Helen Kelleher catches up with Hilary Fannin to talk about her first novel, middle age, and how Covid-19 could be an opportunity for budding writers
Award-winning playwright and newspaper columnist, Hilary Fannin who will be 58 in May, says she has never felt happier and more free than in her 50s.
“I think at this age we look at the world in a slightly more open and exploratory way again and we maybe have less panic about what we will do with our lives.
"Middle age is being spoken about in a more positive way because there is a sense of possibility and the chance of new beginnings that were not there for previous generations.”
Hilary has written her first novel The Weight Of Love (published by Penguin Random House) an intimate and moving account of the intricacies of marriage and the myriad ways in which we can love and be loved.
It is all in there: family love, friendship and romantic love and Hilary looks at these universal themes with microscopic precision something she enjoys doing in her weekly personal column for the Irish Times.
She was awarded Columnist of the Year in 2019.
While she has written numerous plays in the past (she was writer in association at the Abbey Theatre in its centenary year) 'Mackerel Sky', 'Doldrum Bay', 'Famished Castle', and her adaptation of Racine’s 'Phaedra' which was performed in Ireland, London, elsewhere in Europe and north America.
Writing a novel she says is a very different discipline and one which she quickly and skilfully mastered after she completed the Master’s programme in Creative Writing at Trinity College a year ago.
“It was very special for me to be able to go to university in my mid-50s and concentrate solely on creative writing and on this book.
"I am so grateful for that opportunity - having left school at 17 and being told constantly that I was useless and stupid and would never amount to much, made it all the sweeter I guess.
"That kind of childhood experience being told you are not good enough is so damaging and it can take years if ever to come back from that.
“It was always my one big regret that I did not get a chance to go to college. I remember when my eldest son was studying English in UCD thinking how lucky he was that he got that time to write, to read books, to think.
"On a practical level going to university in my 50s was the right time for me as my husband had taken early retirement and my eldest son had moved out and my second son was in secondary school.
"My mum was ill at the time and I did not know if I could start but then she died in August 2018 and the course started that September.
"Looking back now I know that in a way the course also helped me deal with the fallout of her loss over these last two years”.
Hilary says she is inspired constantly by the number of people (in particular women) who she says are pursuing education again and embracing life-long learning and making new paths for themselves.
“It struck me the other day that even at this difficult time during Covid-19 when we are locked into our houses I would say we should see it as a good time to read, to think, to reflect and to write”.
Hilary’s memoir Hopscotch was published to critical acclaim five years ago.
It covered her early childhood years from junior infants in 1966 through to confirmation and beyond in which Hilary told her own story as a girl growing up in a semi-D in a north Dublin suburb in the late 1960s and how difficult it was surrounded by alcohol, penury, infidelity (her father’s) and ultimately eviction when the family’s home was seized to pay debts.
These experiences led to her working as a volunteer with Fighting Words, a creative writing centre established by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love.
“We travel around the country encouraging young people to participate and we host theatre and different workshops. It is amazing to see what happens when you sit down with a young writer and say ‘write, just write, it’s fine, it’s allowed”.
Hilary’s novel The Weight Of Love she feels is a natural progression from her memoir as it recounts experiences and how they impact on us.
The novel revolves around three characters Robin, Ruth and Joseph and the relationship between all three which is far from your average love triangle.
On the face of it Robin loves Ruth but after introducing her to his charismatic friend Joe, an artist and renegade, their affair reroutes all of their lives forever.
Powerless, Robin watches on as the girl he loves and his best friend begin a passionate and turbulent affair. Fast-forward to Dublin 2017.
Robin and Ruth are married and have a son, Sid who is about to emigrate to Berlin. Theirs is a marriage haunted by the ghost of Joseph.
Robin has to make choices that could have devastating consequences. The book jumps back and forth between Dublin and London in 1995 and 2017.
Hilary is very fond of the character Robin in the book and the fact that he is kind and a good father and it is interesting she says to see how Ruth comes to understand who Robin really is.
And that is what makes this book so good. As Roddy Doyle said it is an absorbing, cleverly structured yet very human novel.
It is hard to accept it is Hilary Fannin’s first.