'This is the first book I have written since my dad died," Ciara Geraghty says of her new book, the hugely entertaining Make Yourself at Home. "I wanted it to be joyful and uplifting. It served as such a great distraction to me, from the grief."
Ciara's father Don died three years ago. "There was a lot of relief around his death, because he'd had dementia for so many years, but also, you're still grieving," she says of the contradictory nature of losing someone to the degenerative disease.
"I kind of felt that I'd grieved him while he was still alive. But you know, time is a funny thing. Once you got over the initial 'I'm so relieved that he's not suffering, and he's at peace', you do feel so sad, that he's gone."
There was also guilt, a common but often not talked about side of grief. "Absolutely. Because imagine feeling relief that your dad is dead. Who does that? But you do it. So, God, yeah, there was a massive amount of guilt. But then time gives you a great perspective on things, and you realise that it's very, very normal."
Make Yourself at Home, her eighth book, is an instantly engaging read, what you might get if you mixed Jojo Moyes with Marian Keyes. At its heart is the story of mother and daughter Rita and Marianne. Marianne's life has fallen apart, and she retreats, reluctantly, to her mother's house where she grew up. Rita is an alcoholic in recovery. Their relationship is strained, full of leftover hurt from the neglect Marianne suffered as a child at the hands of both her parents during their drinking days.
As the novel progresses, Marianne begins to realise the different standards to which she held her parents accountable.
"How had he managed to escape scrutiny in these matters?" she wonders of her father. "She supposed it was his gender, expectation being so much less for fathers. The woman alcoholic. Or worse, the mother alcoholic. She was not someone to be excused. Or even pitied."
"The thing about Rita is she's a mother. I'm a mother, and like everyone I know who is a mother, we beat ourselves up and down about what we have failed to do,"
Ciara says now. "I don't think fathers do that. And it's not just an Irish societal thing, it's universal." She has three children, Sadhbh, 22, Neil, 19, and "my baby Grace", 12. The guilt doesn't get easier the more experienced you get, she admits. "I think I beat myself up to the core just as much as I did at the beginning."
Her book, which is funny, and intuitive, like its author in conversation, cleverly examines the gendered attitudes with which we view drink problems in men and women. "It's kind of acceptable, and excusable, for a man to be an alcoholic. But you apply that to a woman, and especially to a mother, and it's like, oh my God. Horrific. I wanted to talk about that. There's no doubt that Rita did benignly neglect her girls. But so did William. He gets away with it all, and it's Rita who is held up to account."
Ciara herself gave up alcohol completely three years ago, aged 47, after realising her drinking had become problematic. "My relationship with alcohol had changed. I had an uneasy relationship with it," she says, adding that she would not describe herself as an alcoholic.
"I didn't have a rock bottom as such. I'd been drinking since... the Inter Cert was the first time. Just kind of a binge drinker, like all of my friends, into my 20s, 30s, 40s." The awareness dawned on her that drinking had lost its sense of occasion.
"That sense of let's celebrate. It had become way more workaday, pedestrian. It was like a habit that had just very quietly, but insidiously, seeped its way into every aspect of my life, you know?"
She thinks the changes in our drinking habits that occurred during the Celtic Tiger compounded matters; drinking at home became much more common.
"It was really cheap to buy wine in the supermarket, and then it just became completely and utterly normal to drink at home, and nobody would bat an eyelid." There's the Instagram-fuelled culture around drink that positively encourages it, she adds. "'Wine o' clock'. 'It's self-care'. 'It's me time'. You wouldn't be judged for it at all. You could totally say, 'yep, I opened a bottle of wine last night and I drank the entire thing'. That was just happening more and more. It was so normalised; it was just the way society was going."
She recalls looking at a drinks calculator, realising how much she was drinking, and what her weekly recommended amount actually was. The hangovers that got much worse as she got older.
Ciara describes being sober-curious. "What would that feel like? It was probably the writer in me as well, I wanted to know what that feels like."
The biggest take-home, she reflects now, was other people's reaction. "People's attitude when you're not drinking in Ireland, that was harder than not drinking. It's unbelievable. When you're drinking, it's like 'yay, you're Party Girl', you never want to go home, the last one standing, 'oh, she's great'. And I could literally drink a lot and not be falling down. I was very good at it," Ciara laughs.
"That's all completely fine, and nobody bats an eyelid; it's acceptable. Then, you turn around and decide, well, I'm not drinking, and that's the big deal," she says.
"It feels kind of like an act of rebellion, countercultural. I kind of felt bad ass then. Because people were just so horrified."
People were horrified, and then in need of an explanation, she says, smiling wryly, adding that there are a few acceptable reasons for not drinking.
"So, you're on antibiotics. You're pregnant. Or you're driving. And even if you're driving, well, you'll just have the one."
Ciara joined the website soberistas.com, an online community of mostly women, to help her with the endeavour.
"There's a huge spectrum of ages but the majority seem to be professional women in their 40s, who have decided, for various reasons, to stop drinking. I found that incredibly helpful."
Over three years later, she describes herself as being incredibly comfortable as a non-drinker.
"And I'm very glad. So I'm delighted to talk about the positives of having stopped. Because people who drink, they don't really believe you that life is way better. There are no hangovers, but also at every event you're very present, you're at things because you want to be there.
"Some people say to me, 'how can you have any fun if you're not drinking?' It's not the alcohol that makes it fun. It's actually the people who make it fun. The alcohol allows people to loosen the bonds that they put around themselves, and to just be themselves. When you can actually just be yourself, all by yourself," she says, with a smile.
"Being a sober person in Ireland, it's not for the faint-hearted," she reflects now. "I did worry about how people would perceive me; would they think I'm not great craic anymore. That's all really about me, in my head. Some things changed in terms of how I conducted my social life, but really, for the most part, my friends are still my friends, and [pre-lockdown] we go to the theatre, we go to writers' events, we go for walks, we go for coffee, we sit outside in beer gardens, all of those things are still there."
There has been much testimony of how the conditions of lockdown have been challenging for those in recovery, but Ciara describes how, over three years sober, she is both far enough into her own journey, yet also still freshly cognisant of the benefits, not to have found this a problem.
"I felt very comfortable in my own skin, I suppose, and in my sobriety. I suppose that feeling of relief has never really left me."
Now 50, and working on her ninth book, Ciara was 34 when she began writing. At the time, she was working in insurance.
"God help me," she says. "I was a loss adjuster. It's not like when I grow up, I want to be a loss adjuster, but that's what I ended up doing. I was like 'oh my God, this is it until I die'. It wasn't even that I didn't like it, but that's not what I wanted to do. But I didn't know what I wanted to do. My kids were young enough, I was working full-time, so it was really busy. I suppose it was like a mini mid-life crisis kind of thing."
She decided to go to an evening class in creative writing.
"I'll never forget it; I was riddled with fear. But I got so lucky. Ellen McSweeney was my teacher. She was incredibly gentle and encouraging. I was this timid little person; I had never met an actual real-life writer, and who did I think I was that I was going to do this? But she saw something in me, and said, 'you could do this', and I believed her."
She began working on her first book, sitting at the kitchen table after her children were in bed, writing into the small hours.
"It was definitely one of the happiest times of my life. It kind of felt like it was a super power. Like some kind of secret life. In the day, I was going around in my work suit, being a loss adjuster. But at night, when the world got quiet and dark, I would sit at my kitchen table and write my book. I just loved it; it was a lightbulb moment in my life."
She was finishing maternity leave on her last child, who is now 12, when an offer from her publishing house meant that she could give up her work in insurance entirely, and become a full-time writer.
Ciara, who grew up in Dublin, a middle child of three siblings, has spent lockdown at home with her family.
"I got him for my 18th birthday," she laughingly says of her husband Frank.
"I could not get into our local pub, which was Gibney's in Malahide, until I was literally 18. I had to bring my passport down on my birthday, and I got in and met Frank. He is now my husband of... millions of years."
She also launched a podcast last year with her friend, author and actress Carolyn Grace Cassidy; Bookbirds hears the two friends discuss favourite books they have re-read.
When we speak, Ciara is in the middle of working on her next book, which includes a character who is experiencing menopause.
"I just think we do not really see very many menopausal women, and I want to see them. I'm going through it; it's a very strange time. I'd love there to be a central clinic that's all about women's health. I would appreciate a lot more information. You're kind of left to flounder alone; research it ourselves. You speak to other women and you're all kind of pooling resources."
There's an attitude from medical professionals, she notes with frustration, of everything is down to menopause.
"It's almost like 'well, look, what do you expect, you're a woman? That's going to happen.'"
She looks indignant at such casual generalisations, as well she might. Her own work is full of women drawn with depth, perception, and humanity.
Women like herself.
'Make Yourself at Home' by Ciara Geraghty, published by Harper Collins, is available from bookshops and online now, €11.99
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