Retired Crawfordsburn grandmother Elaine Somers has just seen her first book hit the shelves to become a novice novelist — in her 70s.
The former gallery owner and mum-of-five (76) from published Marjorie & Claudette in December 2021, almost two years after Covid forced her off her feet.
“Having Covid was the first time that I had total time to myself, because no one was allowed to call. I couldn’t do anything. That was how it got written,” says Elaine, who had been looking after family since she retired.
“I was very scared. I always knew I was high-risk because I have asthma.
“I can remember one night the pain in the centre of my chest was so dreadful, and I was trying to breathe. I had an ice pack on my head because my headache was so dreadful. I had a hot-water bottle on my shoulders because I was aching.
“I couldn’t answer the phone to my kids, and they were saying, ‘You must go into hospital.’ I just thought if I go into hospital I’m going to die.
“To be quite honest, I’m not much of a Christian, but I never prayed as hard as I did then. I prayed very hard and I asked my husband to pray for me as well. In the morning, I knew I had turned the corner, but it’s a long recovery.”
Elaine, who had art galleries in Holywood and Belfast city centre, had “always scribbled”, remembering when her family first got a word processor.
“I would have gone up to the spare room and written and written. But you know what? Life kept taking over. I never stopped writing, but I never considered myself as a writer and I never thought that I would write a book,” she says.
“This was the first time for me to actually do it and continue it every day and be allowed the freedom of time.”
Marjorie & Claudette is based on a friendship between two women: Marjorie, a former teacher, meets Claud, as she’s known to her friends, a teacher from Rouen. Their friendship takes the pair from Portbradden in Co Antrim to Paris.
The novel is a work of fiction but based on real characters, with Marjorie loosely based on Elaine’s friend Marjorie Kirkpatrick, who lived in Portbradden until her death in the late 1990s.
“Marjorie was such an unusual character. I’ll never meet anybody like Marjorie again and I never met anyone like her beforehand. She was very cut-glass and very English. She’d speak in this tiny voice — and when I was writing I would hear this voice. When I wrote what she said I was writing it in her accent. In the early 1990s, my husband had an aunt who came back from London. She’d worked in the Imperial Civil Service and she came back and lived in Portrush.
“I brought her to her friend’s home, Marjorie’s, and we became friends. I would stay with her occasionally and she would tell me all these stories about her childhood,” she explains of her friend who grew up in India.
“When I started at the gallery, it would be weeks between me being able to see her, so we wrote to each other and it was an old-fashioned handwritten letter. That’s when she wrote, ‘Elaine, you must write.’”
She describes writing as the only thing that got her through school and that, had she been attending school today, she would have likely been diagnosed with a form of ADHD.
“I did quite well at primary school, but when I went into grammar school, I was totally non-academic, mostly because I couldn’t concentrate. If they hooked me and my imagination, that was a different thing. The rest of the time they would be sitting, writing at their desks, and I would be looking out the window thinking, ‘I’ve seen a tree like that. I remember where that was.’ Then they would interrupt me and they would interrupt my thoughts.
“I remember joining an American blogging site years ago. They said, ‘You must write something about yourself.’ I wrote things about my childhood. At the end I wrote, ‘The strangest thing is I never felt ordinary.’ So many of them jumped on that and said, ‘That’s a remarkable thing to say, but we know what you mean.’ I didn’t feel ordinary, but I felt extraordinary because I was different.”
Elaine, who met her second husband, Bryan, when she was 41, credits him for her novel’s completion.
“My book would never have been written without Bryan. He wrote me a card very early on in our relationship and it was something about how I was amazing because he’d never met ‘amazing’ before. He always said I could do anything I could put my mind to.”
Elaine began writing after discovering the Facebook page, Images And Memories Of Old Northern Ireland Pre 2000.
“Someone had put up a photograph of Portbradden and I then wrote that I had a friend who lived there and there were a lot of likes. The next day I continued it (the story) — I wrote a chapter every day and posted it on Facebook — and there were a whole lot of likes by the end of the week. It just grew and grew. And then they were saying, ‘You must publish this; we want to read this.’
“I keep it up because I think of all those people who gave me so much encouragement and lovely messages. I thought, ‘I can’t just say, ‘OK, I’ve written a book now, bye’.”
Elaine is working on a memoir, her recollections of growing up, and says she didn’t understand why people would be interested in what she’d considered boring stories.
“But it was because I was reminding people of what life was like before the Troubles… So many people didn’t know that there was this fabulous life in Belfast beforehand and they all love it.
“I think your own life experiences, if you share them in the right way, can inspire other people.
“I’ve got a book ready to go to an editor now and I’m actually quite proud of it. And then I’m going to concentrate on my memoirs and get them edited and do it just for fun and just for people over here.”
She describes writing Marjorie & Claudette as “getting her through Covid”.
“I didn’t publish the book for people to stroke my ego. I don’t need the money from the book. We are far from wealthy, but I don’t have any money worries as such. But I think the fact I’ve done it at my age... So many people dismiss themselves when they get to an age. It’s like it doesn’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if I put on weight, etc. I’ve never been like that. I’m not trying to get people to look at me, because why would they?
“But I still want to think in a young way. I love young fashion and I love being with young people and talking to them. We shouldn’t be defined by the fact that if you’re in your 60s, you’ve less to say, because, if anything, we have more to say.”
Elaine’s grandchildren are thrilled with their author granny, while she thinks her inspiration would also appreciate her debut novel.
“I think Marjorie would be so delighted if I handed her the book. All my kids absolutely loved her. We got so much from her.”
Marjorie & Claudette by Elaine Somers is available from Amazon, WH Smith, Stewart Millar, World Of Books and Waterstones