What inspired the story of Lifesaving for Beginners?
Lifesaving for Beginners was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine in County Kerry. The last time I was there I was chatting to my friend and she was telling me the story of her two elderly spinster aunts who lived together and died within months of each other. My friends' Dad was their only remaining sibling and he was going through their personal effects after their deaths and he found a birth certificate. One of them had had a baby in her teens and given the baby up for adoption. The baby, a baby girl, was sent to an American couple. But the aunts never spoke of it and one ever knew. We don't even know if the other sister might have known or not.
That absolutely fascinated me, the idea something so huge could happen to somebody and they just bury it and then continue to live their lives as if nothing ever happened. So that inspired the story of Kat who as a teenager had a baby and then lived her life as if nothing happened.
Forced or pressured adoption is a very controversial issue. Are you particularly interested it as a social issue?
I remember in Ireland when I was 14, and there was this young girl, she was 15 at the time and she was pregnant. She lived in a small town in the midlands in Ireland. No one knew she was pregnant and when she was due to give birth she went to the grotto in the town, which is a statue of Our Lady in the grounds of the church, and that’s where she gave birth to her baby. She brought scissors to cut the umbilical cord but it was a freezing cold night and they both died.
That sort of snagged in my net, I never really forgot that, it was so horrendous. Even to talk about it now, it's a horrible thing to happen to a young girl. In Ireland in the 80s it was still such a shameful thing for a young girl to have a baby and have sex. Those two stories (the young girl and the aunt) resonated with me and I suppose that's what interested me about the whole adoption situation, that's how I came to it. I'm more about the stories than about the topics. Definitely I'm about the characters, they would be very important to me.
So you started with this true story of the Aunt who had secretly given birth, from there how does your story evolve? Does it start with a character?
It definitely starts with a character, yes. So I had my character Kat Kerrigan and I had the idea; and I was interested in the technical aspect of telling the same story through two difference perspectives. I love the idea of perspective, that two people can experience exactly the same thing but tell it very differently because of their perspective. I wanted to tell the same story but through two different people to see how that would work. So I thought Faith and Kat.
But I couldn't make Faith work. She a 24 year old woman I don't know if it was the age gap or if I wasn't that interested but I tried for the longest time to tell it. I have a big file on my computer labelled 'Faith' with about 25,000 words but I couldn't get it to ring true, I just couldn't make it work.
Then I was reading another book, Emma Donoghue’s Room. She tells a very horrific story of a woman in captivity who is basically abducted and kept in a cell below ground on this horrible man's property and she gives birth to a baby. (In the novel) the baby is now five and Donoghue tells this horrendous story of captivity and abuse though the eyes of a five year old. Because it’s told through his eyes, there is such beautiful innocence to it. He’s seeing these dark and horrendous things happening but because it is told through his eyes there is such a lightness and innocence about it.
So I thought why don't I tell Faith's story through the eyes of her younger brother Milo, and the minute I started doing that it worked, it came.
Milo, the second voice in Lifesaving for Beginners, is at once such a mature young man and then he has just the perfect voice for a 10-year-old. How difficult was he to write?
I think you need access to a 10 year old boy before you can write it truly. Emma Donoghue, when she wrote Room, her son was 5. I do think you need that experience, or have an incredible good imagination. Even just the tone of their voice, you have to be familiar with it to write it. At the time my son was nine and I just thought I have access to this voice and this innocence and the way kids talk. He's one of my favourite characters. He just really worked for me and I was delighted to be able to do that.
Of the two voices in Lifesaving for Beginners, was there one that one easier to write?
Milo was the easiest to write. Kat is a prickly character anyway, so writing her was tricky but I really enjoyed it because she's nothing like me. I mean we're both writers but she's in a whole different league. She's the JK Rowling of thrillers. I had great fun writing her and getting to be difficult and prickly but certainly Milo came much easier.
I did worry about the readers – are the readers going to be rooting for Kat? Are they going to be in her corner because she is so difficult? But readers are giving me good feedback, saying they were won over by her. She is such a lovely person but she buries it all.
Why is Kat so prickly?
I think what's wrong with her is that she's never dealt with what happened to her when she was 15 and she's basically been dealing with post-traumatic stress ever since then. The car accident basically forces her to deal with it, like a grenade landing in her life and blowing the whole thing out of the water.
I think she would have been a different person if that (giving birth as a teenager) hadn't happened to her. It had a huge impact of her but she never dealt with her and then with the accident all her chicken s came home to roost at once and then she had to confront them.
Kat’s brother Ed, who has Down Syndrome, was he a difficult character to write?
I wanted to write Ed because I wanted there to be a relationship for Kat where she shines. I wanted that one relationship in the book where her goodness and her humanity shone through, and her relationship with Ed was that relationship.
My children go to lifesaving classes every week and while they're there, there are people with Down Syndrome in the pool as well, having a swim. That's possibly where I got the idea from. And then I know a couple of people with Down’s and I did a lot of research as well.
Hopefully I got it ok, because you don't want to mess around with the portrayal of the condition. It's difficult because you don't want to be patronising. You want to deal with that sympathetically but not be patronising; there is a balance. He's a nice character in his own right. You like Ed, you don’t feel sorry for him. That's the side that Kat sees in him.
That's like being asked who is your favourite child. My characters are like children. You get involved with them, then you let them out in the world and then reviewers get on to them and say what they want. It's hard to let go sometimes. Grave O'Brien from Saving Grace is one of my favourite characters but only because she was my first and you never forget your first. There is something very special about her.
You create great characters, very human and relate-able. Is it easy for you to create characters? Do you enjoy it?
That's one of my favourite things, creating characters. My books are definitely character driven. I was telling you about Faith who wasn't coming to me so I had to drop her. I think if a character isn't coming easily, if you're kind of pulling them out then you do need to reconsider. The voice is very important to me, it has to ring true, so if it's not working then what I would do is what I did with Lifesaving for Beginners and just shelve them and go in another direction. So yes, characters are really important to me.
Do the characters come easily?
Yes, I think so. I love people, talking to people, I’m interested in people. Plot is something that comes quite differently. Plot is something that I really struggle with. I had the character of Grace O'Brien (from Saving Grace) for so long in my head and I didn't know what to do with her. She was my first one so I was pushing her around on the page for so long trying to get her to do something interesting. In fact I think it took six months for her to do something interesting.
I think once you have a character and she’s believable and your readers can invest in her, then you can make them do whatever you like and readers will come with you. I hope so, anyway.
Do the people in your life make appearances in your characters?
Yes, everyone thinks they're in the book, or they say ‘I know who your man was’. No, almost all of them are made up, entirely fictional. Of course you borrow little quirks because I like to put quirks into my characters for the comic relief. So I do borrow, but in such a way so that no one can recognise themselves.
As a reader, you forget Lifesaving for Beginners is set in Dublin until a little Irish-ism appears. Are you ever tempted to write in really strong Irish accents or do they just not ring true on the page?
I never think about that because I'm all about characters and so whatever way they speak that's the way I write it. Like at the moment I'm writing my fifth novel and I'm writing in the male perspective, which is a first. The lead character is a taxi driver from Dublin and he's got a really thick Dublin accent, so that’s quite challenging as well to put on page. I don't know what my editor is going to feel about that because I've written his accent in, spelt just the way he's saying it.
So yeah, I don't think about it, I just write dialogue. It’s one of my favourite things to do, to write the way my characters speak. I don’t think about Irishisms or anything like that because you have to be true to the characters.
Why did you title Kat's final novel Lifesaving for Beginners?
Just a bit of fun, I suppose. I just thought why not, for the craic. I suppose her book is fictional like Lifesaving for Beginners but the title does refer to what's going on with her. She's at the tender age of nearly forty and she's kind of learning about life and how to live and how to be and how to be at peace with herself. So it did feel kind of relevant to her and the book that she was writing, because even through it's a work of fiction, it's kind of the story of her life so it felt right to do that.
Was Lifesaving for Beginners always Kat's story?
She was always the main person. Originally it was going to be a three people narrative, but it was just too unwieldy. Like fly three kites at the same time, trying to keep them up in the air. So I deleted one character who I loved, who was an old man that I wrote in an old short story years ago. He's an old watchmaker in Dublin and I adored him but I had to delete him.
The end of the novel is wrapped up nice and neat. Are you ever tempted to write ambiguous endings?
I like to tie up the loose endings and I think the readers like the resolution. There is a bit of ambiguity at the end of Finding Mr Flood (Geraghty’s third novel). Certainly the love stories I have to tie up. I think it’s also expected of the genre, that you have to have the happy ending. So I do. I like a happy ending. I don't know if I'd ever be tempted to do something unhappy. I don't think my editor would like it.
Are you ever tempted to write in a very different style or genre?
I write short stories and I've got them published and I'm trying my hand at a screen play, but certainly the novels are where I've been successful. But I like that style of writing. I like mixing dark with a bit of comedy and that is sort of my calling card, people expect that now. Hopefully they're laugh and feel the emotions. That's kind of my trademark and you need to deliver on that.
Are you ever tempted to write your own stories?
Converting my own story into a novel would never interest me. I'm more interested in making people up.
After the luxury of having all the time in the world to write your first novel, was it difficult to then have a tight deadline for the second book?
Writing my first novel was my secret life. Not even my mother knew. I really loved it; no deadlines, no pressure, just scribbling away. So when my publishers bought it, my editor said it didn't need editing, because I'd spent so long perfecting it.
My second novel really was the difficult second album. It was really hard, though my publishers were very nice to me. I was pregnant when I started writing Becoming Scarlett and they gave me more time because they thought I would get flustered. People are kind to pregnant women. So I kind of wrote it during the 9 months I was pregnant. That’s why it always sort of had to be about pregnancy because when you’re pregnant, you channel pregnancy stories and it just made sense to me.
(Becoming Scarlett) Is about a woman called Scarlett O'Hara and she's one of those women who is completely pathological about her life; everything is organised and colour coded within an inch of its life. She’s going out with John Smith who is very predictable and she has a five year plan for her life. Then he has his mid-life crisis and decides to leave her and go to a little village in Brazil to work on an archaeological site. So that night she goes out and meets a guy called Red Butler, whose real name is Daniel, but he had this great big shock of red hair so everyone calls him Red. They have a one night stand and months later she finds out pregnant and she doesn't know who the father is. Which is just unbelievable for a woman like Scarlett, who is so organised and knows exactly when her period is due down to the last second.
So yes, as I had to write, it made sense to write about pregnancy.
You didn’t start writing until a little later in your life. How did it come about?
Every other writer I know has wanted to be a writer since they were in their mother's womb. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and so yeah it was one of those fabulous things, a sliding door moment.
I was interested in night classes and I just happened upon a creative writing class and I loved it. I still remember the moment, the eureka moment like ‘Ah, that's what I want to be’. I was totally hooked from the very first moment. And terrified. You had to read out stuff and I'd never done anything like that before. We had this gorgeous teacher who was so gentle with everyone. She always insisted that before you tear a piece to shreds you always had to come up with five positive things about the work. So it was very encouraging and very nurturing and I think if I’d had a different teacher then things might have turned out differently. Because you don't arrive fully formed as a fabulous writer, you’ve got to learn your craft and she was just an amazing teacher. Just because you're a great writer doesn't mean you’re an amazing teacher.
So that was September when I joined the class and I started to write Saving Grace the following January. I sent her an invitation to the first book launch and I thanked her in the acknowledgements of Saving Grace but I'm sure she's never read any of my books.
Would you ever like to see your books made into film?
Oh yeah! I want to be on the red carpet! I'd love to see how a film maker would interpret my stories. I think that would be fascinating to see how it would translate on the screen and see the characters come to life. I'd do it once, just to see how it went. I know other authors go mad when they sell their books and then the filmmakers change the end and they get tossed around. I don’t know how I'd feel about that. I'd probably like it better. I’d probably think ‘Now why didn't I think of that’.
This is you first book tour, how has it been?
This is my very first book tour but I've done some radio interview and lots of these kinds of personal interviews. On this tour I’ve met loads of booksellers, which is always very nice and they've taken me around stores and I’ve got to meet lots of people.
Do you enjoy interacting with your readers? On your website, social media and or course, when you're in store?
Yes, of course. Writing for me is a solitary pursuit so when I get comments on my blog and on Facebook, it gets you out into the world a little bit rather than being alone.
Finally, what's next?
I’m working on my fifth novel and trying to write a screen play for a film. Hopefully once this fifth book is written, I'll be signed up for more but either way, I'll keep on writing, that's as much as I know. Writing is a bug you get infected with. Writing makes me feel good. It’s nice to have an audience otherwise you're just sitting alone is a room talking to yourself.
All images copyright of Ciara Geraghty and her publishers, found online.