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'This is the real life we do live and it doesn't always make the news', says Tyrone author Emma Heatherington

Author Emma Heatherington is back with possibly her most personal book yet. She tells Aine Toner about making a career leap, seizing opportunity and family talent

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Dungannon Author Emma Heatherington at her home in Co Tyrone  (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

Dungannon Author Emma Heatherington at her home in Co Tyrone (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

Author Emma Heatherington from Donaghmore  with her son Sonny James (2) and other children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Dualta and partner Jim McKee

Author Emma Heatherington from Donaghmore with her son Sonny James (2) and other children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Dualta and partner Jim McKee

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Dungannon Author Emma Heatherington at her home in Co Tyrone (Picture Colm O'Reilly).

Budding writers are told to write what they know - and being mindful of home and the world around her is something very important to author Emma Heatherington.

Creator of 11 books, over 30 short plays and two musicals, the Donaghmore resident enjoys tapping into emotions as much as she can through writing.

"I suppose I've learned my craft by now and I feel like I've found my genre," she says of the emotional fiction which she produces.

"In the beginning of my writing career I tended to steer more towards romantic comedy. It's only since The Legacy of Lucy Harte, my 2017 book, that I really found my niche and really from my all own life experiences.

"I'm coming 45 now and I find I can pour a lot of emotion, a lot of life experience, maybe not deliberately, through a storyline. But certainly write from the heart, try and tug at those heartstrings and hopefully make people think about their own lives, that by the time they've turned the last page, something will have changed within them and they may have something to ponder themselves that they can relate to."

Emma's latest book The Promise centres on teenagers Kate and David, brought together in the harshest of circumstances. The two meet on the day of the Omagh bomb in 1998 as they attempt to comfort each other.

It's another decade before they meet again - but the spark that flourished upon their first meeting has never fully been extinguished. Ten years on, things are still unresolved, and unsettled in Northern Ireland as a whole. Now, they have so much more to lose - but what price will they put on happiness together?

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"I'm from Tyrone and like everyone, I have clear memories of that day," says Emma of August 15, 1998, when 29 people lost their lives. "Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about it and as the day unfolded, it became a bigger and bigger and bigger tragedy and because it was so close to home, I knew people who had just missed it maybe by minutes, driving through the town on their way to Donegal for the weekend. It was very obviously geographically close to home but also close to home in that there were so many people affected.

"I remember that night, it was my cousin's hen party and we'd obviously been planning it. She was the first in the circle of friends to get married and some of her sisters-in-law to be couldn't make it because they were nurses and were called to the hospital."

What happened in Omagh has stayed with the people of Tyrone and while Emma wasn't there on the day or experienced it first-hand, she did undertake a lot of research into what it might be like to experience something on that level.

"I hope that, in my descriptions of an event like that, hopefully, we'll never see the likes of again, that I've done it some particular justice. It was absolutely heartbreaking to read some of the first-hand accounts of people who were there that day. People from all different backgrounds: someone who had been seriously injured, someone who had lost a family member or someone who escaped with minor injuries but still lives with very emotional scars until this day.

"I remember on the day hearing about it first and I can remember specifically where I was. The first moment was, obviously having grown up in that environment, thinking that maybe it wasn't too bad. I remember our football club was meant to play Omagh that weekend and it was the first, 'Oh gosh, will the match be off?' Something as minor as that was the first thing that popped into my head. Then as the hours went by and the news kept coming in, obviously it was a much, much bigger scale, it was something that nobody will ever forget.

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Author Emma Heatherington from Donaghmore  with her son Sonny James (2) and other children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Dualta and partner Jim McKee

Author Emma Heatherington from Donaghmore with her son Sonny James (2) and other children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Dualta and partner Jim McKee

Author Emma Heatherington from Donaghmore with her son Sonny James (2) and other children Jordyn, Jade, Adam, Dualta and partner Jim McKee

"I also read about real life incidents, such as the 9/11 attacks. I read into how people felt on that day. I took a mixture of real life experiences that I could find online and put them into this work of fiction. I'm hoping that the emotion that I felt writing it and researching it relayed on to the reader."

Emma calls The Promise the book that 'demanded to be written.'

"My previous books had covered organ donation before, bereavement from a mother's eyes, loneliness… I try and explore a theme in each book. It wasn't deliberate that I never really touched up any of the different communities that we have here, I just didn't ever go into that at all.

"It was more about the personalities of David and Kate and how there's so much against them but how there's still a very, very deep bond between them through the most traumatic circumstances.

"While the bomb and the incident at the beginning of the story are a backdrop, you do see it filtering through their lives and how they deal with it in very different ways and how it does linger and doesn't go away. It's important to acknowledge that: anyone who has experienced trauma on that level; while the physical scars heal and you see them walking around and getting on with the life, there's a lot more under the surface. It's important to reflect that in the story."

For Emma, it's important for her to write about home and to, where possible, highlight just how much Northern Ireland has going for it.

"I do think that a lot of us who live here take for granted the beauty of the environment that we live in," she says.

"I don't say that lightly; I was with my daughter yesterday buying a car and we went to Co Down, Kilkeel direction and my goodness, absolutely breathtaking scenery and there's so much to explore.

I've also discovered a new love for the Lough Shore, all around Lough Neagh.

"My next book that has just been delivered for 2022 is based in rural Tyrone. It's lovely to show that, yes, we've had such a horrific journey, we're nowhere near the end, but there's an absolute beauty in the nature and the people that live here.

"They've got such a unique way about them that the world needs to see. That it's not all what people might see in the news: there are hearts and souls and real lives and stories, relationships, families, that go on here that are quite beautiful and hopefully they get to see that in my books because I do set them as close to home as possible."

It is this area - where different sides co-exist - that is important to relay to readers outside of Northern Ireland.

"There are neighbours living side by side very happily, there are marriages that really work, there are relationships, friendships that work and a lot of on the ground social things that go on," says Emma, who lives in Donaghmore with her partner Jim McKee and their children Jordyn, Jade, Dualta, Adam and Sonny James, (inset left).

"It's very important to show that and again, set in the backdrop of most beautiful nature and countryside.

"This is the real life we do live and it doesn't always make the news but hopefully, it'll come into people's minds when they do read the stories."

The former PR who worked for years in the local council, Emma decided to take a career break to concentrate on writing full-time. A brave decision we say.

"I absolutely loved the job, it was very, very local and I was working with great people. But there's an itch inside you that it's something you have to be doing.

"I had a young family at the time and I was in a secure, pensionable local government job, so I decided to take a stepping stone of a six-month career break.

"And my plan was to take on some freelance work as well and get stuck into writing in any shape or form.

"I just wanted to write; I didn't care what it was: copy for somebody's website, for a brochure or a press release, but mainly my dream was to be published on a wider scale.

"I did suffer, financially, obviously, because to walk away from a full-time salary is, maybe a bit foolish in hindsight. I did struggle for a long time, and I suppose it wasn't until the success of The Legacy of Lucy Harte in 2017 where I started to really reap the rewards for the sacrifice that I'd made and everything started to turn."

It was the combination of a few things - 'right book, the right time, the story, the right publisher' - that led to much of her dream job falling into place, plus the emotional genre in which she's comfortable writing.

"I set out to deliberately to write books that you don't just close the last page and forget about them, that you maybe want to talk to somebody about it," says Emma.

"It was very much a marathon and not a sprint and there's still so much more to do, so many more ambitions still to fulfil. I feel, right now, I suppose the sacrifice is starting to pay off."

She believes in setting goals and working hard in order to achieve them.

"Looking back, I wouldn't say I'm gung-ho ambitious, I'm not a business type, career-driven person, but creatively if there's something I know I want to do, I will work really, really hard to get to that level."

It's something, we say, that demonstrates to her children that ambition and working hard are important.

"It's certainly not your usual run of the mill, 9-5 job that they see," she says, "but also they know if they do want something badly enough and it doesn't come through the first time, you try again, you try another avenue. Knock on those doors and if they close in your face, knock another one.

"As they're getting older, maybe they're more appreciative of that.

"I remember when the first book came out, my eldest daughter was in grammar school here. I went to the school so they were all so excited and had gotten copies in. I remember her telling me she saw one of the older pupils walking down the corridor holding my book. She was absolutely mortified and nearly ran into one of the lockers to hide in case they might say, 'I've got your mummy's book' whereas now it's the opposite.

"Now they can see that if they do want something, they take that example."

What's changed since her first book in 2007 is the opportunity for swift and sustained self-promotion, particularly through social media.

"When I started out, that didn't exist. I remember when I was starting out and used to go to events where there would be a panel of Dublin authors - like Sarah Webb, Sinead Moriarty, all those Irish writers who I was just gaga about, they were my idols. I would listen to them speaking about their writing careers and be absolutely mesmerised by them.

"You might have a chance at the end of the session to go and ask them a question. Even the courage to go and do that!

"Now, people can message an author if they're a fan, directly, and get an answer within seconds, and even build up a bit of an online rapport. I know a lot of my readers who would message me to say, 'Two weeks to go until the book comes out, can't wait, really looking forward to it,' and you get to know them a bit. That relationship builds up and that builds loyalty within readers. There's great advantage to have that connection and that can go globally."

Emma is currently facilitating a weekly writing class on behalf of actor Sean Maguire.

'If there is something I know I want to do, I will work really, hard to get to that level'

"He's hired me as his creative writer facilitator so I do a class every Sunday evening," she explains. "Most of the participants are from America, one from Canada, two here and one in Coventry, one in London. They've built up a lovely friendship between them all as a writing group and developed friendships. They're already dreading it ending!"

To go from the person asking questions to answering them must be a 'pinch me' moment. Emma agrees.

"My aunt Kathleen is my godmother and she has a great talent for writing as well - and she'd come with me to those events. It was like going to a pop concert for us because we were so excited to be going, nudging each other if someone came in who we recognised.

"She used to say to me, 'You're going to be up there some day' and I said, 'Yeah, right.''

And perhaps the apple didn't fall too far from the tree in her home, as Emma's brother David discovered a notebook belonging to their mum, who sadly passed away when Emma was only 15, full of writing.

"It makes everything make sense," says Emma of the discovery.

"I remember trying to write songs when I was about 11 or 12 and wanted her to listen to them, what did she think of that one and so on.

"If a child wants to dance, you send them to dance classes. If a child wants to play an instrument, you send them to lessons but there was no real outlet for someone who wants to write, who had that spark from a young age. She was really excited about it but also a wee bit overwhelmed, 'What am I going to do with her? Where can I send her or how to encourage it more?'

"My brother was looking for Christmas decorations in Daddy's attic and he found her notebook.

"It was a wee red hardback notebook and as we flicked through it, we realised she was writing poems and songs, all sorts of things. It was very emotional to read her lines, she was only 17 when she was writing these.

"We made sure it was definitely her work and my brother took her lyrics and put music to it and made it a song. That's something very personal."

The Promise by Emma Heatherington, HarperCollins, £12.99, is out on April 15




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