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Perplexing psychological novel that’s built on a series of unexpected twists

COMING OF AGE: Author Susan Stairs took on the persona of an 11-year-old girl for her psychological novel 'The Story Before'. Picture: Maura Hickey
COMING OF AGE: Author Susan Stairs took on the persona of an 11-year-old girl for her psychological novel 'The Story Before'. Picture: Maura Hickey

The Story of Before
Susan Stairs
Corvus:€18.75. Kindle: €7.86.

When Susan Stairs was 11 years old, there was a tragedy close to where she lived.

The story shocked her, and stayed with her through the years. So when she was looking for an idea for a novel, it seemed a natural place to start.

"My initial idea was to write about the tragedy; and to explore what happened to the perpetrator afterwards," she says. "But when I started writing, I realised the story belonged to Ruth, an 11-year-old, and to her family. It became about them, and about the events that led up to the tragedy."

The Story of Before is a mesmerising psychological coming of age novel with loads of unexpected twists. It focuses on a family who move up in the world — from a small Dublin house to leafy Hillcourt Rise. It shows their interactions with the neighbours as they struggle to become part of the community. We see events through the eyes of Ruth, and she’s great at conveying the stultifying atmosphere of a small housing estate in seventies Ireland.

"I had to ‘be’ Ruth. Every time I opened my laptop, I could only use the words an 11-year-old would use. That came naturally after a time. I’d read through what I’d written the day before and switch automatically into her voice.

"I knew what the tragedy was going to be, but I had no idea how it would happen, or who the perpetrator would be. So as I was writing, I was dying to get to the end of the book to find out. I hope, that way, the reader will be as perplexed as I was."

Brought up in Lucan, Susan has always loved reading, and writing; at twelve, she won a competition for writing a book review, but her first career was in art.

She studied visual communications at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and then ran art galleries with her husband. And then, in the early 90s, when the first two of her four children were small, the duo transferred the business home.

"We were dealing in art; buying and selling. We’d go to auctions to buy for clients, and we were agents for a couple of artists too. I worked two days a week, and I wrote some art books too. But by 2006 we had a feeling that the good times in art were not going to last.

"My husband had always wanted to do law. So he went to college in the evenings and got his degree. He went on to the King’s Inns and now he’s a barrister."

As for Susan, she applied to University College Dublin, to take an MA in Creative writing.

"I’d tried fiction in the past," she says. "I’d started a couple of novels when the children were small. I sent some chapters out, and an agent said he was interested, but when I sent him more, he said it wasn’t going the way he’d thought it would. I lost confidence. But we’d recently republished my art books, and they’d sold really well.

"I’d also written a biography of the Belfast artist Gladys McCabe, who we represented. We’d become friends over the years and we’d raised her profile by doing a Retrospective with her in 1998. She gave me letters and scraps, and she recorded tapes for me too. I really enjoyed writing that, because it was someone’s story. It was like a bridge between fact critique and fiction. And when I’d finished it I just wanted to keep writing."

She was surprised, and thrilled, when she was accepted onto the UCD programme.

"And it was really helpful," she says. "It was wonderful to spend this year with like minded people, and to be able to devote all that time to writing and reading. Eilís Ní Dhuibhne and James Ryan taught us, and both were brilliant. Eilís, as my tutor, was so instructive. I could not have been given such insightful ideas and pointers anywhere else."

This was 2008. And it was where she started The Story of Before.

"Towards the end of the first semester we were asked to come up with a novel plan," she says. "I did that, and wrote the first chapter of The Story of Before in Feb 2009. I used that for my dissertation, and handed in the first 15,000 words by August. Then I started writing in earnest, and I finished the book in October."

Publication came easily. The agent Lucy Luck — who is also Kevin Barry’s agent — took her on in Feb 2012, and quickly secured a good deal. The second book, though, didn’t gel so easily.

"I wrote 15,000 words of a novel set in 1940s Belfast, but it wasn’t working," she says. "There was a lot of research, and I’m not, really, a research person. So I threw that out, and I’ve started with a new idea. And that’s going better."

In spite of the difficulties, Susan wants to continue being a full-time writer.

"I’m at my happiest when it’s just me and my laptop and nobody around me. I love the silence of being in a room on my own. I write every week day. I start early in the morning, but take time to rev up.

"Sometimes, when I’m not inspired, I’ll go for a walk, or start washing the floor, or hoovering the stairs. I’m at my most productive in the late afternoon. On a good day I’ll write 1,200 words. And I always edit as I go."

What does Susan hope readers glean from her book? "I hope it makes a lasting impression. And I’d like people to say, ‘I wonder what happened to the family?’ I loved those characters, and I missed them when I’d finished the book. I’d love readers to feel the same; that the characters had become, almost, friends."

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