Tyrone novelist Emma Heatherington on how the loss of her mother spurred her on to a high profile book deal
The best writers of popular fiction -- aka chick lit -- have one thing in common. They can all talk ninety to the dozen. Marian Keyes and the late Maeve Bincy are cases in point, and Tyrone novelist Emma Heatherington is following suit.
Candid and engaging, the glamorous mother-of-three chats almost non-stop for nearly an hour when we first speak, and this loquaciousness transfers to the page. Emma (37) can churn out up to 4,000 words a day of her romantic fiction, after cooking up the plot in her head while she irons or mops the floors of the Donaghmore home she shares with her two daughters, Jordyn (17), a budding film maker and artist, Jade (12), an enthusiastic cook, and son Adam (11), the joker of the family.
She has just been told that her new publishers, Harper Collins, with whom she has landed a four-book deal, are bypassing their Harper Impulse digital format to re-issue her novel, Crazy For You, straight to print -- a huge vote of confidence by the company that lists Cathy Kelly, Cecilia Ahern and Freya North in their stable of best-selling authors.
Crazy For You was the first of the seven novels the prolific Emma wrote in six years, originally for Irish publishers Poolbeg, two of which are categorised as 'romantic suspense' and written in a grittier style under her pseudonym, Emma Louise Jordan.
But for all the reams of he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not imaginings she has produced, it is a succinct short story of 2,000 words that has arguably the most emotional pull. If I Was A Child Again (Poolbeg) is a collection of stories by Irish writers including Emma, who has written movingly of losing her mother at the tender age of 15.
Geraldine McCrory was a beautiful and healthy mother of six when she died of a massive heart attack in an ambulance rushing her to hospital. There was no history of heart problems; the 36-year-old had been suffering all morning from what she thought were crippling indigestion pains.
“If I was a child again, I would ask God for one more day with her,” Emma writes in her opening line. “Just one day to warn us, one day to say goodbye.”
The eldest, Emma, accompanied her mother to the hospital in the ambulance. Her father was at work, paint-spraying for a local engineering firm. Geraldine had gone back to bed with her eight-month old baby that Saturday morning and awoke at 11am, overcome with a strange pain. The doctor diagnosed indigestion and her sister, Emma's aunt, came round and rubbed her back, but when the pain became so intense she was writhing on the bed, panic set in and an ambulance was called.
“One of my memories of that morning was a very dear neighbour, Mrs Carberry, kneeling with us in the living room and praying as the doctor waited upstairs with mummy for the ambulance to arrive,” Emma recalls. “She had been out shopping the day before and bought me a lovely new art portfolio and my sister a tennis racquet. She'd made dinner as usual the night before and watched The Late Late Show.
“She was gorgeous and she was the life and soul of the party, and a great singer. She was so young and she'd just had the youngest. It was so horrible to lose her at 15. At that age you're just getting to know your mum as a person — her musical tastes and hobbies and all that. I'm 37 now, older than she was when she died, and the thought of leaving my kids …”
Emma's father was left, at 41, with six children — aged from 15 to eight months — to bring up in the new house the family had just moved into in Donaghmore. More than two decades on he's still working as a painter.
“Daddy, gosh — for a long time he just couldn't cope,” says Emma, a sigh in her Tyrone lilt. “I don't know how he got through it. Mum was the youngest of seven girls and thankfully my aunts all lived locally. They downed tools and helped us, making dinners and doing the washing. They were as heartbroken as us.
“I remember the first Christmas without her was terrible. I had to do the shopping for Santa. It made me grow up very fast. No-one will ever replace mum but it fell to me to do the housework and the shopping, and the homework with my brothers and sisters. When they got older we all took turns and my aunts were such a great support.
“It's still tough at Christmas, even though we're big girls now. There's a big hole there, especially on Christmas Eve. There are wee memories and we get tearful.
“Some people get solace from going to the graveside but I come back from it an absolute mess. It's not that we're all doom and gloom though — I'm usually a bubbly person and we are a big, happy family — my brother's a musician and my sisters are hilarious and brilliant singers.
“We have a few drinks and the kids are running around — we're not crying into our soup. But it is a huge wound that doesn't fully heal.”
The death of her mother changed Emma's outlook on everything, from relationships to career. Geraldine was a lover of the arts and was very proud of a household tip she had written being published in Woman's Own. Emma credits her mother for passing on the creative talents that have resulted in such a potentially lucrative book deal.
“She would have been so proud. I met a neighbour in a shop who remembered me coming down the stairs at 11 or 12 looking for an audience for a song I’d made up. She said I really was my mother's daughter — that's where I got it from.
“When I look at it, at least I had 15 years with mum. My younger sisters can't remember her at all. The baby of the house is 23 now. When another of my sisters got married a few years ago and she was walking up the aisle on my dad's arm, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. There was dad, with no wife by his side.”
Writing for If I Was A Child Again was therapeutic for Emma, who worked in the “bitchy, competitive” PR word 12 years before her godmother and aunt Kathleen encouraged her to enter a writing competition which she won, giving her the confidence to put together first novel.
She came up with the first draft of the short story sitting at her kitchen table with her new partner, Jim McKee (43), a singer/songwriter and professional artist originally from Cookstown but now based in Co Clare. A single father to son Dualta (12), Jim was strumming his guitar at the time and found the prose extremely poignant, having lost his father just last year. The couple met after a gig of his at the Burnavon Theatre in Cookstown.
“We've both had a tough few years but I feel I've entered a new, very positive era. We've lots in common career-wise and personality-wise. Life is good — despite the 200 miles between us for now. Jim's an amazingly gifted person. He can draw and paint too. We only met recently and connected right away. It was on my birthday. I’d never heard of him but looked him up and thought he sounded good and went to the gig with a mutual friend. We got chatting after the gig and we’ve developed this really deep friendship.
“He's really proud of me and supportive; we encourage each other. He understands the passion to do what you love and he understands when you have to go off to write. It's not a conventional relationship and we have such a laugh. We do have days when it's tough when he's away but there's talk of his coming back — we just have to be sensible about it, as it will involve uprooting his son. It's early days yet.”
Coincidentally, Emma's mother was a youth leader in the club where Jim used to box — he's an all-Ireland boxing champion, to boot.
“I think mum must have met Jim's dad at some stage — he died from cancer last year, with his family around him and Jim's been really grieving and quite down. I do believe there were some strings being pulled up above for us to cross paths locally. I think mum's looking down and helping me. I feel her presence and her support.
“I can also feel my aunt Deirdre, who passed away on Valentine's Day in 2010 from cancer and was the nearest thing to a mum for me. She was a wonderfully warm person who always had me in stitches laughing. I feel her around me a lot and can smell her perfume from time to time ...”
Emma didn't, however, feel the presence of the supposed ghost at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamakerrig, Co Monaghan, where she has been writing her next novel. The writers' and artists' retreat is said to be haunted by the ghost of an old governess who thinks she still has to look after the residents. I told Emma about a cousin and a friend who had seemingly inexplicable spooky experiences in the room the spirit apparently frequents.
“Stop it!” she says, slightly aghast. “I'm the biggest scaredy-cat in the world and I was staying out in one of the courtyard places on my own — I don't know how I walked across there after dinner every night in the dark. They'd all be talking about this ghost so I just drank loads of wine and passed out. I'm such a chicken and knowing my luck I’d be the one to see the ghost. It freaks me out!
“It is a creepy place but you get loads done. There's no internet to distract you. I'm such a Facebook and Twitter addict
— I'm checking every five minutes and there's no need to. You know yourself writing is very isolating, and you need the interaction.”
She's going back in the new year to finish her latest novel. Harper Collins will then release Crazy For You on Valentine's Day. In the meantime she's kept busy contributing freelance travel and arts features for the Sunday Life, and is currently working on a script and creating characters for Terrible Tales of Trash, an educational programme for schools on the history of litter.
She also scripts educational dramas on hot topics such as mental health, crime, racism and sectarianism, and has written around 30 short plays and short films for organisations such as DoE Road Safety, Community Safety Partnership, the PSNI, charities and schools.
She has further penned two musicals including The History of You and Me, which toured small venues across Northern Ireland, and Punch, which featured a cast of 70 teenagers as part of the London 2012 Legacy Trust celebrations. Impressively, she is also in script development with NI Screen on her first feature film, The Last Giant.
Her work with various schools and youth groups over the years inspired her to write her first teen novel, Little Crush, for which she received a grant, the SIAP Award (Support for the Individual Artist) from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Little Crush is due for release with Harper Impulse in February, coinciding with the print publication of Crazy For You.
“Like any artist it's feast or famine — sometimes you're longing for the phone to ring or an email to come in about work. I love to write but it can be tricky. There are no advances like in the old days — it's all based on sales. It's a greater incentive to push yourself forward and to network. It makes you hungrier.
“But then one bad review can really set you back so it's great to have the support of the Arts Council team. It's such an isolating job, you're baring your soul on paper and it's nerve-wracking. The Arts Council team helped me build up my confidence and I'm very grateful to them.”
Before she goes back to her busy-bee schedule, I wonder what she would do if she were a child again, on the day she lost her mother. She replies without hesitation.
“I’d do the dishes when she asked me to and I’d give her a big hug. Mums tend to be taken for granted — I hope my story will help anyone who reads it to appreciate their own more.”
* All profits from Poolbeg's short story collection If I Was A Child Again go to Barnado’s children's charity. Available from Easons and www.easons.com at £14.99, and all good book shops. For further info go to www.poolbeg.com
Those talented village people
Donaghmore in Co Tyrone is a one-street village with two pubs, but it's a real hub of creativity.
Emma based her book, Since You've Been Gone, (a Tesco No 1 bestseller) on "this little Hollywood", as she describes it. "There must be something in the water here.
"I get my ability from my mum but there's talent on my dad's side too -- the Def Lepard guitarist Vivian Campbell is his cousin."
With a population of less than 2,000, the village has a very active theatre community and is also home to:
* Lynette Faye, BBC
* Karen Kerby, BBC
* singer Malachi Cush
* Actor Liam McMahon (Snatch; Hunger)
* Footballer Niall McGinn
* Actor/comedian Conor Grimes
* Les Miserables star, Fra Fee
* Gary McCausland, presenter of How To Be A Property Developer, Channel 4