WINTER 2018 / VOL. 18 ISSUE 1
Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoyís latest foray into Gaeldom is her Library at the End of the World (HarperCollins, 2018, 384 pp). In this text of love between the pages, recently divorced librarian Hanna Casey is eager to achieve personal independence. But her local library is about to close, with Casey leading the charge to save the repository and ultimately change her tiny community for the better.
Hayes-McCoy took out a few minutes from a hectic writing schedule to pen her own storyÖand a vibrant one it is.
IAP: What does it take to be a successful writer?
IAP: What are the biggest challenges in writing, especially moving to fiction from non-fiction?
HM -My experience has always involved working in different genres. To begin with, I wrote scripts for commercial as well as BBC schools radio and television and childrenís programs, which generally involved both drama and factual narrative. Then I moved into adult radio and television drama, while continuing to write childrenís programs and, occasionally documentaries. Iíve also worked on music theatre and multimedia scripts, and as a journalist. So, for me - as for most freelance writers - the biggest challenge has been finding and juggling work and meeting deadlines.
IAP: How did publisher HarperCollins find you? Do you use an agent?
MH - Iíve been with my UK agency for many years, and my agent there has a colleague at a US agency. She sent him the Hachette Irl edition of The Library at the Edge of the World, the first of my Finfarran novels, and he placed it with Harper Perennial.
IAP: What communities served as the inspiration for your literary towns? How much of the Dingle Peninsula shows up as the Finfarran Peninsula?
HM - My father was a Galway man, my motherís people were from Enniscorthy in Wexford, and I first came to West Kerry when I was 17. So the Finfarran books are rooted in the countryside. I began with the idea of a librarian, born and raised on from the West Coast of Ireland, who gives up her career for love and, 25 years later, discovers her marriage is a sham. This scenario provoked questions. What would she do? Where could she go? What are the consequences of ditching your life and starting off again where you began?
Because I imagined Finfarran sited somewhere between Cork, Kerry and Clare, it shares the geography of the Dingle Peninsula, though not its topography, which I had great fun creating. And while Finfarran and its characters are fictional, the challenges and joys its communities experience reflect the reality of 21st century life on Irelandís southwestern seaboard.
Emigration is a fact of life, for example, producing tensions between those who choose to stay and those who go and return. The demands and opportunities of tourism loom large. The Age of the Internet meshes seamlessly with a time-honored way of life centered on agriculture and fishing. In fact, rural Ireland has embraced Twitter and texting with more enthusiasm than anywhere Iíve lived, and online networking is the equivalent of gatherings at the parish pump.
IAP: Do your friends and relatives recognize themselves in your books?
IAP: What is your writing regime? Do you have a special room/office? Do you compose in longhand and then use a computer? Are there long hours gazing out a window, or walking on the shore waiting for inspiration? Or is it always full steam ahead every day of the week?
HM: Different tasks require different approaches. If Iím writing for a television or radio series, for example, Iíll attend script meetings with an editor and colleagues, as well as working at home at my desk.
When I worked with my husband on Dingle and Its Hinterland: People, Places & Heritage, we spent weeks recording the conversations with our neighbors which form the core of each of the bookís chapters, and months taking and selecting the photos, before I sat down to write the text. And because my second memoir A Woven Silence spiraled out from the story of my grandmotherís cousin who, with her brothers, fought in the 1916 Rising, it required fact-checking and historical research that wasnít necessary for my first memoir The House on an Irish Hillside, which tells the story of the events that led to my living on the Dingle Peninsula. So sometimes, for practical reasons, Iíll use pen and paper, but mostly itís my laptop.
Unlike much of my other work, writing the Finfarran novels is a solitary experience, much of which happens in the unconscious mind. For me, the processes of putting together a pitch for a publisher and subsequently structuring a book for myself are always complicated by the fear of short-circuiting the process of creation.
By imposing shapes and assumptions on ideas yet to be explored, youíre in danger of leaping from conception to conclusion without passing through discovery in between. But experience teaches you to develop an outline firm enough to act as a template and supple enough to be bent without breaking.
Every author I know has a slightly different approach. Mine starts visually. Iíll make a chart with a square for each of the chapters and use colors, notes and symbols to map the flow of the different strands of the storyline, which characterís point of view appears when, and so on. With that in place, I can relax into unfolding the story.
Writing to a deadline requires discipline, so I do work every day. Iíll get up, have porridge, fruit and a cup of tea for breakfast, and take another cup with me to my computer. Most weekdays, Iíll do several hours each morning and afternoon, and sometimes an evening session as well.
Iíve learned that thereís no value in bashing on, though, if you find yourself at a standstill. Nine times out of ten, when that happens, your unconscious is demanding space to process an idea, or signaling that youíve taken a wrong turning. (The tenth time youíre just being lazy - and the hard part is knowing which is which!) Tensing up and forcing yourself to keep writing is counterproductive. So at any point in the dayís work, I might take a shower or a walk on the beach, or bake bread, or do some gardening.
IAP: Is there a major psychological shift when you leave your home in the London suburb of Bermondsey to visit your Irish country snug, and vice versa? How long do you spend in each place during the year?
HM: Thereís no huge psychological shift involved, though people always assume there must be! Moving between the two places does provoke a heightened sense of awareness of oneís surroundings, though, which is gold dust for a writer.
Thereís no regular schedule involved either, beyond whatís dictated by work commitments and the demands of our Irish garden. But there are advantages to writing the Finfarran books in Ireland, such as the rhythms of the voices around me, and the intense beauty of the light on the western seaboard - one thing that the Dingle Peninsula definitely shares with Finfarran.
IAP: When do you know any of your stories are finished? Were there many rewrites for The Library. And with your other books? Do you work closely with an editor?
HM: By the time I set about drawing up a chart and reaching for colored markers, the book has already been discussed with my commissioning editor; and, once itís been delivered and the editorís happy, it goes on to a copy editor. The feedback is invaluable and always leads to tweaks. Then thereís proofreading and, in the case of a US edition, the Americanization process in which spelling, grammar and, very occasionally, idiom are checked and changed where appropriate, for North American readers.
For The Library at the Edge of the World, the text went to and fro across the ocean, with my editor at Harper Perennial meticulously checking every point. Would it be okay to change the word "dresser" to "hutch"? What about "gas" instead of "petrol" and "cell phone" for "mobile"?
There was consultation about the differences between "timber" and "lumber" and the knotty question of whether or not "a súgan chair" needed explanation. And sensitive reassurances, in emails and phone calls. "We want to be sure to preserve the characters' voices". "We mustn't interrupt the narrative flow."
That process brought me back to the text months after the first edition
of the book had been in the bookshops and, inevitably, I found myself making
subtle changes Ė nothing to do with the Americanisation, more about adding
polish. The result was a beautiful edition, and, incidentally, an author
who had a brilliant time discovering how often the English spoken in Ireland
today echoes rhythms and vocabulary carried across the ocean by the Pilgrim
Fathers from Plymouth.
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