I’ve been a writer all my working life and a reader for longer than I can remember. I’ve written non-fiction titles; original tv dramas and contributions to series; radio soap opera, features, documentaries and plays; screenplays; a couple of opera libretti; and interactive multimedia. But – given that my childhood was spent largely behind sofas, reading stories – it was probably inevitable that, sooner or later, I’d write a book series with a protagonist who’s a librarian.
Born in Dublin, I emigrated to London in my early twenties and built a successful career there, as an actress and then as a writer. It was books that led me to the stage in the first place – the wonderful Blue Door Theatre series by the English children’s author Pamela Brown. Back in my childhood, Dublin was famous for its second hand bookshops, and my father never came home without a paperback or two. I still have the Nelson edition of The Swish of The Curtain he bought me in 1963, with the price and the date pencilled inside in his elegant handwriting. It cost him ninepence.
My Finfarran Peninsula series has a little of my own story in it. Though my protagonist Hanna Casey comes from a rural background, like me she grew up in Ireland and married having moved to London: and I too returned to an Ireland greatly changed since my childhood. That’s where the similarity ends, though. After twenty five years, Hanna has discovered that her marriage has been a sham and, at the beginning of The Library at The Edge of The World, the first book in the series, she’s taken her adolescent daughter, Jazz, and returned, on impulse, to the little town she grew up in. Where she’s stuck in a dead-end job as the local librarian, and living in the back bedroom of her monstrous mother’s retirement bungalow.
The sequel, Summer at the Garden Café, focuses on Jazz; book three is on its way to my commissioning editor at Hachette Books Ireland; and currently I’m drafting the fourth. It’s their physical world that shapes the characters in Finfarran’s scattered communities, and their shared social and cultural inheritance that defines them. So, for that reason, my starting point for each book is to return to a map of my fictional peninsula that I sketched on a paper napkin. (I was sitting in a café in London with my agent at the time, which proves the remarkable effect on creativity of coffee and slices of cake.)
My starting point for the series was Hanna. I wanted her to be a middle-aged woman who, in complicated circumstances, had ditched her career for love. I gave her a daughter, the more deeply loved and cherished because she was born long after Hanna, whose first child had miscarried, had given up hope of having children. And I faced her with two paralysing dilemmas – a deep fear of gossip in the little community she’s returned to, and uncertainty about whether, when, and how she should reveal to her troubled daughter that the dad Jazz adores has been carrying on his affair since before Jazz herself was born.
When I sketched my peninsula only two other things were certain. Hanna was a librarian. And the spark that ignited her choice of career was a passion for pictures, not words. She wasn’t raised in a family that was bookish. She’s discovered the joy of reading for herself.
Just as the physical presence of the landscape they inhabit has always affected the creation of my characters, the visual and physical qualities of books delight me as a reader. Conor, Hanna’s twenty one year old assistant, feels much as I did at his age.
“He loved the smell of the books in the panelled room … They had leather covers and thick pages with torn edges, and the leather and the paper smelt wonderful … He loved the feel of them in his hand. Their bindings had tooled edges and rubbed gilt decoration, and the endpapers had feathery patterns on them, like you’d get on a cream slice.”
I still love the feel of a book in my hand, and one unexpected pleasure of writing the Finfarran series has been seeing how designers in various countries respond to the books. A US cover can be very different from an Italian one, and I’ve yet to see what China and Korea will make of my rural Irish setting. So anticipation is part of the pleasure of being an author as well as a reader. Even the texture of the paper of a new book adds to the excitement of opening it. As I write this I’m on tenterhooks, waiting for Hachette Ireland’s beautiful copies of Summer at the Garden Café to appear on bookshop shelves.
(c) Felicity Hayes-McCoy
About Summer at the Garden Cafe:
A heart-warming story about secrets between four generations of women and the healing power of books, love and friendship.
The Garden Café, in the town of Lissbeg on Ireland’s Finfarran Peninsula, is a place where plans are formed and secrets shared …
But Jazz – still reeling from her father’s disclosures about the truth of his marriage to her mother, Hanna – has more on her mind than the comings and goings at the café. Now isolated from friends and family and fixating on her new job at a local guesthouse, she’s started to develop feelings for a man who is strictly off limits . . .
Meanwhile Hanna, Lissbeg’s librarian, is unaware of the turmoil in her daughter’s life – until her ex-husband Malcolm makes an appearance and she begins to wonder if the secrets she’s carried for him might have harmed Jazz more than she’d realised.
As things heat up in Lissbeg, can the old book Hanna finds buried in her own clifftop garden help Jazz?
Order your copy online here.