Shelley Marsden speaks to one of Ireland’s most talked-about female authors, Carmel Harrington, who at the beginning of last year was a relative unknown
CARMEL Harrington wasn’t sure if anyone would even bother reading her debut novel, Beyond Grace’s Rainbow. She released it as an e-book (even designing the cover herself on her iPad), but it went on to win Kindle Book of the Year and was soon snapped up by Harper Collins.
She had ditched a demanding senior position in sales and marketing in Dublin to pursue her writing dream, and now lives in Screen, Wexford – a typical rural village which has nothing in it but a pub, a church and a school (she tells me, “I always joke you can buy a pint of Guinness here, but not a pint of milk”).
Carmel is celebrating the release of her second novel through Harper, The Life You Left, and though she loved it and enjoyed her vibrant office, she doesn’t miss her old job one bit.
“These days my office is the kitchen table, and my colleagues are my 4 year old daughter Amelia and my 2 year old son Nate. Then when hubby comes home I bend the ear off him as I’ve had no adult conversation all day!” says the bubbly 42 year old.
Given the meteoric success of her first offering, it’s a relief for Carmel to get the notorious “second book” done and dusted. Beyond Grace’s Rainbow, about a mother-of-one diagnosed with cancer, whose best chance of survival is to find a bone marrow transplant from a family member, only to discover she is adopted, had a lot of fans.
She says: “Everybody at some point has been affected by cancer. As we know, one in four people have it, so it was such an emotive premise that I kept getting warned that my second book might not be able to live up to it. I was terrified they’d be right, but when the initial reviews started to come in and people loved it, I started to relax a bit.”
The Life You Left is a markedly different work, one that’s gone a little darker than Carmel’s first, and with more of an element of suspense, embroidering different styles into one engrossing whole. It deals with the fallout when a man just gets up and walks out of his family’s life one day. Thankfully, says Carmel, it’s not based on anyone she knows.
“But I’ve heard of men – and women – who just get up and walk out on their families, and start new ones elsewhere. I wanted to explore that. But I know what it’s like to think your life will turn out one way and then the rug’s pulled out from under your feet. I added my own experiences into Sarah’s emotions of experiencing a break-up and moving on – I had no kids at that stage, but I could describe that feeling of being with the wrong person and having to start over.”
She wanted her protagonist Sarah, she explains, to have to reinvent herself entirely. She has grown up with parents that didn’t believe in her, and then married Paul, the first guy that showed her any love. Sarah, blissfully unaware that her relationship was under threat, realises what her husband has done via a cold, detached email – a sign of the times if ever there was one.
“With social media, it’s becoming almost acceptable to end a relationship by text or email, isn’t it?”, says Carmel. “Paul’s pretty flaky, so that’s his personality, and I dropped hints throughout the book that he never stuck to anything, was a bit cowardly. So yes, he snuck off into the night after pressing ‘send message’.”
Carmel is happily married with kids, but forced herself into the head of her protagonist to imagine how it must have felt. “I became Sarah, abandoned with three children and one just 10 months old. My husband Roger and I are so happily married, it’s ridiculous. People laugh at us, but we do think we live this charmed life and we’re very grateful we met each other. The idea of Roger doing something like that made me start to panic. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe, and I used that in the book.”
Sarah is a likeable woman. She always puts her children first, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her moments – and her penchant for getting the bottle of vino out when it all gets too stressful is one that modern, multi-tasking women will relate to all too well.
Her silent, strong sidekick, apart from her twin brother James who is a constant source of support, is the enigmatic Edward – her guardian angel. Carmel has been intrigued by the idea of them since a strange incident some years ago, which happened while she was doing a spot of shooing in the M&S in Liffey Valley.
“It wasn’t long after something very traumatic happened to me, while I was living in Dublin. Let’s just say I was going through a really rough patch, I was struggling”, says the author. “I’d been a bit of a recluse for a while, and the first time I went out to do some shopping, out of the blue a woman walked up to me, caught me by the hand and said, “I know you think things can get no worse, but something really beautiful will happen soon. Know that at this very moment you’re angel is surrounding you with so much love.’”
Carmel’s immediate reaction was to hug her handbag, thinking this nut-job was trying distraction tactics before she robbed her. But the woman walked away as quickly as she had appeared beside her. Shaken, Carmel went home and tried to forget about it, but the whole centuries-old concept of angels began to interest her, and came back to her while writing The Life You Left.
For more see this week’s edition of the Irish World (August 9)
The Life You Live (Harper Collins) is out now. For more, see http://carmelharrington.com