Writer’s Block With Fiona O’Brien

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author FIONA O’BRIEN about small town charm, the ATLANTIC CABLE and CHARLIE CHAPLIN

Photograph by Fennell Photography

Dublin native Fiona O’Brien is the bestselling author of seven novels, which include None of My Affair (2009), No Reservations (2010), Without Him (2011) and The Love Book (2013). In a previous life, she was an award-winning advertising copywriter working in London and Dublin, where she was responsible for numerous press, radio and television commercials. Fiona gave it all up in 2002, when her true creative calling came a-knocking. The Irish Independent has called her “one of the smartest writers of popular fiction around” while fellow author Cathy Kelly has called Fiona’s work,“Grown-up, intelligent fiction. She just gets better and better and better.”

The inspiration for Fiona’s most recent novel, The Summer Visitors (2017) stemmed from a childhood fascination with the old submarine Atlantic cable, which ran from the west coast of Ireland to Newfoundland. One of the cable stations was based in Waterville, Co. Kerry, where Fiona’s family frequently holidayed. The Summer Visitors is set in fictional Ballyanna, a sleepy seaside village full of charismatic characters. Fiona’s abundant audience will be swept away by a heart-warming tale about love’s many facets, fresh starts, and mostly importantly – the power of human connection. The Sunday Independent has said, “This beautifully crafted novel is all about communication and its immeasurable impact, for good or ill, on humankind.”

It is with great sadness that I mention Fiona’s beloved partner Seán Whitaker, who passed away suddenly last year, just before the release of The Summer Visitors. Seán was a legendary figure in the advertising world, who was loved and respected by all who knew him. My thoughts are with Fiona and their family during this difficult time of transition and I wish her every success in the future.

The Summer Visitors (€9.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in Sandymount, where I built a house ten years ago. I love that it’s still a proper village; we’re a close knit community, and we have the beach and beautiful Irishtown Nature Reserve on our doorstep. If I’m not on first name terms with a person, I certainly am with their dog! I start the day with an early coffee at Browns usually with my friend, artist Carole Shubotham and whoever else shows up. Then it’s dog walking on the beach or Nature Reserve. Our local Tesco staff are well used to me running in and out several times a day – writing makes me a distracted and haphazard shopper. We have pretty much everything we need in the village; three hairdressers, three pubs, restaurants, boutiques, butchers, bank, hardware store, so life can become wonderfully insular. I have to force myself on occasion to brave the railway tracks and venture forth into the rest of the world.

On roots

I grew up on the other side of the tracks… My young friends were mostly embassy kids who had lived all over the world before the age of ten and spoke several languages – they fascinated me. I’m fortunate that I can drive everyday along the roads where I cycled, roller skated, space hopped and trailed my mother’s evening wear in “dress up” as a kid – memories pop up at every turn.

A Belgian friend was allowed to get a donkey, which they kept in their acres of back gardens for her tenth birthday. It wasn’t the pony we had hoped for, but it was a close second. A saddle and full tack was procured and we rode that donkey around the roads every day after school! One day it escaped and caused ructions with the traffic after 10.30am Mass in Donnybrook Church and the police were called – and that was the end of our equine adventures.

On creating

My writing space is dictated by proximity to the kettle (I drink gallons of tea), which in this case is my very large all-purpose table – I need room to spread out when I write. I’ve taken to assembling moodboards for a prospective book and I have to prop them up where they’re in view. I have a special prayer to the Holy Spirit by the laptop, which I say before I begin work. It was given to me by the Poor Clare Sisters in Simmonscourt and I wouldn’t work without it. I’m also in league with (and in debt to) Saint Anthony, who I ask to “find” me the right words. They haven’t let me down yet. As the house is open-plan downstairs I can see everything, which is both a blessing and a curse. Dogs snoozing on couches, a favourite leather armchair of my late partner Seán…a floor that needs mopping. I have some lovely paintings which I find calming. There’s a lot of glass front and back, so I close my front gate when I’m working, and look out instead on my small city patch – green and calm with wonderful birdsong. I don’t like changing my workplace. I find it disrupting, so I try to avoid it, unless of course Kerry is calling…

On bookshops

Books On The Green (run by Brian O’Brien) is where I go to escape if I need to get out of the house. It has everything you could ask for in a local bookshop and more – they have a wonderful second hand section at the back, children’s toys/section and clever gifts. But I can’t go past Dubray in Stillorgan Shopping Centre without remembering hours spent as a child browsing with my late mother. This is where I became seduced by books. While Mum scoured the shelves for racy pot boilers (of which my father heartily disapproved) I discovered Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfield (Shoes books) and Ruby Ferguson (Jill’s Gymkhana). I can still remember the exact moment when joined up words clicked as I read, and a whole new world opened up for me.

On her “TBR” pile

There are so many books in my “TBR” pile I don’t know where to start. I found I couldn’t read at all last year after Seán died, but next on the list is definitely Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey. Seán was a voracious reader and it was the last book he recommended to me. Also I’m itching to read Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier, as I’m considering a serious attack on my fairly dysfunctional relationship with same. There are also all my fellow writer friends’ latest to read…

On escapes

Waterville in Kerry is my go to place to escape, always has, always will be, including any of the surrounding areas, Derrynane, Caherdaniel, Ballinskelligs. I arrived in a pram and never left. I’ve always found peace there – it’s extraordinary to me now, looking back – but it was quite clear to me even as a child that this was “my place.” I felt at home there in a way I have never felt anywhere else. And that was before it became important to me because of sentimental memories. It’s a golfer’s paradise, although I don’t play! I’d rather hike with the dogs and swim in the bracing Atlantic, or work looking out across the ocean. Everyone I think has their spiritual home – the Iveragh Peninsula is mine.

On Charlie Chaplin

My childhood holiday memories of Waterville are probably typical of many Irish seaside holidays, days were filled with swimming, riding, sandy beach picnics, fishing and golf for the parents –  but there was always the possibility of Charlie Chaplin and his family turning up in the hotel (with their two governesses in tow), which must have been quite exciting for the adults.

Charlie seemed a very old man to me then, but he was always kind to us children. I was friendly with Annie and Jane – Vicky was their glamorous older sister and Geraldine would show up in between movies. One evening there was a lot of laughter about the catch of the day in the hotel, which was always displayed in order of descending size on a platter on the way in to the dining room for the fishermen and guests to admire. It was very competitive. That evening, at the end of an impressive display of salmon and trout, one tiny sardine (from a can) had been added, by Charlie of course.

On the Atlantic cable

I suppose I became interested in the Atlantic submarine cable station because my late father discussed it a lot when we were in Waterville – which was a relay station. He was very keen on education, and in those days (late 60s) the local cable station was nearing the end as satellites were taking over long distance communications. We have come full circle now and undersea fiberoptic cables ferry all our internet communications around the globe. It was a phenomenal engineering feat of the Victorian era – and amazing that Ireland got to play such a vital part. Today, when news flashes around the globe in an instant, it’s almost inconceivable to think that in the mid-nineteenth century news between Europe and America could only travel as fast as people could, which was by ship and took between ten days and two weeks. It was only in 1866 that the old and new worlds were finally joined by the laying of a submarine cable across the Atlantic; from Newfoundland to Valentia Island in Kerry. Suddenly Valentia (and later Waterville and Ballinskelligs) became a kind of Silicon Valley of their day relaying messages all over the world! Everything was transformed – the stockmarket, newspapers, wars – it was an astonishing achievement – the brainchild of American businessman Cyrus Field. I strongly recommend reading John Steele Gordon’s A Thread Across the Ocean for the account of the laying of the cable. It’s an extraordinary and heroic story, and would make a fantastic movie.

On small town charm

We’re all instantly familiar with it – wherever we live. It’s the distillation of all the characters we’ve come across in our lives – often without realising. People reading will think to themselves, “Yes! That’s exactly what my mother would have said!” Or “that’s my Auntie Eileen to a T.” Or “I remember when such-and-such happened and caused the same furore.” I think for all our modern communications and freedoms there’s a longing for the days when people actually knew their neighbours (they didn’t have to like them!), their histories and their trials and tribulations. A small town condenses what goes on, people have to interact and deal with a local episode and its all-encompassing consequences.

On writing

If I had known the emotional rollercoaster I was boarding becoming a full-time writer of commercial fiction, I would have run screaming from the prospect. The highs were signing my first proper contract, finding the right agent and being described by the Independent as “one of the smartest writers of popular fiction around.” A glorious review is always a high, but can be followed by a less than one. I’m with Stephen Spielberg who ignores the good ones, so he can ignore the bad ones too! The lows and challenges are constant too. I’ve been through a particularly tough one, where I fell into a “hole” with one book, and it really dragged me down mentally and emotionally as well. I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees and floundered for ages. It really challenged my belief in myself as a writer, but I got through it in the end with huge help from my editor and agent, my Irish writer friends – and of course Seán – who all gave me endless support and encouragement. I knew I’d done a good job with this book when my publisher, who was reading the final draft in bed while sick with flu. She said she got such a shock when she got to the plot twist, she dropped the whole manuscript! No one has guessed it yet…

Fiona’s late partner Seán

On tragedy

The last year has been hard, as anyone who has had to cope with sudden death will know. I found my partner Seán dead in bed on April 1st – by uncanny coincidence the same day my father dropped dead, when I was only eighteen. The loss was hard enough to cope with, but I was totally unprepared for the physical effects of shock, particularly the exhaustion it inflicts. Panic attacks that had all but gone – I suffered from them long before they became fashionable – resurfaced with a vengeance. Just walking the dogs was a gargantuan task. Driving, particularly on motorways, became impossible. I could barely get through the day, let alone attempt writing. Reading, once my great panacea, now required herculean concentration. Words swam, and following a plot was like herding cats. But like any difficult time in life, wonderful people will appear to help you walk your way through it and out the other side. I don’t have children but my own family and friends, and Seán’s son and daughter and his extended family have all been a wonderful support.

I’m only coming out of the fog now, really, but you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Another book and characters are flirting with (or pestering) me – that’s how it always begins…and I’m looking at turning the current book into a screenplay.

@SophieGrenham

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