Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen: Our friendship and the personal crisis that deepened it

The Aisling authors’ relationship grew stronger after McLysaght entered psychiatric care

I know it’s them even before I can see their faces. I’m 20 minutes early for the interview, looking for parking. I drive past the place we’ve elected to meet, mostly for its proximity to interesting photographic possibilities, The Fumbally café in the Liberties, and spot two blonde women sitting outside in the sun, glasses of white wine on the table in front of them, doubled over with laughter.

It is them, of course: Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, the co-authors of the bestselling Aisling series, sometime housemates, and friends for 18 years.

They look slightly astonished when they calculate how long it is since they met in Ballyfermot College of Further Education, where they were both doing media studies. “Our friendship is grown up. It can go to Whelan’s now,” Breen says, impressed.

That friendship began with, as she tells it, Breen’s admiration for McLysaght’s fringe. “I always wanted a fringe. I remember, I was just like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of cool happening here.’ I just knew there was an overall funny, very smart vibe coming from her.” They discovered a shared obsession with Irish music, and then someone got highly sought-after tickets for a gig no one can now quite remember, and that was it.

Since then, their relationship has weathered periods of living together interspersed with living in different countries. (These days, they’re back living within 2km of each other.) It carried them through love affairs beginning and ending, Breen’s marriage and the births of her three children, now aged between two and eight. It helped McLysaght through the grief following the death of her adored father. It survived fallow periods of being totally broke – when they were really hard up in college, they pooled all their resources and whoever was marginally less skint that week paid for everything – and the financial success of their bestselling Aisling series, which has sold 300,000 copies to date. It continues to endure working together, writing together, and doing the photoshoots they are perfectly obliging about, but don’t exactly relish.

Their relationship deepened following a traumatic period last year for McLysaght, when she spent two months in St Patrick’s Mental Health Services being treated for an eating disorder, and emerged into a world on the brink of lockdown. I’m not sure if she’ll want to talk about that experience. But she says she has thought about it, and does want to talk about her time in what she and Breen call the “Big House”. We come back to it later.

I kind of always accepted my friends are going to have children, and I can either go along with that, or I can decide I want nothing to do with that

For now, I want to hear how they have so successfully navigated a period which strains many female friendships in their 30s – a time when previously close groups sometimes hive off for a period into those who have settled into relationships and babies and those who haven’t. “That’s the ebb and flow of female friendships,” Breen muses. “But we’ve been pretty constant.”

“We have been pretty constant,” McLysaght echoes, neatly picking up the baton from Breen, exactly as you imagine they must when they’re writing together. “Sarah had her first daughter when she lived in America. I don’t have any children and I’m not really into having children. So I kind of always accepted my friends are going to have children, and I can either go along with that, or I can decide I want nothing to do with that. So when Sarah had her eldest daughter, I went to visit.”

“You came to visit twice,” Breen reminds her. “You were the only one. Emer is the type of friend who if she says she’s going to visit you, she comes, and then she’ll come back again.

“Emer’s one of the very few people our age I know who is constantly making new friends. I think it’s because she’s a very open person and of course everyone who meets her instantly wants to be her mate. She’s also still very close with a huge number of the girls she went to school with, which I think is testament to the kind of friend she is. Once you get to know her you really don’t want to let her go! In comparison, my own friend groups would be quite small.”

The first visit was after “a really, really hard break-up” for McLysaght. “Sarah was so kind,” she recalls. They drank a lot of gin and did a road trip from Phoenix, Arizona to San Diego, California, listening to Florence and the Machine on the stereo as the parched, rust-hued landscape whizzed by. “It was so good for the soul,” says Breen. The second trip was a calmer affair, coming four months after the birth of Breen’s eldest baby. The evenings were spent by the pool in the complex where Breen lived, talking long into the night over wine. “That kind of helps your friendship keep going,” McLysaght says.

“It establishes it. It takes it to the next level,” Breen adds.

All of which helps to contextualise what they did since – namely, quit their jobs in journalism (McLysaght worked for a news website in a role for which, in the interests of disclosure, I hired her; Breen worked in magazines) to go off to write novels together. These days, McLysaght is also a columnist with the Irish Times Magazine.

They have since written four hilarious, warm, observational books in the Aisling series, which are rightly praised for their ability to tackle big, social issues in a relatable way – everything from body issues to domestic violence to crisis pregnancy. The penultimate, Aisling and the City – in which Aisling goes to New York – is out in October and is, for my money, the funniest yet. And they still seem to genuinely get a kick out of each other’s company.

We've had 15 years of Aisling. So we pretty much know what she would do in every situation, although she sometimes surprises us

The series started one hungover Saturday as an in-joke with a couple of other friends about the kind of women who were keeping the brown mascara industry going. Since there was no WhatsApp back then, they started a Facebook group, where they riffed on the idea of the "Aisling" character, the quintessential, kind-hearted, no-nonsense, allergic-to-notions, hotel breakfast- and Rimmel Heather Shimmer lipstick-loving Irish girl. After a while, they started noticing people whom they didn't know in real life joining in, and they realised they might be onto something.

Gill Books approached them about writing a book – the idea was originally for the kind of stocking filler you might keep on a shelf in your downstairs loo – but they had bigger ambitions. They wanted to write a novel. They worked up an outline the night before their meeting and, to the surprise of both, they landed a deal.

Since the beginning, they've approached it in the same way. They take copious notes in their phones, whenever they come across an image or a line that sparks an idea. (On the afternoon we meet, Breen shares a beauty she came across lately with McLysaght: "off-duty garda chic". Spoiler alert – that may appear in the fifth novel.) They leave it perilously close to the deadline to get started, and then they throw themselves into it, writing consecutive chapters in Google Docs. "We sit down at the start of a chapter and figure out what's going to happen and how the chapter is going to end, and then the other person fills in all the details. It's a bit chaotic in the beginning," Breen says.

At a literary festival once, what they self-effacingly call a “legit author” was flummoxed by how “one person can pick up on another person’s thoughts. But it’s not our thoughts. It’s Aisling’s thoughts,” says Breen. “We’ve had 15 years of Aisling. So we pretty much know what she would do in every situation, although she sometimes surprises us.” They put some of their success down to the fact that Aisling “really does sweat the small stuff”, and that makes her very relatable. But I think it’s also because they write about her with such affection.

They’ve never had a row about it either, they assure me. “We really don’t,” says Breen. “People love the idea that we row about it. We’re always getting asked about rows. But we don’t.”

“I always think Sarah’s right,” says McLysaght.

“And I always think you’re right,” Breen shoots back.

They crack up describing a few of the reliable tropes which have snuck in over the years. “All of our love interests always have great arms,” McLysaght says. “Sometimes we have to go back and tone the arm action down.” They’ve noticed too that their characters have a great tendency to give a little wave and to crunch away over gravel. “We really have to watch the little waves.”

These days, they work together and live close by and are “in almost constant contact. If I didn’t hear from Sarah for a day, I’d know why,” McLysaght says.

So when McLysaght found herself coming out of hospital where she had been treated for an eating disorder, and catapulted straight into the trauma of a global pandemic, there wasn’t much discussion about where she would go. It was Breen who picked her up, and drove her straight home to the house she shares with her husband and three children.

I have spent a good bit of my life now writing about my experience, my personal experiences, and Sarah and I have both put personal stuff into the books

McLysaght spoke about her experience in a powerful interview with Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One recently. Why did she decide to talk about it?

She had mentioned it, almost in an offhand way, in an interview she did with the author Sophie White, who is a close friend of McLysaght's, and a researcher from the programme got in touch. White and McLysaght "had been in psychiatric hospital within a few months of each other last year. When I was in hospital, I had a cohort of friends – Sarah was one; Sophie was one – who used to organise the visits between themselves. Sophie was very supportive of me. And then a couple of months later, she was in hospital. So when I did the interview with her when her book, Corpsing, was coming out, I just mentioned in passing this is what we have in common."

Still, she wasn’t sure at first whether she wanted to say anything further. She wrote about going to therapy in her Irish Times column, so she was inching closer to the subject, but she baulked at speaking about it directly. “Obviously there’s a lot behind it that you don’t want to say. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to say.”

“You were like, what’s the value for the listener?” Breen reminds her. “And I was like, there is huge value to people. It’s so important to talk about it. People feel so seen and heard because you’ve just been through it too.”

But, says McLysaght, "I just was kind of like, 'Why would anyone care about me and what I've done?' There had been a lot of talk in the months previous about eating disorders specifically. There was a lot of stuff on the Joe Duffy show and I was like, 'Oh, I know what it's like from the inside, and how difficult it is, and how much you have to advocate for yourself.'"

Eventually, she just thought, “I have spent a good bit of my life now writing about my experience, my personal experiences, and Sarah and I have both put personal stuff into the books. So I was just like, ‘S**t, that’s just part of my job.’”

In the interview, she told Tubridy, “in hindsight I have had some kind of disordered eating/eating disorder for probably 20 years, since probably my late teens... I was in disbelief, I didn’t think I would end up in hospital. I thought hospital was for people who were starving themselves to death and I wasn’t at that time. But part of the eating disorder and part of mental illness is thinking, ‘I’m not sick enough for this, they’ve got it wrong.’”

I tell her that I think it matters that she talks about it, because it helps to normalise eating disorders in adulthood, and challenges one of the most prevalent stereotypes associated with them – namely  that only very thin, very young girls suffer from them. “I was in hospital with people who did fit the stereotype,” she says now. But there were also a lot who didn’t. There were young teenagers, but “there were men in there. There were older women.” Some of them were “so sick, and so lovely, and so funny. We just used to have such a laugh in there a lot of the time.”

What people generally are experiencing now is kind of what it's like for some people [with mental health issues] a lot of the time. That kind of fear. The anxiety

She gets a fit of giggles describing someone smuggling potatoes out of the diningroom because they didn’t want to eat them. “The potatoes were a big bone of contention. There were so many scenes for comedy.”

Does she think she’ll write about it? “Probably not anytime soon,” says McLysaght. Breen hopes she does eventually.

McLysaght went into hospital in January 2020 thinking she would just be there for a week. Two months later, she came out “straight into the pandemic. It was like 28 Days Later, where he comes out of the hospital and everyone’s gone.”

Breen was there, with another of their tight circle of friends, when she was discharged. “The doctors were saying, ‘It’s very important that Emer isn’t isolated at this time.’ I live alone. And that was a big no-no, coming out of a psychiatric hospital. I remember they said vulnerable people can be in a pod and whatever, and Sarah was like, ‘Well, I think you’re a vulnerable person. So you’re just going to be part of our family for the foreseeable future.’ And that was it. I just spent a lot of time with Sarah, and her husband and their three children.”

There was a lot of burgers and chips and telly on Friday nights. A lot of walks. A lot of WhatsApping. A lot of McLysaght helping out with Breen’s kids. During the early stages, she remembers thinking that “what people generally are experiencing now is kind of what it’s like for some people [with mental health issues] a lot of the time. That kind of fear. The anxiety. And they just carry on.”

How is she now? “I’m doing okay,” she says carefully. “A lot better than I was 18 months ago, or two years ago or whatever. Good days and bad days. But I have so many supports in place now. Expensive supports. I see a therapist, I see a dietitian; they’re kind of my two main supports that I carried on from hospital.”

Being an outpatient during lockdown was hard, however. Normally, “in the outpatient programme there, you go into the hospital maybe four days a week, and there’s a lot of meal support. You’re in a safe space, and you have structure to your day.” None of that could really be replicated over Zoom. But she got through it, finishing up the outpatient programme in August last year.

For Breen, having her pal around in lockdown was a boon. “Because not everyone got to have their friends during that time. Other people were just stuck with their families.”

“And of course, I was like, ‘Oh, they don’t want me here. Oh Jesus I’d better go,” McLysaght chimes in.

“When in fact all anybody wanted was somebody else to chat to,” Breen laughs.

Now, they’re readjusting to the outside world, the pressure of a book being out there, and the attendant publicity. “For a long time, it suited me to be able to keep my circle very, very small,” McLysaght says. “We have a book promo tour coming up. We’re just going to lean into it.” They’re planning to make the most of the hotels rooms, and the dinners, and the chat. There’s also the small matter of a television production they’re involved with for Element Pictures. They’re writing the screenplay, which is a challenge, but one they’re very excited about.

Do they ever worry they’ll run out of ideas, or that audiences won’t get Aisling anymore? “Oh God, yes. All the time. All of that. This is going to be the one where people decide all the other books are actually s**t,” McLysaght says.

“I don’t think we should admit to worrying,” Breen chides her. “I feel like other writers don’t admit to worrying. We’ve loads of ideas. We’ve ideas for days.”

"Would Sally Rooney admit to worrying?" McLysaght wonders. "I don't think she'd admit to worrying. Seriously, we just hope people like the book."

Before they head off to have their photo taken, with just a small amount of dread, Breen wants to set the record straight about something. She sat in the RTÉ green room for McLysaght's interview, crying most of the way through it. "While Emer was saying all that stuff about me being a good friend and I was sobbing in the green room, I had a few things I wanted to say about her. Emer is a very generous friend. She's generous with her time. But she's generous in other ways, little thoughtful ways. If she's in the Asian shop picking up a chilli garlic thing, she'll get one for me. Or she's buying these tongs on Amazon for turning meat, and she'll say, this will go down well in Sarah's house, I'll get one for her. Emer has always been there for me as well."

And then they reapply their lipstick – I'm only slightly disappointed it's Charlotte Tilbury and not Rimmel Heather Shimmer – and head off.

Aisling and the City by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, published by Gill Books, is out in October

For information and support around eating disorders and treatment in Ireland, visit bodywhys.ie, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, or speak to your GP. If you want to find out about the mental health supports available in your area, call the HSE’s Your Mental Health Information Line on 1800 111 888

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times