Sick daughter inspired my book, says Cork mum

It took many years to write and publish, but Cork woman Eleanor O’Kelly Lynch tells MARTINA O’DONOGHUE how her work of fiction finally hit the book shelves
Sick daughter inspired my book, says Cork mum

FIRST TIME AUTHOR: Eleanor O’Kelly-Lynch also has a second book written. Picture: Owen Good of Narration

WHEN Eleanor O’Kelly Lynch was about 12 years old, the nuns at her new secondary school asked what she wanted to do when she grew up. She replied that she wanted to be a teacher and part-time writer.

“I remember the smiles,” she says. “They had a bit of a giggle”.

Well, who’s smiling now? The first part of that ambition was realised early in Eleanor’s varied career when she was a teacher at the Regional Technical College (RTC), now MTU. And now, decades later, with the publication of her debut novel The Girl With Special Knees, she has fulfilled her dream of being a writer.

By the age of 12, Dungarvan-born Eleanor, who lives in Glanmire, had been writing poetry and short stories and had a particular love of Enid Blyton books. So what took her so long to get her own book on the shelves?

“For reasons of procrastination, I never really got around to it. I was very busy anyway. I had three kids, one with a rare syndrome. It was a very busy life, to-ing and fro-ing and I was working full time,” she says.

Much of Eleanor’s working life was spent in radio in Cork, having joined pirate station ERI just before the pirates closed down in 1988, whereupon she transferred her sales skills to Radio South, which eventually became 96FM. She stayed in radio sales until 1999, when she joined Concept Advertising Marketing and Design for three years before setting up her own training company Golden Apple in 2006.

“I aspired to writing but never actually attended writing classes until about five years ago,” she explains.

A breakthrough of sorts came on Sherkin Island, where she attended a workshop by Margaret O’Connor, a psychologist and creative writing specialist. In the course of the weekend she was forced to finally start committing her words to paper when all the would-be writers in the group were told to take two hours to themselves and reconvene with the first page of their project written.

“My heart was in my mouth as I’d been thinking vaguely about an idea for years but I’d never written anything down - and now she’s telling us she wants a page! But I wrote the first page of the novel and after that I never stopped. When I came back to Cork, I never knew from chapter to chapter where the book was going. Hadn’t a clue.”

This may be comforting to aspiring writers who worry about not knowing the direction of their potential books - and Eleanor is keen to pass on a useful analogy.

“If you’re going on a trip to Dublin at night, you don’t need to see the whole road to Dublin lit up in front of you. We don’t drive to Dublin seeing The Spire. You only need to see the 300 yards in front of you in your headlights. And then, after that 300 yards, you see the next 300 yards. It’s the same for writing; you don’t have to see the full picture.”

Another universally dispensed piece of advice to writers is to write about what you know, and Eleanor has certainly drawn from her own lived experience in The Girl With Special Knees, with inspiration striking within her own family.

“My child, Lauren, who has a rare syndrome (CDLS), has had a tough life. One day she was self-injuring and miserable, curled up on the couch. It’s very hard to see your child suffer and not have joy. Later, I said to my sister, ‘God, she has a terrible life’, and I remember my sister said, ‘Who knows, maybe inside her head - or off in another dimension - she’s living another life’. I remember thinking, ‘wouldn’t that be great if it was true, that this isn’t just her life, she could be living a happier life somewhere else. And that thought stayed in my head. I thought I’d like to write about that and give her the wings to escape her miserable days and literally enter a world of adventure and excitement.”

Even though inspiration struck close to home, Eleanor is keen to stress the book is a work of fiction: “It’s rooted in my experience but it’s fiction. This family have way more drama in their life than I do!”

With the book’s central character inspired by her own daughter’s condition, Eleanor also has another important message to impart: “I’m not speaking on behalf of other parents. I wouldn’t like to equate having a syndrome or disability with misery because that’s not true at all. With lots of syndromes and disabilities, the child is happy, contented and fulfilled. But in this situation - which is my situation - my child had pain, was unhappy, she’d be anxious; life was not easy for her and it broke my heart,” she explains.

In the transcript, just before the story starts, Eleanor has included the beautiful William Butler Yeats poem The Stolen Child, ending with “For the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand”, as the child goes hand in hand with a faery to the waters and the wild.

“In a way, my child’s life was stolen,” she says of the poem, “But I also wanted to get away from disability and the syndrome. It’s more about when anyone - your child, husband, boyfriend, your auntie - when someone is in distress and they lack joy, you want them to be happy, to smile and enjoy their life. It wasn’t the disability that made it hard for me; it’s the fact she wasn’t happy or joyful. She seemed agitated.

“If you have someone in your family who has anxiety, who doesn’t get a kick out of life, who is depressed, it’s that feeling you can’t fix it and it’s heart-breaking.”

In the book, the child is called Doll, she has a sister, Andi, and the parents are Sally and Dan. In the book, each family member takes it in turn to tell the story from their perspective. As the book’s press release says: “It is about a family in trouble; a sister who feels invisible; a mother in distress; a father in denial and a child who just wants out. One day, an African doll arrives in the post and something magical happens.”

The book originally started off as a fantasy journey focusing on Doll, and while it may have appealed to children and teenagers, Eleanor wanted to open it up to adult readers. She was encouraged in this by Brian Langan, a freelance editor and literary agent who read an early draft and felt it was difficult to pinpoint the genre.

“His assessment was fantastic; so helpful. He showed me things I’d never have spotted. But also said some lovely things that gave me hope that it wasn’t a dud; that I could write a novel.”

Eleanor explains that agents are essential as an intermediary between publisher and writer and she came close to having a number of agents come on board with the project.

However, as her book is still considered a hybrid - a mix of fantasy and domestic fiction - their concerns about genre meant ultimately she decided to go it alone. Was she excited to see the process unfold?

“It was nerve-wracking. You’re afraid you are going to make the wrong decision, whether it’s the font size, the book size or the paper weight. No matter what anyone else tells you, the buck stops with you. You have full control, but the downside is you have full responsibility!”

The book was written in two years but with re-writing and re-structuring, it has taken five years to get it to shelves. Eleanor wrote whenever and wherever she could: at her kitchen table in Glanmire, in her office and sometimes in the city library or Mayfield library. At home, she’d often start at 10pm and keep going until 2am, losing track of time. Wherever she went, she carried a notebook and her phone to either jot down or record ideas as they came to her.

She may have waited a long time to fulfil her dream of being a writer but it’s clear it has come at exactly the right time. Her children have grown up and she even has grandchildren now. Lauren, 30, still drinks from a bottle, has pureed food, is in nappies and weighs around three stone - but for the past four years has been in respite with COPE, Monday to Friday.

After 26 years of caring for her full time (with the help of wonderful childminders and friends), Eleanor feels mentally stronger and in a good place to let her imaginative thoughts transfer to the page.

She recently had a full house of well-wishers and book lovers at her launch party in the Imperial Hotel - and already has a second book written that just needs to undergo an edit. She’s aiming for a trilogy about the same Redmond family.

Interestingly, it was only when she had completed her debut that she recognised the true theme of the book. As she writes in the book’s foreword: “When I started out, I thought the book would be about escaping the bonds that hold us back, untangling the fallout of grief and loss. When I finished I saw then that the book was really about how courage matters, how it comes in different guises and how - if we look long and hard enough - we find it within ourselves. Looking back now, I can see that this was the lesson I had to learn - and am still learning.”

The Girl With Special Knees, published by Orla Kelly Publishing, is available from: www.eleanorokellylynch.ie; Amazon; Kindle Direct Publishing; Ingramspark; Barnes and Noble; Selected Bookstores, including Vibes & Scribes.

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