'It seems mad now, but when I started writing I had a baby on my knee ... I made it work'
Co Down author Kelly Creighton launches her new book, Bank Holiday Hurricane, in Belfast on Thursday. Here she tells Lee Henry how being a stay-at-home mum paved the way to becoming a published writer
When Newtownards mum Kelly Creighton gave up a job in the health service to care for her autistic daughter she had no idea the time spent at home would help her fulfil a childhood dream of becoming an author.
This week Kelly (38) will launch her first short story collection, Bank Holiday Hurricane, at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. It's her third book, following poetry collection Three Primes and well-received novel The Bones of It.
For many years before she put pen to paper in earnest Kelly worked as a health worker, primarily with children and young people living with learning disabilities and autism in schools and supported living schemes across Northern Ireland.
"I enjoyed doing that," says the mother of four. "I liked that no two days were ever the same. There were lovely personalities in all the places I worked in who always put a smile on my face. Working in schools was great too. You could see over the course of a year how each child had progressed."
And her extensive professional experience of supporting those on the autism spectrum set Kelly and her husband Ryan (37), now head of Donor Services at NHS Blood and Transplant, in relatively good stead when their eldest child, Madeleine (14), was herself diagnosed with learning disabilities and autism.
"Maddie is my eldest child," says Kelly. "She is a gentle, sweet girl who is very resourceful and determined. Having worked in the health sphere, though, I saw the symptoms in Maddie when she was two.
"Initially we put her loss of language down to there being a new baby in the house when her brother Jude (13) was born. Then it became harder to establish eye contact; she stopped responding to her name and developed awful sleep problems.
"I suppose we were lucky to get a quick diagnosis. She was two years and 10 months at the time and it was a relief to have the diagnosis so quickly, but also it was devastating. There was a grieving process I hadn't expected. It took a couple of years to come to terms with the news."
Two more children followed, Jonah (9) and Martha (5), and over time the Creighton family unit learned to function happily and healthy, despite Maddie remaining non-verbal.
"Of course Maddie finds it difficult at times to let us know what she wants," says Kelly. "There are obstacles that come up that we have to find a way to help Maddie with and as a family we have to be flexible. Sometimes it is all-consuming, but it puts a lot of things into perspective for me. Having a disabled child is a litmus test for your relationships."
Living with and caring for a child on the autism spectrum was a very different experience to working with others outside of the family home. And Kelly contends that the challenges faced by healthcare workers and parents are a world apart, but she found that her training provided her with the tools to care for Maddie in the short as well as the long-term.
"Maybe it was a blessing that I had worked with kids like Maddie before she was born," she adds. "It gave me a good foundation to understand the condition, but working with people with ASD is nothing like being an autism parent. As a parent it is 24/7 and naturally you are totally involved and instinctively protective.
"Today, Maddie loves to go shopping and she loves walking our dogs. She likes the routine of having chores. She is actually a child who enjoys helping out around the house and she is a really good artist. Our walls are covered with her paintings."
In that sense, perhaps, Maddie inherited her mother's creative bent. Kelly was born in Belfast and raised in Bangor and developed a love for literature as a young girl, with the likes of Roald Dahl a favourite author during her formative reading years.
"I wasn't raised in a bookish house, though I was always an avid reader," she says. "As a kid, books were my headspace and escape. They were an insight into how other families navigated through life and I loved Dahl. His books were the first I could read alone. Then, as a teen, it was American young adult writer Judy Blume.
"I remember in P4 having to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up and even then I wanted to be an artist or an author. I always had ideas for books and I would write many, many first chapters that thankfully I can't remember now."
At Glenlola Collegiate, Kelly recalls her various English teachers' enthusiasm being infectious and she continued to study English at A-level in South Eastern Regional College.
"I wrote poems as a teenager and was published here and there," she says. "And I also wrote plays that I sent to television and theatre companies. At the time, I got great feedback and encouragement, but I just froze and didn't try to take it any further after that."
Kelly and her husband were childhood sweethearts who attended the same primary school together and officially became a couple aged 16. "We first met when we were nine and we got married 16 years ago on a beach in Mauritius," she adds. "We were 21 at the time. I was never someone who dreamt about weddings. It was non-traditional, intimate and just perfect."
Following Maddie's birth, Kelly attempted to return to work, but found that the childcare provisions on offer in her part of Northern Ireland were severally lacking. There were no out of schools programmes that could accommodate Maddie and, with her eldest needing constant one-to-one support, she made the decision to remain a stay-at-home mum.
"Ultimately I had to stay at home, which I had never planned for myself because I love working and getting out meeting new people," says Kelly. "Initially it was very isolating. Plus, I was a carer in my mid-20s and I would put myself forward to meet other carers but the events were not aimed at people in my age group at all.
"You start feeling old before your time. And it was hard for me to not contribute financially to the household. After a while, however, I accepted it and looked at what I could do instead of what I couldn't."
After spending three years cooped up at home in the company of four pre-schoolers, Kelly began to search around for pursuits that would get her out of the house and out of her headspace. That initially entailed everything from mountain climbing and abseiling to marathon running.
"I set myself physical challenges," she reveals. "They did the job, gave me another focus, but once I had completed them I had no interest in doing them again. Then I remembered how I'd always wanted to write a novel, so I became a part of the local writing community and challenged myself to write one."
When Creighton started writing seriously, she invariably did so with a baby on her knee. "It seems mad now," she laughs, "but I was compelled to do it, so I made it work. Now, it's much easier. The kids are all school age so I try to work during the day so that I can spend the evenings and weekends being a mum, a wife and a friend.
"I write on the sofa or at the kitchen table on my laptop, but for some reason I'm more easily distracted these days. I'm beginning to think I need an office. I have my sights set on a writing shed. Maybe one day."
Kelly's first attempt at a novel was ultimately shelved, but The Bones of It was a well-received debut, dealing with the tensions between a father and son and the literal ghosts of the past. Seasoned Northern Irish crime writer Brian McGilloway described the book as "chilling, compulsive and beautifully written".
She admits to admiring fiction that "has an emotional truth to it", and cites literary authors Lionel Shriver, Annie Proulx and Christos Tsiolkas as favourite reads; her favourite television shows include the Noah Hawley-penned Netflix series Fargo. Bank Holiday Hurricane, her first short story collection, is similarly hard-hitting, rooted in a harsh contemporary reality.
"When my youngest, Martha, was born, I started writing these stories in between drafts of longer projects," she reveals. "When I stepped back and looked over them collectively, I could see that they related to each other. I believe writers are drawn to certain themes. The stories in Bank Holiday Hurricane all deal with relationships, dislocation and second chances.
"I'm proud of the collection, as I am of The Bones of It. I'm drawn to writing personal stories about political issues and a real highlight was learning that Bones was being studied on a Political Science degree course in the States. I Skyped with a seminar of students who had lots of thoughtful questions and comments about the story."
While Kelly remains unsure about her next literary move, she admits to constantly "bubbling with ideas". "Professionally, I want to write the best stories and novels that I can, to be able to look back some day at a great body of work that I'm truly proud of," she concludes. "And personally, I want to have lots of great times with Ryan and the kids, and see everybody continue to do so well."
Bank Holiday Hurricane, Kelly Creighton, £12.99, from doirepress.com