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Emily Hourican: "I needed to handle cancer on my own"

Belfast-born writer and mum of three Emily Hourican tells Ciara Dwyer about beating cancer, finishing her debut novel and how losing her dad changed the course of her life

I hear Emily's voice before I see her. Having finished treatment for mouth cancer, I expect to see a frail figure, covered in spots. But moments later she bounds down the stairs of her home and is making coffee for me. She is slightly more slender than her usual tiny self and there are a few dark freckles around her mouth, which she has covered up with foundation. In a black jumper with sparkly beads and nails painted a matching black, this is not quite what I had envisaged.

She looks and sounds surprisingly well. She tells me that her mouth is still very sore and it hurts her to eat certain foods. There are problems with her taste buds - it will take time for them to come back - and she gets tired in the evenings if she has pushed herself too much, but, overall, she is lively and full of fighting spirit.

"When I compare myself with what I was a month ago, I am beyond delighted," she says. "I do not feel as well as I used to, but in comparison with how I was - and we're coming from a very low base - I am completely suffused with delight. Pleasure is simply the absence of pain."

She says that writing about her cancer helped her, as she went through seven weeks that included 35 sessions of radiotherapy and medication. But she'd hate to be described as some kind of superwoman who sailed through it all. Not so. Some days, she longed to be able to do simple things like walk her children to school, or even have the energy to listen to them. Endearingly, she admits to having felt sorry for herself.

"For the first three-and-a-half weeks, I was cheerful and determined, and for the last three-and-a-half weeks I was utterly miserable. I will always put a brave face on everything, but in the end there was no brave face to put on this. I was just a rag," she says.

But for all that, she wanted to be independent, too. Perhaps this comes from being the second eldest of six, where she was used to minding her younger siblings. Either way, this is a woman who went to all her treatment sessions on her own ... by choice.

"There were loads of people who could have gone with me, but I felt the family resources were stretched enough without that," she says, referring to her cameraman/director husband David Crann and their three children - Malachy (12), Davy (8) and Bee (5).

"Sometimes I'd be in there for hours. I didn't see the point of having somebody with me, making conversation - and, being me, I'd feel guilty that they were sitting there. I was well able to handle it on my own, even at the very end, tottering as I was. But once I was in there, there were so many people to mind me."

Quite simply, Emily Hourican is a trouper.

But I'm not here to talk about her cancer, or even her post-cancer life. We've already moved on. She has written her first novel - The Privileged. It's a riveting read - think Jane Austen meets Jilly Cooper - and is written with great flourish.

The Privileged is about the friendship of three Dublin girls from their teenage years, right up to their late 20s. It follows their adventures on leaving school, when the world is full of possibilities. They have fun envisaging their future selves and then, as the years pass, the reality is far from what they had imagined.

"The book is about friendship and the way you understand your life a whole lot better backwards," says Emily. "At the time, as you live through it, nothing seems that extraordinary. You do things and things happen to you and to people around you, and you take it for granted, particularly when you are that giddy age in your early 20s, where a lot of people have a pretty wild time of it.

"It's only in retrospect that you go, 'that was pretty nuts' and also, 'that was pretty close to the edge'," she says. "In everybody's life, there are people who don't make it, they are the people who fall over the edge.

"I had a few of them in mind when writing this book and when I think about them, they were always the most extraordinary ones, and that's not just the nostalgia of hindsight; people who I was in school with, and not always guys; that person who seemed to burn brighter than everyone else. As you get older, you look back and think, 'that person was extraordinary'.

"But it is obvious to me now, as an adult, that the person had a whole range of problems that I didn't see at the time, because I was too young and too dazzled by them. The conceit of the novel was that you get a chance to save somebody, when in real life you don't," she continues.

"The girls converge on London with this one mission, which is to save a friend who has gone off the rails, but at the same time they are having to look back on their joint lives and trying to work out what went wrong for them."

Edna O'Brien once said that she didn't have to go to the moon to find her story for The Country Girls, and so it is with Emily and her novel.

"I went to the European School in Brussels and some of those school years were quite wild," she says.

Being educated alongside students from countries such as Italy and France taught Emily that the world was a much bigger place.

"You learn to be comfortable with other languages and nationalities, and it makes you more adaptable," she says. "At the school, they were all very privileged kids, and their parents would be off having a brilliant time themselves, at parties and on skiing holidays, and a lot of them were not taking their kids with them. The kids had huge freedom. They had cars and big, empty houses - because the parents were always away. Everyone would move in for the weekend, and then the maid would be tidying up around them. It was really very different to my life. Although we lived in a very beautiful house in Brussels, my parents were always there. And there were six kids."

Emily was born in Belfast in 1971 and grew up in Brussels. They moved around because of her father, Liam Hourican.

"My dad was a journalist, and a very good one," she says. "He was the head of the RTE Northern bureau and then, later, he got a job in Brussels as the Chef de Cabinet in the European Commission.

"We lived in Belfast for a couple of years. I remember almost nothing about it. It was a horrible time for my mother, and a very exciting time for my dad. He would disappear for days on the trail of an interview. Then we moved to Dublin, where dad worked in RTE. He was reading the news for a while and part of the political staff.

"Then he got a job in Brussels in Commissioner Dick Burke's first cabinet. That was for four years. Then the government fell and we came back to Dublin for a year. I was 10. Afterwards, there was another government and it was when Dick Burke, the Fine Gael politician, crossed the floor and he joined Haughey. He sent him back to Brussels as commissioner again and Dick Burke took my dad out with him. I was never so happy to get back to Brussels."

His working life was always part of the family life. When Liam worked in RTE reading the news, all the children would huddle around the television. When they were home for a year after the government fell, Liam was the press secretary for Garret FitzGerald.

"It was the year of the hunger strikes. It was a crazy year," says Emily. "The phone never stopped ringing. We never saw dad all summer - he was constantly at work."

Her parents met when they were studying at UCD. Her mother, Patricia Cleary, was born in Palestine, and before coming to Dublin, she lived in Kenya, where she was educated by Irish nuns.

Emily describes her mother as a "serious force of nature" and tells me her parents were "insanely in love with each other".

On finishing school in Brussels, Emily headed off to Italy for a year. Then she returned to Ireland and did a degree in English and history in UCD with her younger sister, Bridget.

Emily always wanted to be a journalist. The plan was to get a job with The Bulletin, an English-speaking magazine in Brussels. But then, everything changed. She explains: "The year I got my BA, my dad died. He was in Kerry on holiday with my mother and three younger siblings and I was in Brussels with the two closest in age to me. We were all working."

As she continues, her normally confident voice changes tone and her speech is halted. Suddenly, she doesn't sound invincible.

"I got a call one night," she says. "I was actually in a nightclub at six in the morning. I had just made a plan to go to the beach for the day ... then my brother Michael appeared in the nightclub. This was not a good thing because he didn't go to nightclubs, ever. I saw him and he said 'I've got bad news. It's ...'"

Her eyes fill and she crumbles. She cannot speak. "Sorry," she says. "All these years, and still, every time, I still cry, every time."

"He had a heart attack - a sudden, massive heart attack, just out of the blue. He was only 49. He burnt the candle at every end and invested way too much energy into everything. He worked hard and he played hard."

Did he look like a walking heart attack?

"In retrospect, he did," she says. "I had 21 years of amazing conversations with my dad, so I don't feel that I need to cling on to our last conversation, but I do remember it. He rang from Kerry, from a payphone in Cahersiveen. He said that a friend of theirs had told them that there was a job on The Bulletin as a sub-editor and that I should go for it, that I should ring the editor. He died two days after that conversation."

His death changed everything.

"It just knocked the stuffing out of me completely," she says.

She eventually picked herself up and came back to Dublin to do a master's in English literature, and it was during that time that she became close to David, who was to become her husband.

She met him when she was at her worst. He was a friend of her sister's boyfriend, who insisted on introducing him to Emily even though she was sick in bed. David sat on the edge of her bed, awkward as hell. Emily fell in love instantly. It would be some time before they fell together as a couple - the year after her dad died.

"I think that my dad dying fundamentally changed the course of my life. If he had not died, I probably wouldn't have come back to Dublin and I'd be leading a very different life now. But I was back in Dublin and in a fairly vulnerable state.

"I had the good sense to realise that David was a good person to be with and to try to make a life with. He is so kind, and I think I rate kindness above everything. He has never not made me laugh, no matter how bad things are.

"When I was sick, he'd be patiently up and down the stairs with custard or poached pear. I was panicking, but he kept the show on the road.

"Then, when I was feeling better, I said, 'David, I think I'm going to be okay' and he said, 'of course you're going to be okay', which was nice."

The Privileged by Emily Hourican is published by Hachette Ireland, £12.99

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