Writer's Block with Deirdre Purcell - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Deirdre Purcell

Deirdre Purcell is one of Ireland’s most popular writers of contemporary fiction, with 19 novels to her name, including A Place of Stones (1991), Falling For a Dancer (1993), Love Like Hate Adore (1997), Tell Me Your Secret (2006), The Husband (2016) and The Christmas Voyage (2017). She has also published three works of non-fiction and contributed to the Open Door and Finbar’s Hotel series. She was nominated for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1998.

Purcell was born in Dublin, and was educated there and at a convent boarding school in Crossmolina, Co Mayo. In addition to becoming a successful storyteller in print, she has communicated with audiences as an actress on The Abbey stage, where she was a member of the theatre’s permanent company. Some of her most memorable credits include the role of Christine opposite Donal McCann in Drama at Inish, Miss Frost in the stage adaptation of The Ginger Man, and Pegeen in The Playboy of the Western World. She has also worked as a journalist, contributing to all media and winning a number of awards. Until recently, she reviewed the morning newspapers on It Says in the Papers with RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, a segment she helmed for six years.

Purcell’s new novel, Grace in Winter, insightfully explores the delicate line between duty and self. Her central character, Grace, has spent much of her life putting the needs of others before her own. While her three daughters are all adults, she remains the main carer for her volatile youngest child, Leonie, aged 22. When her high-flying ex-husband Harry, driven by an ulterior motive, gifts Grace and Leonie an Arctic cruise, Grace reluctantly accepts. After all, she hasn’t enjoyed a proper holiday in years. Onboard, the mother and daughter meet Ben, a struggling novelist who’s instantly drawn to the pair of them, more specifically Leonie’s gamine beauty. When she suddenly goes missing, a gripping drama unfolds. Purcell’s sense of humour, piercing honesty and fearless approach towards difficult subjects is, as always, refreshing to consume.

Deirdre Purcell lives with her family in Co Meath. She is currently writing her next novel.

Photograph by Adrian Weckler

Grace in Winter (€14.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in Mornington, Co Meath, with my husband, one of my sons and seven other households with wonderful neighbours, all of whom tend gorgeous gardens, shaming mine. I love gardens but sadly, am not a gardener. The best thing about mine has been that for several years, a vixen raised her cubs under our shed, while for a time we also had a resident hedgehog – and now and then a pheasant in all his glory, would pose for us on our hedge. My contribution to the garden has been to have trees planted, and to tend the birdlife; at one point I made a count of our attending species and came up with an (officially uncorroborated) two dozen.

Mornington is the place where the mighty Boyne River enters the sea; the sand dunes fringing its glorious beach – which also spans our neighbouring villages of Bettystown, Laytown and Gormanstown – are visible from the entrance to our estate. It is the main attraction here for both two and four-legged creatures: we have a large, friendly canine community who socialise on it, many of the local race and trotting horses are exercised on it in the mornings (as, I’m told, are various football teams.) The area sports a golf and tennis club in Bettystown and one of my husband’s hobbies is to watch merchant ships enter and leave the port of Drogheda via the estuary when the tides are right and at night, out to sea, the lights of fishing boats line up magically, against the dark horizon. I made a home here because of the attraction of living near the sea, but also because ours is the type of house I’ve always wanted: double-fronted, redbrick, with bay windows.

On childhood

I lived firstly in Dublin’s Blanchardstown and then, when I was still a small baby, we moved to the original gatelodge of the original Laurel Lodge – now a large estate – in Castleknock. From there to Dean Swift Road, Ballymun and then, and when I was about five, to Fairfield Road in Glasnevin, then back again to Ballymun when my parents bought their first house in Willow park Grove in 1958. From there I went to boarding school in Crossmolina, Co Mayo.

I have sensory memories from that second home: the most prominent being the Plink! Plonk! Gurgle! of raindrops from the ceiling into various saucepans and basins on the floor of our kitchen; I also have sense memories from a time, while I was being pushed in a pram. There was a potholed bridge outside Laurel Lodge and I can still recall the sensation of being pushed over it, the uncomfortable jolting, the very loud rumbling sounds. My pram was second-hand and with rubber being very scarce or even unavailable (it was shortly after the ending of the second world war) my father, who was “handy”, had made wooden wheels for it. (He also carved a wooden soother for me and to this day I can recall the taste of my own saliva as I sucked it.)

On boarding school

Gortnor Abbey was a small school – 64 boarders – in a very beautiful location on the shores of Lough Conn with the Nephin range of mountains in the background. Our nuns, the Religious of Jesus and Mary, were wonderful, but of necessity very frugal – because Ireland of the 1950s was not a prosperous place and the school fees did not really cover the cost of housing, heating and feeding us. My memories of the school are universally warm except for the (lack of) hygiene and terrible food – plentiful but so starchy I put on more than a stone in the first term. To this day I can’t eat leeks, but I’m still partial to white sliced pan, spread, not with butter, but with Bovril.

On early reading

To be honest, I don’t think anyone read to me. I could be wrong about that but I have no memory of it. From a very early age, I gorged myself on books in my then local library – from Fairfield Road it was on the other side of Griffith Park in Drumcondra –  where there was a greatly accommodating librarian who gave me the run of the place. As for health and safety – I frequently arrived wet from taking shortcuts directly across the Tolka river rather than delaying by using a bridge. Nobody batted an eyelid. It was a different era. I read everything on the children’s shelves – the series I remember most is the Billabong series based in Australia. The book I loved most was Black Beauty. I wept bitterly every time I read about the way those horses, particularly Ginger, were treated. It was so unfair. So I think now that this book may have sparked my passion for animal welfare.

On creating

When at home, I write anywhere there’s a socket to power my laptop. I write in bed, I write in armchairs, I write at the kitchen table; I have an actual desk with a gorgeous Apple Mac desktop in our “good room” and I sometimes write there. I have a notebook and pen beside the bed and when I wake up with something I need to add (or correct) to a plot or character, I write there by hand.

At the risk of seeming to be flippant, I don’t have a daily routine. While writing, I’ve always been involved in necessary endeavours outside writing, including those in the domestic and family spheres. I do envy colleagues whose discipline and commitment are so strong that they can write to routine. It’s a joy when I get such an opportunity and I do embrace it; given the right circumstances, I’ve even been known to write around the clock, writing-eating-sleeping, writing-eating-sleeping again on a 24-hour rota. But by and large, I fit writing into my life instead of the other way round. It was always thus.

My beloved change of scene is the second home on the Beara Peninsula we’ve had for more than three decades. I have a real, designated study there with a 360-degrees aspect over the Atlantic Sea and the Caha Mountains – through skylights and a floor-to-ceiling picture window to the south. There is a couch, 10 electrical sockets, a large Iroko work table and a rickety but very comfortable recliner. The only distraction is the placid conduct of the cows in the fields below the picture window. The art and coffee machines are downstairs. The difficulty on Beara is not to sustain focus but to break it. I am focused day and night when I’m working there.

On independent bookshops

I like them all and particularly enjoy and applaud the courage it takes to open a new one.

On leisure

My favourite pub is McCarthy’s Bar, the Square, Castletownbere, on the Beara Peninsula. Coffee venue? My own kitchen: I have a great American percolator.

In music, I have two favourites: the National Concert Hall and St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, my local venue, where the acoustics are terrific and which hosts all kinds of groups and soloists performing all varieties of classical and modern forms of music. I am a patron of the St Peter’s Male Voice Choir whose home this is – along with St Peter’s Church in the town, but in truth, I feel I’m an imposter in this regard; although I attend the choir’s concerts as often as I can, it’s not often enough and I feel I don’t deserve the honour. This year I attended a week-long writing workshop, Free With Words, run by Irish writer and editor Brian Finnegan, in Tuscany. It was marvellous – and I would certainly recommend it.

On Grace in Winter

One of my ongoing projects, a book about the mental health services in this country, influenced Grace in Winter – because of the plight of carers, usually relatives, whose charges are adults suffering from mental illnesses and who struggle almost alone with the task.

On stage memories

On tour with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night for the Abbey as a cast member, I was asked to take the cast’s laundry to the local laundries in various Irish towns and cities. It was only years later, I realised what kind of laundries they were, who was running them, for what reason, and who were doing the hard labour. The realisation upset me. It still does.

On what’s next

Writing of course – and who knows what else? It’s been a fascinating ride so far on this planet. I don’t plan ahead too carefully because when you do, you don’t see what surprises are on the horizon.

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