Doreen Finn came to writing because one of her teachers challenged her to write a novel. She spoke to Sue Leonard about how that unexpected challenge was a revelation and how it has changed her life.
My Buried Life
New Island, €13.99; ebook, €9.04
ELEVEN years ago, Doreen Finn was considering studying for a PhD. She had completed a Masters, spending a year writing about poverty and disadvantage in education, and had done well, but her thesis supervisor has some surprising advice.
“She said, ‘Now go and write the novel,’” Doreen laughs.
“She said, ‘you are bringing prose into your academic writing. It doesn’t matter what the day was like, what someone was wearing, or which books they had in their bag.’ I was putting all these details in without realising it.”
Deciding to follow her dream, she gave herself a year to write a book; wrote a first draft in three months, and found an agent. There was a flurry of interest, but it all came to nothing. Doreen, though, was undaunted. Over the years she wrote a second book called The Poets House, and went on to write a third. None were published.
Brimming with vitality, Doreen is fresh-faced with a flawless complexion, dazzling eyes, and a mass of curly hair. Meeting me during the teaching day, she exudes energy.
“My father comes from Cork,” she says. “I was brought up in Churchtown, County Dublin, close to where I live now, but I feel a huge connection with Cork. My grandfather was born above Finn’s Corner, and I’ve always supported Munster. I went to rugby games as a child.”
Doreen had written mystery and ghost stories as a child, but having studied English and Spanish at University College Dublin, decided teaching was a more stable occupation.
“I had thought of taking a Masters in English, but I wasn’t a star in the department. Emma Donoghue was in my class and she is a literary genius. Someone said, ‘why not take a H Dip; at least that qualifies you for something,’ and that’s what I did.”
After a spell teaching English in Madrid, Doreen subbed in various schools, before getting a job in Tallaght. She now teaches in Muckross College, a Dominican school for girls. Before that, though, she followed her brother, and went to live in Los Angeles for five years. And that’s where much of the writing happened.
And that’s not all that happened there. She met her American husband, Mark Schrier, an actor who specialises in voice over.
“Los Angeles is the most amazing place,” she says. “It’s like 80 towns in search of a city. It’s not so much a melting pot as a salad bowl that hasn’t been mixed. If you’re creative in any way there is no better place to be.”
The couple might be there still, but when Doreen became pregnant with Emily, who is now six, she was teaching in a girls’ school, and they refused to give her maternity leave.
“They said I could have a couple of weeks off, but I wanted at least six months. If I had taken that, I would have lost my maternity cover, and wouldn’t have had insurance cover for the hospital.
“So we decided to come back to Ireland and have the baby here. We thought we’d stay for a couple of years, but we’re sort of settled.”
In October 2012, when Doreen’s son, David, was a baby, a friend rang, telling her that the Novel Fair, held at the Irish Writer’s Centre, were looking for submissions.
“I took out the second book - I hadn’t touched it for four or five years, and I rewrote the first 10,000 words.”
The story revolved around Eva who is living in America, and having an affair with a married man. When she returns home to Ireland for her mother’s funeral, she is forced to confront her old demons. Eva had a terrible childhood. Her father died, and her mother, apparently, hating her, lavished all her affection on Eva’s brother, who subsequently took his own life. He was suffering from a severe mental illness.
“In the original version, Eva was a magazine editor having an affair with a business man. In the second I changed them both into academics. “On the second Saturday in January 2013,
we were taking Emily to a party in Drumcondra, then going on to lunch with friends who live there. I checked my emails, to find out the address of the party, and there was one in, from the Writer’s Centre, saying I had been shortlisted.
“I was thrilled, but dear God! They needed the whole novel by the following Friday, and I had only written that 10,000 words of the updated version. I thought, I can’t do it! It was the height of panic.
“We had the lunch, and then, when we got home, my parents took my children, my husband left me alone in the house, and somehow, I wrote 55,000 words in six days.
“I changed lots of details from the first draft, and actually finished early and sent it in on the Thursday. Then I waited and waited for the call. But it never came. I hadn’t made the final 10. I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it, after all that work.”
A while later, picking herself up, Doreen sent the manuscript to four publishers, and after following up with Eoin Purcell, then in charge of New Island, the novel was accepted for publication.
“They said my editor would be the writer Mary Stanley. She was amazing! She lifted the book so much, and is now one of my closest friends.”
The Buried Dead is a sumptuously written novel, which positively relishes lush language. It examines Eva’s various problems, many of them fuelled by alcohol. There’s a hint of mystery, too, with an interesting plot twist or two towards the end. And then there’s romance.
“Adam just appeared,” says Doreen, talking of one of two men Eva meets in Ireland. “He is based on my ideal man. He’s really clever but he’s nice too. He doesn’t put pressure on Eva. And I love that whole red hair and glasses look on a man.”
There are many issues covered in the book, from addiction, displacement, family, and the love a mother does, or perhaps doesn’t have for her child. It’s clear that Doreen absolutely adores her children, and that hers was a happy childhood.
“If I had an addiction, or an unhappy home it would be more difficult to write about,” she says. “I can cast a cold eye on it because it’s not personal, and is not touching a wound.”
The title, she tells me, comes from a TS Eliot poem.
“Yet with these April Sunsets, that somehow recall My buried life, and Paris in the Spring, I feel immeasurably at peace,” she quotes, and her eyes overflow with tears.
“Poetry kills me,” she says, searching for a tissue. “I wept for a week when Seamus Heaney died, and I still haven’t recovered.”
Never without a book, Doreen says her haul cost her $90 in excess baggage fees when she last flew.
“I’ve always been a reader,” she says. “I learned quickly, and took to it, and can still remember the frustration waiting for the people who were struggling.
“I got into awful trouble for bringing in my own books and reading them under the desk. I was supposed to be reading the same page as everyone else.”
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