8 months ago

Writer’s Block with Maura McElhone

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Portstewart native Maura McElhone is a content writer, columnist and author whose work has appeared in The Irish Times, Irish Farmers Journal, Irish Country Magazine and RTÉ Radio 1’s CountryWide. She did her undergraduate degree at Stirling University, Scotland and completed her MA in Writing at the National University of Ireland, Galway. After packing away six years of life in California, McElhone returned to Ireland in 2014. Currently based in Kildare, her relationship with her now-husband Sean provided the premise for her popular blog, Falling for a Farmer, which has garnered a large following and led to her book of the same name. McElhone received the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in 2017 from Kildare County Council.

A charming meditation on life, romance and the pull of the land, Falling for a Farmer follows a former emigrant who hopes to reconnect with her roots on her return to Ireland. While McElhone was certainly living the dream in sunny California with all that the state’s optimism and sophistication has to offer, sometimes the grass is not always greener on the other side of the Atlantic. It was during her new start in Dublin that she met the man of her dreams: a man who comes with a farm and everything it entails.

Described as Bridget Jones’s Diary meets All Creatures Great and Small, Falling for a Farmer is McElhone’s true life story of her journey from wide-eyed “townie” to becoming a farmer’s girlfriend. From pulling calves and wrapping bales, to being “stood up for silage,” this heart-warming memoir chronicles some highly amusing incidents, as well as the more serious moments on the farm, told through the eyes of an outsider learning the ropes.

Patricia Scanlon has said of the work, “I was hooked from page one. Hilarious, evocative, poignant, perceptive and beautifully written, it will strike a chord with every reader.”

John Connell, author of The Cow Book, has called Falling for a Farmer, “A lovely, simple book it will provide the right accompaniment for the long winter nights to come for those who choose to read it.”

Falling for a Farmer (€14.99) is published by Mercier Press and available from selected bookshops. You can follow Maura McElhone’s blog here: www.fallingforafarmer.com

On home

A Derry girl born and raised, I currently live in Maynooth with my husband. Following stints in Scotland, Galway, California and Dublin, love brought me to the beautiful college town in County Kildare four years ago. At the weekends, I make the most of the town’s location on the Royal Canal and usually go for a run along the banks. It’s a lovely way to clear the head and stretch the legs after a week of office work and commuting. But change beckons. Next summer, my husband and I will move into our forever home on his family farm in Donadea. A self-professed “townie,” it will be quite a shift for me, but one I’m looking forward to. Still, I will miss Maynooth and the convenience of having so many favourite haunts within easy walking distance, in particular, Picaderos and Donatellos for food, and Alainn Beauty for all things vanity-related!

On roots

Up until I left for university in Scotland at the age of 18, home was, and, to a certain extent, always will be Portstewart, County Derry. It’s a small seaside town and an idyllic place in which to grow up – something I appreciate more the older I get. When I think of it, it’s those sights and sounds of coastal living that come to mind; the roar of the waves that can be heard from my parents’ back garden and the calls of seagulls overhead. Also, the view of the water as you head down my parents’ road, past the golf course and toward The Strand. You turn a corner and it seems to appear out of nowhere; huge waves roaring toward the shore – grey and fierce with the spray rolling back, or, on a clear, sunny day, glass-like, blue-green, with the hills of Donegal as its backdrop.

On early reading

My parents instilled in me a love for stories and storytelling from a very young age. To this day, my Daddy can still recite the opening lines of The Magical Storybook which was a tried and true favourite – and one I’ve gone on to read to the children I’ve babysat over the years, too. Once I was old enough to read by myself, I had my parents tortured with requests for the latest in The Saddle Club and The Babysitters Club series. One book from my childhood that will always stand out is The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon. My Godmother bought it for me when I was seven or eight, and I still have that original copy. It’s a gorgeous exploration of a child’s imagination and innocence and the illustrations by Gary Blythe are just stunning.

On California

I spent most of my twenties living and working in San Diego, Santa Monica, and the San Francisco Bay Area. While I was in no way blind to its flaws, there was much that I loved – and can still appreciate– about “the American way” and life in California. The tendency toward positivity, encouragement to dream big, and the belief that your dreams are attainable through hard work and a willingness to put yourself out there. That energy suited me. Ultimately, I had to decide if the US was where I saw my future. My family is hugely important to me and so it really came down to, can I commit to a “forever” so far removed from the people I love the most? I wouldn’t do myself the disservice of signing up to a life that in that regard, I knew would always fall short.

On creating

I do most of my writing on the train during my commute to and from Dublin, pink backpack on my knee and the laptop perched rather precariously on top of that. Just like all the literary greats! Sarcasm aside, the walk to and from the station and then from the station to the office and back can prove very fruitful when I’m teasing out plot or developing characters, or even just wracking my brains for a particular word or phrase. When I do write at home, I assume my position on the two-seater sofa in the living room; back to the armrest and my legs stretched out the length of the chair, a cushion on my lap and the laptop propped up on that. If I need a change of scene, the kitchen is about the height of it – to make sure nothing is on fire or boiling over!  

On independent bookshops

The Maynooth Bookshop on Main Street was where I had my local launch for Falling for a Farmer on a cold December evening last year. I remember calling down a couple of days prior and they had created such a beautiful window display showcasing the book – complete with a pair of wellies! It’s a small, family-owned store, and chatting to Cian who took it over from his father, you really get a sense of the passion he has for books and the service he, his family, and the shop’s staff provide for their local community. The store also puts on fantastic events and has played host to some great writers in recent times including Donal Ryan and Anne Griffin – quite a coup for a small shop.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’ve just started into Liz Nugent’s Skin Deep which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward thrillers, but this book kept coming onto my radar, so I caved. I’m glad I did; I’m fully immersed in it now! The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has been in my TBR pile since March, nabbed from a colleague who was de-cluttering his desk during an office move. For some reason, it kept getting bumped in favour of something else, but I’m determined to get to it next. After that, Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups is due out in early February and, well, it would be rude not to!

On escape

When I think of “escaping,” in a physical sense, I picture the places that to me, are synonymous with magic and possibility: the beach in my hometown of Portstewart, particularly on a cold, crisp, autumn or winter’s day when it’s uncrowded and I can run the length of it without distraction; Edinburgh, Scotland – again, in autumn or winter, when the spirit of Old Town really comes into its own; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts in summer. The little, postcard-perfect main streets and beaches are buzzing but locals and tourists alike take time out of their day to slow down and watch the spectacular sunsets over Skaket Beach and Rock Harbour. These are places I’ve gone back to over the years and will return to again. I’m always the better for time spent there; inspired, hope-filled, restored.

On Falling for a Farmer

With “townie meets farmer” as the central theme to my 2016/2017 columns for the Farmers Journal and RTÉ Radio 1’s CountryWide programme, as well as my blog, Falling for a Farmer – the book, seemed like a natural progression. I loved having the freedom to write at length, to explore ideas and describe experiences and settings at my leisure. Column inches are a little more restrictive that way. Seeing and hearing how my own story has resonated with people – family and friends as well as those I’ve never met – has been a wonderful experience. On the flip side, writing non-fiction can be challenging, too because it lays you bare. I didn’t shy away from some of the tougher aspects of adjusting to life with a farmer; financial uncertainties, the mental and emotional toll when animals are sick or dying. Some of that was tough to revisit and explore in depth.

On what’s next

I’m currently a third of the way into a novel which I hope to have finished, a first draft at least, by May. At the same time, there’s quite a bit happening on the personal and family front, so I’m keeping note of those twists and turns with a view to starting to a follow-up to Falling for a Farmer very soon.

See more from the Writer’s Block series

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