Author Miriam Mulcahy on the writing of her memoir about death, how to grieve, and the healing power of the sea.
You start building a house because you need a permanent place to put all the bad things that happened to you, you need to put them down and can’t pull them around with you any more.
You choose the location, the setting, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, a tiny beach over a glittering green sea, bookended by rocks and a pier, you are never so happy as when you are here and swimming.
You take all the bad things that have happened to you, inter them in the basement, and lock the cellar door. Then you start to build, thousands and thousands of bricks, it takes years, the work is so painstaking and difficult that you do it in fits and starts. Then years later you stand back and look at it. You’ve put this house on the market and tried to sell it. Nobody wants it.
You stand back and look at it. The floors are slanting wildly, the walls are full of gaps and holes, the doors are two storeys up and opening onto nothing, there are windows in the ceiling, the chimneys are horizontal. It’s an absolute mess. You take a massive hammer and demolish it, keeping all the doors and windows and bricks and you start again, the bad things are still locked in the basement.
You go at it again and again, and over the years you get better, becoming competent in plumbing and carpentry. Then someone catches sight of your house and goes not bad. She comes in and takes a tour. She can see the potential, but there are stairs that end before reaching the floor, rooms with no windows, and what is that horrendous noise coming from the basement? She advises you to lose a storey, demolish that wing, to reduce the size of the house by a quarter. She is very smart this one.
It breaks your heart, but you demolish the wing with the library, the music room, the gym. She’s right, you don’t really need them. You level the floors, build windows and doors in the correct place, the stairs are starting to connect the floors, you start thinking about paint colours and furnishings. But there is still the persistent knocking in the basement and you can’t get peace.
Years later after you began to build this house, you twist that rusty key in the lock, haul open the trapdoor, and they fly out, your ghosts, your shadows, your demons and your fears, your worst memories and the blackest nights, here to be gone through again. They flit and move around the house, wrecking and breaking things, you despair of ever getting finished. You leave the house a lot and go for swims and walks and come back and start dealing with these ghosts, weaving them into the tapestry of the house, finding places for them, settling them down, giving them space to settle where they want to.
The publisher comes back and says nice job and makes an offer. Thrilled and delighted, you accept. But before the house can be lived in there’s an architect she wants to bring in. This woman comes in and walks around and thinks the flow could be improved. She wants more light, to make more of the sea views, to make them uninterrupted. She constructs a veranda around the house, where people can take in the sea better. She flips the layout, putting the living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs.
Her audacity is so stunning and so right it gives you courage, and you start doing it too. And in the rearranging the house stops and settles. After ten long years, it’s over, it’s done, it needs some paint and trim on the outside and the most talented painter comes along to do it. You know it’s done, and what happens to this house now is out of your hands. You turn the key in the lock and slide it under a stone and walk away from it. It is nothing like what you started with but it’s done.
I was the builder of that house, a house that nobody wanted but I built anyway. The one thing I knew through all my grief and loss, was that I could write something that would resonate with people. I deliberately left out two things – anything about the physical benefits of swimming and anything psychological about the effects of loss. I wanted this to be very personal, but in mining and digging deep into my experience, to spin that out and make it universal.
There was a lot of rejection over the years I wrote and tried to submit it, but I think after Covid everything changed and everyone knew what loss was. The one thing I kept hearing was ‘your writing is beautiful but not commercial.’ I often thought about following a commercial line and tried it, but literary writing is my thing, it’s who I am, and I had to stay true to that.
I knew in the earlier versions and drafts there were sections and essays, mostly the nature writing, that were fine and good, and my work, my job, was to lose what wasn’t and to bring the rest of what I wanted to keep up to that same level. The reader will judge my success on that, but it took a complete rewrite to do it.
The main rewrite happened last winter, I printed the entire book out and laid it on my kitchen floor, roughly divided into four sections. My kids, my dog and I walked over it for a week. I started to see patterns and holes, gaps that needed to be filled, essays that could be expanded. I saw how things needed to be moved around and crucially, even though it broke my heart, essays I needed to lose.
In January I sent the rewritten manuscript off to Deirdre Nolan of Eriu books, who had approached me a year earlier because of an Irish Times article I had written. She liked the changes I had made and in February, she called me to say she was talking it to an acquisitions meeting with Bonnier in London. I emailed Ivan Mulcahy, who I had met through Vanessa O Loughlin’s Date with an Agent competition in 2018, he didn’t take me on but liked me as a writer and told me to keep in touch, to say something could be happening. The next day Deirdre rang me to offer me a deal, Bonnier loved it, I emailed Ivan who met Deirdre at the end of the week and with only verbal offers and nothing signed, increased my advance! So from Tuesday to Saturday of that week I picked up a book deal, a publisher and an agent. Ivan told me later that one in a thousand do what I do – get a deal with a big publisher by themselves.
Because the book was so clean and ready to go, we were on a super-fast track to publication, with everything happening in six months. Bonnier provided an incredible book design, Deirdre recruited editor Amy Borg to do a structural edit, we were proofing in June, it printed in July and August has been all about publicity and launches with stellar work done by Gill Hess.
I’m now in the enviable position of seeing my small but beautiful book go out into the world, being received very well, and thinking hard about the next one. I have another ten books I have ideas for and I will have to choose my direction well. Luckily, I’ve got a good compass.
(c) Miriam Mulcahy
About This is My Sea:
Over the course of seven difficult years Miriam Mulcahy lost her mother, father and sister, each grief threatening to drown her. But instead of going under she discovered the lessons of the sea, letting the water teach her how to get through anything in life: one breath builds on another, another stroke, another kick and you will get home.
THIS IS MY SEA takes our greatest fear, death, and wraps it up in language so fine and beautiful that the reader is carried along and comforted by how completely lost Miriam was and how she found solace in all the things that sustained her: books, music, art, friends, love, swimming, and of course the sea.
For fans of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn and I Found my Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice.
Order your copy online here.