Monday 23 April 2018

Before long . . . this '70s child will be a star

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Aedn Gormley

Write about what you know – it's a tip many of us have heard. Susan Stairs has just had her debut novel The Story of Before published and she certainly sees the wisdom of this phrase.

"I would find it hard to write about things I didn't know," says Sarah. "I don't really like doing huge amounts of research, I prefer to use the experiences that I have."

Although born in London, Susan moved to Ireland as a young child and now lives in Dublin with her family. She received an MA in Creative Writing from UCD in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award the same year.

Her novel features an intriguing 11-year-old central character named Ruth who moves to a new home in Dublin with her family and we follow the chain of events that ultimately lead to tragedy.

I asked Sarah if there was a little of herself in Ruth? There is, she says, in terms of Ruth being a young girl growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and like, Sarah, Ruth is third in the family.

"She stands back a little from the rest of her family. I felt the way to get this across was to have the strong bond of her parents on one side and her brother and sister on the other," says Sarah.

Ruth finds herself with a double sense of isolation. She finds it hard to be a part of her new community and has a sense of displacement within her family.

She is a dark enough character too, declaring at the beginning of the novel: "So I wonder today how no one else could see the bad thing coming. Not that I knew back then what the bad thing was."

She cannot determine what tragedy will unfold and how it will affect her family. The reader is also left guessing until the end.

As someone who was a child in the 1970s myself, I enjoyed noting the familiar in this novel. Locations like Merrion Square and cultural references such as watching Little House on the Prairie and Charlie's Angels.

It also made me think about a childhood many of us will have had up to maybe 20 years or so ago when it was the norm to be let out to play for the day and not to be seen again until dinner time.

"It was a very different place in terms of things we were allowed to do, but they weren't 'the good old days' either; a lot of bad stuff went on," says Sarah.

The unease felt by Ruth in this tale was inspired by a tragedy that happened close to where the author Sarah lived when she was a child.

"It's something that wasn't really spoken about at the time, it has been since but I don't want to speak about it," she says. "It was in my head for a long time and this book, while not about it, was triggered by it."

As we finish chatting, Sarah says that it's a dream come true for her to see her novel in bookshops, having started it four years ago. For her first novel, it was a very positive experience. At one point she had two agents fighting over her!

"It was nice to have the interest from two, I never thought I would be in that position," she says.

Sarah is already well into her second novel, also set in Ireland, this time moving into the 1980s about a young boy from the UK who comes to Ireland for the summer to visit relatives he has never met.

The Story of Before by Susan Stairs is published by Corvus.

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Sat 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sun 1-4pm) on RTÉ lyric fm.

Irish Independent

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