IF YOU ask Ciara Geraghty what she does for a living, she’ll say she’s in insurance.
That was true once. She was a loss adjustor until her second two book deal freed her from the day job. But why doesn’t the mum of three, who is frequently compared to Marian Keyes, not proclaim she’s a writer?
“If you say you’re a writer, someone says, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a book,’ and it never is,” she says, raising her eyebrows.
“Or they’ll say they’ve written something themselves, and will tell you all about it. At length. If you say you’re in insurance their eyes will glaze over and they’ll talk about something else.”
Writers feature, strongly, in Ciara’s fourth novel. Kat Kavanagh is the internationally acclaimed crime writer, Killian Kobain. Not many people know this. She tells her mother she’s a technical writer. This could be because her mum, a literary author who cried when Samuel Beckett died, is so remote, she barely knows her children.
Or it could be because of a secret in Kat’s past. At 15 she had a baby. It was adopted, and nobody has spoken of it since. Kat sometimes wonders if she dreamt it. Her reaction to this forms the lynchpin of the novel. But where did Geraghty get the idea?
“I was down in Listowel, a friend was telling me this story about her spinster aunts dying within a few months of each other. Her father was going through their papers and found a birth certificate. One of the aunts had a baby in her teens. It was sent to America. Nobody spoke of it again.
“I remember when Anne Lovett died in childbirth, alone, in 1984. I was 14 and my mum had that talk with me. It was ‘don’t have sex.’ I thought, ‘what if that had happened to you and now you’re 40? How would that impact on you, if you’d shelved it, and pretended it never happened? What kind of person would you become?”
Originally, Kat’s daughter Faith, living in Brighton, was to be the second narrative voice. But Ciara couldn’t get that to work. “I could not write Faith. I struggled from March to September last year, but she wouldn’t come. Then I thought of Emma Donaghue’s Room. I’d loved that voice of the five year-old boy.
“I wondered, could I write the story through the mind of a nine year-old boy? My son, Neil, was nine at the time. I thought it might be challenging to tell a harrowing story from that innocent perspective, but I had his voice in a minute. It was a true voice.”
I’m in awe of Ciara’s writing. I admire the way she weaves in dark issues so seamlessly that there’s never a dud note. I adore her characters — who manage to be loveable and impossibly prickly, without ever losing their authenticity. And I love the way she keeps us guessing, and never ever ‘tells’ us things, but lets the plot flow until we guess.
One of my favourite characters is Ed. He’s Kat’s gorgeous sensitive brother, who just happens to have Down Syndrome. A loving man, his smile is contagious. As Kat says: “Even John Banville’s face would crack if Ed smiled at him.”
“I bring my kids to swimming every Thursday,” says Ciara. “They do lifesaving. There are some kids there, learning to swim who have Down Syndrome. We’ve got to know them. It was important to me to portray them sensitively.”
She invented Ed, though, to provide a chink in Kat’s armour. “She is so brittle and closed off. I needed her to have a relationship she shone in, to make her more sympathetic. Ed is her saving grace. She’s careful of him, and protective, but she doesn’t treat him differently. She expects him to be the best person he can be.”
Happily married with a dog; and children aged 14, 11 and four, Ciara describes herself as a publicist’s nightmare, but she’s doing herself down. Gorgeously funny and bubbly, she’s never done what the world has expected of her. Wanting money and independence, she took a bilingual secretarial course after school. Then it was off to Geneva, Brussels and Paris. Then to Australia where she married her Irish husband, Frank.
“I wore a green dress and a big cream hat. We had 25 people there. It was lovely and low key. If we’d married in Ireland my mother would have had me in the big white dress.”
Unusually for an author, writing was never an ambition. Ciara was happy being an insurance loss adjustor, but in her early 30s, she felt restless.
“I wanted something different from what I did in normal life. I’d rung the Gaiety School of Acting, when I went to Plunkett College to investigate an insurance claim. A man had fallen off the roof there.
“I had to talk to witnesses, and climb onto the roof to take measurements and photographs. Afterwards I was chatting to the principal about adult evening classes. I signed up for creative writing. That first class was an epiphany. I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is what I should always have been doing.’”
It took more courses, and several workshops at Listowel Writer’s Week before Ciara’s first novel, Saving Grace was completed. Her publishing deal came after she’d had a story published in a collection, based on the entries for a competition on the Seoige and O’Shea TV show. The first proposed deal, though, was so low, that Ciara felt like crying.
She contacted agent Ger Nichol, who secured a much better contract with a more prominent publisher, and Saving Grace appeared in 2009, to instant acclaim. Three books on, she looks set to make the big time.
She’s said writing the debut, with no deadline or expectation, was like a secret life. How does it feel writing full time? “It is lovely,” she says, “but there are times I miss getting on the train in the morning. I’m at my desk with no make-up and horrible clothes on, and I think, if I was at work, I’d have had several conversations and would have fielded lots of phone calls.
“I’m precious about my writing time. I write in the mornings and do the mummy things in the afternoon. But I don’t think I switch off. Frank will be talking to me, and he’ll say, ‘where are you?’ The story is in your head. You have to work it out, so you’re thinking about it all day.”
In the book, Kat loses the will to write. Does Ciara ever suffer from writer’s block?
“It’s like a muscle you have to exercise.”
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