On the publication of her debut novel ‘Love is the Easy Bit’, Mary Grehan prepares to come out of the writer’s closet.
There’s a sculpture down at the harbour in Dunmore East in Co Waterford by an artist called Pat Cunningham. It’s a memorial to all those who lost their lives out at sea and features a line of figures with arms outstretched above their heads and carrying a boat. For me this is the image that comes to mind when describing the process of bringing my debut novel from the private, almost underground, space of writing up and out into the open air through publication, a process that has spanned two years and featured four key women.
First up is poet and children’s fiction writer Grace Wells who mentored me for two years on a wonderful programme for writers funded by Waterford County Council. ‘You can write,’ Grace said to me at our first mentoring session, ‘and we need to talk about getting you published.’
I had been working on ‘Love is the Easy Bit’ for three years at that point. Of course, I had fantasised about publication (what writer doesn’t?), but Grace gave me the impetus I needed to kick my manuscript out of the nest and make it fend for itself. She helped me with its final edit (and there have been many more ‘final’ edits since!) before I submitted the first three chapters and synopsis to Vanessa O’Loughlin of The Inkwell Group for feedback. Vanessa quickly passed these onto literary agent Ger Nichol of The Book Bureau. After becoming my agent, Ger championed the book with a belief in it that I dared not have myself. She found me my publisher Penguin Ireland at which point Patricia Deevy, Editorial Director, picked up the baton.
The editing process involved an intense cross examination of the script in which holes in the plot and characters were exposed and rectified. With each ‘final’ edit I removed a few more words and lines until Patricia instructed me, and I paraphrase here, ‘step away from the novel’!
It’s no accident that a chain of women carried this book to publication. ‘Love is the Easy Bit’ is about a young mother called Sylvia in crisis. It voices the kinds of doubts about motherhood that a woman is not supposed to feel. Women love their children unconditionally. That’s the way of the world, right? But Sylvia, who time and again pushes her family away from her, struggles with the demonstration of such love.
Sylvia is complex and contradictory and in creating her, I found myself probing that gap between what society expects of us and our inner lives. She repeatedly makes bad decisions that are symptomatic of her lack of self-belief. I became more attached to her as the novel progressed and found it difficult at times to write her self-destructive behaviour. I brought the character to a psychotherapist friend of mine to give me greater insight into what was going on for her. He concluded ‘Sylvia needs therapy’. No surprise there, but a direct resolution of Sylvia’s self-destructive behaviour would have denied me a story and so I told my friend that therapy was not an option.
‘Love is the Easy Bit’ is a quiet novel and that has surprised me. To my friends, I am seen as energetic and outgoing, but the process of writing demands quietness, a turning in and listening to the things life has taught us that we may not have realised we knew. Last year at Listowel Writers Week, Anne Enright said something from the podium along the lines of ‘we know more than we think we know’, and I have learnt how writing calls on us to put words to a wisdom we might not otherwise articulate.
I told very few people about the novel in the first year of writing. I chipped away at it in my attic room as if it were a huge piece of marble. The early drafts were roughly hewn but feedback from writer friends helped me shape and refine it over time. I channelled boring bus journeys and gym sessions into problem solving, forcing myself to listen to my own nagging doubts about plot and character. With each re-write, I burrowed deeper into the characters and took a closer look at their motivations and the personal histories that shaped them.
I work fulltime and time was, and continues to be, scarce. There is no writing routine, just snatched hours and days, and the occasional week in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre which has been invaluable in giving me a leg up to the next stage. In year two and three of writing ‘Love is the Easy Bit’, I gradually began to reveal to family and friends my secret life in the attic, if for no other reason as to account for my weekends and holidays.
I began my second novel as soon as I finished my first, and have returned to it whenever I could throughout the editing and publishing of the first. It keeps me grounded, I hope, as I make the transition from unpublished author to published. Like any artform, writing is a long apprenticeship, perhaps one that can never be fully completed. After school, I studied ceramics at the National College of Art and Design where I learnt that it takes time to get to know your material, be it clay or words, its technical limitations and creative possibilities.
As an arts manager, I am used to promoting the work of other artists. And so now, at the threshold of publication, it feels not a little exposing to have the lens directed towards me for a change. In hindsight I am grateful for the protracted publication process which led to this point and has given me time to adjust to bringing Sylvia and myself out of the closet and into the glare of a readership.
(c) Mary Grehan
Mary Grehan is from Dublin. She lives in Waterford where she works as an arts manager and curator. ‘Love is the Easy Bit’ is her first novel and is available in all good bookshops and online.