What would you do if you discovered a hidden letter in a vintage handbag?
Even though she’s named after the renowned designer, Coco Swan couldn’t be more unlike her. When she discovers a mysterious letter in a Chanel handbag, she cautiously turns detective, led on a journey of love and loss.
In Coco’s Secret, Niamh Greene’s latest novel, the author tells the story of a quiet antiques dealer who slowly comes out of her shell with a little help from her friends…and a sprinkle of Chanel magic.
Niamh grew up reading Enid Blyton and Maeve Binchy, secretly penning short stories, and studied English and French at University College Dublin. She worked in tourism and public relations for several years. It wasn’t until her mid-thirties that she “plucked up the courage” to try and get published.
“I literally forced myself to sit at my computer and, amazingly, the publishers liked what I wrote. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to make a living from writing – it’s a dream come true,” she says. “Nothing beats that feeling when the words are flowing and you’re lost in a world of your own creation. At the end of it you emerge, blinking in the sunlight.”
The positive feedback she received about her first novel soon led to a publishing deal with Penguin. That was in 2007, when her bestselling debut Secret Diary of a Demented Housewife bagged her nominations for two Irish Book Awards. She’s now published her sixth novel, Coco’s Secret, and tells me that it was a story that just spoke to her from the very beginning. “At heart, Coco’s Secret is a reinvention journey, with lots of mystery, laughter and tears along the way,” she reveals.
I wondered how Niamh originally came up with the idea for Coco’s Secrets? “The spark of the core idea for Coco’s Secret came to me when I was attending an antiques auction one day. I’ve long been fascinated by antiques and vintage trinkets. Old things always have a story to tell. Where have they been, what have they seen, what secrets do they hold?
So how does each book come together? Does she tend to plot stories in advance or just wait and see what happens when she writes? “Thinking about where you want the story to go and how you want the characters to develop is critical, so I generally know in advance what’s ultimately going to happen,” Niamh explains. “It’s like having a map – you refer back to it when you’re feeling a little lost.” What about those moments when a minor character begins to speak up? “Sometimes the story takes an unexpected turn, which I always love. It can be one of the best moments in a novel’s journey.”
A mark of Niamh’s writing is her effortless entwinement of humour and words. “I believe that humor is absolutely critical in life and it’s a huge element of all my books. I like to read something that makes me laugh out loud and that’s also how I like to write.”
“On a personal note, I find that laughter and an excellent sense of humor can help, even in the darkest of circumstances,” she adds. “In fact, I get many emails from women who tell me that my novels have made them laugh when they never thought that they’d laugh again – that’s such an honor and a huge compliment.” Her eyes light up when she talks about hearing such enthusiasm from her readers.
Even though her latest novel is based on a vintage Chanel handbag, Niamh does not consider herself a fashionista – in fact, she loves chilling out in comfy clothes to write. “No-one sees me during the day!” she smiles. “I do like to dress up occasionally, however, and I love the allure and mystique of Chanel.” Although she admits that she hasn’t previously been pleased with the style of some of her book covers, she reveals that she has a soft spot for Coco’s Secret because of its elegance.
Niamh primarily works on her PC as she’s a faster typist than a writer, but her great ideas are often scribbled on scraps of paper. “I will sometimes get a brilliant idea just before I drift off to sleep,” she grins, “and if I don’t write it down straight away, it’s gone, so I keep a notepad beside my bed. I also have [notes] jotted down that even I sometimes can’t decipher!”
She also has the challenge of balancing motherhood and writing. Much of her success is thanks to her family, she says, who have supported her all the way: it was her husband’s encouragement that finally gave her the nudge to submit her first book to publishers. Although, as a mum of two kids, life must be pretty hectic when she’s in the middle of editing a chapter? “Like all mums, I juggle a lot!” she nods. “I’m very lucky in that I work from home so I can fit my work around the children. I write when they’re at school and at night when they’ve gone to bed, often working until well after midnight.” She also writes a column for The Herald. “It can be exhausting [in terms of deadlines], but I know I’m very lucky to have flexibility – and I was never afraid of hard work!”
She’s certainly not – she’s already hard at work on her next novel and is having lots of fun getting lost in the world of a whole new set of characters. Does she ever rest? She laughs. “It’s like having a baby – you forget about the painful parts of the process and get lost in the magic all over again!”
The best writing advice she was ever given, she says, is to stop making excuses and just do it. Her procrastination can sometimes tempt her to spend a little too much time chatting to fans on Facebook (/niamhgreenebooks) and Twitter (@niamh_greene), but she maintains that discipline is key to getting that manuscript complete.
She recommends writing a small amount every day, even a few hundred words. “The process will flex your creative writing muscle and you will gain confidence and inspiration when you begin to see the words add up.”
She also emphasises the need to believe in yourself and your work. “I never dared to hope that my books would be on book shelves around the world but it happened against the odds. Dreams really can come true!”