THE appearance of a sink hole outside her house and the tragic loss of her infant daughter inspired writer, Gráinne Murphy’s debut novel,.
Belgooly-based Gráinne, who grew up in Kilmichael, used to write “mostly bad poetry and short stories” when she was younger.
When she found herself living in Brussels because of her husband’s job, Gráinne started to write more seriously. It was a tough time. The family moved to Brussels in 2011 some months after the death of nine month old Ali, who had Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 1, a rare disease.
“Ali was diagnosed at two months. We knew that she was very ill and wasn’t going to live. When Ali died, I was five months pregnant with my third child (Cara) who is a perfectly healthy nine-year-old now.
“It was a weird time. There was Ali’s death and me being pregnant. You kind of want the future and you don’t want the future. You want to stay frozen at the time you’re in. Yet you want to move forward for the child that is coming. There was that sense of being suspended, not knowing whether to go forward or backward. I very much wanted that to come across in the book. That feeling of being stuck and kind of wanting to be stuck was the tone I was going for.
“It’s not that I was afraid to move forward. It was more that if I did, everything was going to change. I didn’t necessarily want that and yet a part of me did want that.”
When Gráinne and her family had been living in Brussels for over a year, they were in their home eating dinner one night when they heard a strange noise.
“A sink hole had appeared outside our house. A lorry had been going up the street and the back of it had fallen into the sink hole. There was major drama for two days trying to get the lorry out. Nobody was hurt.
“I was standing there with my young fire engine-obsessed child (Oisín, now aged 11). It was very dramatic. Then I began to think, what if it had been slightly different, if there had been more people and if it had been a bus. So the story began to crystallise.”
Gráinne had her novel, set over three intense days. The narrative also jumps ahead so we get to see everybody a bit later.
“I find that satisfying for the reader. I wanted closure and to leave the characters on as good a note as possible. It’s a tight time frame. I tend to write like that. I get stuck in the characters’ heads and what they’re thinking,” the writer said.
The novel is set in a town in rural Ireland. The press release for the book says: “Under the watchful eyes of the media, the lives of three people are teetering on the edge. And for those on the outside, from Nina, the reporter covering the story, to rescue liaison, Tim, and Richie, the driver pulled from the wreckage, each are made to look at themselves under the glare of the spotlight. When their world crumbles beneath their feet, they are forced to choose between what they cling to and what they must let go of.”
Nina and Tim were married and had a daughter who died. They split up in the wake of the tragedy “which a lot of couples do because they grieve very differently and can’t get to grips with each other’s grief process and can’t reconcile that.”
In the novel, the child didn’t die from a rare disease.
“I wanted it to be very different from our own experience. While I draw from my own experience, parts of it are very different. In some respects, I was trying to figure out what it would have been like if things had been different. So in some respects, Nina did entirely the opposite to what I did. In other respects, there’s a certain amount of overlap.”
Gráinne’s novel was shortlisted in a number of competitions including the very first one she entered, the Virginia Prize for Fiction.
“That was a really nice start. Then, after a couple of years, I applied to do an MA in creative writing at Kingston University in the UK. It was sort of distance learning but then we’d have a weekend every so often at the university. It’s half an hour from London.”
The masters gave Gráinne a writing group and she made friends with some fellow writers. While doing the masters, she decided to go back to.
“I wasn’t happy with it. It wasn’t focused enough on the characters. I rewrote it so that now, it’s very character-driven. While the central event is the bus crash, it’s not about the crash. It’s about five people circling around the crash, all dealing with identity issues to figure out who they are.
“They’re all dealing with a sudden shift as to who they are and where they’re rooted in the world. The book is mainly the story of Nina and Tim who are trying to figure out who they are now.”
Gráinne’s novel is published by Legend Press and her second novel,is due out next year.
A freelance copy editor, Gráinne works from home.
“I’m pretty disciplined. If I’m writing a first draft of fiction, I tend to do it in the morning when I’m more creative. If I’m editing, I do that better at night. In the afternoons, I do my freelance work. I often work with consultancies who might be doing reports for EU member states.”
Four years ago, Gráinne and her family moved back to County Cork. Her husband is the principal of the Educate Together secondary school in Cork city.
In this Covid climate, Gráinne says she has nothing to compare publishing in a pandemic to. “I don’t know what publishing is like in normal times. I’m probably doing more phone interviews and emails than being out in bookshops.”
Gráinne studied applied psychology and then forensic research for her masters at UCC.
“At the time, I really wanted to be an academic. I loved university and I liked academic writing. That’s what I did for a long time. In pretty much every job I’ve had, I ended up writing reports. Working in academe is quite uncertain. There aren’t a lot of jobs. I would have had to move away. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that so, in the end, I changed tack and went into human resources and training and development before going freelance.”
What amused — and slighty annoyed — Gráinne was the way the people she works with were all working from home during lockdown.
“Everybody was coming in ahead of their deadlines because they were trying to show they were very productive. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m only one person and I’m supposed to be home schooling as well as doing all this work.’”
When it comes to Irish writers, Gráinne likes to read Donal Ryan, Anne Enright, Frances Macken and Elske Rahill. Her non-Irish favourite writers are Mary Lawson, Carol Shields and Anne Tyler.
“I like writers who look at the day-to-day lives of characters, how they’re thinking and feeling and the small moments where people figure out who they are.”
I wasn’t happy with it. It wasnt focused enough on the characters. I rewrote it so that now, it’s very character-driven.