Interview: Ciara Geraghty

JJ McConnachie

JJ McConnachie is a writer, book and movie lover, and a technology geek.

Ciara Geraghty is the author of Saving GraceBecoming Scarlett, and Finding Mr Flood. She talks about her latest novel, Lifesaving for Beginners: 
Hiding from her past, Kat is doing her best to make sure it doesn't catch up to her.

Milo isn't old enough to really have a past and he never thought to be concerned about his future. But one event will change two people's lives, in a way they could never have predicted. A bittersweet, quirky tale about letting love in and learning to live.

Lifesaving for Beginners is written from two points of views: Kat's and Milo's. The more obvious choice would have been to write it from Faith and Kat's point of views. Why did you choose to write one of the points of view as Milo, rather than Faith?

Faith is a young woman who, at the beginning of the book, loses her mother and then discovers that the woman she lost is not her birth mother.

I tried to write Faith. I tried many times. I have a GIGANTIC file called ‘Faith’ with notes on her character, what she has in her fridge, her CV, what she wears, what she watches on the telly, the colour eye-shadow she favours, stuff she has in the pocket of her jacket. I tried everything. But she wouldn’t come to me. I was always grasping. I spent months reaching for her but in the end, I had to concede that she just wasn’t someone I could write. Perhaps it was her age (she’s 24 – it’s been a long time since I was 24). Perhaps I felt that her situation was so dramatic that if I wrote it, it might become melodramatic.That’s when I came up with the idea of writing her story through a third party – her little brother Milo. I wondered how Faith’s story would look through the eyes of a nine-year-old. Once I started writing him, I couldn’t stop. His character felt like something I didn’t have to make up. He was just there. In my head, waiting to become words on the screen. I fell in love with him from the start. He was my way of telling Faith’s story.

Milo’s point of view is clearly that of a nine-going-on-ten-year-old, but the novel is still for adults. How did you go about creating that balance?

Milo is a kid who is curious, intuitive and sensitive. I needed Milo to have all of those characteristics because he is the one who is telling Faith’s story. But often, Milo doesn’t really understand what’s going on; he just comments on a particular incident and it takes an adult reader to read between his lines. That’s how I tried to create the balance. Also, I don’t think it matters what age your character is, or what gender or nationality. Just so long as you create a character that the readers believe, that’s the important thing. Your character’s voice must ring true, then the readers will invest in them and read on (that’s the hope, at any rate…)  

Milo’s lifesaving classes play a part in the book, but they are never directly shown. Why did you decide to keep them in the background?

I suppose I have used the idea of Milo’s lifesaving classes as a metaphor for the unfolding story in the book. But I didn’t want to overplay it. It’s there more as an idea. Milo – a child – is already a lifesaver. He’s in the advanced class. It is Kat who is struggling, way down in the beginners’ class. She’s just learning.

Kat could have been a rather unlikable character – she’s certainly very flawed, but somehow I couldn’t help but like her. How did you find writing a character like that?

Oh, she’s prickly isn’t she? Difficult as hell. At times, I didn’t like her myself! But the challenge with writing a character like Kat is to get the reader to empathise with her, to cheer her on, to be in her corner, despite her many flaws. I found it difficult but ultimately satisfying because the feedback – so far – from my readers has been fairly positive, when it comes to Kat Kerrigan.

How long did it take you to write Lifesaving for Beginners?

I began writing it in March 2011 and finished around August 2012.

If Lifesaving for Beginners was made into a movie, who do you think would play the characters?

Love this question, as am big fan of the movies…

Kat Kavanagh (nearly 40-year old writer with writer’s block and a secret from her past that’s getting ready to rear its head): Cate Blanchett, a great character actress, who does a great Oirish accent.
Milo McIntyre (Nine year old from Brighton – a dote!): How about David Rawle (Martin Moone from Moone Boy)? Haven’t seen the series but have seen pictures and read the reviews and believe he’s a dote!
Thomas Cunningham (a journalist who calls himself a farmer on account of his five stony fields in Monaghan – the love interest) How about Owen Wilson (but can he do Oirish accent?)
Faith (Milo’s big sister. She’s 25, a singer / songwriter in a band, whose world has just come crashing down around her): It’s got to be Charlene McKenna (the star of the Irish series, Pure Mule and Raw). She’d be perfect!
Minnie Driver (the accountant, not the actress. Kat’s best friend. Eccentric, fierce and loyal): I think Minnie Driver could play her to a tee (the actress, not the fictional accountant…)
Janet Noble (Kat’s mother and a very serious prize-winning author) – the amazing Irish actor, Fionnula Flanagan

All of your previous novels had a similar structure to the titles: A verb then a name. Why the change with Lifesaving for Beginners?

The working title for much of this book was ‘Having Faith’. But then my editor, Ciara Doorley, said that it was time to lose the whole ‘present-participle-proper-noun’ title situation because otherwise, I’d be stuck with that formula for the rest of my writing life. I couldn’t help agreeing with her (she’s often right, to be honest…). So I indulged in a bit of ‘brainstorming’ with Frank (the husband) and Ciara (the editor). We talked about lots of titles. Husband fancied something with the word ‘iceberg’ in it. Hidden depths, he said. Only a sliver of it visible above the water, the rest all hidden beneath. ‘Hmmmm’ I said, scribbling away. Ciara liked ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘The stories we tell’ (she’s such an editor!) and I quite favoured ‘The Secret Lives of Kat Kavanagh’, which referenced the nine lives of cats and that kind of thing….
So how we all came up with Lifesaving for Beginners is beyond me. But as soon as I said it out loud, I knew that was the one (much like when I looked in the icecream freezer in the supermarket and saw a Mars Bar Icecream for the first time…everything fell into place.)

Once you’ve finished your book, how do you manage to let go of the characters to move on to something new?

I find this a little tricky, to be honest. The characters seem to take a while to seep out of my head. I think it’s because they’ve been in there for so long. I was talking to a friend once, about one of my books which I was writing at the time. She laughed at the end of our conversation, and I asked her what was funny and she said, ‘You talk about your characters as if they’re actual real people, living in the world.’ And it’s true. Perhaps you have to think of them as actual real people living in the world, in order to care enough about them to write their stories. Perhaps that’s why they take so long to leave, after you’ve finished writing them. They’re like your children. It’s hard to let them go.

Has a character you’ve written ever been inspired by a real person?

Mostly no, I make them up.

But when I wrote my second novel, ‘Becoming Scarlett’, I based my main character – Scarlett O’Hara – on a combination of two people. Two women I have worked with in the past. Both meticulous, focused, ambitious and in control. But of course I have never mentioned this fact to either of them because you just don’t know how people are going to react to that kind of news, do you? So to answer your question, I would say that the concept of Scarlett the character lends itself to a couple of amazing women I know but I then take HUGE liberties with the character so the end result is not someone anyone would recognise from my life (I hope).

What was your road to publication?

Not too bad actually! I finished my manuscript (and I mean really, really finished it. I edited the living daylights out of it) and then I sent it to a publisher and they said they’d like to publish it but the deal they offered was pretty paltry so I got myself an agent. I bought a book called ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ which is like a directory of everyone and anyone in Irish publishing. I thumbed to the section on ‘Literary Agents’ and rang each of them – there were four in Ireland at the time – and Ger Nichol agreed to read the manuscript which I sent by email. She rang me the next day and said she’d represent me. Then she brokered a deal with another publisher – Hachette Ireland – which was a lot better than my original, paltry deal, and I was on my way!

Do you read mostly in your own genre?

I read very widely. I believe that this is essential when you’re writing. You can’t get stuck in the one genre; it will stunt your growth! I’m a big fan of Irish writers and I love the short story genre (Kevin Barry is my favourite short story writer – if you haven’t heard of him, Google him. His stuff is very dark and very funny. You’ll roar laughing and then be ashamed of yourself for laughing at such horror!). I enjoy writing short stories too – it’s a real education for a novel writer. It teaches you to make each word count, to always be telling the story.

I’m currently reading all of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s books, having only recently ‘discovered’ her, even though she’s been writing for years. I’m mad about Roddy Doyle but who isn’t? And John Banville’s latest offering, ‘Ancient Light’ is a beautifully written book, full of poetry and pathos but very accessible too.

During my recent trip to Australia, I met my old boss who gave me a copy of Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ and her accompanying non-fiction book, ‘Searching for the Secret River’ and I’m looking forward to reading both.

I’m in a book club which is a great way of reading out of your comfort zone. We’re reading ‘Gone Girl’ this month, a book I never would have read otherwise, not being a great reader of the thriller genre.

What’s next… Are you working on a new book?

Yes, I’m 40,000 words in, which is way past the point of no return (eek!). It’s about a taxi driver called Vinnie who is struggling to raise his two kids on his own after his wife left.

For someone who’s never picked up one of your books, how would you describe your writing style?

My mantra is, ‘A good tale, well told.’ That is what I am aiming for. Readers have told me that my books have made them cry and laugh out loud. I got a lovely post on my Facebook page recently (Ciara Geraghty’s books), about Lifesaving for Beginners: "I love the characters , they all make me feel so at home and not lonely..., they are my own friends almost , ..xx"

I’ll take that….

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