Sinead Moriarty: The illness that started with ‘a sore knee’

Sinéad Moriarty's new novel explores Irish hospitals, euthanasia and unconditional love

Sinéad Moriarty: “I don’t take my health for granted any more. I’m nervous now about something going wrong for people I love.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sinéad Moriarty: “I don’t take my health for granted any more. I’m nervous now about something going wrong for people I love.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Sinéad Moriarty is really surprised I have read her latest novel, The Good Mother. She knows I’ve read it, because I make it clear right away, by referring to various characters and elements of plot development. She even sends me a message after the interview to thank me for having read her book. It must be demoralising to routinely turn up for interviews and wonder if it’s going to be another round of pin-the-tail on the donkey, with scattergun questions about everything except the book you’ve spent most of a year working on.

The thing is, Moriarty’s latest book is a fascinating exploration of difficult subjects, and at least one of them, euthanasia, is eerily topical. The story of Gail O’Rorke’s recent acquittal in the trial in which she was accused of the assisted suicide of her friend, Bernadette Forde, is still a very recent one.

“There was a deathly silence when I told my editor about the idea for this book,” Moriarty deadpans over her coffee.

Pay attention. Spoilers ahead. Skip this paragraph if you wish to avoid them. There are challenging things happening to the families in The Good Mother. There’s Kate, whose husband has recently left her and their three children for another, younger woman. There’s Nick, the ex-husband, and his new partner and baby. There’s a child who is diagnosed with a serious illness. There’s an unplanned teenage pregnancy. People are variously broke, and hurt, and very distressed. There’s euthanasia.

Criminal consequences

“I wanted to explore unconditional love. [the character] really, really begs to die. I thought: if you love someone unconditionally, maybe you could do this.”

Did Moriarty consider the ethical and criminal consequences for the character who performs euthanasia on a family member?

“She wouldn’t have been caught,” Moriarty says confidently. (In the book, there are no criminal repercussions, but of course, this is fiction.)

But the act of euthanasia happened in a hospital, I point out. There was a specific number of Xanex and Tylex tablets administered. Someone was going to be found dead in their hospital bed. Would there not be an autopsy?

“I had spoken to several GPs and they had told me there are several situations where their patients may come to an earlier end than originally planned. I think it’s fair to say there have been situations where GPs may have helped elderly patients at the end of their lives.”

I am agog. Are there really Irish GPs administering “a little more drugs” to assist in deaths of their patients?

At this point, Moriarty gets a bit nervous. “Should I have said that?”

“Well, if that’s what they told you,” I say. As it happens, a couple of days after our interview, another daily paper carries a report with the headline, “Secret dignified deaths are carried out all over the country by medics”.

The Good Mother is Moriarty’s 12th novel. Her first was The Baby Trail, about a couple trying to have a child, based on her own experience. “Of all my books, that had generated most response from readers,” she says. “People still write to me and say it made them feel less lonely. Fertility problems can be a very lonely place when you are in it.”

Moriarty studied French and Spanish at Trinity College, where she met her husband, Troy. An oil trader, he grew up used to the scrutiny of the public eye, as his parents are Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin.

So who does the cooking in their household, the trader or the writer? “The writer,” Moriarty says. “But I’m not very good at it. I can do the basics – spaghetti bolognese, chicken stir fry, that kind of thing – but it’s definitely not Happy Pear gourmet type of food.”

They have three children, Hugo (12), Geordy (10) and Amy (eight). Moriarty has started keeping some of her dresses for her daughter, who is now taking an interest in what her mother wears. The piece in her wardrobe that is her most go-to item is “a little black dress by Jesire, that no matter how I’m feeling, it always seems to work. I can put it on, and know I look good, and not only that, I can eat and breathe in it.”

For down time, Moriarty walks, and does yoga. She confesses she takes her phone to bed with her. “If I can’t sleep, I’ll read something, or start Googling.” She writes every day when her children are in school. “I guard that time very preciously.” She aims for 2,000 words a day. “I don’t always reach it, but I try and keep the momentum going. You can’t edit nothing.” Most of her books take about a year.

“I write on a laptop, in a very small glorified wardrobe that I call my office. On the wall, I have a cork board with pictures of my kids, book covers, and a letter Maeve Binchy sent me.” In one of the late Maeve Binchy’s many random acts of kindness, she noticed Moriarty had mentioned her in an interview she gave, in which she spoke of how she admired that Binchy had handled her success, and stayed true to herself. “She wrote me a beautiful note, saying that we are so lucky to do something we love to do for a living.”

In The Good Mother, Moriarty writes with compelling authority about the world of hospitals; the febrile atmosphere, the logistics, the visceral reality of being an unwilling patient in a hospital bed, when you’d rather be literally anywhere else in the world. She probably didn’t realise it, but her own unexpected stint in hospital some time ago gave her first-hand experience to draw on for this novel.

A year ago, Moriarty was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, something that she is now choosing to speak publicly about for the first time.

“I had a sore knee for no reason,” she recalls. “I had iced it, taken anti-inflammatories, had physio, and it still wouldn’t go away. I was freezing during the day, and waking up at night drenched in sweat, and was exhausted all the time.” Her GP sent her for tests, and she remained in hospital for a week.

‘Terrifying time’

“It was a terrifying time. I had no idea what was wrong with me, and your mind starts thinking very dark thoughts. When I was diagnosed, it then had a name.”

Moriarty did what people usually do these days when they receive a diagnosis in our connected era: she Googled her condition. “That was frightening. There is no cure, and that was pretty frightening. I Googled the drugs I was on, and sometimes you are better off not knowing anything about them, because you have to take them.”

As Moriarty explains it, rheumatoid arthritis is “an auto-immune condition. You take very strong medication; immune suppressors. They are pretty strong; one of them is a drug they use in chemo, so it makes you quite nauseous. I am definitely more tired now. You’re functioning at 80 per cent of usual.”

She decided to go public about her diagnosis because the condition is now under control. “Rheumatoid arthritis is something a lot of people are not aware of. When I went online, I wanted to find something written by somebody my age [she is 47], who had got it; something that could help me.”

She found a story by the British ceramicist, Emma Bridgewater. “Her story was very similar to mine. She said that her first year after diagnosis had been her most challenging. When I read it, it was like a lifeline to a drowning man. Her interview gave me great hope, and so I decided I would talk about it too, because I am now past my first year with the condition. I would just like to say that every single person I have met who also has it has said that the first year is the hardest. I’ve just finished my own first year, and I hope it will be the hardest.”

How has the diagnosis changed her outlook on life?

“It definitely shattered my confidence, in that I took my health for granted; I don’t take my health for granted any more. I’m nervous now about something going wrong for people I love. I know now that anything can happen to you in an instant.”

Sinéad Moriarty’s The Good Mother is published by Penguin Ireland