Journalist and author Eithne Shortall’s fourth novel took time to write but contains her signature light and shade, as she tells Aine Toner
The ins and outs of parenting, of the school run and finding your tribe makes for often sobering — and hilarious — reading. This is no different in Eithne’s fourth book, It Could Never Happen Here, an insightful portrayal of the issues surrounding Glass Lake Primary School.
Beverley Franklin, ‘Queen Bee’ and former pupil, is determined to do whatever she can — and whatever others can — to protect the school’s reputation.
But her 12-year-old could be about to scupper that. Couple that with the nerves about an upcoming televised performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — surely Hollywood films were made with less furore — and secrets coming out from just about everyone and you’ve the recipe for an engrossing page turner that’ll leave you shocked and amused in equal measure.
“I’m getting better, the more books I write, but I’ve always been slightly embarrassed about being an author and it’s something that annoys me about myself, that I find it hard to say,” says writer and journalist Eithne.
“I kind of cringe a little bit like I’m pretending. I’m at my desk now and I have copies of my books in translations but they’re hidden behind my desk. If you came into the room, you wouldn’t see them but I can see them. I’m proud of them but I don’t want to boast about them.”
However, she’s every reason to be proud of her quartet of novels, each of which have secured her a very engaged readership.
Her latest novel is reminiscent of Big Little Lies and is an ideal read if you’re a fan of TV comedy Motherland.
“I love that book so when people compare that book that’s brilliant, thanks very much,” she says of the Lianne Moriarty comparison.
It Could Never Happen Here took Eithne twice as long as her other books, 18 months instead of nine.
“There’s quite a few twists and then everything has to tie in together so there was a lot of post it notes all over the study floor and moving them around and I felt like a mathematician, crafting some sort of maths code,” says Eithne.
“The bigger issue was I wrote it during the pandemic and it was the first book I wrote as a parent. There was no childcare at the beginning of the pandemic, everything was completely shut, so there was the practicality of that, trying to write.”
Eithne also missed opportunities that were previously there in a pre-Covid world.
“You weren’t allowed to stand close enough to people to overhear their conversations, you weren’t sitting beside someone on the bus listening to what they were saying on the phone or you weren’t overhearing another chat in a coffee shop, there were no coffee shops.
“I struggle with that because l do take a lot of stuff from those incidents. For this one, ultimately I relied on a lot of stuff in the playground because that was the one place that parents still were with kids and I was talking to them.
“At the beginning of the pandemic things weren’t funny and I wanted the book to have an element of fun. Yes, it deals with some serious issues but I wanted it to have fun.”
Describing her writing as dealing with ‘the light and shade’, her latest novel touches on uncomfortable issues, surprising ones perhaps, but topics that are dealt with skillfully and sensitively. This includes sexting — the sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit material primarily between mobile phones of oneself to others.
“My books are published in the States and it’s often remarked on there that this is a very Irish thing, that other Irish authors do that as well,” says Eithne of the balance between serious and lighthearted content.
“I kind of can see that in our culture. I often think you’ll hear the funniest jokes at an Irish wake. It’s when things get serious that you’re able to have those light moments. Yes, that comes quite naturally.
“A few years ago, before I had kids, I was talking to a teacher who told me about an incident in her school where this had just happened. At the time I was really shocked because they were 11 or 12 and felt this is something 18-year-olds do.
“Since then though, I’ve learned that it’s not very common but it does happen. In the book there’s an expert that comes to the school to talk to them about web safety. He says that 5% of students by the time they finish primary school will have sent a sext and that is a real statistic that I read.”
The novel’s town of Cooney is loosely based on Clonakilty in Cork and for Eithne, the back stories and sense of place is paramount to her writing.
“I drew the layout and placed where things are and where people live so that even for little things, like I know which turn they’d take on the road. It’s irrelevant for a reader but I love that world building that you do, creating the families, the dynamics, the back histories, all the stuff that maybe doesn’t go into the book.
“This book is dedicated to my dad so he obviously was obliged to read it early,” she laughs. “He read it and was asking about a character’s father that’s mentioned. I told him and it’s not in the book but I knew it all and I loved that.”
She enjoyed writing ‘Queen Bee’ Beverly and her mother, Frances and their dynamic, and says that while every character isn’t necessarily fully likeable, they are of interest. “They’re not all lovely people because they wouldn’t be interesting but they are inherently good.
“While I might not agree with what they do, they’re ultimate trying to do the best for their families and their children and loved ones.”
It Could Never Happen Here by Eithne Shortall, Corvus, £12.99, is available now.