr. Flood would be narrated by a ghost. That idea came to me at Annaghmakerrig – a retreat for writers and artists and dancers and fire-eaters and allsorts. I was there to write the end of the story when, on a harmless Monday night, the ghost of Ms. Worby appeared to Kevin Gildea and by the time he had finished telling the story the following morning, I had come up with the idea of the ghostly epilogue and I wrote it there, in the haunted house. I whispered a silent thank you to Ms. Worby (I also thanked her for not coming to haunt me…).
How did you come up with the title for the book?
The working title for much of this book was ‘Having Faith’. But then my editor, Ciara Doorley, said that it was time to lose the whole ‘present-participle-proper-noun’ title situation and I suppose I couldn’t help agreeing with her. So I indulged in a bit of ‘brainstorming’ if you wouldn’t be minding…with Frank (the husband) and Ciara (the editor – keep up). We talked about lots of titles. Husband fancied something with the word ‘iceberg’ in it. Hidden depths, he said. Only a sliver of it visible above the water, the rest all hidden beneath. ‘Hmmmm’ I said, scribbling away. Ciara liked ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘The stories we tell’ (she’s such an editor!) and I quite favoured ‘The Secret Lives of Kat Kavanagh’, which referenced the sort of nine lives of cats and that kind of thing….
So how we all came up with Lifesaving for Beginners is beyond me. But as soon as I said it out loud, I knew that was the one (much like when I looked in the icecream freezer in the supermarket and saw a Mars Bar Icecream for the first time…everything fell into place.)
How long did it take you to write Lifesaving for Beginners?
Too long (note to self: please learn how to write your stories quicker. For everyone’s sake!!)
Finally, what was your favourite bit about writing the new book?
Writing Milo (my nine-year old protagonist) was my favourite bit. And the easiest bit. He slid out of me onto the screen and I did very little editing of his part of the story. Kat was more difficult. A lot more. I suppose adults are usually more difficult than children. Adults have been around the block and it shows.
If you, lovely reader, have any more questions you’d like to ask me, don’t hesitate to give me a shout. Here are my various ‘handles’:
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Is mise le meas,