Sunday 20 October 2019

Honoured to be included among these giants

It's already a win to be on the Popular Fiction shortlist with her author heroes, writes Carmel Harrington

Carmel Harrington is a fan of her fellow nominees
Carmel Harrington is a fan of her fellow nominees
Melissa Hill
Marian Keyes
Paul Howard
Patricia Scanlan

Certain songs have the ability to bring me back to a time or place in my life of great significance. Books share that ability too. When I walked into the Bord Gais Energy Theatre for the Irish Book Awards shortlist announcement, I was both excited and nervous. I knew that my fifth novel, The Woman at 72 Derry Lane, was shortlisted in the Specsavers Popular Fiction Book of the Year. But I had no idea which five authors I would share this special honour with.

The room was full when I arrived, with media, booksellers, publishers and, of course, writers. With shaking hands, I scanned the pages of the shortlist booklet, cheering silently as I recognised many friends who had also received a nod. And then I got to my category.

Patricia Scanlan, Marian Keyes, Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, Sinead Moriarty, Melissa Hill and Carmel Harrington. Me!

As I whispered each of their names, memories of when I discovered their books came flooding back. For decades I have read and loved stories penned by these witty, funny and emotive writers.

Back in the early 1990s, monthly book club subscriptions were all the rage. Well, they were for me! I loved the books I selected from the glossy brochure. One of these was City Girl. Like the central characters in Patricia's book, I was a country girl house-sharing in the big smoke. I was hooked.

Another book club read was my first Marian book - Watermelon. I instantly fell in love with all the shenanigans of the Walsh sisters and became a firm fan. I told Marian as much in an embarrassing, over-the-top moment 15 years ago. I was at a charity lunch in L'Ecrivain and Marian was the guest speaker. Designer handbags were being auctioned to raise funds during the event. I, however, hadn't a bean to my name. In between courses, I snuck into the room that was bedecked and bedazzled by soft leather bags, awaiting their big moment. While I stroked a Mulberry satchel, wondering if I didn't eat for a month, could I chance a cheeky bid, a voice called out from across the room. I looked up and standing there, looking at me, also stroking a bag, was none other than Marian. The Marian Keyes. We started to chat about handbags - totes, clutches, shoulder bags, all of the bags. And I realised, that she was every bit as lovely and funny as her books were. I wanted to tell her that I was her biggest fan, but I was terrified I'd sound like Kathy Bates's hysterical and ridiculously-sappy Annie from Stephen King's Misery.

But knowing I'd never have another chance, I gushed. And gushed some more. Then I confessed my desire to be a writer, telling Marian that I'd started to write my first book. Marian was gracious, she encouraged me to chase my dream. She recommended some agents to me and then she said something that I've never forgotten. Patience was needed in the world of publishing. Overnight success rare. She mentioned book five being significant. A milestone in a writer's life.

I've clutched onto that so many times over the past seven years. Get to book five.

The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is my fifth book. And now it's shortlisted in a prestigious book award, alongside Marian herself. Isn't that uncanny?

By the time I discovered Sinead Moriarty and Melissa Hill, I'd traded in my book club subscription for lazy Saturdays spent in my local book shop. With a coffee shop on site, I could while away hours choosing my next reads. It's often said that the first chapter is crucial for writers to capture a reader's attention. Back then, if the book hadn't grabbed me by the second sip of my coffee, I would move onto the next possibility. For both Sinead's In My Sister's Shoes and Melissa's Something You Should Know, I can remember that I needed to buy a second latte. I simply could not put their books down.

It wasn't until I moved in with my husband that I discovered Ross O'Carroll Kelly. As I made room on Roger's bookshelf for my favourite reads, I noticed a book called PS, I Scored the Bridesmaids among his books. Newly engaged, the title caught my attention. I still snort with laughter when I think about the pages about songs not allowed at a wedding.

I have decades of memories tied up with beloved books written by my fellow nominees. Here I am, in their company. That's a win, no matter what happens on the night. But maybe, five really will be the magic number for me.

SPECSAVERS POPULAR FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR: Orange Blossom Days, Patricia Scanlan; The Break, Marian Keyes; Operation Trumpsformation, Ross O'Carroll-Kelly; The Good Mother, Sinead Moriarty; Keep you Safe, Melissa Hill; The Woman at 72 Derry Lane, Carmel Harrington.

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