Monday 26 September 2016

Emma Hannigan: 'I wrote my last book in the waiting room of St Vincent's, outside the radiation unit'

Emma Hannigan (42) is a writer, and author of ten novels, with the 11th on the way. She lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, with her husband Cian McGrath, and their two children Sacha (15) and Kim (13). She was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, and has beaten it nine times

Emily Hourican

Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30

Author Emma Hannigan's 11th book is out in paperback in October. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Author Emma Hannigan's 11th book is out in paperback in October. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

I'm up at 7am, usually. If the kids have school, I do all the usual morning stuff, like breakfast and chasing teenagers who don't want to get up. They refuse to eat cereal - they're very spoilt - so I make pancakes or French toast. I don't eat, as I drop them to school for about 8.05am, and then I go swimming. I do 20 lengths every day. I count them, because I hate exercise. I only do it so I can fit into my clothes. My husband is a triathlete - I guess opposites attract - and sometimes he says things like, 'Maybe tomorrow you'll do 22 lengths,' to which I say, 'I won't. I'll do 20 and get out, and I deserve a medal for that'.

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After the swim, I go to my office - which is in Bray too, so it's all very convenient - and make porridge with fruit and seeds. I used to write at home, but it got messy. It was fine when the kids were smaller and we had an au pair, but they got older and I've got busier, and now it's easier to have a space that's totally for work.

After breakfast, I get straight down to writing. I try to edit after every couple of chapters, but if I'm having a real burst of inspiration, I'll just go with it. I don't have any formal training in writing, but it's a craft, something you learn as you go along - from your mistakes, same as with anything.

People think writing is purely creative; they think you only do it when the wind is blowing in a certain direction or something, but that's complete rubbish. You have to be disciplined. It's the same as any job. You've got to sit down and write the words. For the past two years, I've written two books a year. You don't do that by waiting for a day when the sun is in a certain place in the sky.

I worked as a chef when I left school, then in an engineering company, then as a beauty therapist, all of which are quite regimented, with long hours, so I have that ingrained in me. I'm not very good at doing nothing, either. When I've finished one book, I start another the very next day.

My first book was published in 2009, and I'm just finishing the edits on book number 11 now. Writing is something I came to quite by mistake, when I was diagnosed with cancer, for the first time, in 2007. I started writing as an exercise to stop me going insane. I discovered that I really liked it, and haven't stopped since. My writing is most definitely my therapy as well. I've battled cancer so many times. Some people find God, I found books.

The paperback version of The Heart of Winter is coming out in October. I wrote that entirely in the waiting room of St Vincent's, outside the radiation unit. I had to have 50 sessions of radiation, all in a row. I think that could get in on one's brain after a while. It's three hours every day, including getting in and out, and it was really painful because the cancer was in the back of my head.

I would bring my laptop, and sit and write while waiting for them to call me in. While I was lying on the table, I'd think about what I was going to write next. My body was there, going through all the nasty stuff, but my brain was writing the book. It's incredible therapy for me - a lifeline, not just a job.

And it's not just about escaping the reality of what's happening to me, it's escaping the spiralling 'what ifs . . . ' as well. I've beaten cancer nine times, I'm at the cutting edge of treatment, so there aren't that many people I can talk to about this. There is no benchmark, and no answers, really.

I have lunch in the office - usually soup, these days. I found out I have an underactive thyroid about a year ago. I used to be able to eat a cake for my lunch and not put on weight. Now, I can't even look at one. For the first time in my life I'm calorie counting, and god, it's boring! I'm on medication, and apparently my thyroid is much better, but it still isn't doing enough of a job that I like it; my thyroid and I are not friends at the moment.

I usually finish in the office at about 3pm. Then I go off and do all the boring mum stuff, like shopping, putting on washes, doing the ironing, getting dinner ready for when the kids get home from school around 5.30pm. For dinner, I usually make something that can be heated, because everyone comes in at different times. And they are typical fussy eaters as well, so it's lasagne, or meatballs, or roast chicken.

Read more: Emma Hannigan: 'Bouncing back from cancer nine times has made me realise that life is precious'

After dinner, I would often walk with the dog. We might do the River Walk in Powerscourt, or Bray seafront. I'm not great at watching TV, although I like Grey's Anatomy, and I Found The Gown. The rest of the time I just write more, or read. I'm always reading, usually the competition! At weekends, if I'm editing or getting towards the end of a book, I would work a little. I used to do it more, but I have tried to stop and do family stuff instead. But the age the kids are at now, they try to get as far away from me as possible, which is completely normal, and my husband works on Saturdays because he has a shop, Base2Race sports store in Ballymount.

I often bake on Saturdays - I trained in Ballymaloe - and I've turned into a feeder since my thyroid and I have fallen out. I bake cakes and push them on other people.

Read more: How blogging has helped Eimear (31) cope with breast cancer: 'It has made me feel part of something bigger'

I'm always in bed by 10pm. I might watch TV or read for an hour, but I try and go to sleep by 11pm. Before I do, I plan the next day. My iPhone is beside the bed, so I check what's going on.

I'm cancer-free at the moment, although I'm still on chemotherapy every three weeks for the foreseeable future. But it's great. I'm very lucky, I have an amazing team of people in the Blackrock Clinic looking after me; I let them do all the worrying, and I get on with the other stuff. Life is fantastic. There's no point in fighting to be well, fighting to live, and then being a miserable cow. Life is precious. Everybody has adversity, but by god you've got to grab the good times.

The paperback of 'The Heart of Winter' will be published in October, see emmahannigan.com

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