Irish author Ciara Geraghty’s latest novel Lifesaving for Beginners involves a reclusive thriller author who refuses all media appearances and gets about in a clandestine manner worthy of MI5.
The contrast between Ciara and her fictional creation couldn’t be more striking: Ciara’s voice lilts warmly down the telephone line as she tells me about her upcoming book tour.
She’s in a better state than I am despite having flown halfway across the world and having not yet had her first coffee of the day. Meanwhile, I’m on my second.
“It’s all fiction—that much I can guarantee you,” she says when I point out the difference between her and her character Kat.
“I like getting out and meeting and chatting to people. Writing is such a solitary little existence. I’m one of those writers who has to be alone in a room, with no radio and no telly, so it is kind of nice when you get the chance to be wheeled out to talk to people.”
And of course there’s nothing more inspiring than the opportunity to eavesdrop, which Ciara says provides far much more fodder than when you’re sitting along in a room where “nothing is going on other than what’s inside your head.”
The fact that Kat shuns publicity is notable in a world where authors are increasingly expected to have a public presence—and are very much judged by it. I couldn’t help but notice that John Banville, for example, is the subject of a couple of potshots in the book.
“I’ve never actually met him, but I’ve met people who have met him and apparently he’s a lovely man. He just has a reputation for being very curmudgeonly and very serious about his art,” says Ciara. She adds with a laugh: “but I’m sure I haven’t damaged his reputation in any way.”
But though Banville’s crime-writing Benjamin Black alter-ego immediately comes to mind given Kat’s career as a thriller author, Ciara says that it was John Connelly’s work that was the inspiration behind her character’s chosen genre.
“For Kat’s character Declan Darker,” (she gives this a movie voice-over sort of emphasis) “I kind of took John Connelly’s character Charlie Parker and played with that a little bit, just for fun.”
Thrillers seem to be a good pick for a character harbouring quite a few skeletons in her closet, but Ciara points out that there was a good deal of pragmatism behind the decision to take Kat’s career in this direction.
“I wanted to make it completely different. Often if there’s any sort of connection between you and your characters people automatically assume that you’re writing about yourself, so it’s good to take that distance.”
Not to mention that Ciara is a self-professed scaredy cat who still hasn’t recovered from reading Stephen King’s It during her teenage years.
“I stayed up all night reading it and scared the daylights out of myself. I’ve never yet recovered from my fear of clowns.”
And yet, I note, here she is with a book featuring balloons on the front cover.
Fortunately, the balloons have nothing to do with King’s famously terrifying clown story. Instead they’re a reference to a particularly moving scene in Lifesaving for Beginners where ten-year-old Milo, who is grieving for his mother, looks on as a balloon pulls free from the grasp of a young boy and floats away.
“It’s just one of those scenes in the book that’s meant to be a terrible, poignant moment. One of letting go,” says Ciara. The scene is made all the more painful by the fact that the boy with the balloon is on an outing with his mother—whereas Milo is in the care of his sister.
“It sort of closes the end of a section of the book, and so it was one of those scenes I was discussing with my editor for the cover.”
It is an evocative image: I recall that it’s been used in films such as the old Carol Reed film The Third Man, and also in the more recent Up, which is referenced in the book by Milo.
The sense of letting go, of something escaping, is something that resonates.
“When I was about seven or eight I was out at a fun park, and my mum got me a red balloon and I let it go. I still remember that,” says Ciara. “If I ever see a balloon on its own without and owner, it pulls on me so strongly. It does seem to speak to people.”
But at the same time, the idea of escape or letting go evoked by the balloons contrasts utterly with the title Lifesaving for Beginners, which is all about holding on to things.
“Milo does these lifesaving classes after school on a Tuesday, and they’re one of the staples of his life, one of the things that haven’t changed [since the death of his mother]. He loves that and clings on to that because it’s something familiar.”
The title is also an oblique reference to Kat.
“She hasn’t really let life in,” explains Ciara. “She lives her life as if she’s entirely different from who she really is. She kind of needs to learn a few life-saving skills of her own.”
This battle between private and public selves is something that I found interesting about Kat. Though she’s not necessarily dishonest, she certainly seems to shun openness.
And yet the other characters in the book seem to be working at odds with this: not only are they attempting to “out” Kat’s various hidden identities, but they themselves are brutally honest, often to the point of over-sharing.
The juxtaposition between the loquacious way in which Kat’s best friend discusses the gory details of her pregnancy and Kat’s silence about certain past demons, for example, is quite striking.
Kat’s extreme introversion does bring to mind another interesting battle in the life of today’s fiction writer: that of spoilers.
Earlier this morning I read with interest a comment—by another author writing in the same genre—asking why Ciara had written a blog post giving away a key plot point in the book.
“I know, I know,” says Ciara, a touch ruefully, when I ask about that now infamous blog post.
“Certainly my books are much more narratively driven—they’re not a whodunnit. They’re more about the journey, not a destination. My publisher sent out a press release where they gave it all away, so that I thought I could get away with describing it openly. But I possibly should have put a spoiler warning on it.”
But as I point out, this particular reveal occurs only a couple of chapters into the book. Is it frustrating to have to be so circumspect about an event that occurs so early on in a novel?
In fact, the concept of spoilers seems to be a non-issue for Ciara, who admits to having a habit of flicking forward in a book to see what happens.
“If I think that something really awful or harrowing is going to happen I have to pre-empt that. I have to know almost so that I can prepare myself if I’m really invested in the character.”
There’s comfort in knowing ahead of time what happens, she says.
But although Lifesaving for Beginners is in no way a whodunnit, the many truths about its characters unravel slowly over time, and very often through the perspectives or actions of other characters.
Milo’s mother, for example, is knitted into the narrative through the different perspectives of Kat and Milo. And Kat’s prickly personality is given balance by her relationship with her brother Ed, who has Down’s Syndrome.
“I worried about Kat and the readers not liking her, which is why I created the relationship between her and her brother. I wanted a relationship she absolutely shone in, where I could make the reader empathise with her and see that she’s decent and good and kind, but that it doesn’t necessarily translate into her daily life.”
Indeed, it’s often in others that we see the truth about a particular character. Kat’s mother, for example, is an intimidating intellectual presence, and yet her father is quite devoted to her, clearly seeing the good along with the bad. Their relationship is paralleled by his beloved garden, where he raises both difficult orchids and sunny daffodils.
“He loves her—love is strange at the end of the day,” says Ciara. “He sees a lovely daffodil somewhere in that prickly orchid of his wife.”
The orchid-daffodil comparison is also apt when looking at the inciting event at the beginning of the book: a car accident. Although the accident has a tragic outcome for Milo’s mother, Kat, who is also involved in the accident, lives. This sets into motion a series of events that each have a mix of the positive and the negative.
It’s also, as readers will find out, a collision of past and present—and one that’s wonderfully evocative.
“I loved the opening. I had so many different variations,” says Ciara, whose first intention was to work with a structure similar to the film Sea of Love, starring Al Pacino.
“In the film Al Pacino dies at the beginning, but then the story goes back to a month before. The film is playing out, and [Pacino's] this character who finds love and everything works out, and you almost forget that dramatic event at the beginning. And it’s only at the end, you realise that he’s going to get killed.”
Instead, in Ciara’s novel the car accident is both chronologically and narratively first. Because it’s a scene that involves a high degree of coincidence—the intersection of the lives of Milo’s mum and Kat—I muse that it is the type of scene that could only work at the beginning of a story, rather than at the end.
That said, there are sections of the book where Ciara plays about with readers’ suspension of disbelief. Although the book deals with a number of difficult themes, there are moments of laugh-out-loud levity.
Curiously, many of these scenes revolve around Kat’s life as an ultra-bestselling author—with a memorable scene involving Kat’s furtive drop-off of a manuscript in a bookshop, a set-up involving matching briefcases and code words.
“It was so ridiculous that I thought I’d stick it in and see if readers enjoy it. She’s like the JK Rowling of crime. She’s huge, so [her publishers] are very kind to her.”
When I point out that Ciara has the same publisher as Kat, she laughs.
“I know. It was a bit of a hat-tip, just because I could. My editor laughed. Everyone likes to be in a book, even publishers.”
Reflecting, she adds, “there’s always humour, and I think that Ireland is a place where we find humour in the most inappropriate of places, and I think that’s how we get by, because we’re a terribly melancholic lot.”
If Kat’s response to walking away relatively unscathed from a car accident is anything to go by, Ciara has a point. Although those around her see Kat’s survival as a miracle, Kat sinks into a deep sense of despair afterwards.
“I don’t happen to believe in miracles,” says Ciara. “There’s good luck, fortune, and coincidence. Kat walks away from the accident, but that’s sheer good luck: it can happen. The airbag went off, she had her seatbelt on, and whichever way the truck had her against the barrier, she just walked away. It’s unusual, but it can happen.”
This makes me think about Kat’s response to her brother Ed’s suddenly taking ill, and I wonder whether we’re talking less about miracles than we are turning points. Kat’s impending fortieth birthday, for example, is a turning point that Kat seems terrified to acknowledge.
“Kat’s just such a depressive. She never wants anything to change. She’s devastated about [her best friend] Minnie and her new relationship. She mourns the loss of Minnie in a way that you shouldn’t at that age. Whenever anyone tries to move on she begs for them to stay behind, and her fortieth birthday is a part of that.”
And yet, I add, Kat presents an air of being worldly and in control. For example, it seems like she’s in control of her relationship with her partner Thomas, but in fact it’s the opposite.
“She’s afraid of her relationship with Thomas, and she’s always on the back foot. I actually think that what’s happened to Kat is that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress from the time that she was a teenager until the time that she had her accident and everything started tumbling out of control.”
Another instance where Kat seems to be losing control is over her writing. It’s excruciating to watch her stare at a blank screen, or to begin her next novel over and over, never finding the right words. These scenes seem to ring very true, and I can’t help but wonder whether clowns aren’t all that Ciara is afraid of.
“Gosh, I love writing those scenes, I tell you,” jokes Ciara. “I write every day, and every time I write I’m thinking, ‘oh, this isn’t right, this isn’t good, this character wouldn’t do that.’ I just say, ‘no, I’m filling in that blank page, I’m running away from that blank page.’”
If you have something on the page, she says, then the next day it never seems as bad as it did when you were writing it.
“The internal critic is always grumbling, and you’ve just got to ignore that and keep on writing and run away from the blank page. I love editing, though. I love having written and having stuff to edit. It’s that sitting there with the cursor blinking on the blank page that I hate, and I’m always running away from that.”
Lifesaving for Beginners is published by Hodder and Stoughton (Hachette Book Group) and is available now.
Ciara Geraghty is the author of three previous novels, SAVING GRACE, BECOMING SCARLETT and FINDING MR FLOOD. She lives in Dublin with her husband, three children and a dog.
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