In these hazy days that follow the publication of my second novel, I find myself telling people how it came together relatively quickly and without much difficulty.
“Grace After Henry?” I say, all but floating of delirium. “It was quite easy, really. The story was just meant to be.”
It’s usually at this point that my boyfriend interjects. “That’s not quite how I remember it,” he says, in his version of an understatement as he draws my mind back to bleak conversations about reneging on book deals and slightly more hopeful ones about whether a manuscript could be so bad it might just spontaneously combust and disappear from my computer.
In the three months before I delivered Grace After Henry to my editor last autumn, I did nothing but write and panic. Every morning, evening and weekend, I was at the laptop. I was unavailable for anything else. My boyfriend, to whom household chores fell during this period, remembers it clearly.
My writing process seems to involve months of writing and rewriting until I get a good grasp on the beginnings of the story and the central character. I cannot continue until I fully believe that she (so far they have both been women) is real. As a result, the first few chapters take the most time. But after that, it happens quite quickly. It probably took me seven months to write the first half of Grace After Henry and two months to write the second half.
So okay, Grace After Henry was not all plain sailing. There were times when I wanted to chuck it all in, or when I imagined submitting it to my editor and getting a long line of crying-laughing emojis in response. But relative to writing my debut, Love In Row 27, and the third book that I am currently struggling to get a handle on, the process was okay. The first draft was done in ten months and there were hardly any edits. This was in stark contrast to Love in Row 27, which went through several drafts and took twice as long to write. As tough as the words could be to get out, the evolution of Grace’s story often felt a little like magic. It was like the universe was constantly giving me signs to carry on and trust my instincts. Or perhaps it was just that I chose to see these signs.
Grace After Henry is about a woman whose partner dies just as they’ve bought their first house. She moves into the home without him and, in her grief, starts to think she sees him everywhere. Then one day a man with an uncanny resemblance to the love of her life turns up at her door. The story is full of twists and turns, most of which were as unexpected to me as they will hopefully be to the reader. They came to me while I was writing and I would soldier on, banging the scenarios out on the typewriter and, whenever I feared I was pushing the boundaries of believability too far, something would happen in real life to mirror what I had just put on the page. The universe was telling me to keep going, to cast my fear to one side and run with it. Throughout it all, I made sure the characters were believable; when you have that in place, it’s easier to push the limits elsewhere.
Perhaps another reason I didn’t suffer from “second album syndrome”, and that this book was (relatively) easier to write than the first or the one I’m currently working on, was that there weren’t any expectations. I started Grace After Henry before Love In Row 27 was published, so there wasn’t yet anything to live up to. The fatalist in me assumed the debut would be a flop and so it didn’t really matter if the second was too incredulous. This may sound terribly pessimistic, but it was actually rather liberating. My expectations were too high for my debut novel and, while it did well, it could never have lived up to them. With Grace After Henry, however, it was all about the story. As a result, I believe it is a better book. Not that I could see the wood from the trees at the time.
When I sent Grace After Henry to my editor, she responded quickly to she loved it and then sent her very limited notes for the second draft that was really more of a tweak. In my insanity, I took this to mean the book was so completely terrible that it wasn’t even worth coming up with notes for. Ridiculous, I know. But there’s no talking to me when I’m in the midst of it. My agent swiftly set me straight and shortly thereafter informed me that the book had sold to Putnam, an imprint of Penguin, in the States as the first of a two-book deal. My UK publisher also bought the rights to my unwritten third book.
Right now I am trying to get to grips with that third book. It’s not going so well. The expectations are higher and it’s getting harder to keep to the fear at bay. I feel my difficult album is going to be the third one. But then again, maybe that’s just the midst-of-it madness talking. Perhaps I’ll be back here again this time next year, having totally forgotten the anxiety dreams and telling you all how, actually, the third’s a charm.
(c) Eithne Shortall
Eithne Shortall studied journalism at Dublin City University and has lived in London, France and America. Now based in Dublin, she is chief arts writer for the Sunday Times Ireland. She enjoys sea swimming, cycling and eating scones.
About Grace After Henry:
Grace sees her boyfriend Henry everywhere. In the supermarket, on the street, at the graveyard.
Only Henry is dead. He died two months earlier, leaving a huge hole in Grace’s life and in her heart. But then Henry turns up to fix the boiler one evening, and Grace can’t decide if she’s hallucinating or has suddenly developed psychic powers. Grace isn’t going mad – the man in front of her is not Henry at all, but someone else who looks uncannily like him. The hole in Grace’s heart grows ever larger.
Grace becomes captivated by this stranger, Andy – to her, he is Henry, and yet he is not. Reminded of everything she once had, can Grace recreate that lost love with Andy, resurrecting Henry in the process, or does loving Andy mean letting go of Henry?
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