Sophie Grenham meets ANNE GRIFFIN whose debut novel has taken the literary world by storm …
When I first met debut author Anne Griffin at an industry dinner given by her publisher last autumn, I knew there was something special about her. I’m not much of a gambler, but my gut is rarely wrong. Fast-forward five months and copies of her first novel, When All is Said, are practically walking out the door. A sizeable chunk of the buzz was generated early-on by Graham Norton and a fortuitous tweet of his, which has since become an official endorsement – “Anne Griffin’s debut novel is a must read. Beautifully observed, masterful storytelling – stunning!!”
The next time I see Griffin is for lunch in Bestseller on Dawson Street, mere metres from Waterstones’ former site, where she worked in her twenties. Originally from Blackrock, Co Dublin, she arrives fresh off the train from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, where she lives with her husband James Lowry and son Adam (13). She emits a positive, aura-like energy which is most welcome on a grey January afternoon in Dublin city centre. It transpires that this is her first-ever interview, which is both a surprise and an honour.
Griffin was a bookseller for eight years, following on from her BA in History from UCD. Unlike many of her Waterstones colleagues, she had no literary goals. It was here that she hired John Boyne for his first job out of university. She describes the day they met.
“John had a briefcase with him and wore a red blazer. For people to dress that smartly for a Waterstones interview is unheard of. He wanted that job. He was on the ball, and he blew the socks off me! Working with him was a delight, we became close very quickly and we have not lost contact since. John is a true friend, and his support for my writing has been incredible.”
Following a Post Graduate Diploma in Community and Youth Work in Maynooth University, Anne spent the next 20 years working for charities such as Women’s Aid, Youth Work Ireland and the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. At the time, she thought she had her career mapped out.
In 2013 however, Griffin was plagued by an incessant nagging feeling, which Boyne advised her to explore through writing. Sure enough, during a brief relocation to Cape Clear Island, she blasted out 70,000 words in four months. The unnamed script is now confined to a drawer, but the exercise unlocked one part of the mystery. Later, during a family cycling holiday on the Mayo Greenway, she met the person who completed the puzzle. He was a chatty, snowy-haired gentleman with an unforgettable presence, who initially stood alone in their hotel bar. His haunting last words were, “I won’t see the morning.” He loped off before Anne could catch him and ask why.
The first draft of When All is Said was finished just before the budding writer began her MA in Creative Writing in UCD in 2015. She ingeniously used the course to workshop her manuscript and obtain guidance from the best mentors, including Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright. Since then, she has published several short stories, been short-listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards 2016 and won the John McGahern Prize for Literature in 2017.
When All is Said has gifted us a cantankerous but loveable protagonist in Maurice Hannigan. A retired Meath farmer in his eighties, he is perched at the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel, with which he has a long, complicated relationship. Over the course of one evening, he makes five toasts to the five people who defined his life. Who would Anne toast if she knew it was her last night on earth? It’s a really tough question.
“My tipple of choice is definitely champagne,” she says, grinning. She’s no longer able to stomach whiskey, which is Maurice’s favourite drink, along with Guinness by the neck. “My first toast is my big sister Bríd Ní Ghríofa, who taught me to keep searching for what it is we want to do. I’ve had four big career changes, and she inspired me to keep looking for that sliding door. My second toast is Abeo, a young Nigerian asylum seeker I worked with 17 years ago, when I was a community development worker. He was so positive about trying to make people happy. Then one day he was gone, because his application got turned down. He just disappeared overnight … My toast is to the asylum seekers out there who try and make their lives better.”
Anne’s other three heart-warming tributes are to passionate Waterstones fiction buyers everywhere, her hugely supportive husband and finally, to the mysterious gentleman who sent her on an incredible journey. From the very first toast to the last, as Maurice recounts his life story, the author’s pure sense of humanity pulsates from her colourful, rhythmic style and the terrific, zinging dialogue. I have no doubt that Maurice’s reminiscences will resonate with readers, as they recognise his milestones, his bliss, his pain and his ghosts.
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