Old age—that elusive thing that no one understands till it really arrives, zipping right through with a hundred realisations, questions, wonderments, regrets that took all of life to come and with too little time ahead to act upon. For Irish author Anne Griffin, it was a chance encounter with an 80-something year old at a bar that set her on a journey years ahead of herself, and that is how one of the most anticipated debuts this year, When All is Said, came to be born. She shares with me her journey of embarking on the silver ship.
Tell me a little about your first memory of the written word, and how you began your journey in writing.
My first love was comics. I used to buy the Twinkle and later The Bunty magazines every weekend with my pocket money. From there I went on to read Enid Blyton. I loved her Malory Towers series. She was great at writing suspense. In my late teens I got into Jane Austen and Doris Lessing, both quite different writers but equally as engaging. I studied History in college. I did do English in first year but I didn’t continue it on. I loved social history, the story of people’s lives throughout time. After I got my BA I spent eight years working forWaterstones Booksellers as a non-fiction buyer. I hung out with the fiction buyers always looking for a new author to get stuck into. Some of those guys were aspiring writers themselves, but it never occurred to me that I could do it too. I leftWaterstones when I was 30 to study community work. I spent the next 15 years working as a development worker and later as an accountant in the charity sector. In 2013 when I was 44, I came to a point where I felt I’d lost my way a little. My work wasn’t fulfilling me. A friend suggested I write and I did, initially just to pass the time. But it turned out to be so much more. Writing filled a gap that I felt I’d been carrying around for years. My first short story, Grace, was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award.
What inspired When All is Said?
It was a chance meeting in Mayo, which is in the west of Ireland. My family and I were on a cycling holiday and we went into a hotel one evening to get food. An elderly man was at the bar on his own and he came over to talk to us. In the course of that brief conversation he told me he’d worked in the bar as a boy. But it was his parting words that were the most significant. He told me he wouldn’t see the morning. I never did find out what he’d meant by that last statement which seemed such a huge thing to say to a stranger. The following day, on the final leg of the journey, my writer’s brain worked over time imagining a fictional tale that might make sense of such a statement.
“There are a few themes at its core, most notably what bad communicators we humans are. How hard we find it to say the important things to those we love.”
Can you give me a blurb on the book in your own words?
Maurice Hannigan is a successful 84-year-old farmer, who sits to the bar of his local hotel one evening with the sole purpose of raising five toasts to the five most important people in his life. We meet Tony, his adored older brother, his daughter Molly of only 15 minutes, his sister-in-law Noreen who unwittingly unlocks the mystery of a King Edward VIII gold sovereign that weaves its way through the book, his son Kevin, who lives in the States and his beloved Sadie, his wife who died two years prior. Through these fives tales, we learn just who Maurice is, his successes, his failures, his many secrets and what it is that will happen at the end of the night.
What is at its core?
There are a few themes at its core, most notably what bad communicators we humans are. How hard we find it to say the important things to those we love. Also loneliness and vulnerability in old age in Ireland, is a very significant theme of this book. I think we let older people down in our community and I wanted to explore this. Lastly I think the thing that people most relate to about this book is that Maurice is flawed, just as we all are. People can relate to how to he gets things wrong. They can empathise with the regrets he has about those things he never did or said to Kevin and Sadie.
How did you find and build your characters and how did you get into the mind of your 84-year-old protagonist?
My father was eighty-four at the time of writing the book so I listened carefully to the things that mattered to him and this helped me form the authentic voice of Maurice. I also read up quite a bit on what it is to be old in Ireland. I read literary journals and the information leaflets of organisations for older people like Age Action Ireland.
The other characters came easily enough, as I considered who would be the people that I would want to raise a toast to in my own life. Once I had that in mind I was able to build characters through particular scenes allowing the action and dialogue tell the tale of who they were and how significant they were in Maurice’s life.
“It is a mystery to me why we are not sitting on the coat tails of our older members of the community, learning all we can from them. Instead we seem more inclined to dismiss them.”
What, according to you, is the most fascinating thing about old age?
Wisdom. And it is that that I feel we fail to see. It is a mystery to me why we are not sitting on the coat tails of our older members of the community, learning all we can from them. Instead we seem more inclined to dismiss them.
What was the toughest part of making this debut?
I think it was finding my confidence. I went through various stages of feeling that the book wasn’t any good. The only way I found to get over that was to take a particular scene that I wasn’t happy with and rework it. Giving it more pace, more detail, more whatever it was I felt it needed until I knew there was nothing more I could do with it. And as I reworked each bit, my confidence in the whole book grew.
There were also darker moments when I wondered would I ever make it to the very end of the process i.e. publication. The hard bit is trying to get an agent or publisher who’ll believe in it. It was difficult when the rejections kept rolling in. It was on my thirty-seventh email by the time I finally found an agent who got exactly who Maurice Hannigan was and what I was trying to do with the book. Once I signed with her, things flowed, with a publishing deal on the table in a matter of weeks.
Can you take me behind your creative process?
My process is simple. I get the first draft down as quickly as possible, this can take up to six months and then I spend the next couple of months, six perhaps, restructuring it, giving more depth to characters, deleting other characters, moving things around until I’m happy I have one solid draft. It’s ready then to send this to four or five people whom I ask to give me critical feedback. Then I spend the next year rewriting it based on their feedback.
Who are your favourite authors, both old and young?
My favourite author is Richard Russo. His novel Nobody’s Fool is my all time favourite. He does humorous, flawed characters so well. I also love Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, John Boyne, Jonathan Coe, particularly Coe’s latest Middle England; it has helped me make sense of Brexit. Jane Austen remains my favourite from the classics, particularly, Emma. Austen makes you root for Emma even though she is not the most likeable of characters, this to me is the mark of a great author.
What is next?
A second novel! I’ll be working on that over the next year with my editor. She already has it and we’ll be meeting in the next couple of weeks to discuss its direction and what I need to work on.
Text Soumya Mukerji