Five toasts, five people and one powerful debut novel by Anne Griffin

Anne Griffin’s powerful debut novel is released this week, just as she turns 50. We must all be motivated by what feels right, whatever our age, she writes, as she explores the life experiences that were the inspiration for her writing. 

This January I turn 50 and my debut novel, When All Is Said, is published. It feels good knowing the path I’ve travelled with its many side-roads and laybys has finally brought me, at this momentous milestone, to a career I simply love.

There are three things I’ve come to realise over my 50 years: Money doesn’t motivate me, hard work can pay off, and 18-year-olds shouldn’t be expected to know what they want to be by virtue of 12 years of rote learning, a state exam, and a CAO form. I’m about lifelong learning, putting your back into it, and being motivated by what feels right no matter what your age.

Recently, I read a list of the 50 people to watch out for in 2019.

Ridiculously not one of those featured was over the age of 50

What is it with this assumption that enthusiastic, innovative thought only comes in your twenties and thirties? Thinking that way only serves to put undue pressure on one half of the community while denigrating the other. Five-and-a-half years ago, I sat to write for the first time.

I was 44 and starting out on my fourth major career change. I haven’t always wanted to write. I didn’t spend the last 30 years hoping someone would finally pick up my magnum opus and unveil my brilliance to the world. Instead my path has led me to careers I’ve on the whole enjoyed. Admittedly there was always a gap mooching around inside me. Like some part had fallen off early on and the intention of my journey was to find it.

It all began with history in UCD. I’d gone there with the vague notion of becoming a teacher. But having successfully failed first year, I gave up on that. Despite trying to drop out I was pushed back in by my parents — ironic, given they hadn’t been gone on college in the first place, preferring I take a civil service or bank job like my siblings. I did eventually get my degree, attaining, at the same time, a sparkling confusion on what I was going to do with it.

It was then I joined Waterstones Booksellers, as non-fiction buyer in its Dawson St branch in Dublin, now Tower Records.

It was the best of times. Hanging out with writers who wrote before and after work. I was forever amazed at their dedication. Even when things weren’t going well, when the rejections rolled in and they finally gave up on one novel, they kept the faith, and started another. It never occurred to me to take up the pen too.

Writing as a career would have seemed as mad to me back then as if I’d decided to become an astronaut.

I did well with Waterstones, moving to London to work in other branches, finishing my eight-year tenure back as the manager of Dawson St. I was 30 when I left for a career in the charity sector. For two years prior I had volunteered on the Dublin Rape Crisis helpline at night. I admired the strength of those who had lifted the phone to share what they had suffered at the hands of others. They inspired me to see what else was out there.

I went back to college, to study community work. I was one of the oldest in the class but I kind of liked that.

I firmly believe having a life’s history adds value and wisdom to whatever you do

I qualified and worked for the next five years in many sides of community development. But to my disappointment it never felt that I was ever that good at it. Too polite perhaps, always trying to negotiate a middle ground which for those so marginalised was not always the answer.

In the end I decided to get out before I burned out. I buried my regrets and looked ahead. I made a move sideways into financial management. Taking my third pay cut in five years, I trained during the day and studied accounting at night. I worked for the next nine years as a finance co-ordinator for various national charities. In the middle of that I got married and had a son. But by 44, I was getting itchy feet again.

It was a friend who told me to “go write”. Two simple words that stuck in my brain long after our phone call had ended. Go write. At the time my husband and I were temporarily relocating to one of Ireland’s most beautiful islands, Cape Clear in Cork. Looking out on the Atlantic seemed like the perfect place to give his writing suggestion a go. It was a Monday morning when I tapped out those first words on my laptop, and I felt it instantly: The smoothness of a sliding door closing over on the gap that had travelled with me for years.

That beginning led to my first short story being shortlisted for the Hennessy Awards, and, a year after, an acceptance onto UCD’s MA in creative writing. I walked through those doors with a draft of a novel, inspired by a chance happening in a Mayo pub, under my arm.

I spent the next year work shopping and editing it until it was ready to offer to the world.

Nine months and 37 rejections later, I signed with a London agent who, within weeks, sold my book to Sceptre, and soon after to Thomas Dunne Books in the States

Seven foreign rights followed. When All Is Said finally saw the light of day on January 24.

I’m amongst good company with this getting published at 50. Wendy Erskine, Kit de Waal, Mary Lawson, Annie Proulx to name only a few talented, admirable women. Christopher Bland didn’t get his first novel published until he was76. The Royal Society of Literature has introduced a prize in his name for authors over 50 who have published their first book.

When you consider wider society, the story is no different: Minister Katherine Zappone entered politics aged 57; John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola aged 55; Áine Cuddihy, a Limerick entrepreneur, set up the Mini-cake Company in 2011 after she retired from teaching.

And often times, change is not always about the burning desire to be more or something else, it can simply be necessity — the recession taught us that. How many people in their later years found themselves in 2008 having to shift gear fairly lively in order to survive?

All of these people stand as clear evidence that life gifts us many years in which we can shift and change and reinvent ourselves.

And each year we wrack up adds value. All of the learning about who we are as human beings, how we operate, what matters and what can be ignored, gives a richness to everything we do and everything we are still yet to be.

What I create on the page, what I feel when I write every day affirms that my journey has been worth it. So here’s the thing, no matter what your age, it is important to look change in the eye and think, maybe I just can.

When All Is Said by Anne Griffin is published in trade paperback by Sceptre, €16.99

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