Tip to would-be authors: start with what you know. For me, it’s the houses of my Limerick childhood – old and damp and often haunted. My grandmother’s family home, Mannister House, was demolished ‘because of problems with ghosts.’ In my great uncle’s home, Clonmacken House, where King James the second once sought refuge, the ghost of a black sailor was sometimes seen on the backstairs. He’d come up a secret passage which led from the river Shannon, hoping to seduce a maid who was working in the house. Instead, a jealous rival killed him and left his ghost to haunt the house until the day it was burnt down.
Crag Liath, the ‘big house’ which features in my first two novels, A Wrong to Sweeten and its sequel, A Heritage of Wrong, is modelled on Clonmacken House – ‘ a sombre mansion, 250 years old, flat-faced, dignified, alluring.’
Along with the house there is the land. A lot of land. Enough to tempt a man to murder…
My third novel, Ulick’s Daughter, looks at the life of Ulick de Burgh, the 14th Earl of Clanricarde in County Galway, who also served as an MP in the House of Lords and as British ambassador to Russia in the early 19thcentury. Handsome and charming, he was rumoured to have sired several illegitimate children. Ulick’s Daughter is the hypothetical story of one of those chlldren, Eva Dillon, a woman obsessed with her father and with the urge to fulfil what she perceives as her own destiny, even if it means losing almost everything else. As she says of herself: ‘I am not like other people: my life was planned out before I was born.’
But when Eva follows her destiny from the west of Ireland to St Petersburg, she discovers that, after all, there is not that much merit in being Ulick’s child.
The link between France and Ireland has always intrigued me. Twelve years ago, when my husband and I moved to south-west, we were driving an Irish-registered car. People in our village responded to that and stopped to tell us we were welcome because in France they ‘loved the Irish.’
So setting a novel in 18th century France at a time when scores of young Irish men joined the Irish Brigade to support Catholic France in the fight against England, seemed to me like a good idea.
The Moon is Red in April tells the story of one of these men, Richard O’Shaughnessy, who abandons his childhood sweetheart, Ellen Nagle, to travel from Cork to le Havre. Ellen, however, isn’t easily shrugged off. Dressed as a man, with her hair cut short, she sets out in pursuit of the man she loves. Tracking him down in Paris, she finds that she has a rival.
In The Moon is Red in April, the war between Ellen Nagle and Catherine Cantillon is paralleled by the war between the forces of France and England. As the story develops the action moves to the Charente region of south-west France where people will tell you that, for one month after Easter, The Moon is Red in April.
My fifth novel, The Image of Laura, is partially based on the true story of a young English girl who went to Berlin to study photography in the early 1930s. Travelling with her was her most prized possession: a bureau made by the master craftsman, Edward Barnsley.
Forced to flee from Germany when the Nazis came to power, she had to leave the bureau behind. After the war, friends visiting her old apartment found almost all her possessions intact – but the bureau wasn’t there.
What could have happened to it ? The real owner never found out. The Image of Laura comes up with an answer, even if it’s only fiction.
Unlike my protagonist, Laura Conway, the real owner of the bureau did not become a world-famous photographer, nor did she have secrets to hide from her family back in England. But Laura Conway does. Laura has been as careful of her own image as she is of her unique and diverse photographs. But as her 75th birthday is celebrated in London with a retrospective exhibition of her achievements, it’s plain to at least one member of her family that Laura’s image isn’t quite what she’s wanted it to be.
Seeking Clemency is a novel about suppressed memory set in a Georgian house on the shore of Lough Derg in County Clare. To Olive Conroy, Carrigrua is a fulfilment of her social aspirations but to her grand-daughter, Caroline, the house is much more than that. Much more – for Caroline’s fragile sense of self-worth is allied to Carrigrua, and to the Conroy family.
To Caroline, as a child, the Conroys were ‘quasi-divine; as noble as the British royals. As golden as the Kennedys…’ But in comparison to the rest of the Conroys, Caroline felt inadequate: ‘I didn’t make it as a Conroy…I was a failure; second-rate. I knew that, and so did Olive: you could see it on her face.’
So she isn’t surprised – not really – when her grandmother kicks her out and sends her to live with her father in England. It’s 30 years before she comes back and when she re-visits the house she is overwhelmed by vivid shards of memory. But why is she frightened of the big blue cupboard which still stands on the landing? Why does she remember another garden in which the flowers were all red? Who is the mysterious person whose presence she senses in the house? And was there another, more sinister reason why Olive Conroy forced her to leave Carrigrua all those years ago? In Seeking Clemency she finally finds the answers.
Skip from novels to non-fiction. Forty one years after I wrote it (41 !) Twelve Shades of Black has been re-published, updated in a fine new jacket. This books depicts the lives of 12 black people living in the townships around Johannesburg during the apartheid era.
When whites heard that the Belgian photographer Sylvie van Lerberghe and I were going to the townships unescorted they were horrified. Two blonde women venturing into the townships ! Were we crazy, we were asked ? We’d be raped, or likely murdered…
Instead, we found wonders in the townships – talent, courage, love and humour, along with generosity.
Published by Don Nelson in South Africa and by Robert Hale in the UK, Twelve Shades of Black went on to win a runner-up prize in the South African Literary Awards. The year apartheid ended, it topped the list of books selected by readers from the Johannesburg City Library as whites rushed to understand the black people of the townships.