Cork author releases book about death, family and identity

Cork author Gráinne Murphy tells GRAINNE McGUINNESS about the inspiration for her new book, and being a writer during a pandemic
Cork author releases book about death, family and identity

Gráinne Murphy who lives in Belgooly.

A NEW novel from Cork novelist Gráinne Murphy’ asks the question: Can anyone really choose to be forgotten?

In The Ghostlights, an elderly gentleman checks into a B&B in a small village in rural Ireland where he knows nobody. Four days later, his body is found in the lake.

The identity of their unknown guest raises questions for one family in particular, twin sisters Liv and Marianne, and their mother, Ethel, each of whom is searching for her own place in the world.

A number of events captured Gráinne’s interest and ended up influencing the plot, including the real case of a man who checked into an Irish hotel under an alias and died days later.

“The idea that somebody would come to a place where they knew nobody and would die in that place and it would subsequently turn out it was very difficult to identify him, they didn’t really know who he was, I did find that idea interesting,” Gráinne says. 

“Then a couple of years later I was working on reports on the right to be forgotten case.

“I thought it was something that would be so alien to our grandparents’ generation, the idea that people now have to fight to be forgotten because that would have been a big fear. Years ago people would have worried about legacy and being remembered.”

The two stories wove together and Gráinne had the basis for her plot.

“I thought, ‘I like this idea’, the intersection between someone who really wants to be forgotten and the idea of a small Irish village where being remembered is so important,” she says.

“In a small village, what would be the impact on people who met him in that short space of time.”

The Ghostlights, by Gráinne Murphy.
The Ghostlights, by Gráinne Murphy.

Identity is a theme which fascinates Gráinne and is a particular focus in The Ghostlights.

“Ethel, the woman who runs the B&B, her beloved husband died 10 years earlier, and she is a bit lost without him, although she wouldn’t admit that,” she explains.

“Her twin daughters, one of them stays at home and runs the B&B with her and has a son repeating the Leaving, and she’s very much... I won’t say stuck, but very much caught on small village expectations of who she is and what she might do.”

Meanwhile, her twin has lived abroad and “home is different for her, having moved away, than for her sister who stayed there”.

“Those questions of home and identity, I find those interesting, particularly with the family dynamic, the people who build us and break us, forgive us, all of that,” Gráinne says.

After growing up in rural Kilmichael, Gráinne lived abroad for a number of years and that experience of leaving and returning found its way into this novel.

“I found when I was away I very much started thinking and writing about Ireland, about home,” she says. 

“When we moved back in 2016, it was a shift.

“The tendency when you are away is to think home stands still while you’re not there. But also, for everybody at home, they think you come back the same as you were when you left. So there is this real chafing against each other that happens when you get back.

“That was definitely something I was thinking about while I was writing this.

“Because you have to explain home to lots of people, so you have to crystallise your thoughts about it, both things that you find interesting that you think other people will find interesting and things that irritate you because you start to compare where you are now with home.

“You become both fonder of home and more frustrated by it - that’s a function of having to describe it lots of times.”

The choice of sisters as main characters was also key.

“The sister relationship is hugely important,” Gráinne says. 

“I love sister stories, I find them fascinating, I have one sister myself and we’re very close. So that sister relationship I find intriguing in itself.”

All these thoughts and themes fed into The Ghostlights, which is neither thriller nor ghost story, but rather a character-driven story about family and identity.

It is Gráinne’s second novel and her first, Where The Edge Is, came out in September, 2020. Despite all happening under the shadow of Covid-19, Gráinne doesn’t feel she has missed out.

“I have no other frame of reference,” she says. “People were saying ‘oh you didn’t get to do the launch, the in person thing’. But in a way, as someone who wouldn’t naturally love all of that, I got off a bit lightly because of the pandemic. Everything had to be behind a screen, and I became very comfortable.”

Gráinne, who now lives in Belgooly with her family, paid tribute to the support of booksellers in particular.

“The local bookshops were wonderful, Bookstír in Kinsale and Kinsale Bookshop,” she says. “Waterstones in Cork have been great, they were just so supportive any time I’ve been there.

“They have all done as much as they could, I’m so grateful to the bookshops, they really make you feel like a real author, because when your book comes out during the pandemic, you don’t feel it as much as you normally would.

“I was just so grateful it was on shelves at all because at the start of the pandemic in March, I wasn’t so sure if the release would get moved or production would shut down. 

"So I was so delighted when it came out in September, I thought, well I wanted it on the shelf and here it is.”

While enjoying the opportunities to attend book events online during Covid-19, both as an author and a reader, Gráinne has also been busy working on book number three.

She has enjoyed success with short stories over the years and the characters from one story in particular, which was longlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, demanded more space.

“I loved the character in that short story, she really stayed with me,” Gráinne says. “I had written it a couple of years ago and she stuck with me, she kept bumping her head into other things I’d be writing. At the start of lockdown last year I started writing her story.

“So my next novel,which is just completed now, takes the characters from that short story and looks at them a little more closely. I was thrilled to be able to to do it, she is quiet now in my head.”

Also working as a freelance proofreader and copy editor, Gráinne acknowledges the challenges of finding time for her writing, but finds it well worth sacrificing pastimes or free time.

“It is choosing writing above other stuff,” she says. “Not easy, but it gives me much more than it takes, I find I am much calmer.

“Writing is how I make sense of things, I understand the world better when I’m writing.”

The Ghostlights, by Gráinne Murphy is published by Legend Press. Available now.

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