First-time novelist Tish Delaney isn't sure if she ever really wanted to write a book. She seems genuinely bemused that national magazines, newspapers and veteran authors such as Roddy Doyle are praising her debut, Before My Actual Heart Breaks, which has just been published.
"I used to write short stories - I've written hundreds of them," she says, chatting via Zoom from the home she shares on the Channel Island of Alderney with her partner, artist Neil Paterson.
"One day, Neil said to me, 'All these short stories… you do know that what you're actually doing is writing a book?'
"I realised that I was indeed writing a big story through a series of short stories, but had never thought about putting them all together before.
"I didn't know if anyone would be interested, but Neil told me that there was no point in me fiddling away, writing for hours, if I wasn't going to let people read what I had written. And that's how it came about."
Before My Actual Heart Breaks tells of a young woman growing up in 1970/80s Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, and her later self trying to repair a life gone off course.
The young woman, Mary Rattigan, has dreams of escaping an horrific home life and the sectarianism and parochial attitudes in her small rural town, but of course, that doesn't happen.
"I haven't based Mary, or any of the other characters in the book on myself, or anyone I knew personally growing up," says Tish. "They are all an amalgam of personalities.
"However, I do remember being at school and a girl we knew of 'got herself into trouble' and the hoo-ha that ensued was off the scale.
"It was such a drastic response and I remember being suckered into it and thinking, 'Oh yes, that is terrible'.
"It was a huge scandal at the time and that particular girl was married off and removed from society. We never clapped eyes on her again for at least 10 years.
"Even when I didn't understand any different, I always used to hate the fact that it was always the girl's fault - that phrase, 'got herself into trouble'. I always used to say to my mum, 'Surely there was someone else involved?'
"Back then it was always the girl's fault."
The youngest of five children, Tish grew up on a small farm, where money was tight, but there was plenty of love.
"We were a bit on the poor side, but my mum was a brilliant cook and we always had lots of lovely fresh food," recalls Tish. "It was a warm and friendly home with people coming and going all the time. Plenty of lovely aunties, uncles and people like that."
She was the first in her family to pass the 11-plus and after grammar school, went on to study English and Education at De La Salle College in Manchester.
One thing she did share with her protagonist was the desire to get away from her home town as quickly as possible and she admits that the Troubles played a part in that.
"Castlederg is a border town and had a big army barracks, so there was a lot of tension," she recalls. "It wasn't Belfast or Derry, but there was a lot of low-level stuff that I found really difficult - the stop and search, vehicles getting stripped, the fact that you couldn't just go from A to B on any given day.
"There were also the backwards attitudes that prevailed in Northern Ireland at that time.
"It was all about keeping you in your place. Nobody ever said do your best, or aim high, or think about what you want to do. It was always keep your head down, don't aim, don't be ambitious.
"You felt like you should just move up the road with a pram.
"I was always desperate to get away. I just couldn't imagine living there after I'd grown up. I just wanted to get out of that town and left when I was 18."
After college, Tish moved to London and started working for freesheets and then the Croydon Advertiser as a sales rep. She started doing a bit of sub-editing and then worked for various magazines and papers, before becoming production editor with the Financial Times.
"Mum and Dad were always very supportive, but they definitely would have preferred me to stay at home," she says. "They would have liked me to be a teacher or something like that.
"My father used to cut out job adverts from the Tyrone Constitution and send them to me," she laughs.
"There was always that desire to have me come home, not because they wanted to hold me back, but because they worried. To them, London 'was dangerous' and 'all sorts could happen'."
Tish agrees that as we get older, we start reflecting more and more on our past and the times and places we grew up in.
"I lived in London for so long - about 35 years - and I always imagined that if I ever wrote anything, it would be about London, or have a London base, but anytime I sat down to write, it was about my childhood.
"You come to realise, having met so many different people throughout your life, just how skewed everything was at that time in Northern Ireland - how strange it was and how strange an environment it was.
"That's what I found so interesting. Every word I wrote was just pure childhood - the language, the stories, the characters - everything was from the days before I left home."
She has been living on Alderney for six years now and doesn't miss London at all.
"Neil had a connection with Alderney. He was born and bred in London and when he was little he used to come here all the time. He loved it and it was the place he wanted to retire to.
"I was working nights at the Financial Times and never saw the light of day. London is great craic and all that, but I was working nine-night fortnights and I was knackered. I didn't want to wake up when I was 60 thinking that I should have moved earlier, so we just left. And we're very settled and happy here.
"Neil is a cold water swimmer - he swims and paints and I walk, write and eat.
"We keep everything as simple as possible. We have a very natural, simple life.
"I've even turned into my mother and start talking about what we're going to have for dinner at breakfast time," she laughs.
However, she hasn't left Northern Ireland behind completely
"Sadly my father passed away when I was in my 20s, but my mother, who died four years ago, lived until she was 94.
"When mum was still alive I came back about four times a year. But after your parents pass, you're not under so much pressure to come home as often.
"Brothers and sisters are much more forgiving of the fact that you might want to go to Spain," she laughs.
"We are all very close and I was supposed to come home last year, then Covid happened.
"But Alderney is like a mini Donegal. It has the same kind of geography - granite cliffs - and the same kind of weather.
"It's tiny, but there are loads of nice places to go out. There are two or three decent hotels and some lovely restaurants. And it's so small you can walk everywhere," she says.
"It feels very familiar. I think that's why I felt so comfortable so quickly.
"I've kind of gone home without going home."
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney, published by Hutchinson, £14.99, is out now
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