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"It was a chance meeting on a cycling holiday on the Mayo Greenway in 2014 in the west of Ireland."
It is the bar in the lobby of a large hotel located in a small village in Ireland where 84 year-old Maurice Hannigan decides to tell the story of his life. Despite usually being found on his own, Maurice shares with his captive audience the story of the five people who have had the largest impact on him. Through the tales of love, loss, tragedy, and trauma, Maurice pulls others into his personal history and leaves more than his memory with you by the end.
Author Anne Griffin spoke with us about the process of writing her first novel, the unique inspiration for the book, and gave a hint to what we will see in her next project.
How did you become interested in writing?
I’ve always been interested in writing–other people’s, that is. I just never did any of my own until I was 44 years old. I’d overdosed on Richard Russo, Carol Shields, William Trevor and Anne Tyler, amongst others, in my early twenties when I’d been a bookseller for Waterstones. It wasn’t until I’d hit a career crossroads later in life that a friend suggested I write. “You know what good writing is,” he said, “go do it.” And that’s what I did.
This is your debut novel, and your previous work has been in short stories. What was it like to work on a longer project?
I loved it. I think I’m a more natural novel writer. A novel tests my patience, of which I have very little. I find it takes years of digging until I find a book’s core, and that’s good for me, it teaches me resilience. I like all of the problem solving that comes with finding your way through the frustration of that journey. Don’t get me wrong I have my fair share of meltdowns over it too, as my husband can attest. But somehow that sigh of relief at the end is worth it when you realise you’ve just written 80,000 words that actually hang together quite well.
Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write When All Is Said.
The genesis of the novel was in a real life encounter. It was a chance meeting on a cycling holiday on the Mayo Greenway in 2014 in the west of Ireland. My family and I had happened into the bar of a hotel in one of the small towns along the route, and there stood a man on his own with a pint in his hand. He came over to chat with us as we settled ourselves in. We talked about the usual stuff, where we were from and the weather. He told me two things. The first was that he had worked in the hotel back when he was a boy. The second was that he wouldn’t see the morning. He left me then to go speak with another couple that had arrived. I was gob-smacked by what he’d said. The following day, I finished my cycle to Achill Island in the pouring rain with those extraordinary words in my head. As the wind attempted to knock me sideways, the writer in me created the world of Maurice Hannigan sitting alone at a bar ready to drink five toasts to the five most important people in his life. His story continued to emerge steadily over the next three rain-soaked days on the Mayo coast, until I could hear his deep, sonorous voice loud and clear in my head.
Critics have said that they feel like they are sitting in the bar with Maurice. How important was it for you to create this vivid environment for readers?
Getting the voice right is key for me. Once you have that as a writer, you can basically wrap your readers in its power and bring them anywhere. Maurice’s voice is quite commanding and theatrical. It is this, coupled with the use of the present tense, that I believe brings people closer to each scene. The dance back and forth between the present and the past in the bar, giving the details of what is happening, who is there and who is doing what, is also quite effective in keeping the reader involved.
Grief and regret feel thematic for the confessional nature of the book. Were there any challenges in writing about this subject matter?
Grief and regret are actually easy to write because as humans we each experience them. We know the hurt and shame all too well. I didn’t have to dig too deep inside myself to bring these common emotions to life in Maurice’s world. I’m now getting emails from people telling me how much these themes touched them, reawakening old memories or making sense of how they dealt with something in their past. Some even say the book has helped them value those around them more and that they are now considering their own five toasts.
The novel has also been noted as being distinctively Irish. Of course, with you being Irish, this seems logical to me, but do you think there are certain characteristics that are emblematic of what people traditionally associate with Irish writing?
Like every community we have our own language. Our own phrases, so that helps in creating a very Irish world. But somehow I think it is our silences that make us distinctive. Despite being known for our friendly ways, we are a quiet nation that is particularly good at not saying things. We hold in what those closest to us should know but somehow we can’t bear to tell. When All Is Said taps into this silence. Of course this is not unique, it’s been done before, you only have to read John McGahern, Donal Ryan, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and Edna O’Brien to see it.
Do you have any plans for your next book that you can share with us?
The next book is also set in Ireland. A completely different voice this time–a young woman called Jeanie Longley. I’m still working through her story and what it is she needs to tell the world, but it’s getting there, word by word, sentence by sentence. Right now, it’s about family and what we sacrifice to protect those we love.
Follow Anne Griffin on Twitter. When All Is Said is now available from St. Martin's Press (a division of Macmillan).