'My mum was a beautiful, lively woman, it was a shock to everyone when she died ... people still talk to me about where they were when they heard she passed away'
Co Tyrone novelist Emma Heatherington is set to release her latest book, which is receiving rave reviews. She reveals her inspiration and talks about losing her mother, writes Linda Stewart
While most of us are gritting our teeth and facing the January blues, novelist Emma Heatherington really is set for a happy new year latest novel, the Legacy of Lucy Harte, will be published early this month and is already garnering five star reviews. She has also just learned from publishers Harper Collins that the new book is to be translated into German and Dutch — which means it will be her first book ever to be marketed beyond the shores of Ireland.
“I got the news two days before Christmas — it was the best Christmas present ever,” she says.
The Donaghmore-born writer says most of her books to date have been romantic comedies but the latest is the first of a three-book deal with Harper Collins and is a major departure in style.
“I think I’ve found my true niche with a relationship family-led story,” she says.
“It took me nearly three years to write this book — I used to churn them out. Before this, I did two books a year, so you can imagine the difference in taking so long to do this one.
“It really shows because I’ve put so much effort into it.”
The new book packs a major emotional punch with its tale of Maggie O’Hara, who had her life saved by an organ donation as a teenager and is now in her mid-30s, living in Belfast and finding her world is falling apart.
Emma admits the book was partly inspired by her cousin, Ciaran Campbell who had a kidney transplant as a toddler.
Emma recalls: “When my cousin Ciaran Campbell was just three years old, he was given the gift of life by someone he didn’t know. Born six weeks premature on October 12, 1987, both his kidneys failed a few weeks later and within the year he had them both removed. For the next two years he was kept alive by dialysis but he urgently needed a kidney to survive and he suffered a brain haemorrhage during his wait at the age of two. His amazing gift came in May 1991 from the brave family of a five-year-old girl in England, and now 26 years later, he is still forever grateful to that family for their decision to donate life through organ donation.
“He always had a sense of something missing in his life — that feeling of having a long lost family. He had the gift of life from a family who had decided to give their child’s organs to him and he wanted to thank them. That feeling that he had gave me the ideas for a fictional story,” she adds.
Ciaran agrees he did yearn to know more about the young girl whose organs saved his life as he was growing up. He says: “I always felt thankful yet curious as to who my donor’s family were, what they do, what they were like and more curiously who my donor was, what type of a kid was she.”
And he is delighted that the essence of his story is being replicated in a book.
“It’s such an honour, a very humbling feeling and I’m even more thankful to Emma who has been so kind to allow me to have the dedication split between me and my donor. I would never be as open about what happened to me so many years ago if it wasn’t for Emma and her writing talents, I knew I could trust her right away.”
With donation at the core of the novel, Emma sets the scene for the central character.
She explains: “For Maggie, everything is falling apart in her life — her marriage is gone, her job is on the line and she doesn’t know who she is any more. She is going down a destructive path and is alienated from friends and family who are all very worried about her.”
Maggie meets the brother of Lucy Harte, the child whose organ was donated to her, and he gives her Lucy’s diary, which has a bucket list of all the things that she wanted to do in her life — sparking a new journey for Maggie. “Lucy has saved her life and now she’s doing it all over again,” Emma explains.
She says the book will be published as an ebook early in January and will be published as a paperback on Thursday, but has already been earning excellent reviews from bloggers and critics.
The Donaghmore novelist admits she did struggle with bringing her tale to a conclusion. It was only when she was sitting in the garden with her aunt that the dramatic ending she needed came to her in a eureka moment. “Just like a bolt out of the blue, it came to me. I said ‘I’ve got it’ and I jumped up. I had to go home and get it down straight away,” she says.
Emma says she can’t sit in front of a computer screen and come up with words, particularly while juggling a busy family life — instead the ideas tend to spring into her head while she’s busy having a housework fit.
“If you see me mopping a floor or doing the ironing, you know there is something going on in my head,” she says.
She talks about a time when she was struggling to put together a one-hour musical and ended up writing the whole thing in a single day. “A lot of stuff sits in my head subconsciously and it doesn’t come out until the time is right. It was like that with the ending of The Legacy of Lucy Harte — when it came to me, it was like a wee light bulb going on.”
And it worked — her editor loved it and ended up in floods of tears after reading it.
“I’ve put all my energy into the book. I was emotionally drained after writing it. It’s such an emotional roller coaster. I did shed a tear when I was writing Maggie’s story. If you don’t feel it, the reader is not going to feel it,” adds Emma.
She admits her cousin’s feelings about his transplant were not the only major influence on the book. The novel also draws upon the emotions of her own marriage breakdown in 2010 and the early death of her mother Geraldine in 1991 of a heart attack at the age of just 36, leaving her father Hugh McCrory, now 66, with six children to raise.
“She was a beautiful, lively woman — a lovely character and an amazing singer who was very well known for her voice. She had a vibrant personality and a great love of life,” Emma says.
“She was the youngest of seven girls. I have a memory of her buying a pair of Levi 501s and me being disgusted about it — I was raging that she had got them before I did.”
The family had recently moved into a new house in Donaghmore and Geraldine was caring for eight-month-old Rebecca when tragedy struck.
The day before she died, Geraldine had asked 15-year-old Emma and her sister what they needed for school and gone into town to buy them an art folder and a tennis racquet.
“It was weird, because it was like she was tying up the bits and pieces,” Emma says.
The next morning, Emma’s mum wasn’t feeling well and they called in the doctor who diagnosed indigestion.“He asked me to go and see what was in the cupboard for indigestion and I brought up God knows what into the bedroom and she laughed and said ‘typical Emma’.
“And that was the last thing she said to me — she died a couple of hours later.” When the doctor returned later that day, Geraldine’s condition had deteriorated and he told them to call an ambulance immediately.
“By the time we got to the hospital, a doctor came in and told us she was dead — she had a coronary thrombosis. I remember my dad saying ‘What on earth am I going to do?’
“It was a massive shock to our whole community. People still talk to me about where they were when they heard the news that she had died.”
Emma remembers her mother loving James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and country music and how she longed to visit New York city some day.
“She had so much to live for and so many dreams and ambitions that she didn’t get to fulfil,” she says.
“When I turned 36, the age that she died, it was a very strange feeling for me. I realised it was as far as she had got and I didn’t feel that I had lived half of my potential. I think that is where a lot of these emotions have come from, that feeling that it’s important to do the best you can do and do it now. Don’t be afraid to say what you have to say and take the big chances. There was so much that she wanted to do.”
Emma says her mum encouraged her writing talent when she was a young child growing up in Donaghmore.
“I suppose my love of writing was evident back then. I remember having a real love of song lyrics when I was a child,” she says.
“I would make up my own songs and torture everybody that would listen to me — that was usually my mother, who didn’t have a choice.
“I loved pop music — I was an Eighties child so I liked artists like Madonna, Wham and Bananarama.
“My cousin, my sister and I would be doing photo shoots in the local park, thinking we were going to be the next big thing, but there wasn’t a note in my head. I would sit in my bedroom on Sunday afternoons with a synthesiser making up songs and putting lyrics to them. I thought Stock Aitken and Waterman had nothing on me.”
However, after the shock of her mum’s death, Emma stopped writing her lyrics.
“Our focus became as a family to get through that, to get through our exams. Everything extra went by the wayside,” she says.
Emma completed her A-levels and went on to study communications, advertising and marketing at the University of Ulster.
“I went to live in Belfast and shared a house with my cousin and we had some great times. But when I was in my second year I had my first child at the age of 19,” she adds.
Emma went on to marry her then boyfriend and later had two more children with him. But at the time she refused to let the pregnancy halt her career.
“I was a determined person and I wasn’t going to let it stop me. I was back to university within a year and I graduated in 1997,” she says.
“I think there is a certain stigma attached to being a teenage mum. I wanted to show people that even though I was a single mum with no mum, I still wanted to finish my degree. It was very challenging but I got there.
“My family stepped in and helped with childcare which was excellent, and I took the bus up and down every day to Belfast. My student days of partying were over. I had great fun, but it stopped after the first year and I became a commuter and travelled on the bus every day.”
After graduating, Emma got a new communications and events post with Dungannon Council which proved to be an exciting time.
“I created some lovely events, such as a Picnic in the Park-style concert and an award ceremony for local heroes. I developed the first magazine for residents and I was in charge of the council’s first website. It was exciting to be in such a role at quite a young age.
“But as much as organising events and PR was feeding my creativity there was something lurking in the background... an itch that I hadn’t found my true vocation. I found myself dreaming about being a writer and I started looking up writers to see how they become published.”
The break came when Emma won a short story competition in a magazine.
“When someone acknowledges your talent in that way, it’s such a confidence boost,” she says.
“I started writing my first novel while the children were sleeping at night, working nine to five and squeezing the writing in when I could.”
At first she had to deal with a few rejection letters, but she was finally offered a deal with Dublin’s Dodder Books to publish her first novel Crazy for You. In the meantime she also teamed up with Sean Flynn, director of the Bardic Theatre in Donaghmore, to write a hugely successful Christmas show starring Fame Academy alumnus Malachi Cush.
“It was wonderful, hearing the audience laughing at the lines that I had written and going silent at the places where they were supposed to,” she says.
After that, Emma realised the book wasn’t going to earn enough to give up the day job but she took a six-month career break to write another book, while caring for three children. She ended up getting a three-book deal with Poolbeg in Dublin.
“I ended up writing six books with them and I never did go back to that day job,” she says.
“But the reality of it is that it cost me a lot. You can’t make money writing books in Ireland — you just can’t. I went from a very comfortable well-paid job to scrimping and saving, trying to make ends meet. My husband and I separated in 2010 and things were very strange and very different for a couple of years — but I kept writing.”
One book even became Tesco Ireland’s number one bestseller, but Emma still had to back up her income with “bread and butter” scriptwriting work such as short plays and films, including a DOE road safety stage plays for schools.
And then in 2013 everything changed again. Emma’s contract with Poolbeg came to a natural end and she began looking for a new publisher, knowing that she needed to go with someone who marketed outside Ireland.
Now she has embarked on a three-book deal with Harper Collins and has already had the plot for her next book approved.
And in the run-up to her birthday she took a notion to go a concert at the Burnavon Centre in Cookstown to see a performer she had never heard of, who turned out to be Jim McKee, a visual artist and singer-songwriter.
Following a long distance relationship, the couple are now settled in Donaghmore in a “bit of a madhouse” with a two-year-old son, Sonny, and four teenagers — Emma’s children Jordyn (20), Jade (16) and Adam (14) and Jim’s son Dualta (15).
“It’s absolute hell — we call it Hormone City,” Emma laughs.
“You can imagine the moods and the teenagers’ doors slamming. They take your head off for asking if they want a cup of tea.”
Emma says the older children have weathered a lot of changes in their lives very well.
“Behind it all, they know it’s a good thing and they absolutely adore Sonny — he’s the centre of the world.
“He gets on the boys’ nerves a bit more. He’s at the stage of writing on walls and taking their stuff so its understandable. He’s a wee wrecker. He’s like a tornado. He’s good fun and keeps the whole thing going — he’s a wee burst of energy.”
Emma says she felt like she’d met her match when she met Jim, on a creative level as well as an emotional level.
“He understands what I do and we work together on a lot of things. He wrote the music for a children’s musical called Scarecrow Fred, which we produced together in late March.”
Emma admits that although she isn’t musical, there are many musical people in her family — including her famous cousin Viv Campbell of Def Leppard.
“He was always our claim to fame. He was my dad’s nephew and he would have played in Dio and Whitesnake,” she says.
“He came to our house in Co Tyrone one day in a red Ferrari.
“We were living a housing estate — can you imagine him pulling up in the red Ferrari and the Eighties bubble perm.
“All the young people were out on our steps waiting for him to arrive — it was like something out of a Roddy Doyle movie.
“He’s been in Def Leppard for 26 years. It’s amazing to remember him getting his first guitar — he was self taught but he had real talent. He got where he is today by hard work,” she adds.
Emma will be signing her latest book at Sheehy’s bookshop in Cookstown at 4pm on January 21.
“I’m so excited about it coming out. Every time I receive a review, I do a cartwheel,” she says.
The Legacy of Lucy Harte by Emma Heatherington, published by Harper Impluse (Harper Collins), is out now on ebook and will be in paperback on Thursday, priced £7.99 from Amazon