Interview with novelist Fionnuala Kearney

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Wednesday 21st September 2016

Fionnuala KearneyIf you haven’t discovered Fionnuala Kearney’s books yet, you’re in for a treat. The Day I Lost You, her second novel, is out this week and it’s a stunning read about three women – a mother, her daughter and her granddaughter. I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Fionnuala and this is what she said.

Q: The Day I Lost You is your second novel. Can you tell me a little about the road to publication and how you got a publishing deal?

I was a ‘wannabe writer’ for many, many, years, always dabbling in creative writing classes and scribbling short stories with a big dream of some day writing a novel. About nine years ago, I got the opportunity to give up my full-time job and started writing seriously for the first time. Over the following five years, I wrote three novels which, alas, resulted in constant rejection from agents. However, I knew when I was writing the fourth that it was different and it proved to be the one that piqued my agent Madeleine Milburn’s interest. After signing with her, a three-book deal with HarperCollins followed shortly after.

It was a tough road to publication but one I wouldn’t change a moment of. The writing was part of an apprenticeship, learning a craft, and that learning still continues. And the rejection? It’s hard to cope with, but it’s something writers have to continue dealing with through their career, so it was a good lesson in girding the loins!

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Day I Lost You?

I’d had a character called Jess whispering in my ear for a while and I knew who she was, what her circumstances were i.e. that she had a 25-year-old daughter and a five-year-old granddaughter living with her. She was a young 48 but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with her – until one day I listened to a news report of a devastating avalanche in France and I thought ‘What if..?’

Q: The Day I Lost You is a very moving book and will resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere. Did you use your own experiences at all?

I’m a mother of two grown-up daughters and what I put Jess through in this novel is my absolute worst nightmare… So yes, I think I called on my own feelings for my children though neither of them are remotely like Anna. As a writer, I like to look under the bonnet and see what’s really going on within relationships. In my debut, You, Me and Other People, I examined what really went on with a married couple whose marriage was in freefall and in this novel, The Day I Lost You, the relationship I’m primarily poking is a mother and daughter one. The concept of the ‘unconditional’ love we feel for our children is one I questioned with these characters. Do we always love our children, even when they’re capable of terrible things?

Q: The relationship between Jess and her daughter Anna is the heart of the novel. Did you empathise with one of them more than the other?

Probably Jess, because her loss is one I feel keenly but I think I really ‘get’ Anna. Without spoiling anything, I can’t say too much, but she’s someone who, despite her mistakes, loves so very deeply…

Q: Anna’s little daughter Rose is a wonderful character – full of life and very authentic. Was she fun to write and is she based on anyone in particular?

I do have a granddaughter but she was tiny when I was writing this so, no, not really. At that time, I had no real experience of such a character but I LOVED writing her. She’s such a funky yet sweet, little girl…

Q: Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Oh, I know that these phrases are rolled out by every writer asked this question but the truth is, the best advice is to keep writing. Persevere. Never lose the faith. Read lots of books in your preferred genre. And tell a good story. Every single reader wants to read a good story.

Q: What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

I have three favourites. They’re completely different so please don’t ask me to choose! The first is a classic – Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, a beautiful tale of love, loss, revenge and obsession. Frankly, Heathcliff is probably singularly responsible for my writing tortured male characters!

The second is a more recent novel, One Day, by David Nicholls. It’s essentially a love story but its simple structure – where the two main characters Emma and Dex meet on the same day for the following 20 years – is one I really wish I’d thought of!

And the third is written by a truly inspirational writer whom I’ve admired for a very long time, Maggie O’Farrell. Her favourite book of mine is probably The Hand That First Held Mine but I love anything she’s written!

Q: How and where do you write? Do you have a writing routine and do you plan all your novels out in advance – or start writing and see what happens?

I write in my office at home and I write from a desktop PC, or a laptop if I’m on the move. I try and structure my day which means a full working day made up mostly of writing/editing etc with other time spent catching up on emails, social media, publication/promotional stuff etc. When I start writing a new novel, I have an idea of the full cast of characters, where they are, what they are, and why they’re there. I have the skeleton but not the meat on the bones and nor do I have every detail/layer of the story when I start. They all kick into place, for me, on the second or third draft.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your third novel? And when will it be published?

My third novel for HarperCollins is due to be published in 2017, though I’m not exactly sure when yet. Nor do I have a firm title for it at the moment! It’s very different to previous books in that it follows three siblings who are all visiting their ‘family home’ for a few days to celebrate their father’s wedding, so it’s three points of view set over a short period of five days. It’s a ‘me’ book so nothing is as simple as it first seems and with this novel, I’m looking under the skin of sibling relationships. Being one of seven, I have plenty of experience to rely on!

The Day I Lost You by Fionnuala Kearney (Harper, £7.99)


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