Anne Griffin: ‘Hopefully I will feel I have a rightful place in the world of writing’
The novelist on becoming a writer, her fascinations with death and upcoming book
Anne Griffin: ‘You don’t need an MA to be able to write a book but for me it gave me the confidence to know I could actually do it.’
The publishing industry has a fixation on the next, the new and the now but even in a scene that hails each debut more blistering than the last, there was something startlingly different in Anne Griffin’s first book.
When All Is Said became the bestselling debut of 2019 in Ireland, winning the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards. John Banville described the book as a “rare jewel”, while Graham Norton deemed it “beautifully observed, masterful storytelling”. As plaudits rained down on her debut, Griffin admits to being in shock.
“I think I was in some kind of frozen state in 2019, not quite understanding the immensity,” she says. “I was feeling very grateful but it was like an out-of-body experience. I wanted to hit my head on something and go, ‘How is this happening to you?’ ”
Even though Griffin had spent many years as a bookseller for Waterstones – during which time she worked alongside John Boyne, Paul Murray and Mike McCormack – the immensity of life as a universally hailed debut novelist came as a surprise. And, because she came to writing relatively late in her 40s (after two decades working in the non-profit sector), she admits to an acute case of impostor syndrome.
I’ve always been interested in this whole idea of the dead and funeral directing
“I’m often thinking, ‘They’ll figure it out eventually and give me two fingers’, which was partly to do with my age,” Griffin says. “There were many struggles with book two as well, which didn’t help.”
Much like When All Is Said (a story about a man nearing the end of his life, who reflects on the five most important people in his life) was, its follow-up Listening Still holds a tantalising, high-concept idea at its scaffolding. What would the recently dead say if they could talk?
In it, Jeanie Masterson works for the family undertakers and, like her father before her, she has inherited his ability to hear and telegraph the dead’s final messages back to the living. Where her father often felt it appropriate to tweak final wishes and revelations to spare loved ones already grieving, Jeanie prefers to literally tell it like it is, with varying results.
Death and grief are large themes in both of Griffin’s novels. “I’ve always been interested in this whole idea of the dead and funeral directing,” she says. “When I was in school, there was a girl there who lived in one of the caretaker houses that you sometimes see in graveyards. I thought that was fascinating. What we often think of as mysterious and unusual is often a very ordinary life. We don’t know what death is, and there are so, so many possibilities out there as to what it is. Because we cannot fully understand it, we have to create a narrative around it for us to be able to live day to day.”
Griffin got to immerse herself in this fascination more fully while researching Listening Still. She contacted Michael Clarke and David McGowan, two eminent funeral directors, for advice.
“It surprised me, the fact that I was ringing undertakers and funeral directors up and saying, ‘You don’t know who I am but I have an idea for a book, would you mind meeting with me?’ ” Griffin smiles. “And they didn’t mind one bit. They were such gracious men, so respectful of the living and the dead. It was a very emotional thing to witness the way they spoke. Ultimately, they wanted people to understand what they are doing.”
Having an elevator pitch-friendly idea as a starting point should have made writing the novel relatively easy, but Griffin notes that structurally the book was difficult to get off the ground.
“Three things happened – one was the success [of When All Is Said], and the idea of following that up. The second was that impostor syndrome and the third was that the book initially came in three parts.”
You don’t need an MA to be able to write a book but for me it gave me the confidence to know I could actually do it
She sat down with her agent in London just before the pandemic hit, and the two pored over the manuscript. “It was there I [realised] the book would have [to] be rewritten completely,” Griffin says. “I had about a week where I cried, then just got up one morning and started again. But within the first paragraph, I knew. It was there.”
The stylistic assuredness of Griffin’s two novels certainly belies any notion of writerly jitters but this confidence, she says, has been a long time coming.
Growing up in Dublin’s Blackrock suburb, Griffin devoured books as a child but recalls being a very average English student.
“My essays were bland and boring. I just couldn’t,” she laughs. “I was never going to be like Donal Ryan, who was told during his Leaving Cert that he should be a writer.”
Becoming a non-fiction bookseller in her 20s, Griffin found herself surrounded by writers; both behind the counter with her and at various book launches.
“They were all coming in and out and I was the petrified bookseller who would stand to the side and think, ‘No, they don’t want to talk to me’,” she says.
At 44, Griffin came to a crossroads and started to write. “I was doing it as a hobby or for a release, and then I realised I actually enjoyed this and it was something I’d like to do.” Griffin arrived straight out of the gate, getting shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award on her first submission (the John McGahern Award win would come later).
Later, Griffin would undertake an MA in creative writing at UCD and was tutored by Anne Enright and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. “[Anne] is so funny, she just kept us laughing the whole time. Éilís was so gracious, but could pinpoint where you are going wrong really quickly,” Griffin says.
“You don’t need an MA to be able to write a book but for me it gave me the confidence to know I could actually do it. It certainly helps you to grow a thicker skin.
“I love to write now, and yet everyday I sit down to write I have a nervousness in here every time,” she says, pointing to her chest. “I haven’t gotten rid of it yet and I don’t know if other authors have this.”
Even after wave upon wave of critical acclaim for her debut? “It’s not as strong as it used to be but it’s still there. I’m getting there. I’m growing into this world of writing and hopefully at some stage I will feel I have a rightful place there. In many ways though, I’m still in nappies.”
Listening Still by Anne Griffin is out on April 21st, via Sceptre