Subscriber OnlyStage

Hilary Fannin: ‘You’re faced with something so mad – maybe you’re going to die’

Last year the former Irish Times columnist’s work on her new play, for Rough Magic and the Abbey, was interrupted by a double cancer diagnosis

Hilary Fannin and I are sitting in the cafe in the lobby of the Abbey Theatre, where rehearsals are under way for her radical adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun. Once, when she was a young woman with no qualifications, she asked at the box office here how she could become an actor. They suggested she write a letter to the management. “All of these institutions seemed reserved for another kind of person,” she says.

Fannin is now a well-established playwright, as well as the author of a moving memoir, Hopscotch, and a beautiful novel, The Weight of Love. She is a warm, insightful and funny person whose approach to creativity and life is generous and empowering. This is all the more remarkable if you consider the unhappy role art played in her childhood.

“There was a big disconnect between my parents’ domestic lives and the lives that they wanted to be living,” says Fannin. “My mother left art college to be a singer, and my dad wanted to be a painter, but he couldn’t make a living as a painter. He ended up in advertising in the 1960s ... Myself and my three siblings fell somewhere in that ditch between their ambition and their reality. Money was this dog that lived under the stairs; you could just never feed it.

“There was a lot of infidelity on my father’s side and huge frustration in his life ... And I saw, more specifically with my mother, how incredibly hurtful it was for her to have this imagined life, a continuation of the life that she thought she was going to have, and then the real life where she was living in Raheny in this semi-D.”


Fannin had a particularly close relationship with her father, who had a drink problem. (“When art didn’t get its way, my father drank.”) He would take her into central Dublin to wander around the National Gallery of Ireland, but he would also bring her along to meet the woman with whom he was having an affair. He would say, “Who did we not see today?” Later Fannin says, “I still love my father. In fact, today is his birthday. He would have been 99 today. But I worked so hard to create the person that he wanted, and there were all these other selves in a drawer that I couldn’t use when I was with him.”

The Fannin children had to deal with poverty, neglect and, eventually, eviction. “I had a lovely aunt who used to say we grew ‘like weeds’,” she says. All of the Fannin children fell out of education. Hilary was the only one who did the Leaving Cert, after which she waitressed and worked in childcare “for years and years”. While working as a classroom assistant in Cork she applied for a Fás course. “They put me on a graduate development course, because I did very well at some spatial-reasoning test ... You had to develop and design your own business, so I developed, in my head, a theatre company called Wet Paint.”

Why theatre? “There was a familiarity with it, because my mother had done some amateur theatre.” Also, Fannin says, “I wanted somebody to recognise my spirit in some way.”

Once back in Dublin she began attending acting classes at the Oscar theatre school, after seeing an ad in a paper. She loved it. Eventually, she, David Byrne, Owen Roe and Michèle Forbes officially established Wet Paint. She went on to act in numerous plays. She loved the process of being in a rehearsal room, deconstructing and reconstructing plays by writers such as Dermot Bolger, Michael Harding and Tom McIntyre. But it still hadn’t occurred to her to write. “It took a long time to free myself from the kind of person that [my father] would have liked me to have been ... The idea was, you should be entertaining, very funny, very amusing, but that was it. I wanted to marry a writer. That was what was in my head: ‘I’ll marry a writer.’ What was I thinking?”

What changed her mind about writing? “I went to see a play that Pom Boyd wrote, I think in the late 1980s or early 1990s,” she says. “I’d known Pom for years. If you see someone else of your age and stage and they’ve actually done it, you think, I can do that. It’s like little bits of bread being dropped in the forest leading you to somewhere that you need to be. And then I start writing and thank Christ. I’ve somewhere to be in my mind and my body now, somewhere to anchor myself.”

Fannin began studying writing with Bernard Kops, “an amazing elderly writer”, at City Lit, an adult-education college in London, where she was then living with her now husband, Giles Newington, a fellow writer (and for many years an Irish Times journalist). “I was waitressing in Brixton at the time, and I was in a sitcom [in Ireland] as well.”

What sitcom? She laughs. “Upwardly Mobile. I was Pamela. Then, just before Peter” – her first son – “was born I managed to finish the play, Mackerel Sky, and the Bush Theatre produced it.”

There were autobiographical elements to that play. “Bob was very confused by it,” she says, referring to her father. “He was in London [to see it], and he was pissed. There’s a big character, Steph, who has a huge big cardboard cut-out of her father because he’s absent. That night Bob didn’t even make it into his hotel room. He fell asleep in the corridor. And the next day in Dublin he said to my brother, ‘What the f**k was that about?’”

There are a lot of stories about artists who fail to make the grade as parents. Nuala O’Faolain was Fannin’s father’s cousin; her memoir Are You Somebody? documents a similar story of parental neglect. Anne Enright’s recent novel The Wren, the Wren also depicts a family sacrificed to artistic ambition. “I knew so many of those f**kers,” says Fannin. “They littered my childhood, those kinds of men ... That toxic seepage from the male artists, that whole thing of ‘The pram in the hall is the end of ambition’, it was all around us ... This was what art was in our house: no education; no money. We lost the house. The bailiffs came, knocked down the doors, took the furniture. That was the art I knew.”

So at the outset of her writing career, with a young family, Fannin was, understandably, “terrified of hurting my children with my work”.

She soon learned that it was possible to create art and have a family without a byproduct of cruelty and neglect. “It’s a relief to hear Marina Carr talking about this, and Anne Enright talks about this too, about pushing back the jam pot on the kitchen table and just writing ... I was always writing while I was living and looking after my kids or trying to be part of the community I lived in ... My concentration is quite jigsaw-like. I don’t sit down quietly for eight hours and write. When I was very low in London, at one point, my brother, who has published two books as well, said, ‘Just write an hour a day. One hour a day, for 365 days – you’re going to have 365 hours of writing under your belt.’”

She doesn’t need Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own”, she says. “I have a room, it’s just it’s in here.” She taps her head. “I’ll write anywhere.”

So no ivory tower? She laughs. “I live in Bayside. There are no ivory towers.”

She developed a reputation as a fine playwright. She has written many plays. After Mackerel Sky she wrote Sleeping Around with Mark Ravenhill, Stephen Greenhorn and Abi Morgan. Later she wrote a “state of the nation” play, Doldrum Bay, about two men in an advertising agency, “a world I knew because of my dad”. That was seen by Gerry Smyth, a former Irish Times managing editor, who asked her to fill in on the paper’s TV column. She ended up doing this for years. More recently she wrote a personal column for the paper. “I’m not afraid of talking about anything, really,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have anything to hide. I was clear that I wasn’t going to write about my kids – but writing about the past, writing about Bob and Marie” – her mother – “and writing about my siblings, I was absolutely fine with that.”

By the time Hopscotch, her childhood memoir, was published, in 2015, her father had died. Her brother, Robert, sat with her mother while she read the manuscript in case she had questions. It must have been a difficult read, but she didn’t ask for any changes. “She just said, ‘No, this is Hilary’s story.’”

The process was liberating, Fannin says. “It is cathartic to tell your story. For me it has to be. I’m investing in finding out for myself what happened.”

She went on to write The Weight of Love, which won the John McGahern Book Prize. Though centred on a fictional love triangle, the novel is rooted in real memories. “Places and spaces I lived in,” Fannin says. “I can remember the washing lines in flats in King’s Cross and the sound of someone playing the piano in the basement flat ... I knew I needed to move Ruth through a certain series of places, and I went back to London and walked all the routes she would have done ... And I walked around to the cafe, and I watched the people and took notes. It was such a joyful thing to do.”

This production of Children of the Sun marks the theatre company Rough Magic’s 40th year. Fannin remembers being in awe of the company back in the 1980s (“they were quite an intimidating bunch”). The project was initially commissioned by Lynne Parker, its creative director, as part of its Compass new writing programme, based on a translation by Olga Taranova.

“At its heart Children of the Sun is about a group of people living their lives unable to see that the territory that they know is imploding and that forces outside of their lives are going to take over. Gorky wrote it in nine days while he was in prison in St Petersburg [in 1905].” Fannin significantly rewrote the dialogue, characters and plot. “It’s like playing dollies. It’s playing dressing-up with dollies.”

There was a lot of homework to do. “One of the main characters is a scientist. I had to figure out: what branch of science? So then I got interested in ‘time’. Lynne and I went to see Iggy McGovern, a professor up in Trinity, an amazing man. And he said, ‘You know, there is no agreement on what time is.’ And I thought, Oh, that’s brilliant ... I said, ‘Iggy, if there’s one thing you fear, what would it be?’ He’s a terribly nice man, and he said, ‘Black holes.’ I thought, I fear one of my kids driving into a wall, or I worry about the cat, and this man is worrying about black holes.”

Last September, while working on the play, Fannin was diagnosed with two types of cancer, ovarian cancer and lymphoma. The initial prognosis was not good. “You’re faced with something so mad: maybe you’re going to die. How do you manage that feeling? I had major surgery in November. I had a radical hysterectomy, a splenectomy. They really took out everything that they could. And then I got really good news: they downgraded my ovarian-cancer diagnosis from [stage] 3 to 1C, because they got it before it spread.”

All of the Fanning siblings have had cancer now. “All four of us,” she says. “We have this cancer cluster. It’s another bond. It feels like an externalisation of generational trauma. What is this illness? I mean, I know it’s physical illness. I’m now doing some genetic testing to see if there might be something that’s been passed down through Bob’s line, and that really interests me.”

She’s still undergoing chemotherapy. Throughout her treatment, she kept working on the play. Somehow, in December, she finished it. “The support I got from Rough Magic and the Abbey was unbelievable,” she says. “They were incredible ... Right now I feel such gratitude. When I go into a rehearsal room this afternoon there’ll be 11 people in there working, and it will be about the work, and I won’t think about cancer until I self-inject this evening,” Fannin says, referring to part of her treatment.

Has she processed any of this experience emotionally? “Somebody said to me that recovery won’t start until the chemotherapy ends,” she says. “So I don’t think I’ve really begun to process it yet.”

Did she write about it? “I know I’ll end up writing about it in one form or another, but I think it’s going to take time,” she says. “I kept notes all the way through. The bottom line about writing is, it’s about control. It’s about having some control over your past and managing your past. It’s about being able to think forwards with some clarity ... It’s like that internal room that I talked about earlier. I rooted myself internally ... So with the cancer I have a notebook. I have voice notes.”

Fannin says that having the freedom to write is a privilege and that everyone should have the opportunity. That’s why she likes working with young people with the creative-writing charity Fighting Words. (“They’re so vulnerable, and their ideas are so beautiful.”) She hopes to do more coaching work with refugees or other marginalised adults. (She tells me a story she heard from a young Syrian doctor.)

It’s personal for Fannin. She first went to college, to pursue Trinity College Dublin’s MPhil in creative writing, in her 50s. Her brother also went to college in later life. “It took us decades and decades and decades to feel that we could access [that world]. I walked into Trinity at 54/55 and saw what was available. I was so overwhelmed by it – and angry as well ... I’d been feeling that this is not my world – ‘That’s somebody’s else’s world.’ It doesn’t have to be that way.”

She gets annoyed by novels where there’s no mention of money, no mention of how people pay for things. The availability of money affects who gets to tell their stories, she says. “I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches abroad on a creative-writing programme, and she was saying that it’s such a narrow type coming into the class. Where are the new voices going to come from?”

Fannin has a second novel under way. “I want to make clear, honest work,” she says. She finds that autobiographical details keep bleeding into her fiction. In Children of the Sun she found herself writing about characters facing eviction. “You think, Oh Christ, have I done it again? There is a line in Hopscotch where my father says to my brother, ‘You are a wart on my palm ...’ There’s a bit in Children of the Sun where someone says – I’m paraphrasing – ‘Your father called. He said you were a wart on his palm.’ And Protasov, who’s a nice man, says, ‘I think you’ll find he meant that term affectionately.’ How many times do I have to write that line until it stops being something that makes me feel sad? It must bother me [still], because I write something new and it pops up.”

Did her experience of illness come out in the writing of the play? She thinks for a moment. “There’s a line [where] Protasov the scientist says he used to believe that there were alternative existences that you could access – the eighth dimension, the 10th dimension – and near the end of the play he says, ‘There’s just the beautiful now to cradle our failures.’ I wrote that line and I thought, Oh f**k. Yeah. There is just the beautiful now to cradle our failures.’ That’s all there is.”

Children of the Sun opens at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, as part of Rough Magic’s 40th-anniversary celebrations, on Thursday, April 18th, with previews from Saturday, April 13th. It runs until Saturday, May 11th