'Escaping Syria is harrowing - me having a mum who wasn't well is not the same thing'
Writer Anna McPartlin survived a traumatic childhood, a car smash and failed IVF. But pity's not needed - she's happy, she tells our reporter
Published 13/11/2015 | 07:00
As a teenager in Kenmare in the 80s, Anna McPartlin had a very specific plan about how her life would go after she left school.
She planned to move to Dublin at 18, as her adored mum Patricia was in full-time care at the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, having been admitted at 42 with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis.
Once she was an adult, Anna dreamt she would take her mum out of hospital, and they would move into one of the houses being built close by. Her mum would attend day care while she worked in RTE, and she was pretty sure she'd get in there because she had read an article about Philip Schofield knocking on the BBC's door until they gave him a job.
"I thought I would do the same thing and wouldn't need college or a degree," she laughs. "I would just go in to RTE every morning until they let me in and gave me something to do.
"I had this beautiful image of my mum and I being back together, and I imagined us being 'Golden Girls' together. I was completely naïve and ridiculous, because I genuinely thought there would be so many advances in science by then, they would find a cure or a way to give Mum her life back again."
Sadly, it was not to be, as in July 1989, the summer before Anna did her Leaving Cert, her mum passed away aged 49. Anna had been living in Kerry with her beloved aunt Mamie and uncle Tony and their four children since the age of 11, the point at which her mum was taken into care, and it was decided that she was too ill to care for Anna. She says her family in Kerry definitely saw a change in her after that, as she became remote and isolated. She has very little memory of that following year.
"I think my mother dying when I was 17 coloured the next five years of my life and how I related to everybody," she says. "I lost hope for a very long time, and it wasn't until I was 23 that I kind of came out of that period of doom and gloom."
Aside from that natural period of mourning, Anna, now 43, has always been a very positive and cheerful person. She laughs easily, sees humour in the darkest situations, and her intrinsic empathy is what makes her such a wonderful writer. She is also fabulous company, being funny, self-deprecating and kind.
Her seventh book, Somewhere Inside of Happy, has just been released, and it follows on from The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, which garnered massive critical and commercial acclaim last year and was endorsed on both Richard and Judy and Simon May's book clubs.
Both Rabbit and the new book deal with very sad and difficult subjects, but are compelling, uplifting and funny reads.
Somewhere Inside of Happy is about Maisie Brennan, a woman in her 50s who is standing on a podium talking to a packed room of college students. She is there to talk about her son Jeremy who was "born in violence and died in violence," but while he was there, he was the light of her life.
As she tells the students what happened to him, the story goes back to a five-day period in 1995, and we live the last day that Jeremy was at home before he disappears with his best friend and the following four days.
The story chronicles the family looking for the two boys and the media getting involved, and describes what happens when a mother who is separated from a violent man, and is living with her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's in a small working-class community, is scrutinised.
While it's thrilling and gripping, there is a huge love story at the heart of the book of an Irish mother and her beloved son. It is also written from different people's perspectives, including the elderly grandmother's, which meant that Anna had to write from the mind of a fearful and confused Alzheimer's patient. She was really worried about it and determined to get right, but she needn't have fretted as that part is particularly powerful.
The tenderness with which Anna writes, and her ability to draw humour from dark situations is partly attributable to her own life experiences. A potted history of her own story is that she was the only child of Patricia and William McSwiney, and after her late parents separated, she and her mum moved in with her grandmother, Bridie, in Glasnevin. As the two women developed mobility problems, Anna took on a caring role and became their arms and legs until the situation became untenable.
Despite her mum's best efforts, she became malnourished at 11, as she didn't like the "meals-on-wheels" that were delivered. Then her granny fell and the emergency services had to attend. Social services became involved, and Anna was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Kerry, while her mum and granny were taken into separate care homes.
After her mum died, Anna moved back to Dublin, and her early career saw her dabbling in acting, sales and stand-up comedy. When she was 20, she was knocked down by a car while crossing the road, where she was "mangled" on the left side of her face and body and had to have plastic surgery and an operation on her leg.
When she recovered, Anna decided she wanted to write, and after 10 years, she she got her first publishing deal for Pack Up The Moon, which went to number two in the charts. She has since sold over a million books in Germany. Aside from the success of her books, she is also a scriptwriter for the BBC medical drama, Holby City, and loves the whole challenge.
How did it affect her becoming orphaned so young? "I don't feel how another orphan would feel because I have my aunt and uncle, and they are my touchstones," she says.
"I don't make a big move in my life without going to them first. They have moved to New Zealand, and if they say 'Jump,' I say 'How high?' because they are wonderful and are always spot on."
Her other touchstone is her ever-supportive musician husband, Donal McPartlin, formerly of the band Junkster, whom she describes as "patient, tolerant and kind".
They are nearly 23 years together, and are very happy, although she worries that talking about how lucky she is might bring on what she calls the "Sandra Bullock effect".
"She was gushing about her man Jesse James at the Oscars, and he ended up with the tattooed woman (tattoo artist Kat Von D) so I'd better be careful," she jokes. "Donal and I are so happy and we just get on, and the three dogs Bonzo, Trudy and Misty and cat Walter are the light of our lives.
"Animals have been a huge part of my life since I was a child, and I was always drawn to them and they were drawn to me. I will always pick the wonky ones, the ones that no one else wants.
"I love my animals, and people think I have them because I have no kids, but even if I had 10 kids, I would still have my pets."
As she has endometriosis, she and Donal have had difficulty conceiving and have tried IVF once without success.
"I have made my peace with not having kids," she says. "I would have loved to have them and I won't pretend it didn't hurt, but it is what it is. I could have done 10 IVFs and maybe had kids, but myself and Donal made the decision to stop after one because we felt it wasn't for us and we stand by that decision.
"We've been very lucky, as we love our lives, and while we'd love to be parents, I'm happy, as I love my furry babies and my husband and have a great life."
Now that she is 43, Anna says that she really likes being in her 40s, because while she was always comfortable in her own skin, she likes just getting on with it and "hurtling towards the end."
She is mindful of the fact that she is now older than her mum was when she went into full-time care, and thinks that she has nothing to complain about when she has her health and happiness and gets to do her dream job for a living.
That's all great, but in truth, Anna has faced some challenges that would knock most of us down. How does she always radiate such positivity?
"I think you're born a certain way for starters, and I don't think people should congratulate themselves for things they're born with," she says.
"My mum was relentlessly positive and wasn't one to feel sorry for herself, and I'm really grateful to her for that, because she taught me how to find joy and humour in light or darkness. So the shittier things are, the more I'm laughing."
While Anna understands that people in the media always want to ask about her back story because they find it interesting, she doesn't particularly relish when the "triumph over adversity" angle is taken and her supposed "deep, dark sadness" is described.
"I don't recognise that and find it ridiculous," she smiles. "Escaping Syria or being a sex slave is harrowing, and me having a mother who wasn't particularly well is not the same thing.
"I don't focus on sadness, I focus on joy and I look at what I have rather than wishing for more. I live in the moment, which can be good or bad, and I also find when I'm around negative people, I feel drained and negative too.
"But when I'm surrounded by positive people, I'm incredibly happy and positive, and that's the way I like to live. If I died tomorrow, the thing that I would like to say is that I have had the loveliest time, and it is not tragic at all because I've had an absolute ball."
'Somewhere Inside of Happy' is out now (Transworld Ireland, €19.50)