Patricia Scanlan: ‘Undiagnosed endometriosis led to years of misery’
Life Lessons: The popular author on inspirations and moments that changed her life
Patricia Scanlan: “My sense of humour has got me through a lot.” Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your life?
I had undiagnosed endometriosis in my teens and 20s, which led to years of misery, pain, exhaustion and being told by various male doctors “It’s psychosomatic”, “You have a low pain threshold”, “You have IBS”, “Have a baby, that will cure it,” and so on. I had days of struggling to get through school, and, when I was older, work. I was diagnosed after years of psychological stress and physical suffering, and being fobbed off and told there was nothing really wrong with me. It took strength to believe in myself, and perseverance. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My beloved mother’s advice to me was: “Love many. Trust few. Always paddle your own canoe.”
And the worst?
“Invest in bank shares. They’re safe. Blue chip!” That was my pension down the Swanee, like thousands of others.
What’s the moment that changed your life?
When editor Jo O’Donoghue phoned me, in Ballymun Library, in the first week of 1989, to say that she liked the synopsis and first three chapters of my novel, City Girl, and could she please have the full manuscript.
Who do you most admire?
There are so many impressive people in my personal life and beyond, but I think someone who left a huge legacy was Dublin fireman, Willie Bermingham who founded Alone in 1977.
What is the most pain you’ve ever experienced?
After a fall two years ago, which necessitated rotator cuff surgery. It was excruciating.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
My late friend and publicist Margaret Daly gave me so much down-to-Earth, no-nonsense, savvy advice on how to be professional doing interviews. Her joke “Think of the noughts at the end of your royalty cheque” always made me laugh.
What practical thing you do to help your personal development?
Getting out into nature as much as I can. And downing tools if the sun is shining to read other authors’ work.
What location do you return to for a sense of calm and time out?
My mobile home in Wicklow. There’s a magnificent 32-acre field in front of it, and a glorious tapestry of gentle hills and farmland spread out on around it.
What’s your biggest flaw?
And your worst habit?
Not putting keys, phone and glasses in their assigned place in my handbag. Hence much rooting! It drives my nearest and dearest mad. Me too!
What aspect of yourself do you privately admire?
My sense of humour. It’s got me through a lot.
What personality trait do you think your friends would identify as your most dominant?
Loyalty, and always being ready for a laugh.
How about an unfulfilled goal you don’t tell anyone about?
Being fit enough to walk the Camino.
Is there a particular moment in your life where you feel you were treated unfairly?
Of course, but no one likes a whinger!
Is there a gift you tend to purchase repeatedly for different people?
What’s the wisest thing you’ve ever heard or read?
“No one is my friend. No one is my enemy. Everyone is my teacher.” It was written by Florence Scovel Shinn, a teacher and metaphysician, in her classic book The Game of Life and How to Play It. It’s empowering advice and helps you step back from the “drama” of relationships and difficult interactions with others.
What are you most proud of in your life?
The easy answer to that is setting up the Open Door books, an adult literacy series of novellas by well-known Irish authors, which was launched in the mid-1990s by Irish publisher Edwin Higel at New Island Books. Having worked in Dublin public libraries before becoming a full-time writer, I was acutely aware of the literacy problems facing many of the adult population, and the lack of appropriate reading material available to them. I wrote a novella of 10,000 words, and after its publication worked with New Island, and the then editor, Ciara Considine, to publish a series of novellas. Forty-plus books later, we’re gearing up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NALA [the National Adult Literacy Agency] with a new anthology of short stories.
What’s your life motto?
Edward Markham’s famous quote is a touchstone. “There is a destiny which makes us brothers; none goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.” It gives me pause for thought every so often. Most people are doing the best they know how. Don’t judge. Be kind. Tragically, I fail often but I keep trying to be a good person.
Patricia Scanlan’s latest novel, The Liberation of Brigid Dunne, is published by Simon & Schuster. This year marks the 30th anniversary of her debut novel, City Girl.