Wednesday 17 October 2018

Like mother, like daughter

Mum is most definitely the word for authors Mandy Hearty and Sinead Moriarty -- as Sarah Webb found out when she met two formidable mother-and-daughter writing acts

Sarah Webb

Mandy Hearty, daughter of the bestselling author Marita Conlon McKenna, is about to be the next big thing in popular fiction. "I know people will say Mum wrote the book for me," she says. "But I'm used to it. At school people always used to ask: 'Did your Mum do your homework for you?'"

Sinead Moriarty grew up with a published author cooking her dinner, her Mum, Mary Moriarty. But how exactly did these writer mums contribute to their daughters' publishing successes?

Sinead and Mary

Heads turn when bestselling popular fiction author Sinead Moriarty, 37, walks into the St Helen's Radisson Hotel. She's tall and elegantly dressed, with bone structure to die for.

To date there have been six Irish women authors who can guarantee their publishers a number one in Ireland, and international success: Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly, Sheila O'Flanagan, Patricia Scanlan and Cecelia Ahern.

Now with the current success of her latest novel, In My Sister's Shoes, Sinead Moriarty is lucky number seven.

Sinead's Mum, Mary, 66, is supremely proud of her. Staggered you might say. Wearing a stylish chestnut-brown jumper and skirt, Mary, has written six of her own books, highly respected biographies. Clearly, Sinead has inherited more than just good looks and a sense of style.

Mary has three children: Sinead; Susan, 40, a solicitor; and Michael, 42, an accountant; plus eight grandchildren. Books have always played an important role in the Moriarty household. "I used to read to them (the children) all the time. The pots used to burn and I'd still be reading." She laughs.

"I've always been interested in history," Mary continues. "One day we went up to the waxworks to look at all the Presidents of Ireland and the children had never heard of them. I was horrified. Then I realised there were no books on Irish history for children. That's how the writing all started."

Mary and a friend, Catherine Sweeney, researched and wrote Theobald Wolfe Tone and received several rejections before sending it to O'Brien Press. When the publisher rang to arrange a meeting, she was delighted.

"We were housewives, we were thrilled that someone was interested." O'Brien went on to publish six books in total. Twenty years on, their W B Yeats and Granuaile biographies are still in print.

"I used to write at the kitchen table," Mary says, "and every night. I used to be telling Sinead 'be quiet, be quiet; go to bed' while I was trying to work. I wrote a book every year for six years."

Subsequently, Mary did research for the Central Bank and ran a surgeon's private practice. 'I like to be busy,' she admits. "And it's wonderful to be financially independent."

Mary is one of the first people to read Sinead's new books and adores seeing every new translation. "But I don't see myself in books. No thank God," she chuckles.

"But I'm sure there are little bits of me in there. I have a slightly bizarre sense of humour so I can relate to the humour in the books easily!"

It's clear that Mary sees her greatest creation, her life's work, as her three children.

Sinead certainly shares her mother's sense of humour. Her latest novel, In My Sister's Shoes manages to have many laugh-out-loud moments, despite its serious topic: breast cancer. Married to Troy, a successful oil trader who works from home ("professional gambling really," she jokes), her previous books, The Baby Trail, The Perfect Match, and From Here to Maternity have all been widely translated. Like her Mum before her, Sinead juggles writing with looking after her children, Geordie, nearly 2, and Hugo, 3.

Sinead was nervous about the reaction to In My Sister's Shoes. "But I was so glad I took on the subject," she says. "Breast cancer is so prevalent and it's such an emotional subject; it's not something you can get wrong. So I read everything I could get my hands on. My uncle is an oncologist in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin and he read over the manuscript for me."

Sinead speaks of her Mum with heartfelt admiration. "I'm incredibly proud of my Mum,' she says. 'She's been a trailblazer all her life. In those days what she did was extraordinary. None of the other Mums were working. It also made me very aware that writing took hard work and tenacity. I wouldn't be where I am now without her."

Sinead's next book, Who's Life is it Anyway? will be out in August.

Marita and Mandy

An award-winning adult and children's writer, Marita Conlon McKenna, 50, married at 20 and has four children. She's been writing for as long as she can remember. "I started writing for the papers when the children were small. At lot of the stuff was based on what was happening with me and the kids, funny things, so I used different names.

"Because I didn't go to college, I was obsessed with learning. I did every kind of evening course: Irish history, Anglo-Irish literature, women and social change. And when I was expecting Mandy, I took a creative writing course with J. F. Deane. One week I wrote a children's story...the girl in the story was called Mandy."

The seed was sewn. Marita also took an art class and started illustrating her own stories, as she created picture books for her dyslexic daughter, Laura. Her interest in children's books was growing. "I did a course in children's literature with Pat Donlon (now director of the Tyrone Gutherie Centre for artists in Annaghmakerrig)," Marita explains.

Donlon told Irish publisher, Veritas, about one of Marita's books, a simple book featuring a girl making her First Holy Communion. It was snapped up almost immediately.

"I was shocked," Marita admits. "I couldn't believe it, I was over the moon." In a strange twist, Mandy now works for Veritas as their marketing and public relations co-ordinator.

But it was Marita's first full-length children's novel, Under the Hawthorne Tree, which turned her into an international success. To date, the stirring famine tale has sold over a million copies worldwide and has been translated into dozens of languages. She's written a further 12 children's books and six adult novels.

"I've always worked," she says. "I don't think I could have survived without it. I think it's really important for mothers to make time for themselves. Whether they are into sport, shopping... whatever. Your children have to know you have your own life and you're not trying to live your life through them. Saying that, the children have always taken priority over the writing."

Her latest adult novel, The Matchmaker, has just been published. It's about a widow who is frantically trying to matchmake her three daughters.

"Daughters nowadays are not getting married,' Marita says. "Mothers are worried. Loneliness is an awful thing." She's now working on a mother-of-the-bride novel, informed by her own recent experience as Mandy's 'M-O-B'.

The arrival of Holly, Mandy's 12-week-old baby has changed everything. The doting granny says "I adore her. I'm so lucky to have her in my life. I'm going to take her one day a week so Mandy can write while she's on maternity leave."

It was a chance question over dinner that led to her daughter's two-book publishing deal with Transworld Ireland. Marita explains "I was out with Francesca (Marita's editor at Transworld) and she said: How are all the children?' and I mentioned Mandy's book. She said she'd love to see it."

As Marita's book was to be published around the same time, and their novels are both popular fiction, Marita made a request, "not in the same month". Is she worried that her daughter's book will do better than her own? "I'm sure it probably will." She laughs. "But her book's for a younger age group."

The Conlon McKenna children are all creative. Laura works in marketing for Vodaphone; Fiona was a production assistant on PS I Love You; James, a student, also plays in a band, The Depths. But it's Mandy who is following directly in her Mum's footsteps.

Mandy, 29, is married to Michael Hearty, who runs a lighting-hire company. She went to Mount Anville, before studying Commerce in UCD. She married young (27) and none of her friends have babies.

For a girl who's recently given birth, she looks fabulous. "I'm a bit out of the loop socially with Holly and I miss it in a way. All my close friends call into me, but there's a lot of people I don't see now.

"I think a lot of people nowadays think there's something better just around the corner, a man, a job, and I feel like saying 'This is it! This is brilliant!' Everyone's just waiting." She sighs. "Sorry, do I sound very grown up?"

Like, Marita, Mandy started off writing about what she knew. "At my age, people are making massive changes -- moving out of home, getting married, changing careers. That's what I'm writing about in Are You Ready?"

Mandy does worry that her writing will be compared to her Mum's. "Mum's such a great writer, I could never be as good as her." To combat this, her book will be published under her full married name, Amanda Hearty. She doesn't want to be seen as riding on her Mum's shirt-tails.

"We grew up with Mum writing," Mandy says. "We went to book lauches, Bisto Book of the Year Awards, we met authors... that was all normal to us. James thought all mums were writers," She laughs.

"She'd be writing in the car park while waiting for us to come out of school. It was really inspiring. It's great to see someone make a career out of what they love. And we saw Mum doing just that."

The Matchmaker, Transworld, just published 413.99

Are You Ready? Transworld Ireland, published in May

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