Years of working as a frontline social-care worker and then as a journalist have made me circumspect when it comes to trusting people, but something about Stephanie Hickey caused me warm to her immediately. She is a tall, slim woman in her forties, with sparkling eyes and a throaty laugh. I had intended to tell her right away that I wasn’t in a position to work with her on the book and to give her the contact details of Sue Leonard, a very talented and successful ghost writer, but as soon as Stephanie started speaking, I knew I wanted to write her story.
It was all down to how she spoke.
Stephanie was brought up in the Nire Valley, an isolated rural community deep in the Comeragh mountains. Her speech is rich in the colloquialisms, cadence and rhythm of that part of the world. Stephanie’s father, who sadly passed away while we were working on the book, was a celebrated traditional singer, accordion player and step dancer, and Stephanie grew up in a house steeped in musicality. That music came through as she recounted her story. I was entranced by the lilt of her speech patterns.
As a writer, language is like a drug to me, and I knew I was hooked.
By the time I walked away from that first meeting, I had already given a promise that, together, Stephanie Hickey and I would write a book. Now I just had to work out how. And there was also the small matter of securing a publisher.
Luckily, Hachette Ireland, with whom I had been working for the past five years, expressed an interest in publishing the book right away. Ciara, my editor, is a woman who is not afraid to take creative risks, which is just as well, because I was adamant that I had no interest in writing a traditional ‘misery memoir’. Stephanie was a proud survivor with a strident voice. I wanted to develop something that celebrated that.
My co-author and I sat down for several long chats in Geoff’s Pub in Waterford as Christmas 2018 approached, and over countless pots of tea we got to know one another. And as we did, the germ of an idea formed on how our book could be different, how it might stand out from the crowd of similar memoirs.
While the sexual abuse and the court case had to be the central thread of the book, I discovered that Stephanie, an inveterate smoker and a woman who enjoyed her food and her pints, had taken up long-distance running in her mid-forties as a way of coping with the stress and anxiety of taking Prendergast to court. And she had proved very good at it, catching the eye of a professional coach, someone who trained pro athletes. Within six months of taking up running, Stephanie had completed a half-marathon in a truly impressive time.
This, I thought, was a really interesting aspect to the story: how running had become Stephanie’s lifeline.
This would be a book about how a woman had been subsumed by darkness but had run towards the light. Stephanie’s memoir would be as much about sport and athletics in a rural community as it would be about sexual abuse. That image, of Stephanie sprinting towards the sun, proved to be a motif I came back to again and again in the text. And it gave me a title (one I’m quite proud of): Running From the Shadows.
Stephanie loved the idea and, thankfully, so did Hachette.
I want to stress that, for me, finding that doorway into the story was crucial. I could have just sat down and written a book about how a woman was abused as a child and took her attacker to court, and that would have been fine. But I’m a firm believer that no one is just one thing, and that the darker parts of our lives should never be allowed to define us.
Stephanie is a mother and a carer and a great cook and a community activist and a runner and all of these things needed to be teased out in her story.
Now all I had to do was sit down and write it.
I spent a couple of months working on structure. I knew I wanted the story of the court case to run through the book: the memoir would begin with Stephanie and Deirdre preparing for that first day in front of the judge, and the chain of events that brought them to the Central Criminal Court would be told in flashback, Stephanie’s mind returning to the key moments in her childhood and early adulthood as the courtroom drama played out.
As I worked on the outline and general layout, I was constantly making notes and writing down questions about all the things I didn’t know, which were many. And as I sketched the landscape of these gaping holes in my knowledge of this story, I began to experience the first quivers of serious panic: I’d written countless newspaper articles and made a couple of TV and radio documentaries, but this was the first time I had attempted to undertake a piece of research of this magnitude – how do you encapsulate somebody’s life in 65,000 words?
I called on the experience and kindness of Sue Leonard, who advised blocking off three days in which to record a series of interviews with Stephanie. These interviews would form the basis for the narrative of the book.
“There will still be holes,” Sue told me, “things you didn’t think to ask or didn’t know to ask at the time, so you’ll need to tell your subject to have the phone nearby during the writing process. It’s to be expected that you’ll want to explore various aspects of what happened from different angles once you start to write about it. Tell her to expect lots of phone chats and emails.”
(c) Shane Dunphy
See Part 1 of this article here. Part 3 is to follow.
About Running from the Shadows by Stephanie Hickey:
In Running from the Shadows Stephanie Hickey tells, in her own words, how she survived abuse at the hands of a trusted family member and of how running, a simple physical activity helped her achieve mindfulness, but also to rediscover love and faith in her body – to reclaim it.
Charting her life growing up in the rolling countryside of Waterford in the safety of her beloved family to the moment her childhood was shattered, to the court case where she waived her anonymity, to how she was able to reclaim a sense of herself through the sport which became like a therapy, Running from the Shadows is told with humour, strength and incredible courage — a book that reveals how, even when things seem at their bleakest, a run through the Irish countryside, can bring you back into the light.
Order your copy online here.