The author’s protagonist in her new novel is a native of the city. She explains why she took inspiration from Belfast and why it’s important to pay it forward
The Ends of the Earth follows Mary, a young woman from Belfast, who leaves her hometown to follow her new boyfriend, the too-good-to-be-true Londoner Jim. Fast-forward 14 years and Mary can be found every night at Ealing station displaying a sign that reads ‘COME HOME JIM’ as she searches for her partner who disappeared seven years prior.
You drew inspiration from Belfast within The Ends of the Earth — why was that important for you?
My mum grew up in Belfast and the city has always had a part of my heart, growing with each visit over to see her family. I love the warmth of the people, the buzz, the culture. I knew I’d always write a character from Belfast and when I began to sketch the contours of Mary, the main character in The Ends of the Earth, it felt right that a place this vibrant would be her birthplace. Mary has got a strong fire in her, but also an abiding respect for the people and places who have made her who she is.
What are your memories of Northern Ireland?
Many! A lot of time spent in my nana’s home in Knock. A lot of daytrips too, to the Giant’s Causeway and Carrickfergus. And Wyse Byse on the Newtownards Road! I can’t believe I almost forgot that. My nana had an incredible love of a bargain which I have certainly inherited. I remember scanning the aisles of Wyse Byse with her, looking for treasures that might look good in her home and leaving with a purchase, tucked in a plastic bag with the yellow owl logo. Sadly, no sign of the owl in The Ends of the Earth — but The Stormont Hotel, Victoria Park, the Lagan, Portrush and Dunluce Castle all made it into the final edit. I hope the settings will make every scene come alive for readers in Northern Ireland.
Home, and the definition thereof is a vital theme in fiction — why do you think that is?
Books have so many of the qualities in what I consider a home: the comfort factor, the entertainment, often the odd challenge that might shift my way of thinking too. So, it makes sense to me that authors are drawn to the topic time and time again. One idea that feeds through The Ends of the Earth is that of how we continue to make new homes throughout our life and often at the stages when we have been dealt the toughest hand. This speaks to me personally; I’ve lived in five different cities in the past few years and although there was a natural disorientation, I’ve grown to appreciate how ‘home’ is a flexible concept, how it adapts to whatever you choose to make it.
Linked to that, I think writers are also drawn to the idea of how other people forge our homes, for better or worse.
You can sink into the relief of a happy dynamic or be chased from under your own roof by that dynamic going sour. Wherever there is the potential for such a range of action, story naturally flows.
How did the pandemic help or hinder your writing career?
Although it’s natural to think of the hindrances — the cancelled events, the closed bookshops, the resulting disappointment — there have been moments of incredible help and hope too. Book bloggers and influencers did an amazing job stepping in to promote 2020 debuts like myself, to host live events on their channels and to champion great stories across all genres.
In terms of my actual writing, like many authors, I have found that the pandemic did hinder me at points. Creativity likes novelty, not being stuck at home! For me, it doesn’t thrive on a chaotic and scary news cycle either. I often think of anxiety like a vice that sits around my head, squeezing out the space I need to focus on everything else. As time has gone on, I’ve learned some strategies to try and keep that anxiety at bay, namely daily runs, avoiding social media where possible, trusting that all will come right at the end.
For anyone who may be reading this though, with the vice still very firmly in place, know that I sympathise and know too, I hope, that it will loosen eventually.
What comes first for you, in terms of beginning of novel, plot or character?
A tough question but if forced — I’d say plot. By that, I mean I’m always looking for a ‘hook’ or an original way into a story, be that a dilemma, a question, a specific mystery or situation that appeals to me and I hope will appeal to readers too. That said, character goes hand-in-hand, because a story will often only come to life when I know the sort of people that would populate the idea. For example, in The Ends of the Earth, I had the idea of a woman with a sign, waiting for an unknown man for seven long years. Just from that one image, I saw so much of Mary and her key characteristics — some might think she’s patient to a fault but she’s beneath their assumptions, she’s resilient and tenacious. Once the character of Mary had been soldered to the idea of the sign, I couldn’t break the two apart.
You’ve been called ‘a remarkable new voice’ — can you take praise well?
In a word: no! Even answering the question makes me squirm a little! I am, however, so incredibly grateful to the authors and reviewers who have taken the time to read my work and to offer their praise. It’s not only generous, but sustaining too, especially on the days when the words aren’t flowing, or when a book isn’t coming together how I would like. There is great kindness in the industry and I intend to pay it forward in my career.
The Ends of the Earth by Abbie Greaves (Penguin, £7.99) is out now and available online and in all good bookshops