If you’ve read Carmel Harrington’s books — she is celebrating her tenth book, A Mother’s Heart, in her tenth year of writing — you’ll know that she writes with a reader firmly in mind. In fact, they’re the invisible friend watching as her much loved characters face whatever life their creator has thrown at them.
“I want my reads to be immersive,” she says of all her books.
“I want readers to literally walk the steps of my characters alongside them, and experience everything that they’re experiencing.
“I think this is partly because I like to read books that are like that, I like to read books that are about characters that I recognise within my own circle and part of me are in those characters too.
“When I write stories, that’s what I want to do. I want to create characters that readers can recognise that might be their mother, their sisters, but they’re basically recognising themselves and others in those characters.
“I think it makes it a more satisfying read then because I’m not writing fantasy. I’m writing books that are very much reflective of what it’s like to live in this world that we’re in at the moment all its complications.”
In her new novel, A Mother’s Heart, concentrates on Rachel Butler, a stepmother whose life in Dublin is thrown in disarray when the unexpected occurs.
Though Ireland has embraced her, and she it, she can only dream of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and her loving family on the other side of the world.
As three sets of grandparents get involved in her and her stepchildren’s lives, her plans to unify all families backfires…
“I like to explore kind of modern-day life and one of the things that we all experience and I think we all touched by, and some shape or form is that of blended families,” says Carmel of the novel’s theme.
“The 2.2 children… I don’t know whether that ever existed. It’s almost a myth because even if I go back to my grandmother’s time families were very different and you had nieces and nephews living with grandparents and you had all sorts of different mixes within families.
“If each of us looks within our own circles, we don’t have to go far to find a blended family within that. I wanted to have a look at the different make-up of families. I decided in this case I wanted to specifically look at step-parents, and I suppose partly that is because I’m a stepmother myself.
“And while Rachel’s story is thank goodness is 100% different to mine, I do understand where she’s coming from. I do understand that being a step-parent can be the most rewarding parenting role you’ll ever have but it can also be the most difficult as well, and that there are two sides.
“I wanted to show that step-parents make a decision to love as opposed to when you have children yourself, you kind of love them before they’re even there. It’s the same and it’s different. I hope Rachel redresses that balance a little bit and shows a little bit of nuance on what it is to be a step-parent.”
While family make-ups are paramount in her writing, so too is travel: New Zealand in her new release, Brooklyn in her former novel The Moon Over Kilmore Quay and an American road trip in My Pear-Shaped Life. Including areas other than Ireland is to do with Carmel’s wanderlust.
“I travelled so much in my 20s; I worked with Aer Lingus for 10 years, and I took full advantage of staff travel concessions,” she says.
“When I wasn’t working, I was in the air somewhere. I just travelled all over the world and I tried to bring the places that I loved into my books.”
Our own wee city plays a role in her current publication, much to fans’ delight.
“I felt a connection with Belfast because there’s a unique blend of cultures.
“You’ve got the English and the Irish cultures and that’s kind of my life because my mum is English and my dad is Irish,” explains Carmel.
“I was born in London, but I’ve lived most of my life in Ireland and there’s always been that combination of cultures in my own life.
“I think that’s why whenever I visit Belfast, I feel quite comfortable there. I recognise the streets because they’re very like the streets I was born into. It’s certainly very different to Wexford where I live now.
“I’ve always felt this affinity with Belfast, so it was really fun to give one of those grandparents and make their home in Belfast.”
Early feedback for A Mother’s Heart has been positive, particularly from well-known and well-respected authors including Patricia Scanlan, someone who Carmel has read for many years, and who dubbed it a saga.
The word ‘saga’ for many conjures up traditional stories, that are difficult to identify with, but I’d argue more sagas need to be written — more multi-layered, multi-generational reads.
“The word ‘saga’ is one I particularly enjoy too as that’s what I write,” says Carmel.
“I like to write multigenerational stories, so it was really important to me in this story, by the way, to include the grandparent story. The grandparents play such a big role in modern day families.
“My own grandparents were a huge part of my life and I absolutely adored them. And now my children, after myself and [husband] Rog, it’s the grandparents that are their biggest parts of their life. They absolutely adore them and couldn’t be without them.
“I think that gives it the saga feel when you have different generations within a story. It gives you multiple points of view.
“It’s quite overwhelming to get feedback from, like you said, peers who you’ve read for many, many years,” continues Carmel.
“Long before I was a writer, I’ve always been a reader. So someone like Patricia to come and share her thoughts like that, it really is the loveliest of endorsements. It’s a badge that I wear with great pride.
“One of the biggest compliments to me is I love that someone calls me a storyteller because that’s how I see myself rather than an author almost.
“I’m just kind of standing on those shoulders of those seanchaí from years ago and all those men and women who would have sat at the foot of an open fire and told stories before there were televisions and radio.
“In Ireland particular we’re great storytellers and I think that’s what I like to think of myself as and it’s what I like to do.
“I think being a storyteller means that you’re looking at all aspects of life and you have to have humour as well as heartache. You’ve got to embrace all of the emotions with every story you tell.”
A Mother’s Heart by Carmel Harrington, HarperCollins, £12.99, is available now