A novel home: Inside bestselling author Melissa Hill's delightful Wicklow home
Among many other exotic and colourful artefacts in and around bestselling author Melissa Hill's delightful home in Wicklow is an olive tree, which grows in her garden in a giant pot.
This is not a random item; rather it's an homage to the fact that she is big in Italy. "Italy is my lucky place. My seventh book, Something from Tiffany's, sold over 600,000 copies in Italy. It's one of those things - I have no idea why they love my books there," Melissa notes, adding, "Something from Tiffany's sold really well in Brazil, too. And it was my first big seller in America."
In fairness to Melissa, her books are popular worldwide - she has written 20 novels in the last 15 years, and they've been translated into over 25 languages. One of the reasons they're so popular is that, through her characters, she explores the kind of dilemmas that affect people in the real world. Her latest book, Keep You Safe, is an affecting read about two families locked in a bitter court battle over the effects of the measles vaccine.
Naturally, she's proud of her achievements, and the walls of her house are hung with quirky bookshelves showcasing her books' many different covers and translations.
Her achievements are all the more remarkable given that writing books for a living never entered her head until her late 20s, though as a child growing up in Tipperary, she had always loved reading books. "I was a very shy child, but there was so much imagination there," Melissa says. "I was born with a weird shoulder deformity - I have no scapula on my left shoulder. My parents were very nervous about it, and I couldn't play contact sports. I suppose it shaped who I was as a child, and it led me to books," she notes.
She loved writing essays in school, and it was suggested by her career guidance teacher that she try journalism, but instead she drifted into studying science at the Regional Technical College (now CIT) in Cork. That didn't work out, and she dropped out. She fared better at UCD, where she did an arts degree, but that didn't lead her into writing either, and she joined the banks, starting with AIB, before moving on to Bank of Ireland.
During her banking years, she met her husband, Kevin, who was then a fitter, and it was he who gave her the impetus to write her first book. "We were on a flight coming back from holidays in Tunisia; I was reading a novel I wasn't enjoying. I don't often abandon books, but I put it down and said, 'I could write better myself'. Kevin said, 'Why don't you?'. He threw down the gauntlet," she explains.
It wasn't necessarily easy to write that first book, Something You Should Know, but Melissa persisted. "It took me seven months. I was still working in the bank. I was really writing it for myself. To me, it was just a hobby, I didn't expect my first book to be picked up, so I was delighted when Poolbeg agreed to publish it; they start pretty much everyone," she says, adding it was a hefty tome of 130,000 words. "My books have gone down by a third. They do take longer now, though, because of Carrie."
Carrie is her eight-year-old daughter, who was something of a surprise to both Melissa and Kevin - it's like something you might read in one of her novels. "I didn't realise I was pregnant until I was six months gone. You hear stories like that, and I would always have gone, 'Oh, nonsense', but honestly? Not a clue," she says with a laugh.
As Melissa explains it, she was working to a deadline, and during the frenetic days before a book is due to be sent to the publisher, you forget the days of the week, so she wasn't noticing her period. There was a little bit of weight gain, but then again, that was common enough for writers, as they tend to eat a lot of rubbish at that stage of a book cycle. So she was sailing along, until one day Kevin suggested Mexican food, a favourite of both of theirs, and she said she was gone off it. He raised an eyebrow. She laughed it off, but to appease him, she took a pregnancy test.
"The test practically jumped out of my hand," Melissa explains with a laugh. "When I went for a scan, I was expecting them to say it was 10 weeks. Instead of a little seahorse, a 20-week baby was practically waving at me".
She was worried because, as she recalled, she had done all the wrong things: she had her usual few drinks, had been in a hot tub, had been eating all the danger foods - shellfish, dairy, eggs - and had never taken folic acid. The doctor told her not to worry, and that set the tone; Melissa relaxed, and, after that, everything went swimmingly.
"She actually came four weeks early, so it was the shortest pregnancy in history," Melissa explains, adding that she and Kevin had become so relaxed, that when her waters broke in the middle of the night on a spa break in Powerscourt, Kevin told her to go back to sleep.
Carrie's birth did change their work practices quite a bit. By the time of her arrival, Melissa was delivering one novel a year, and she and Kevin had also just started co-writing a thriller each year, based around an American female detective, Reilly Steel, who solves cases in Ireland. It was a collaboration that started quite by accident.
"It was one of those strange things. I love two types of writing, women's fiction and thrillers. My novels always have a sting in the tail, so I thought I'd give a thriller a lash," Melissa explains. "I had started one, but my own stuff became very busy. Italy had just started to really take off, so I had to go and travel. Kevin is my sounding board for everything I do, and he said to me one day, 'I have an idea for how the thriller could end, can I give it a go?'," Melissa recalls, adding that she was dubious initially. "But I realised, 'You know what? He knows the structure, he knows the characters and he is a decent writer', so I said 'Off you go'. What he came back with was really good."
Melissa sent it to her agent, Sheila Crowley, who got a fantastic deal with Simon & Schuster, and so thriller writer Casey Hill, a pseudonym for the couple, was born. Carrie was just five weeks old when Simon & Schuster made their offer, and several more jointly written thrillers followed, but it all began to take a toll on family life. "We found we were just losing so much family time. Everything was all about the books; it was almost impossible to leave it behind," Melissa explains. "The tipping point was a week when I had a deadline and had to deliver a manuscript, and on the same week, we got a delivery of proofs of a book of mine that was about to be published, and Casey Hill proofs. We had to go through them for any mistakes, and we looked at each other and said, 'This can't go on'."
In recent years, Melissa has concentrated on the women's fiction, and Kevin writes the bulk of the thrillers largely on his own.
The Casey Hill books are also, of course, on display in the unusual bookshelves that hang on Melissa's walls, both in the living room and in her study, joining Melissa's 20 books, including her latest, Keep You Safe.
The large, light-filled study is one of many new additions to the house; when the couple first bought the house, it was a modest dormer bungalow, but it did have one great advantage - a half-acre site. In 2014, they decided to renovate it completely and create an ideal house for the three of them.
They got architects Cantrell & Crowley on board, and they are delighted with the result. "When Room to Improve is on telly, Twitter goes mad about Dermot Bannon and his glass boxes, but I love a glass box. That was one thing we wanted - lots of glass," she says. "I love seeing the sky and the greenery and lots of light. It all lifts the spirits."
The brief for the architect was to improve their recreational spaces and their working areas; they're thrilled with both. A large kitchen opens onto the dining and living areas, and there are expanses of glass on both sides, affording gorgeous views of the garden and the woods beyond. Other really special areas include the double-height hall and Melissa's new study. Furnishings are, in the main, very contemporary, and there's a minimalist feel to the house, which is painted white throughout, but pops of colour are added through pictures, as well as chairs.
And then, of course, there are all those fun, Melissa Hill-filled bookshelves
Melissa jokes that she got a lot of flak about the fact that her books are displayed so prominently throughout the house when her house was featured on Celebrity Home of the Year in January. "I wasn't prepared at all for the level of chatter about it. I think nothing furnishes a room better than books. Also, if the writing is going badly, you look at the books as you go up to the study. You know you've done it before, and you'll do it again, but the reaction was like, 'How egotistical can she be?' I was like, 'Oh crikey'," the bubbly brunette says with a laugh.
Well you know what they say, if you've got it, flaunt it.
'Keep You Safe' by Melissa Hill is available from all good bookshops
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine