'Just because you want something doesn't mean it's going to happen. I can live with that'
Lunch with Anna McPartlin
Anna McPartlin knows a thing or two about love and loss, and the helplessness of watching someone you love fade out of your life. She has also had a pretty turbulent life, including the years spent caring for her beloved mother, Patricia, who died of multiple sclerosis (MS) when Anna was 17; being diagnosed with malnutrition as a child; and having a poor relationship with her late, alcoholic father.
These would be enough to floor most of us, but not Anna, whom I meet at Nick Munier's new restaurant, Avenue. She may have been involved in a car crash that caused her serious physical damage, and has been unable to have the children she longed for, but the 42-year-old author is one of the most positive, sunny and life-affirming people you could possibly encounter.
The light shines through in Anna's latest novel, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, which is about the final eight days in the life of 40-year-old Mia 'Rabbit' Hayes. Mia has terminal cancer, and we first meet her when her mum is driving her into a hospice. She's in denial that her life is coming to an end, as are her big, unruly family, including her spirited daughter, Juliet. We see the family go through the various stages of grief, finally coming to acceptance, as they and Rabbit hold a living wake during her final days.
Despite the subject matter, the book isn't completely tragic and permeated with grinding sadness, Anna explains, over her starter of salmon and main course of hake.
It's an intimate, emotional, sad and funny story, because where there's love, there's laughter and joy, even in the last, ebbing moments of someone's life. Even so, Anna understands that it's a highly personal and sensitive subject, and some people will be uncomfortable with the book's core theme of death and passing.
"With my other books, I didn't have to worry about hurting or offending anyone," she says. "I was worried about this one because my characters get on with things and still manage to laugh, even if they're dying inside. I think there's a great fear of death in Ireland and the UK, and people don't speak about it, but I don't have a fear of death at all, and find it amazing that people can't talk about it, but I would never write a Fifty Shades type of book because I'm just not a 'sexy Bexy' kind of girl."
While the book went to number two in Ireland, it went to number 10 in the UK, helped by being chosen for both the Richard and Judy Book Club and the BBC Radio Two Book Club, where it won rave reviews. On the day we meet, Anna has just received the wonderful news that the book is at number two in Germany, her biggest market. She has already sold a million books there.
"I'm thrilled," she smiles. "I think the Germans identify with my sense of humour, which is quite dark. The worse things get, the funnier I tend to find them, which possibly makes me a bit simple, but that's okay with me. You either see the good side of situations or you don't."
Being conscious that it might not be an appropriate time for some people to read this particular story, Anna insisted on giving the book a title that made the subject obvious. She didn't want readers stumbling into the book, in case they weren't ready to read it. "I don't want anyone to come across it by accident and end up devastated," she says. "I would never tell a story I didn't feel confident telling, and this subject is very important to me. It's born of my experiences, as I have had various types of loss in my life."
Anna is the only child of the late Patricia and William McSwiney. She was born in Dublin, but moved with her parents to Kerry aged two as her father inherited a cinema in Kenmare. He was an alcoholic and ran the cinema into the ground, so her mother eventually left and returned with Anna to Dublin, where they lived with her grandmother in Glasnevin. Patricia was diagnosed with MS shortly after that, and Anna suspects that her very strong mother knew she was sick, and it may have influenced her decision to leave her husband.
Patricia quickly became almost immobile, and her grandmother also became infirm and fell a lot, so Anna became their arms and legs around the house. "We had to work out a method of hoisting and manoeuvring whenever one of them was on the ground, because I was only a child and couldn't lift them," she says. "We had so many laughs and such camaraderie though, and what I remember is their sense of humour, instead of horror. My mum was brilliant and a really happy-go-lucky person, and even in the worst of times, there was laughter.
"Mum wouldn't be able to make it to the toilet, for example, but we would have such craic over that because she would make a joke about it. It's all about how you present these issues, and Mum was light and bright in difficult situations and that was her way."
When she was 11, Anna became malnourished, and was small and thin for her age. While meals were delivered three times a week, she didn't like the food as it was mostly cold when it arrived and the family didn't have a microwave back in the 70s. Her mum was physically unable to cook but made a huge effort to get Anna to eat properly, even buying a small oven in the hope she'd learn to cook. Anna tended to live on sandwiches, sweets and crisps, and as she became malnourished, she began to go into a coma-like sleep at night.
One evening, her grandmother fell in the bathroom, and Anna slept through her cries for help. A neighbour called a fire brigade and ambulance, who were concerned enough to contact social services. Mum Patricia was taken into the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, her grandmother was taken into another care facility, and Anna was sent to live with her aunt Mamie and uncle Tony O'Shea in Kenmare, who had five children. She will always be grateful to them, as they treated her very well and helped her to become a child again, free of the responsibility of being a carer.
"Leaving my mother was absolutely devastating though, and I genuinely think my heart broke that night," says Anna. "Mum was at a stage where she needed constant care that I couldn't give her. When I moved to Kerry, I worried about what was happening to her, as although she was in an amazing place and was very happy there, accidents can always happen. So when I wrote the character of Rabbit's daughter, Juliet, in the book, I knew what I was talking about."
Anna genuinely thought that when she turned 18, she would move back to Dublin to take care of her mum. She had planned to buy a house in Donnybrook, and had decided that she would work in RTÉ while her mum attended a day centre. Sadly, there was a quick progression of the MS, and one day, all of her mum's organs simply shut down. Patricia passed away when Anna was 17, which devastated her. Her dad subsequently died of cancer, but they didn't ever really have a proper relationship.
The funny and expressive Anna dabbled in careers in acting and stand-up comedy, but when she was 20, she was knocked down by a car while crossing the road, and was rushed to hospital. She was mangled on her left side, and her face, arm and leg were injured. She had a bar put in her leg from her knee to her ankle, and in the case of her face, the damage was repaired by plastic surgery.
After she recovered, Anna decided she wanted to write, so she worked in insurance by day and wrote until midnight. She got her first publishing deal, and having signed to UK agent, Curtis Brown, her sixth book, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, is with publisher, Black Swan, an imprint of Transworld.
She has also become a scriptwriter on BBC medical drama, Holby City, over the past two years, and says that walking through the gates of the BBC was a dream come true. Each episode takes three months to write, and she regularly pops over and back to London for meetings. Seeing the characters in such a long-running series saying her lines on the television screen is also mind-blowing.
Anna has been married for years to her musician husband, Donal McPartlin, who was previously in the band, Junkster. They are still madly in love, and were hoping to have a family, but as Anna has endometriosis, it sadly didn't work out for them. They tried IVF, which was unsuccessful, but they don't dwell on it. They are just living their lives, enjoying each other, and looking after their adored rescue pets, three dogs and two cats. That sunny attitude again.
"We're pretty happy campers," says Anna. "I realised a long time ago that just because you want something, it doesn't mean it's going to happen, and I'm okay with that. I'm also lucky enough to be married to someone who shares the same world view.
"We have great friends, I have my writing career and Donal has his music, and while there's no such thing as a perfect life, right now, we're living a pretty good one."
'The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes' by Anna McPartlin, is out now
A life in brief
Family: Married to musician Donal McPartlin. Anna was the only child of the late Patricia and William McSwiney.
Her depressed cat: "I saw a post on Facebook about a cat with depression who was found recently on the M6. I just couldn't have anyone depressed, not even an animal, so I rang the woman from the rescue place crying like a crazy person and said I'd take him. His name is Walter, and he's brilliant and coming along great."
On her positive attitude: "I got that attitude from my mum so I can't take credit for it."