It's February 2019. Writer Christine Dwyer Hickey is invited to the launch of Dublin One City One Book: Edna O'Brien's classic The Country Girls. Dwyer Hickey's ninth novel, The Narrow Land, is due two weeks later, and she's pre-occupied with thoughts of its future (she needn't worry: it is going to be loved by critics and readers alike, and shortlisted for Eason Novel of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards).
She's not thinking about Tatty, a book she published 15 years earlier. Why should she? Books are like babies that way, the newest one always seeming to need you most, wriggling through your arms and veins, forever demanding a furious, hard sort of attention.
February 2020. Dwyer Hickey is back in the same room in the Mansion House, at another crowded Dublin One City One Book launch. But this year, she is sitting at the big table, stacks of copies of Tatty piled up on either side. The signing queue takes an hour to thin.
What a difference a year makes, she says. "I had an email from Alison Lyons, a director of UNESCO City of Literature.
"At first, I thought she was asking me to present something or to speak to camera in praise of another writer who had been given the honour which was exactly what happened the previous year when Edna O'Brien was selected. I read Alison's email three or four times before I finally understood that this time, my novel had been chosen.
"I was very moved… it took me a good while to pull myself together before I could call and accept. I had no idea Tatty had been put forward and so it came as a complete surprise."
Dublin is one of 28 UNESCO Cities of Literature worldwide. Dublin UNESCO City of Literature office, which is part of Dublin City Libraries, launched Dublin One City One Book in 2006, and, five years later, a children's version called the Citywide Read for Children campaign (this year's selection is Boot by Shane Hegarty). While the concept of a city-wide, month-long reading scheme was already well established in the UK and US, the vision for the Dublin version was unique: the chosen book had to be connected to the capital, either through the author or the story.
Beginning with Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, chosen books have included Dracula, Ulysses, Roddy Doyle's The Barrytown Trilogy, and The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson.
The principle behind Dublin One City One Book is a simple one, explains Alison Lyons: "To shine a light on a particular book, to make sure it's widely available through the library system, and to encourage reading of it with lots of free events themed around the story and the author." Simplicity must be key to its success, as events attract a total audience of around 3,000 annually. Inevitably, the book goes on to be one of the most borrowed in Dublin city libraries for the year.
Tatty, a deceptively simple yet startlingly original story, is unlikely to buck that trend. Opening in 1964 and closing a decade later, it is the story of a particular sort of Irish childhood; one spent with unhappy, heavy-drinking adults. Dermot Bolger's introduction to the New Island Books' One City One Book edition notes that in this society, "it is taken for granted that men can drink expansively and extravagantly in public while women must drink secretly at home; where depression is an unspoken stigma lurking behind closed curtains on every street in Dublin and family secrets are meant to stay within families".
Intense, insightful, and often hilarious, Tatty's evocative recreation of Dublin homes, streets, schools, and pubs is sure to provoke discussion at events during April: school lunches of a jam sandwich and a Baby Powers bottle full of milk; the neighbour with the only phone in the street; the shrugging, so-what-of-it acceptance of driving while drunk.
Catherine (Tatty is her nickname) is a child tortured by the pain of knowing her mother doesn't love her, and fear that her father doesn't either. The first time I read Tatty, I didn't realise it was the story of Dwyer Hickey's own childhood, and I finished the book desperate to know what Catherine's adult life might have been. Was she safe? Happy? In Tatty, awful things are done by people who aren't awful people. They are miserable. They are drunk and bewildered and scared.
Tatty was never intended to be a novel, Dwyer Hickey says. "When I first started to write it, I was doing so as a sort of exercise in therapy to help me get my head around my complicated childhood which, after my father's death had come back to haunt me.
"Tatty is still a novel and as such had to be moulded into the shape required by the form. However, it is a very personal story and essentially, it is the story of my childhood... I always felt an underlying guilt about publishing it in the first place, and a crippling anxiety when it came to discussing it in interviews and so on.
"I'm not anti-drink by the way; I'm just against drinking to excess around children and think we need to have more conversations around this issue. I'm hoping that One City One Book might start that particular ball rolling."
With a programme of events including 'All the Words I Know for Drunk' (Dwyer Hickey in conversation with Martina Devlin about the theme of alcoholism in the book), and 'Man about Town: Drunkard, Spendthrift', in which Dwyer Hickey looks at the effect of John Joyce on the creative and emotional development of his son James, there is certainly potential for such conversations to happen. But these are just one aspect of the novel that the programme explores.
From big on-stage presentations to pull-your-chair-up conversations in the local library, one of the most likeable aspects of Dublin One City One Book is the opportunity to explore a book from so many perspectives and scales. The month-long series of talks, events and workshops - most of which are free - include 'The Big TY Book Club' (free copies of Tatty are on offer to participant students), a 'Music and Imagination' event in Liberty Hall, a writing masterclass with Dwyer Hickey, and 'Dublin Childhood on Film' in the Irish Film Institute. Tatty is also scheduled as RTÉ's The Book on One for a fortnight from April 20. This impressively full programme is also a celebration of reading and of libraries, which work so hard to promote books all year round. With so many events scheduled, participation in Dublin One City One Book must also be a significant commitment for an author.
Lia Mills whose novel Fallen was the Dublin/Belfast Two Cities One Book title for 2016, commented on how it stretched her as a writer: "I got to do things I had never done before, like writing two different scripts adapted from Fallen for performance.
"I loved the engagement with readers throughout the month, and being able to include other writers in the programme. The big shock to me was the difference that promotion and public engagement made to sales," she says. "When Fallen first came out it was well-received in a quiet sort of a way and then just sort of slid out of sight. In the year of Two Cities One Book, its second outing, it was the exact same novel, but sales figures jumped dramatically for that one year."
Joe Joyce, whose gripping World War II thriller Echoland was the 2017 choice, had a similar experience. Echoland became Dublin City Library's most borrowed book that year. "I learned a lot about the Emergency period from the events Alison Lyons and Jackie Lynam and their team in the library put together," he comments.
"It would have saved me a lot of time had I had it all before writing the Echoland series!"
Revisiting Tatty has been a strange experience, Dwyer Hickey says. Her relationship with the book has changed significantly since she wrote it.
"To be honest, it took me a while to find the courage to pick up the book and read it again! After the wonderful launch in the Mansion House, I feel there is an atmosphere of celebration around the renaissance of Tatty. I am very happy about it now and no longer afraid. It's as if something has been mended."
New Island Books' Dublin One City One Book edition of Tatty includes a list of questions for the reader. The last is: "If you could ask the author one question, what would it be?'
This April, ask yours.
Dublin One City One Book programme available from libraries and dublinonecityonebook.ie. Most events are free, many require advance booking