Hilary Fannin: We all wake up one day and remember the person you thought you might become

Author, playwright and Irish Times columnist Hilary Fannin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

First, a disclaimer: I used to edit Hilary Fannin’s column in this newspaper and getting to read it before anybody else was a weekly joy. I tell her this as she sits in front of me in a restaurant called the Doghouse in the north Dublin fishing village of Howth. She’s sipping white wine, there is soft lamplight, Buddha statues and – as the name suggests – a warm welcome here for canine visitors. If you read Fannin’s column every Friday you’ll know she’s a cat person but we’re in the doghouse today.

There are always two things fans of Fannin’s column can be sure of each Friday as she explores everything from middle-aged angst to domestic drudgery, from grief to the sexploits of Gwyneth Paltrow: she’ll make us laugh and she’ll get us thinking.

Often she’ll take your breath away with sentences so beautiful they might be more at home in a novel than in a weekly lifestyle column, even one that saw her named Columnist of the Year at last year’s journalism awards.

So, in a way, it was no surprise to hear about the arrival of her debut novel The Weight of Love. Or to discover that it’s a gorgeous read; delicate, well crafted, full of clever insights into relationships, loss and the human condition of the calibre you might expect from Anne Enright. In fact the Booker Prize winner’s approval graces the novel’s front cover: “This is heartache for grown-ups . . . it pulls you in and does not let go”.

“I can’t believe it,” Fannin says of Enright’s praise. She’s equally thrilled with the thumbs up from Marian Keyes who calls the debut “beautiful and painful . . . exquisitely written”.

Which brings us to a sentence in the first few pages of The Weight of Love: “All over the rain washed city, people were losing and finding each other, and beginning and ending and ending and beginning, ordinary strangers spooling and unspooling into the night.”

She says this sentence is what the book is all about, that she was interested in the “spooling and unspooling” we do as humans. “All I do is cut into it, like a tree surgeon, and take a look,” she says.

Author, playwright and Irish Times columnist Hilary Fannin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Author, playwright and Irish Times columnist Hilary Fannin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

The story centres on a married couple, Robin and Ruth, who have one grown up son. Circumstances, including the death of Robin’s mother, see them both revisiting their past lives, and contemplating, as so many of us do at one point or another, the Sliding Doors scenario of a life that might have been.

“It’s about our experience of being slightly older. We all wake up one day and go ‘oh my God how did I get here?’ How did that happen? And you remember the person you thought you might become. You think of people you’ve loved and wonder where they are now. And I think we carry those alternative narratives around in our heads.”

Fannin, an acclaimed playwright, has been writing her column for nearly 10 years, and before that was this newspaper’s TV critic but she says it took her a good while to “come out” as a writer. She was expelled aged 11 because her father couldn’t afford the school fees and she didn’t do honours English in her Leaving Cert – she was told she was weak academically in her convent school. A telling coda to this is that when Fannin sat the English exam she put her hand up for the honours paper on a whim and ended up getting a C, her only honour. She never went to university because she was working, a list of jobs from childminder to a stint in a sluice room. There was “never enough time”.

Fannin was an actor for years before she started writing. Her first play, the “hugely autobiographical” Mackerel Sky, was written in her 30s while pregnant and it was snapped up by the Bush Theatre in London. Around the same time she was cast as Pamela, the posh, uppity one in the RTÉ sitcom Upwardly Mobile. But after the success of her first play, writing became the thing. There were more plays and the job as TV critic, and some fallow journalistic years during which she went back to theatre and wrote Phaedra for Rough Magic. Then close to 10 years ago she was offered a column in The Irish Times. She was nearly 50 then, and now she’s “on the cusp of 59”.

Hilary Fannin: ‘I write islands. And then, I think, I swim from one to the other’. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Hilary Fannin: ‘I write islands. And then, I think, I swim from one to the other’. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

To trace a line back to Fannin’s writerly beginnings is to return to her Dublin childhood in the 1960s with parents Marie (an actor) and Bob (a cartoonist), who did not take well to the humdrum of domestic life. It was an unconventional upbringing for the curtain-twitching Ireland of the time.

“My parents didn’t do suburbia very well, because they were artists themselves and it didn’t suit them. That led to a lot of complications.”

Hopscotch, which was nominated for an Irish Book Award, was written from the perspective of her childhood self.

In it we learned about those “complications”: alcohol, penury, infidelity – her late father, a great character who fostered her love of reading, had affairs. She says she grew up in her north Dublin suburb fascinated by “ordinary” mothers with their Atrixo and their rubber gloves. “I had a mother with lipstick who was throwing spaghetti at the walls. She was glamorous and fabulous in so many senses of the word. But she wasn’t the same as other mothers. I wanted her to be the same.”

When Fannin wrote Hopscotch, which charts her life between ages four and 10, people would ask her: How did you remember all that detail?

“My question to them was, how do you forget?” she smiles. “I don’t know how you forget. You take yourself on a journey. You sit yourself down and you open a door and you walk into your life. Once you allow yourself to go in, it’s all there. I think we carry these, what Séamus Heaney called the rattlebag of memory, right? We have a palace of rooms in our heads that we can enter at will and just walk around. I don’t know how to forget and that might be more my problem than not knowing how to remember.”

“I think writing a book is a bit like clearing out your trash can on your computer,” she says. “You can let go of some of the stuff you are dragging around with you. It’s like, here come loads of dogs with loads of leads and they are all pulling around the place and you can actually let go of some of those dogs that run off into the wilderness because they’ve been written down and they’re published.”

Fannin has worked as a volunteer tutor with the young clients of creative writing programme Fighting Words for years, and also more recently as a mentor to young playwrights through a nationwide initiative funded by the Arts Council. She teaches her students about “world building” and inhabiting a “10th dimension” where you are looking down on your character’s lives. She has an anecdote from childhood to explain where her ability to do this came from.

“So this could be really boring,” she says. It really isn’t boring at all as the next sentence proves. “When the bailiffs came and everything went in the house, the furniture, and everything ...”. She is referring to a time when the family were evicted from their suburban home after mounting unpaid debts.

“After a little while, my parents rented a summer house on the Howth cliffs, and my older siblings went away along with the furniture,” she says.

“I’d been expelled and all my friends were back in my old neighbourhood. So it was just me and my parents for months. My mother was a very good dressmaker. And in Hickeys you’d get these books that were like a magazine of all the patterns. So there would be pictures on each page of women standing like so, with poplin sleeves or empire lines.

“So I cut out all of these women and children from the front of these sewing magazines . . . and there was a bookshelf in the house and I made the bookshelf like a block of apartments. And I put all the women and all the children on different bits of the bookshelf and I spent months playing with those people making their lives, world building.

“I think it was a crucial part of my development as a writer,” she says. “I use locations that are familiar to me and then I build, based on memories and observations of people that I’ve loved and known . . .”

It was the death of Fannin’s mother after several years of illness that freed the author to write the novel. They had a complex relationship. “She was funny, she was charming. She wouldn’t put the bins out without her make-up even when she was 90.”

Fannin says her own personality was “arranged in shapes” that facilitated her mother’s: “I was much more serious with her. More stern. Like somebody had to be the grown up in the relationship.”

While raising her two sons, Fannin was caring for her mother in the last years of her life. Things were going well, writing wise. Her column was widely read and praised, she was already an acclaimed playwright and she’d written her memoir. But something was missing. She had written “bits and pieces” of a book and after attending a talk where a creative writing teacher spoke about the importance of having older students in the room – they added experience and perspective, he said – she was inspired to chase her lifelong dream of going to college.

“I researched where I could go and learn to write a book, I had a half finished book but no idea of how to turn it into a novel.” In her mid-50s she applied and was accepted to do the MPhil in creative writing in Trinity College: “I felt I had this unfinished business with myself around education and around taking a deeper breath on a piece of work.”

The course was due to start in September, and she was about to request a deferral for a year because at the time her mother was very ill. “I didn’t feel I could leave her, but then she died,” Fannin says, describing the loss as “profound”.

Her death “released me to do the course. And it was the most fantastic thing to be able to walk into a university . . . We were given a tour of the library in Trinity and I was overwhelmed with emotion . . . There were young people on their phones, just texting, and I was trying really hard to stay neutral because I just could have f***ing lay down on that floor and wept.”

She can’t say enough good things about the course and her lecturers. They and her husband Giles, a former Irish Times journalist, helped her unlock structure and learn more about herself as a writer. She is not plot driven, she says. “I write islands. And then, I think, I swim from one to the other.” When the course ended she spent a summer in the shed in the garden, “a nice shed”, finishing the book.

She is writing a second novel and feels this is a bit of a golden time for women writers in Ireland. “It’s so joyful to me,” she says. “I look at somebody like Sally Rooney and I think, it’s like she carried this perfect egg to the table and she didn’t drop it, you know? I just feel a sense of joy about it.”

As I leave her, I think about how Hilary Fannin has just brought a perfect egg to the table herself. It’s called The Weight of Love.

The Weight of Love is published by Doubleday and is out now