Sophie Grenham speaks to Irish author Vivienne Kearns about her debut novel …
Dubliner Vivienne Kearns is the debut author of The Emerald Dress and a woman of many talents. Dressmaking has long been a family tradition: her aunt Kathleen was a tailor and her grandmother created her daughters’ wedding gowns. While at secondary school, one of Kearns’s designs was selected for the Youngline show on RTÉ in the early 1980s, and she went on the show to model her own dress. Her love of fashion gave way to her passion for writing, and she studied English Literature and Greek and Roman Civilisation at University College Dublin. Afterwards, she qualified as a teacher and worked in Los Angeles for a year. On her return, she worked as a bookseller in Hodges Figgis in Dublin. The next 20 years were spent as a technical writer and project manager in the e-learning industry. Vivienne Kearns currently works in her alma mater as an administrator.
It was after reading Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring that inspiration struck for Kearns to write a book of her very own: she attended a historical writing course facilitated by Chevalier herself and Louise Doughty. Kearns’s poetry and prose have been published in several anthologies, including the Fish Anthology 2016.
The Emerald Dress is set in Dublin in 1719 and the present day. The story begins when Lucy Young travels to Dublin in search of her ancestor, Hugh Gavin, who emigrated to Boston in 1720. In her possession is a 300-year-old diary penned by the Duchess of Alden of Boden Castle. When Lucy contacts Professor Patrick Ralley of Trinity College to donate the Alden diary to the university, she enlists his help in researching Hugh Gavin’s life and her family’s possible connection to the castle. In their mission, they uncover a secret that has lain dormant for 300 years.
In the creation of these two interconnected worlds, Kearns has weaved a highly intriguing mystery that will no doubt thrill anyone with a hunger for rich historical narratives.
Vivienne Kearns lives in Dublin with her family. She is working on her next novel. The Emerald Dress (€15.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available from all good bookshops.
I am currently based in Dublin and live there to be close to my family. I work full-time, so I’m usually up by 6:30am and on the road before 7:00am to miss the traffic. I try to fit in a walk at lunchtime as in the evenings I write for a couple of hours. That time seems to work best for me to write. I meet up with friends at weekends for a meal and a chat, and love going to the movies too. Dunne and Crescenzi on South Frederick Street is the place I visit most when I’m in the city centre. The food is great and there’s always a vibrant atmosphere there.
As a child I first lived in north inner-city Dublin. I was five when our family moved out to Tallaght in the 1970s. I remember fishing for tadpoles in the river in Dodder Riverbank Park using those small florescent fishing nets that were sold in the local newsagent back then. In the summer, most of the kids would play rounders on the road together. In my mind, it always seems to be summertime when I think about my childhood. Later, when I was a student in UCD in the 1980s, I loved coming home on the bus journey and sitting upstairs on the 77A as it made its way along the Greenhills Road to Tallaght. I could never get enough of the views of the Dublin mountains from the top of that double decker bus.
On early reading
I first remember my mother, Monica, reading Ladybird books to me and my siblings when we were small children. She also brought us to Tallaght library every week. We were sometimes allowed to buy a comic book too. I usually bought Misty which told supernatural and horror stories. I think it’s why Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favourite books to this day. In primary school, there was a small library cabinet on wheels in every classroom. In sixth class, I remember reading a book called Twenty and Ten by Clare Huchet Bishop, which tells the story of ten Jewish refugee children hiding in German occupied France during World War II. It had a profound effect on me as it showed how the kindness of children could change the world against a backdrop of war.
I don’t think I would have become a writer if my parents hadn’t had so many books in the house when I was growing up. There was always something to read which influenced me as a writer later on. My mother introduced me to the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Bram Stoker and many others. She really encouraged our imaginations and I can’t thank her enough for that. My father loved to read too, especially those Louis L’Amour cowboy novels. I still love a good western on the telly because of them.
I also remember going to visit my Aunt Abby on Saturday afternoons. Abby lived with my grandmother in a little house in Drimnagh. She would read to us and to my cousins in the front parlour which allowed my grandmother, my Mam and my other aunts to catch up on the family gossip in the back kitchen. Abby told us magical stories, some from books and some from her own imagination too.
In my kitchen, I have a large picture window which I sit close to when I’m writing. Though it’s small, there are trees at the end of the back garden and I find the view very restful. It’s the perfect place to think. I have an old desk in another room, but I mostly write at the kitchen table if I’m being honest. There’s plenty of space to open up reference books and it’s easy to spread out old maps of Dublin which is handy as I write historical fiction. There are lots of paintings around me, including some that I have painted myself. My kitchen has been extended so I have a couch and a bookcase with reference books beside me which helps me to stay focussed. I always bring my laptop on holidays in Ireland, but I guess I’m most comfortable writing in my kitchen and that’s why I’ve migrated to writing mostly in that space.
I love Alan Hanna’s Bookshop and Bark Coffee in Rathmines in Dublin. It’s quirky and they have a great selection of Irish history books, including local Dublin history, so it’s perfect for picking up ideas and for reference material for my historical fiction work. Hanna’s Bookshop also have a lovely little coffee shop at the back of the store where you can have a coffee and eat some cake (or a sandwich) and read a little of your latest purchase before you set out for home. The staff are really friendly and very helpful too. I also love Hodges Figgis. I worked there for two years in the 1990s and I have a soft spot for that bookstore too.
On her “TBR” pile
I have a couple of non-fiction books to read for the next novel I’m writing. At the moment I’m reading Pirates by Peter Lehr which I’m really enjoying. I have just finished Stephen King’s The Institution and I’m about to start Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread, which I’m really looking forward to reading. I’m a big Stephen King fan and an even bigger Tracy Chevalier fan which is why they are on my list of must-read books. Their stories, pacing and clear writing styles never fail to disappoint.
I love going to Europe on city breaks, but I also love to holiday at home. Monart Destination Spa in Wexford is a special treat and it’s not too far from Curracloe, Wexford, which has an especially beautiful beach. Last year I visited Bantry House in Co Kerry and stayed in one of their bed and breakfast rooms in the east wing of the old house. I feel as if I could be transported back in time there. There are 100 steps that lead up to parklands in the gardens at the rear of the house. It’s a very inspirational place and one of my favourite places to visit. I would highly recommend both Monart and Bantry House.
On The Emerald Dress
I had two sources of inspiration for The Emerald Dress. The seeds for the book were first planted when I visited Rathfarnham Castle over ten years ago. We had relatives visiting from England and took them on a tour there. The guide told us the folklore of the castle, and one of those stories inspired the mystery element of The Emerald Dress. I was also inspired to set the novel in early 18th-century Dublin when I read a non-fiction book entitled Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington by Professor Norma Clarke of Kingston University, London. Laetitia was a memoirist and contemporary of Jonathan Swift and her memoirs brought me right into a Dublin household at that time. Laetitia’s father was a medical doctor which inspired me to make my heroine Abigail Harton’s father a doctor too though some of the medical practices I found back then weren’t so pleasant.
On what’s next
I was lucky enough to get a three-book deal with Poolbeg Press, the first of which was The Emerald Dress. I am currently working on my second historical novel for Poolbeg set in Dublin in the 17th century. When I finish the first draft, there’ll be a lot of editing and fact checking before it’s submitted to Poolbeg for editing early next year. My third book is another historical novel set in Dublin city in the 18th century, which I’m also looking forward to writing. After that, who knows? I have plenty of ideas for more historical novels. It would be great to see some of them dramatised. I’d like to explore that possibility too.
Read more from the Writer’s Block series