Tuesday 24 October 2017

'Women can't have everything. It's so hard. That lifestyle has gone' - Patricia Scanlan

Lunch with Patricia Scanlan

Royal welcome: Patricia Scanlan and Edel Coffey at Picasso Restaurant in Clontarf, Dublin. Photo: Martin Maher.
Royal welcome: Patricia Scanlan and Edel Coffey at Picasso Restaurant in Clontarf, Dublin. Photo: Martin Maher.
Million-selling women: Four of Ireland's top women authors, from left, Cathy Kelly, Marian Keyes, Patricia Scanlan and Sheila O'Flanagan. Photo: Robert Doyle
Picasso Restaurant
Patricia Scanlan in the 1990s

Edel Coffey

A quarter of a century after her debut bestseller 'City Girl', Patricia Scanlon says who she believes should take Maeve Binchy's crown as queen of Irish fiction.

Patricia Scanlan may as yet be the unofficial queen of Irish women's fiction, but having kickstarted the publishing boom in Ireland with her City Girl trilogy back in 1990, she certainly has a strong claim to the crown.

The former librarian was the first of the modern pack of Irish women writers like Cathy Kelly, Marian Keyes and Sheila O'Flanagan to start writing books specifically for Irish readers. Set in Ireland, and about the familiar experiences of Irish men and women, they were instant hits. It seems like a simple idea but it was a complete novelty at the time.

Twenty five years later, Scanlan has just published her 19th novel, A Time For Friends. She has recently moved to the UK publisher Simon and Schuster and is making inroads into the lucrative American market.

One of the things readers love about Scanlan is her down-to-earth stories, which are romantic but manage to maintain resolutely ordinary characters and settings that appeal to readers. It's no surprise then to find that Scanlan writes novels from her mobile home in Co Wicklow, or that chooses a local restaurant in the north Dublin suburb where she lives as the location for our lunch on a sunny spring afternoon.

Picasso's is a longstanding Italian restaurant just off the coast road in Dublin and Scanlan is treated like royalty by the staff, who clearly love her.

She is formally dressed for lunch, all silk-scarf elegance with perfect hair and make-up. Hers is a very feminine sort of glamour, rooted in the tenets of good grooming and even better jewellery but she guffaws at the idea of being called glamorous. "There will be hoots of laughter if you put that in," she says.

It's not the first time during our conversation where the kind of charm that so appeals to her readers emerges, the one that always sees the ordinary woman with simple values and good manners win out in the end.

Her latest book, A Time For Friends, looks at the dysfunctional friendships that often last into adulthood when really they are just a bad habit that needs to be broken, something with which many readers will have had some level of experience in their lives. The book also takes in the period between the last economic crash and our most recent painful financial crisis, a period spanning nearly three decades.

"It really did surprise me when I was doing my research how far we've come," says Scanlan, looking back to the time when she first started to write. "There was no internet or emails. It was all landline stuff. It was a very nice time in bookselling because it was still a gentlemanly kind of trade. It was the book that was important whereas now it's a commodity.

"Publishing has changed so much for the worse. When I worked as a consulting editor, some of the manuscripts that came in were brilliant but the disheartening thing was how would they be marketed and what category would they be put in. I feel very sorry for people trying to get published now. I think the self-publishing thing is brilliant because it gives people hope. It's so difficult to even get an agent now, it's a bit of a catch-22 situation."

Scanlan's values are warmly traditional, nostalgic even, and that has a comforting sort of effect, but her worldview is wide open. She has an old-fashioned simplicity that places her in prime position to take over from the late queen of Irish women's fiction, Maeve Binchy. Scanlan demurs on this point and says she thinks Cathy Kelly is more of a natural successor to Maeve.

Scanlan, like Binchy, never had children. Having suffered from undiagnosed endometriosis as a young woman, it was not possible. She wrote recently in this newspaper: "It took many years of tears and agonising despair before I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis. I remember the absolute and utter relief of knowing that I wasn't mad and I hadn't imagined myself sick, that I had something with a name, even if it was hard to pronounce."

I wonder, has not having children shaped her writing life? After all, the author Richard Ford advises aspiring authors that if they want to write books then they should not have children, but Scanlan doesn't think it has had any effect on her productivity. "In my late 20s and early 30s I assumed that I would have children. It makes me laugh when you see celebrities being interviewed and they say, 'I will have children, just not now'. I think, you make plans and God laughs. I'd say it would be very hard to do both. I think women can't have everything. It's so hard juggling a career and motherhood and looking after your partner or husband, and the house… it's really hard. It's a lifestyle that's gone, I think. I just know so many people who want to be rearing their own children. One in particular is really just working to pay for a crèche and she has such a horrendous mortgage."

She traces her interest in writing back to her childhood. "My aunt ran the Eason's bookstall on the pier in Rosslare harbour. It was so exciting. My big treat was to go down for my summer holidays. It was a really vibrant, exciting place. It's so changed now. We'd be in the book stall and she had magazines and Mills and Boons as well. I was about 10 and I started reading Sullivan's Reef and I can still remember it to this day. They were serialised, so the holiday was over before it ended. I was so innocent. It was just so romantic, especially when you're that age, on the cusp of puberty and you want to know about boys."

Nowadays her ideas spring from the most unlikely of places, and she lets her imagination wander whether she's getting her eyelashes done in the beauty salon or observing the relationship dynamics between children. Her trilogy came out of a particularly 'meaty' question in a Patricia Redlich agony aunt column.

She says she still loves writing, although she knows authors who don't. She ascribes her abiding enjoyment to a slower pace of production at which she works, which works out at about one book every 18 months as opposed to the relentless modern deadline of a book a year.

"I have an editor who understands the concept of the well filling back up. You can't enjoy it otherwise. My writing is my escape from real life. I go to a different place. I light a candle before I start because it calms me, it means it's the start of the working day and I do believe there's an energy out there that you can tap into and everything else just sort of goes to the background and I know it works because there are things that come into my head that I hadn't planned. Some people might call it divine power. I call it divine energy. I think that's what the imagination is. It's going into this other place and allowing it to happen. It's like you step back from it and let it come out."

Scanlan believes in giving back and she puts her money where her mouth is. She founded the Open Door series (more of which on page 21), the adult literacy scheme which sees famous authors write 'novels' of 10,000 words or less for adults who are learning to read, mainly so they don't have to endure the ignominy of reading Anne and Barry style stories as they are learning to read in adulthood. Her biggest ambitions are for those books, not her own novels.

"I do have this thing about giving something back. I remember being impressed as a young girl by tithing. I thought what better gift for a writer to give back than the gift of reading? I think it's great if you can help somebody. It's great to think that your book might be the first book that somebody has ever read, which happens with the Open Door series."

Scanlan grew up in Dublin with four brothers (one of whom is her twin) and a sister and she says growing up with boys made her competitive. She certainly struggled determinedly through her early career working as a librarian and remembers writing her debut novel City Girl in bed because she was too poor to pay for coal. "I used to come home from work and get into bed with an electric blanket and three dressing gowns and that's where I wrote City Girl."

After her fifth novel was published, she no longer had to worry financially but she says she did take a leap of faith with her writing which she is convinced opened doors for her. "In the beginning, I didn't know if I'd have a roof over my head. My advance for City Girl was £150 but I think when you find what you're meant to be doing, doors open if you make a leap of faith."

She's great company over lunch, urging me to 'hurry on so we can do the gossip'. I wonder how she feels about her job now. "Technically I'm my own boss. That's good and bad. I get lazy so I never relax, your office is in your house 24/7 reminding you of what you haven't done so from that point of view it's 50/50 good/bad. From the point of view of if the sun comes out you can just say 'feck it' and run outside."


Born: Dublin.

Family: Four brothers, including one twin, and a sister.

Married: She says only that she is 'spoken for'.

Likes: Staycations.

Dislikes: Pretension.

A Time For Friends by Patricia Scanlan is published by Simon and Schuster at €14.99.

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