In conversation with... Eithne Shortall

Hi Eithne! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Grace after Henry. Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! And thanks for the kind response to it. This is the story of Grace, a young woman whose partner dies suddenly just as they’ve bought their first house. She must learn how to survive without Henry. She sets about doing this with the help of friends, neighbours and new pals she has made at the graveyard. And then, out of nowhere, a man with Henry’s face turns up at her door and her world is blown open. That might sound very sad, but it is funny and uplifting too – I hope.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Not at all. The book that has been published is not at all the book I pitched to my editor. Thankfully she thought the finished version was better! It started with this idea of a woman at a house viewing, waiting for her boyfriend to turn up but he never does, and then this simultaneous image of him cycling to meet her but never making it. I could see this clearly in my mind’s eye, and it makes up the book’s prologue. After that all I had was Grace sitting in the hallway of her new house thinking about how she was going to carry on. And then, while I was making a cup of tea one evening and worrying the story might be too dull, Andy (the man with Henry’s face) walked right into my head.

Your novel has a host of unforgettable characters, regardless of how big or small a part they play in the narrative. How do you develop them?

A: Thank you very much. I loved the supporting characters in this book, absolutely loved them. And they’re so real to me. I know exactly what Betty, Grace’s grouchy neighbour, looks like, and if I saw her on the street I’d probably wave. I generally find supporting characters easier to write than the main ones. Betty is loosely based on my grandmother, who I adore. The Three Wise Men at the graveyard developed really easily. I wrote one conversation between them and suddenly their distinct personalities were defined. Grace’s father is inspired by a story a friend told me about her own celebrity-obsessed father, and so on and so forth.

If this novel could be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Grace and Henry/Andy?

A: I honest to god have not thought about this. I would love it to be made into a film, and I know there has been some interest, but I think the real issue would be Henry/Andy – would it be the same actor? Probably. And then they’d have to be really good to make both men believable. I have a picture of Henry/Andy and it’s nobody well know. However, I don’t have a picture of Grace because I’m always looking out at the world through her eyes so she’s the only one I don’t see - if that makes sense.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: It wasn’t a scene, but the hardest thing to get right was Andy. He needed to have suggestions of Henry but still be entirely his own person. He arrives into the novel fully formed and it took me a long time to get that right. I loved writing the flashback scenes between Grace and Henry, and also any scene that Betty is in!

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: No. There was hardly any editing of the draft I first sent to my publisher – and I know this might be the only book with which that ever happens so I’m counting my blessing. For the US edition, which is out early next year, one chapter – the one told from Henry’s father’s point of view – was cut.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am really struggling with the next book to be honest. The pre-publication response to Grace After Henry has been great and I think I’m panicking in the expectations of that. This is probably as much as I can say: It’s about a woman in her late 20s who has developed a fear of the dark. Sad, funny, poignant, uplifting and compelling – they’re what I’m aiming for.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I wish I could blame Instagram for taking me away from writing, but the truth is I’m only too glad to spend some time mindlessly scrolling. That said, my social media use has been down this year. It’s not related to writing but just in general it’s a vacuum into which your time gets sucked. I put my phone away from 10pm until 10am and I get great reading, sleeping and writing done in that time.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: I have a few but one would be never bring your ego to the table. I don’t believe a book is about you; it’s about the characters and it’s about the readers. If you’re hanging onto a passage for the sole reason that it’s well-written or you think you’ve said something clever, cut it. As the old maxim goes: Kill your darlings.

Thank you for your time!

A: Thank you for having me, Silvia.
In case you've missed it, here is a link to my review of Grace after Henry, which was published on May 3rd, plus the chance to win a copy of this book.

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