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Northern Ireland author (80) told books needed 'hot stuff' - now new publisher putting her work on shelf for 60m US readers

Armagh-born author Anne Doughty was dismayed when a publisher rejected her latest historical novel but now she's been signed up by Harper Collins. The 79-year-old talks to Stephanie Bell about recent health battles and why she's always wanted to show there's more to Northern Ireland than sectarian conflict

Author Anne Doughty at home in south Belfast. She has just signed a book deal with a leading US publishing company
Author Anne Doughty at home in south Belfast. She has just signed a book deal with a leading US publishing company
Anne Doughty
Anne Doughty with her late husband Peter

Anne Doughty has always wanted to show the world that there was much more to Northern Ireland than the Troubles, which is why her novels are based on real-life events in our history. And it is only now as she enters her 80th year that this prolific writer is set to get her wish and see her work get a global audience thanks to a new contract with publishing giant Harper Collins.

The news of her breakthrough deal came just days after her 79th birthday in August and ironically a few months after her latest book was turned down by her own publisher.

Perhaps even more pleasingly, it has also come on the back of what has been a traumatic year for the Belfast writer who has gone through open heart surgery.

Recovery has proved frustratingly slow and Anne has made frequent visits to A&E over the past year, but this redoubtable and erudite lady says with a broad smile "the letter from Harper Collins has made up for it all".

Harper Collins said it aims to reinvigorate Anne's career by publishing her new novel The Girl from Galloway, which despite its rather Scottish title is set in Donegal, as well as four previous novels, targeted mainly at the American market.

In a warm endorsement, an editor from the company, who read The Girl from Galloway, added: "Anne's writing is charming and poignant, and I'm a huge fan of this atmospheric Irish setting... Anne would be an absolute priority."

Anne spent six weeks earlier this year in hospital where she underwent surgery to have a heart valve replaced. In a double blow, the surgery came just as she thought her writing career could have been over after her publisher refused The Girl from Galloway.

"The last year hasn't been my happiest!" admits Anne with considerable understatement. "Last October my new novel was turned down by my publisher. Apparently anxieties over Brexit mean that small publishers are being squeezed and they told me they needed hot stuff, real page-turners. I don't write hot stuff and I like to think my work has a little more depth to it. I was very sad.

"Bad enough that, but I then began to get to know A&E rather too well for my liking.

"I ended up spending six weeks in February and March in the Royal Victoria Hospital having heart surgery and I've been back in A&E about 10 times since then.

"Getting the letter from Harper Collins just a few days after my 79th birthday in August was a present that made up for it all. I do believe in miracles and I've always wanted my work to be printed to a wider more global audience and now it is going to happen."

Anne grew up in Armagh and initially worked as a school teacher. She moved to England in 1970 after meeting her English-born husband Peter, who passed away in her arms five years ago from a heart condition.

In a poignant coincidence, he had a lifelong heart complaint which he didn't know about and now Anne too has discovered that her heart issues date from her childhood.

She explains: "Peter had a pain for years which he put down to playing water polo and rowing for Cambridge University. We both had heart problems we didn't know about and we still managed 44 years of a very happy marriage."

Indeed it was by pure chance that Anne found out that she had in fact been seriously ill as a child after her husband stumbled upon the evidence in some old papers.

"It was during a visit back to my old school Armstrong Primary in Armagh a few years ago when they had old documents and records out for people to look at that Peter discovered I had missed 43 days off school," she says. "I was shocked because I remembered getting a prize for seven years of unbroken attendance.

"But it turned out that I nearly died when I was five years old.

"I do remember the doctor making a track across our lawn which had my father very angry as he thought his lawn was rather superior and it was.

"Apparently I had rheumatic fever and we were very lucky to have such a good doctor as he called twice a day to see me.

"Apparently that illness created a problem that led to me needing a new heart valve this year.

"Looking back though I am a little miracle and, as I said before, I do believe in miracles."

Happily Anne went on to enjoy good health until shortly after the death of her husband when she became concerned all was not well with her heart. However, it wasn't picked up at the time and her condition quietly deteriorated until symptoms returned last summer.

She says: "The very first time I felt something was only a couple of months after Peter died. I went to the doctor who told me my heart wasn't damaged or diseased , but was just broken and that I should get grief counselling, which I did and found very helpful."

Then, just before her latest novel was turned down by her publishing company last October, her symptoms re-emerged. By the beginning of this year it was apparent she would need surgery to have her aortic heart valve replaced.

Instead of improving as expected after the operation, however, Anne appeared to deteriorate. She has struggled for most of this year to get her strength back.

Though her ill-health has held her back from doing some of the things she enjoys, it hasn't stopped her from writing and she remains upbeat.

"Unfortunately after about six weeks I should have recovered but instead of improving I deteriorated," she explains. "It is 30 weeks now since my surgery and I am still not able to do my Tuesday morning exercises.

"I have had one or two setbacks and I think I have been a bit unlucky. However, I have received nothing but kindness and care.

"To be honest, I don't know if I am going to survive as I never know when I am going to be calling the ambulance. I am doing my best in between to be as positive as I can.

"I can at least write sitting down and I do keep myself company in A&E by scribbling away. Ambulance men tell me great stories!"

Anne has been writing since childhood and it was her late husband Peter who encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist shortly after they moved to England in the early Seventies.

Anne says she received many rejection letters but Peter encouraged her not to give up and she continued to write for 23 years before she finally got a publishing deal.

Much to their joy and surprise, her first novel A Few Late Roses was long listed for the Irish Times Fiction Award. This was quickly followed by her next two novels Stranger in the Place and Summer of the Hawthorn.

Then, after returning to Northern Ireland in 1988, she started to write a series of novels about the Hamilton family; the story starts with their lives at the end of the 19th century, where they are enjoying new found security living in their own home.

A new addition to the series, The Blacksmith's Wife, was one which she and Peter had discussed together before his death. After he passed away she says that finishing the book for her late husband was a lifesaver at a time when she struggled to cope with life without him: "Peter and I had a very close relationship and I will never stop missing him," she says.

"I do still owe Peter the 12th Hamilton novel but I have been rather tempted recently by writing an autobiography, essentially of an Ulster childhood. The working title for it is For The Ducks Going Barefoot, which is a saying people outside of Armagh might not know.

"It does seem appropriate to do this now that I'm in my 80th year - which I have difficulty in grasping.

"That's what I love about being from here. If you are born in Ireland and are rained on by Irish rain then you are Irish no matter what foot you kick with.

"I am fascinated that we have so many expressions which can be known in one area and not known in another and 'for the ducks going barefoot' was a saying which people in Armagh would know but people in Fermanagh might never have heard of.

"When I was in hospital I kept getting asked 'are you allergic to anything' and I would smile and say 'yes sectarianism' and I always got a laugh."

Anne researches history so that she can weave her fiction around actual events in our past. Her new novel The Girl from Galloway is set during the famine in Donegal and is a love story in which an Irish Catholic man falls for his Protestant employer's youngest daughter when he goes to Scotland to seek work.

Anne says: "Harvesters in Donegal struggled for work even before the famine and my main character goes off to Scotland for five months of the year during the harvest for work.

"He works for a Scottish covenanter and falls for his youngest daughter, although it is three years before he admits his feelings.

"I wanted to show how his new father-in-law gave his blessing for his daughter to marry an Irish Catholic because he had the chance to see he was a good hard-working man.

"The famine hits shortly after the newly-weds settle in Donegal. The Girl from Galloway is the companion novel to The Blacksmith's Wife which is set in east Ulster at the same period.

"Both novels focus on what happened to people in different parts of Ireland through the eyes of Sarah Hamilton and Hannah McGinley who both did what they could to help during that awful time in our history."

Anne has only ever written for the love of it and even though she has just signed a new deal which will see her books brought to a much wider audience she says she is not banking on making her fortune just yet.

She says: "I actually don't understand the figures so I'm not even sure what it is worth but with the books being marketed to 60 million Americans of Irish descent it does look like a good opportunity.

"However, I really am not interested in the money. I only ever wanted to get my stories out there and the message that there is more to our history than the Troubles.

"For me my writing is about presenting Irish history in a way that people can make up their own minds about it.

"Up until now my books were only sold in the UK and Ireland so I am happy to think my stories set in times before the Troubles will now be getting the worldwide audience I always hoped for."

She adds: "To me we are all the same - we are all vulnerable and we are all going to die so why don't we just get on with it."

The Girl from Galloway by Anne Doughty, will be published by Harper Collins later this year

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