Writers Chat 16: Tanya Farrelly on “When Your Eyes Close” (Killer Reads/Harper Collins: London, 2018)

Tanya, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, When Your Eyes Close, which follows on from your short story collection When Black Dogs Sing (which won the Kate O’Brien Award in 2017) and The Girl Behind The Lens, another literary thriller published by Killer Reads. 

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Sam Blake, author of The Cathy Connolly Series has said that When Your Eyes Close is ‘A superbly twisty tale’ and that describes so well my reading experience of it. The first question has two parts:

It’s a fast-paced page-turner and I loved how you used multiple narrators. Can you talk a little about that, please? Did the story come to you through the characters – Nick, Michelle and Caitlin – or did you have the plot worked out and then decided to tell the story through the viewpoints of three characters?

Tell us about the title. It’s such a perfect title for the story and captures all the complex themes. Did it come before you finished the book or after?

Hi Shauna and thanks for inviting me to participate.

I knew from the beginning that the story would be told from three perspectives, the primary story being Nick’s. I was driving down the motorway one night on my way home when the concept came to me: a man is diagnosed with liver failure, he undergoes hypnosis in order to try to stop drinking, but while he is under hypnosis he is accidentally regressed to a previous life where he sees himself commit a terrible crime. I guess I had plenty to work with once I had that concept. I figured it would be interesting if Nick had died before he’d even reached middle age in his previous life, that way his daughter Caitlin would be just a little older than him in the present.

I’m not someone who plans and plots, I prefer the characters to take me on their journey, and the plot unfolds as a result of their decisions and actions. Caitlin’s story was more difficult to execute – I knew that her husband was missing, but for a long time I had no idea where he’d gone – then I came up with two options, hopefully I chose the right one! With regard to Michelle, I wanted her to play a very active role in the story, there would have been no point in giving her a voice if she’d simply been Nick’s girlfriend.

You’ve asked me about the title – titles are something I struggle with, I can write full stories with little difficulty and then I labour over titles, which sounds absurd! It was the marketing team who came up with “When Your Eyes Close”. My original title was “Out of Time” which I felt brought together the two aspects of the story – Nick’s regression and the fact that he was running out of time for his transplant. The publisher didn’t like that – so they sent me an alternative title, which I really hated – then they send on some more, and I have to admit, I love this one!

SG: Titles are hard, alright, so it’s great to have a team behind you who can help with that. Interesting about the different options you had for Caitlin’s husband – well, the one you picked definitely works! 

You explore some very topical themes in When Your Eyes Close – especially homelessness and what it means to belong (to a family, a home, or even an identity). A fitness instructor by day, at night Michelle volunteers on soup runs with the Simon Community in Dublin city centre. In one of the early chapters, Nick knows of a homeless man who literally crosses his path that “only if he were lucky would he find a shelter for the night.” It’s a very human story – as Michelle muses thinking about one of the men she helps, that he only liked tuna and cheese sandwiches: “That was the thing about volunteering, you got to know the people, their likes and dislikes.”

Can you tell us about research you did to bring this into the novel?

TF: I’d like to say that I got out on the street to research this aspect of the novel, but I didn’t. The most important skill for any writer is to be able to imagine yourself into any situation. It wasn’t difficult to think about what life must be like on the streets. This is a social problem which has been allowed to escalate unchecked until it has grown to epic proportions. The government should have seen the need for more social housing long before it resulted in families living hotels, which ironically costs the government more money. The other social issue which I’ve talked about is the shortcomings in the heath system: this is something that I have experienced first-hand. In 2010 my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a Cancer of the blood inside the bone marrow. The Cancer had damaged her kidneys, so she began a very intensive period of having chemotherapy and kidney dialysis, which meant having to take her to the hospital four days per week. During that time we suffered the frustrations of late prescriptions, an unavailability of doctors to see her – being batted back and forth between two hospital departments, and worst of all the consultant’s failure to either recognise or act upon the fact that the cancer had returned after she had been in remission for two years. After being fobbed off with my concerns that my mother was seriously ill, I finally had to go on the Internet to find her consultant’s email address and contact her directly. My mother died two weeks after admittance, in 2015, from septicemia. I didn’t expect my story to become Michelle’s, but it did. Traumatic and life-changing events will generally find a way into our writing, often it is unplanned.

SG: Yes, the shortcomings of the health system is very clearly explored, and I am so sorry to hear that it is based on what sounds like a traumatic experience for your mother and for you. My deepest sympathies. 

On another note, I was fascinated about what happens to Nick when he undergoes hypnosis. It raises a lot of questions about identity and ways of being in the world. How can we really – if ever – get away from our past, and past generations? How much do we carry with us? Or does it mean, as Nick says “that death was not the end.”? This is at the heart of the novel, really, isn’t it? How did you come to write about confabulation?

TF: A number of years ago I read a fascinating book entitled “Many Lives, Many Masters.” It is the true story of an American psychiatrist, Dr Brian Weiss and of how he went from being a sceptic to believing in reincarnation. Weiss was working with a patient who had been referred to him because she had a number of phobias – she was afraid of water, she had difficulty in swallowing pills etc. Weiss had been working with her for some time, they’d discussed and identified several possible reasons for her phobias and he felt that she should have been better at this stage. Thinking that perhaps there was another reason, some childhood memory that she had blocked, he decided to try hypnosis. Whilst under hypnosis, Weiss’s patient described herself in another time and place, not believing in past lives, Weiss felt there had to be some logical explanation, that perhaps his patient had interest in history, but every time he hypnotised her the same thing happened. Spookily, the patient began speaking to him in different voices- voices of the “masters” – she told Weiss things about his own life, which were confidential, things that his colleagues in the hospital were unaware of, for example the fact that he’d had a baby that died at only a few weeks old due a hole in its heart. He began to wonder if there was some truth to what the woman was describing in her sessions. Whether or not you believe in such things as reincarnation, and I’m not saying I do, but it’s a truly compelling idea. The “masters” tell Weiss through his patient that we are sent here to learn a lesson and if that lesson is not learned, we are sent back again, we have many things to learn before we reach the final stages of evolution. The book also talks about how people are reborn into the same circle, that your teacher in one life may have been your father in another and so on. I had really wanted to explore this idea in relation to Michelle and her relationship with Nick, but my editor felt that it was a step too far – she wanted the story to be based 90% in reality and only 10% about regression, so I had to pull right on the regression theme in order not to alienate readers.

SG: Oh that is so fascinating! I’d have loved more about regression as it struck me as such an unusual element in a thriller. I must look up Many Lives, Many Masters. 

You paint a very moving and at times upsetting picture of Dublin as a city, almost a character, and the novel also explores how it does – or does not – care for those who live there. Yet there is solace to be found – in the bars where live music is played (where Caitlin plays with her band), in the restaurants, and in the quietness of the night.

TF: When we create characters we have to think of them as real people – real people have likes, dislikes, hobbies, idiosyncrasies etc. I tend to enjoy writing artistic characters; after writing my second love is music, I sing, play guitar and am part of a ukulele session that meet in the Harbour Bar in Bray on a Tuesday night. One of my closest friends used to run a music night in the Ormond Wine Bar on Ormond Quay – now sadly gone – and I used to enjoy the music there on a Wednesday night. I always like to include different things that friends will recognise and be amused by, as well using these things to enrich characters and make them all the more believable.

Regarding landscape, I think it’s also an important part of a novel. Dublin is my native city and so both of my novels are set here. I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting a novel in a city or country where I hadn’t lived – there are too many potential pitfalls. Here I know the geography, I know how people speak. Interestingly, I had to change a couple of Dublin expressions I’d used in dialogue as my London editor had no idea what I meant – “you know yourself….”! 😊

SG: Oh yes, I have had experience of that myself. Hiberno English is always like another language to those outside of Ireland.

I always find that despite myself in novels with multiple narrators, I always end up favouring one narrator. In this case it was Michelle, probably because of her earnestness and wonderful curious and questioning mind. She’s great at reading people and I liked how she used all types of information in trying to figure out what happened to Nick in his past and David before he disappeared. She takes all her information, from psychics to research and uses it, believing what she sees and trusting her instinct. Was Michelle one of the first or last character to come to you? Dare I ask if you have a favourite in the cast of When Your Eyes Close?

TF: Michelle has a lot in common with me – far more so than the other two characters. Like I said before, I wanted to ensure that she was an active character – not simply Nick’s girlfriend. I experienced a painful breakup in the early stages of writing When Your Eyes Close and I used that experience in both Michelle’s bafflement at Nick’s disappearing act in the beginning of the novel, and also in Caitlin’s confoundment at David’s disappearance. Being dumped without any explanation is a horrible thing, you could drive yourself mad trying to figure out why it happened and silence is the worst kind of punishment – I’m a communicator, if something’s wrong, I like to talk it through, evasion is simply a cowardly non-action. But experiences never go to waste, not when you’re a writer!! I don’t know if I have a favourite character among the cast, they are all different -they all have their strengths and their flaws. I often enjoy writing characters that are completely dissimilar to me – in The Girl Behind the Lens, Oliver Molloy is a total cad, I had great fun writing him – I even felt sorry for him at times. Like I say, being able to inhabit another person’s mind is one of the most important things about being a writer. If you couldn’t do that, everything would be autobiographical and we would soon run out of material!

SG: Yes, I agree. It is one of the fun things of writing – inhabiting others’ lives as it were and enjoying what that feels like.

Lastly, Tanya, some fun questions:

  1. Tea or Coffee? Tea – I love coffee but have problems with an over-acidic stomach!
  2. Mountains or sea? Sea – I’d hate not to live by the coast.
  3. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Hmm – Tea, I guess!
  4. Where can we find you reading from When Your Eyes Close? I’ll be reading brand new material in Books Upstairs along with my other half David Butler, and poet and writer Edward O’ Dwyer on Sunday, 17th February and I’m also at Ballycastle literary festival the weekend of 21-22nd Sept. I’m taking part in Ennis Book Festival on Sunday 3rd March along with US writer Michelle Richmond and I’m reading at “Listeners” Rathfarnham on Monday 25th March.
  5. Wow that’s a great tour around the country! So, what’s your next writing project? I’m currently working on a second short story collection – they are historical stories set in the first half of the twentieth century. These stories are very different from what I’ve done before, more in the vein of magic realism.

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Thanks again, Tanya for participating in my Writers Chat series. It’s been lovely to talk with you.

Author: Shauna Gilligan

Writer and Educator who, when not mothering, is writing, teaching, baking, reading: adding life to form. Ireland. Spain. Represented by Andrew Nurnberg Associates International Literary Agency.

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