Spending a lot of lockdown time chatting on social media has provided unexpected entry points for thinking about writing, from revisiting the content of my novels to considering the influences on my style. Recently I joined a thread that Dubray’s children’s books buyer had started on the @DubrayBooks Twitter account. She posted a photo of a Patricia Lynch book she’d loved as a child, sparking half-forgotten memories of my own. So, instead of concentrating on the promotion of my latest Finfarran novel, The Heart of Summer, I ended up taking photos of children’s classics from my bookshelves, and sharing memories of authors we both loved.
As we went back and forth, we discovered a mutual love of Alan Garner, whose books had enchanted me as a child and led to my admiration for the Stone Book quartet and his later powerful and rigorous novels for adults.
Each Finfarran book is written to be read as a standalone novel, but all are linked thematically by my decision to make my central protagonist, Hanna Casey, a librarian; and, when I logged off Twitter, I began to think about the books I’d chosen for her little, local library. Sometimes they simply set a scene and provide a backdrop. Some are set-ups for jokes, such as the running gag (much loved by librarians) in The Library at the Edge of The World about a reader who’s systematically working through the shelves in search of a specific book that has a black dog on the cover. Or the moment when a belligerent alpha male demanding Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is outraged to discover that it was written not only by a woman but by J K Rowling. Other books are chosen to drive a plot, as when, in The Month of Borrowed Dreams, Hanna sets up a readers’ group to discuss books based on films, and my characters’ stories, and her own romantic storyline, emerge through varied reactions to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.
Usually, each Finfarran novel plays games with a specific book genre entertaining to me and to bookwormy readers, but not vital to the enjoyment of the story. In The Transatlantic Book Club, for example, characters on opposite sides of the Atlantic discuss Golden Age detective novels while old enmities, hidden love affairs and a case of blackmail come to light on both sides of the ocean. Summer at the Garden Café uses the time-honoured device of a confessional diary. And in The Mistletoe Matchmaker, set at Christmas time, the emotional denouement of the plot’s central strand turns on memories of a childhood copy of Patricia Lynch’s classic, The Turfcutter’s Donkey.
In hindsight I can see that some, though not all, of the many choices I’ve made for Hanna’s library are books that I’ve enjoyed reading myself. I’ve taken delight in creating the fictional Carrick Psalter, an eighth-century manuscript central to the dénouement of the first Finfarran novel, which appears in each subsequent book in the series. Having been reminded of his books by that Twitter conversation, I think I can trace the psalter’s inherently numinous quality to a love of folklore and mythology that Garner partly inspired in me. I also share his obsession with Time as a theme. In my case, it came from my father, a historian whose ability to convey the excitement of the past and its relevance to the present was remarkable. And, looking back, I recall that it was my granny, a great storyteller, who told me my first folktales, and my father who first introduced me to Garner’s books, so, inevitably, the influences are complex and overlap.
Neil Philip’s critical study of Garner’s work defines its essence as “the struggle to render the complex in simple, bare terms; to couch the abstract in the concrete and communicate it directly to the reader”. I’m aware that I set myself the same standard in terms of style, and that my own interest in the concrete is literal, in the sense that I love buildings, design and construction. When I first discussed the Finfarran series with my agent, I wasn’t sure why I wanted Hanna’s childhood interest in books to have been sparked by pictures, rather than words. At the time, I may just have been keeping my options open. But as soon as the first two books were commissioned, and I began to write The Library at the Edge of the World, I realised that art, visual images and the appearance of things were going to run through the series like veins locked within layers of rock. This, I think, may be another expression of my own childhood in which the visual represents the oral, folk tradition inherited from my grandmother, and words in print denote the literary world I encountered through reading. And, yet again, the influences are complex and overlap. It was my granny who taught me the alphabet from a copy of one of my older sibling’s schoolbooks.
One thing that struck me in that Dubray Books Twitter thread was the prevalence of English author’s books remembered with fondness in comments from Irish readers. When I was growing up, Patricia Lynch’s works were almost the only books that portrayed contemporary Irish life to children. Indeed, she was the only Irish children’s author I remember reading, aside from C S Lewis whose settings and narrative voice have nothing Irish about them. And, though I was a city kid, I adored Lynch’s minutely-observed rural settings. I’ve always thought the Finfarran series’ contemporary rural Irish setting arises from the fact that, nowadays, I live much of my life at the extreme western end of the Dingle Peninsula. But, sitting in this strange state of suspension in lockdown London, thinking about the memories provoked by that chance Twitter exchange, I’m beginning to wonder if influences go deeper than we imagine, and if every writer’s work holds echoes of each book we’ve loved and story we’ve heard.
(c) Felicity Hayes-McCoy
About The Heart of Summer:
It’s summer in Finfarran on the west coast of Ireland. Librarian Hanna Casey is looking forward to al fresco lunches, and to balmy evenings with her boyfriend Brian in their stunning new house in the beautiful Hag’s Glen.
With family dramas and a painful divorce behind her, Hanna and Brian are browsing romantic holiday brochures. Then, unexpectedly, Brian’s adult son moves in with them and Hanna re-encounters Amy, one of three girls with whom she shared a London flat in her 20s. And all of a sudden, she begins to question her apparently perfect life.
When Amy suggests a visit to London’s bright lights and a flatmates’ reunion, Hanna accepts. But she’s plagued by misgivings. While it might be a short hop to England, somehow she feels like she’s leaving Brian too far behind.
Then Amy introduces Hanna to a handsome London banker who asks her to work with his family’s library charity. It’s a chance to be something more than a local librarian who’s settled back into the little rural community where she grew up. But it means that Hanna has tough choices to face …
‘Maeve Binchy fans will adore it – she just gets better and better’ Patricia Scanlan
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