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The Will to Succeed

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Memoir | Non-Fiction

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

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Best selling women’s fiction author Emma Hannigan is a truly remarkable lady. For someone so attractive, bubbly and naturally funny, life has dealt her a tough hand. In August 2005 Emma discovered she was carrying the potentially deadly cancer carrying gene, BrCa 1. As she says, “In plain English, this meant  had a whopping 85% chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer.”

This news alone would be enough to send anyone into the downward spiral of depression, but Emma is a fighter and in 2006 made the decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy (both breasts removed) and a bi-lateral oopherectomy (both ovaries removed) to prevent cancer striking.  Emma told me “I wasn’t actually sick at the time, but I felt like a ticking time bomb. Opting for surgery was not a shocking or scary decision, for me. Quite the opposite, I felt huge relief. I was glad there was something I could do to make my body safer.”

Thinking she was clear of danger, Emma started her life again, but in 2007 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in the neck, shoulder and under her arm. But that wasn’t the only problem, she says, “the cancer invited an auto-immune disease, called dermatomyositis along for the ride. Not only was I shocked and more than a little peeved, but I really longed to have an auto-immune disease with a shorter name. It took me a week to be able to both spell and pronounce dermatomyositis. With the help of Dr David Fennelly and the team in Blackrock Clinic in Dublin, I beat the cancer.”

So how does a Mum with two children, (a husband and a cat) manage to produce three bestselling novels, a bestselling memoir and fight a deadly disease?

It was during a stay in hospital that Emma first pen to paper: “I began writing in 2006 while I was in hospital recovering from surgery. Having a double mastectomy and having my ovaries removed was a bid to rid my body of danger, and as you can imagine a myriad of emotions were zooming through my head, so as a spleen venting exercise I began to write about what was happening to me.”

“My husband brought my laptop into the hospital and I started off by logging the events as they unfolded. I found the process therapeutic but slightly boring. So the idea to turn the events into a fiction story was born. Once I created the characters the rest just flowed. Obviously I was drawing from personal experience, but writing a novel was something I had never considered before.”

“It’s difficult to describe how I felt once I began writing – it felt right and I adored it! I haven’t stopped since.”

Designer Genes was the result of these first forays into fiction, and although the first draft was around 300,000 words long, Emma wrote it in under six months, she told me, “For me it was like a dam had burst and all those words came flooding out.”

Often it’s very hard or new authors to get good feedback on their work, to find out if they are heading in the right direction for publication, and I asked Emma how she had overcome this difficulty; she told me: “I’m blessed to have the wonderful Cathy Kelly as a very close friend so after a little gentle persuasion I gave her the draft to read. She was so encouraging from the outset and made me promise to send the manuscript to some publishers.”

Fingers crossed, and literally taking the bull by the horns Emma sent the manuscript to several publishers. “Within days I was offered deals by two separate publishers. I was blown away by the fact that anyone wanted to read my ramblings!”

It was a dream come true for Emma, but her health continued to be a concern. In 2008, the cancer came back, in the form of another tumour under her left arm. She explained, “That was duly carved out by the surgical team at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. For my trouble I also got a free ticket aboard the chemotherapy bus for another six month tour. In December 2008, I was given the all clear once again. Fantastic!

‘But in 2009 before I could perform a victory dance, the cancer came back again. Cheeky bastard. This time I had radiation therapy which was exhausting and draining, but it worked.”

Emma has to be one of the most positive people I have ever met – despite all the set backs she signed to Poolbeg andDesigner Genes was published in 2009. Still in and out of hospital, she wrote Miss Conceived, published in 2010. Emma’s inspirational memoir Talk to the Head Scarf followed, this time published by Hachette.

Despite the huge success of her writing, appearances on the Late Late and a great reception by the press, 2010 became one of Emma’s worst years health wise – she had four further cancer diagnosis to contend with. I asked Emma how she keeps writing when she has such a serious and debilitating illness. She explained, “I’m currently battling cancer for the eighth time and I’ve had some dark days over the past few years believe me. But writing, along with my family and friends, has been my saviour. When I write I am in my own world. There’s no sickness, no worry and no stress. Besides, the most wonderful thing about writing is that I can do it in bed on my laptop or if I’m feeling better I have an office set up at home. It’s the perfect job for me!”

Writing a memoir is quite a different process from writing fiction, and I asked Emma how she knew where to begin.

“My memoir ‘Talk to the Headscarf’ took me to a totally different zone to my fiction novels. The most difficult part at first was having to stick to facts! I’m so used to taking a notion and expanding on it to make it funny or sad or whatever, but obviously when it’s nonfiction it all has to be true!

I literally began with when I was born and worked my way through each year. It was a real journey of healing for me. I didn’t think I had harboured any deep feelings about the struggle I’ve had with cancer, but once I sat to write it all down I was amazed by what I’d come through. That may sound utterly insane – how did I not know what had happened, I lived it?! But seeing it all in black and white was eyebrow raising in many ways. When I was going through all the surgeries and treatment I was in survival mode so I guess I didn’t register a lot of it. Sharing it through my memoir has set it all free for me. It was hugely cathartic and I’m so glad I wrote it. I know from the many letters I’ve received it has helped other people too which is vitally important to me.”

Back to fiction for this prolific writer, and Emma’s latest book The Pink Ladies Club came out earlier this month from Poolbeg Press, and is based on her personal experience. Here’s a taster courtesy of www.chicklitreviews.com who are raving about the book:

The Pink Ladies Club is a pretty unusual club. There are no fees and you can be any age to join. Zoe, who runs her own boutique with her mirror-image twinsister, Charlie, is twenty-two. Upbeat Esme, soon tocelebrate a milestone birthday and maker of the best roast dinner around, is sixty-nine. Hard-nosed businesswoman Tanya, blessed with a gentle husband and a darling baby, is thirty-five. But despite their differences, these women all have the one membership requirement for the club: cancer. And as life, loss, sickness and the sometimes bizarrely funny world of cancer-treatment washes over them, they find that being a member of the Pink Ladies Club is the glue that holds it all together. Their families love them, but do they really understand? Esme’s husband Michael is so set in his ways that even a change of diet rattles him. Zoe’s twin Charlie is living her own fun-filled life. And how can Tanya’s little girl comprehend what the future may hold? Not all three women may last the course, but for them and their counsellor Sian Doyle, who has lost the man she adored to the disease, the experience of facing and fighting this illness is life-changing and even life-enhancing

Maeve Binchy suggests you should write what you know, and Emma is infinitely qualified to write about cancer –  I asked her if writing about her illness helped her process the traumatic side of the illness, was she ever tempted to write something completely escapist, fluffy & fantastical? She told me “Of course writing about cancer helps to get any pent up emotion out there. I think it’s still a taboo subject for so many people and I’m eager to get people talking and for other cancer patients to know they’re not alone.

Miss Conceived wasn’t about cancer or sickness and I loved writing that too. I don’t think I’ll write any more books about cancer, I think I’ve done enough of that for now. Besides I have many more ideas lurking in my head!

As for fluffy and fantastical – I don’t know if I’ll ever write like that. It’s not really who I am. I adore humour and laugh out loud while I’m writing – which I’m sure is a sign of madness – but it keeps me going. I have a dark sense of humour personally and anyone who knows me would probably agree I’m not really a ‘fluffy’ sort of girl. Although I do LOVE girly clothes and accessories. I’m wearing Barbie pink nail polish with a diamante clip in my hair! Does that count?”

I asked Emma if she was a plotter and a planner or does she let the story unfold organically? She explained, “Both – I can’t imagine sitting down to start a new book with no set ideas. I think there has to be a basic story there first. I always have my characters set in my mind – how they look, their distinctive personality traits etc. inevitably once I get stuck in the story takes on a path of its own in many ways. Once the foundations are laid I usually find myself being drawn along automatically.”

Meeting Emma is a refreshing and life affirming experience, she exudes smiles. She says, “ I lost my hair. It’s grown back. I was very ill at one stage, weak as a kitten and limp as dead daisy, but I am still here and willing to fight. I’ve had dark days (and hair before I could colour it again) and long sleepless nights, but the sun has come out and is shining brightly in my life. I have found a whole new outlet in the form of writing. If I had never been ill, I may never have started writing books.”

And the last word must go to this truly remarkable lady:

“If you or someone you love has just been diagnosed, have hope. Take heart in the fact that I am still here, still living life and loving it! I can’t change whether or not I get cancer again, but I promise you one thing – I can damn well chose how I deal with it. So wig on, chin up and remember, nothing can banish a smile from your face unless you allow it.”

About the author

© Vanessa O’Loughlin June 2011


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