Eithne Shortall: ‘It still matters that my writing is good, but it matters more to me that I’m a good parent’

The former Sunday Times arts writer gave up journalism to focus on fiction and her two children

Eithne Shortall lives on a very narrow road in Drumcondra, Dublin which makes cycling to the writer’s house on a wet day a slightly hair-raising experience.

“We had a protest about it recently,” she tells me when I’m inside drying off, sipping coffee at the kitchen table in the terraced house she shares with her partner and two small children.

People in cars “had been mounting the footpath and just driving along,” she explains. “The neighbours had enough and so we started a protest, every Tuesday morning.” The protest got some media coverage.

“My son loved it, his placard read ‘Stop Bad Driving’.” As it happens, people-power and protest provide a significant plotline for her fifth novel The Lodgers. “I love a good protest,” Shortall says, sounding a bit like Tessa, the novel’s 69-year-old protagonist who announces at one point: “The world is too messed up for impartiality, we need people to save it.”

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Shortall says initially she felt a bit silly going out with her placards, “standing on your road with a big sign being angry, but it was actually lovely, the most mild-mannered protest. You got to talk to your neighbours. Everyone wants a safe path for people, especially for kids. It was an enjoyable experience.”

As an ex professional interlocutor – she took redundancy from The Sunday Times as their chief arts writer last August – Shortall knows from experience that visiting an interviewee’s house can often provide a little more colour for an article. The former journalist has also been wondering what questions she would ask herself about The Lodgers, a charming novel about Dublin woman Tessa who gives two young people rooms, free of charge, in her slightly dilapidated mansion with spectacular sea views in Howth.

It wasn’t until I wrote books myself that I realised publishers just want you to do the same thing each time, but better

The protest storyline is about a campaign to save Tessa’s local community hall where she leads a group called “Radical Activism”. The centre is an important hub for the community also offering activities such as Rhumba for Retirees, Tai Chi & Decaf Tea (for people with heart problems) and my personal favourite Darts & Crafts.

Shortall says she is one of those authors who does something different for every novel. “My publishers have an issue with my books ... it wasn’t until I wrote books myself that I realised they just want you to do the same thing each time, but better.” She’s choosing to write out of contract now and can say such things without fear of upsetting a publisher. The book she is working on at the moment is, she says, “a bit of a departure, a high concept thriller”. She’s reluctant to say much more.

Her first two books were love stories. The debut, Irish best-seller Love in Row 27 about a flight attendant who played cupid with passengers, was part of a two-book deal that made newspaper headlines. That was followed by Grace After Henry, a Dublin based romance with loss and grief at its heart. In 2017, that book landed her a six-figure deal with a US publisher and her debut was optioned for TV by NBC Universal Studios.

Her third, Three Little Truths, was another Dublin-based novel packed with neighbourhood intrigue, gossip and suspense, while her last book It Couldn’t Happen Here, was a “twisty mystery” set in small town Ireland.

While they are all different, the importance of community and solidarity always seem to feature. “I’ve realised that in all the books there’s that sense of community or people working together for a common aim.” The Lodgers of her latest title, Chloe and Conn, are offered rooms by feisty Tessa who is recovering from a nasty fall, in return for some assistance around the house. Chloe is running away from a disturbing home situation, Conn has his own secrets after a family bereavement. Tessa is dealing with loss too, and there’s a mysterious package in the mix – but no spoilers here.

“My aim is to spend time in a book and to give a book to readers that has hope but that isn’t silly or schmaltzy,” she says. “And so my characters all have problems at the beginning, those problems aren’t solved exactly by the end ... but things get better and they help each other through that. That is the kind of faith in humanity I seek all the time, and so I want that to exist in my books, people who are looking out for each other, not necessarily for any obvious personal gain.”

I was prepared for the physical work but I don’t think I appreciated how much head space children would take up

She was deeply moved and inspired while writing The Lodgers by the good news story that came from the Russian invasion of Ukraine when Irish people offered up their homes to refugees. “I was really genuinely very touched by it, by the selflessness ... so much of the news makes you lose faith in humanity and the war was no different. And then that was just this lovely, selfless deed ... not every offer was taken up and some sentiment has changed around it but at the time, I thought it was a lovely thing.”

She was also inspired by locals protesting the closure of a nearby Corpus Christi parish hall. Shortall, who grew up in Drumcondra, went to scouts in that hall and did PE there as a child. “The campaign was very visible, they had a big banner Save Our Hall, they had open days to get attention ... like they had a stake in it because it’s their community, but it matters to everyone ... you’re doing it for the next generation that comes along. Often those things don’t go the way of the people, and in fiction, you can make them go how you want.”

As it happens the real-life the parish hall was saved and is going to be used for school and community purposes.

Shortall studied in DCU and has lived briefly in the US, Paris and London, the city which provided the setting for her first novel. She lives 10 minutes from her parents – “very handy with the kids” – and says her grandmother, who lives in a house almost identical to Tessa’s in the book but in a different location, is her favourite person. “She’s a fierce, smart, a giant of a woman.” She says intergenerational friendships like the bonds that evolve between Tessa, Conn and Chloe, are hugely important in her life.

She’s no polemicist, but Shortall achieves that Marian Keyes feat of deftly weaving serious topics into her books, with a lightness of touch that never feels preachy. Her latest novel touches on the housing crisis, trans rights, coercive control and suicide. “I love that about fiction. I feel like you’re much freer to talk about those things in a pragmatic tone, in a way you can’t do in journalism.”

Leaving The Sunday Times was also a “pragmatic” decision. With two small children and two jobs – book writing and journalism – she says something had to give. “I was prepared for the physical work but I don’t think I appreciated how much head space children would take up ... I had a book deadline for September and I just wasn’t going to meet it.”

She hasn’t looked back since ditching the day job. “I kept thinking that one day I would wake up and go ‘oh f**k’ but actually I just kind of trust that it’ll work out ... and if it doesn’t, well something else will work. You just keep trying.”

There are other creative goals. A couple of years ago she made a documentary for the BBC about Mills & Boon authors, and she’d like to make more. She’s also interested in writing for the screen. Describing herself as “quietly ambitious”, she says her ambition has shifted since having children. “Writing my second book I remember thinking that what matters most to me is that this book is good.”

And now?

“It still matters that my writing is good, but it matters more to me that I’m a good parent. It’s not my only ambition, but it’s my greatest one.”

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast