What can you tell us about your new book The Story of Before?
The story is told from the point of view of Ruth Lamb, a perceptive young girl who recalls her family’s move to Hillcourt Rise, a housing estate outside Dublin, and the chain of events that ultimately lead to tragedy.
Why did you decide to set the book in Ireland in 1970's?
The story was initially inspired by a tragic event that occurred close to where I lived when I was a child and because I wanted to capture the spirit of that time, it seemed natural to use that setting as my trigger point. When I first began writing it, I did think about using a dual timeline, but once Ruth’s voice implanted itself in my head, I found myself fully immersed in that time and place and didn’t want to be pulled away from it. And my hope is that readers will experience that same sort of involvement with the setting too.
The story has been compared to The Lovely Bones, so how does this make you feel to hear this?
Given that I absolutely loved The Lovely Bones, it makes me very happy indeed. I am drawn to first person narratives and I found the voice of Susie Salmon utterly engaging and so poignant. The story is beautifully written too. It was one of those books that drew me in so completely; I was a more than a little bereft when I finished it.
You worked in the art business and wrote mainly about Irish art and artists, so when did you make the transition into fiction?
As a child, I loved stories. I was a voracious reader and at school, English, along with art, was my favourite subject. I’ve always enjoyed writing fiction (I have two unfinished novels to my name) but when my children were younger, I didn’t have enough time to really devote myself to it. I did write and publish several books on Irish art between 1988 and 2004 while I worked in the art business. That involved a lot of research, cataloguing etc., and in that way, it was very different to fiction but I very much enjoyed it. Then I wrote a biography of the Irish artist Gladys Maccabe and found that experience really engaging. I used many sources – letters, tape recordings, interviews, newspaper articles etc. – and loved being totally absorbed in the life of this one individual, her ‘story’ so to speak. After I’d finished, I felt compelled to write more stories – short stories – and then joined a creative writing class at the Irish Writers Centre.
You studied a creative writing masters in University College Dublin, so how much has this affected your writing?
The feedback I was given at the Writers Centre prompted me to apply to UCD for the Masters and I’m so glad I did. I received excellent encouragement, guidance and tutoring while I was a student there. It was a time when I was fully immersed in the world of literature and totally focused on the development of my writing. I wrote the first few chapters of The Story of Before that year – 2009 – (submitting them as my dissertation) and I don’t think I’d be in the position I am today – celebrating its publication – if I hadn’t been accepted onto the course. I was also one of six writers shortlisted for the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award that year, which resulted in the publication of my short story ‘The Rescue’.
This is your debut novel, so do you have another up your sleeve?
I’m working on my second novel. It’s set in the early 1980s and tells the story of a young English boy called Tim who spends a summer with relatives in Ireland, an experience that will result in his life being changed forever.
Where did the inspiration for Ruth come from?
While I was in UCD, and in the process of starting the novel, we were visited by the author Kevin Power whose compelling novel Bad Day in Blackrock had just been published. During the course of his talk, he said that the story a narrator is relating should be the only story they will ever tell. That resonated with me very strongly. I had already found Ruth’s voice in my head. She had given me my first line ‘The others used to say I was psychic,’ but I wasn’t sure who she was, how she was related to the story, why she was telling it. I realized then that she had to be someone who had been directly involved in the event she was recalling. Because of the nature of the story, she needed to be a child, an observant child who felt in some ways unconnected to the world in which she lived. For this reason, I gave her a mother and father who had a close and happy relationship and two older siblings who were very much ‘a pair’, leaving her to feel the ‘odd one out’. As the story unfolded, it became clearer to me just how closely she is involved and how the novel is as much about Ruth as it is about the story she tells.
Why do you think there has been a massive change between 1970's and now in terms of the freedom of children?
I think advances in communication have had a lot to do with the change. Back then, children had to make a physical effort to connect with their friends. Now, through phones and the internet, they have constant contact, so there isn’t the compulsion to be out and about as much. There are pluses and minuses to that, of course, and freedom to roam is one thing, freedom to think and imagine is another and I’m not sure if there’s been a massive change in the latter. Children still read, still write stories, still play together (albeit not as often), still do all the things I did as a child, but in a more organized and structured way, perhaps. Also, there has been a lessening in the level of respect afforded to ‘figures of authority’ and that has led to parents being more cautious about their children’s whereabouts. Again, there are good and not so good aspects to that, but on the whole, I think children are better protected now, and their voices are listened to much more readily. I’m really interested in the differing ways both adults and children see the world and am exploring that concept further in my second novel.
You were born in London, so what brought you to Ireland?
My mum is Irish, from Co Meath. When she was in her twenties she went to London to work where she met my dad, a native Londoner. After they married and started a family, they decided they’d like to live in Ireland, and so we moved to Dublin. I’ve lived in Ireland since I was three and a half so, to all intents and purposes, I’m Irish, but I still like to acknowledge the place of my birth.
What is next for you?
In the immediate future, I’m really looking forward to the publication of The Story of Before and all the promotional work that’s planned to go along with that over the summer– the launch in Dublin, festival readings etc. It’s such a big thing; I haven’t looked too far beyond it. But my hope is that once I’ve finished my second novel I’ll be going through the whole exciting process once again.