Helen, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first novel The Heart Stone (Millbrook Press: Kildare, 2019). You write both short and long fiction and have won a number of prizes for your work, the most recent being the Michael Mullan Short Story prize – many congratulations!
Let’s first start with the geneses of The Heart Stone – your dual identity as writer and counsellor. Could you speak a little about how these professions fed off each other as you wrote the novel?
The Heart Stone grew not out of my desire to write a novel but out of my need to tell a story. Over the years, in my work as a teacher and therapist, I have met many children like Danielle and her classmates. I have long been concerned about the quiet child in the classroom; the child who may have suffered trauma or loss; the child who is anxious or sad but who is unnoticed because there may be other needy children in the room more actively seeking attention, and the child, who, like Danielle, slips by until her feelings become unbearable. I hope this book will be of help to teachers in understanding the process of therapy with grieving children, to therapists in understanding the dynamics of a busy classroom, and most importantly to children and teenagers in learning that they are not alone.
I think your need to tell a story about a quiet child is a wonderful way into writing The Heart Stone and it is a novel which is accessible for adults and younger readers. You’ve also given a beautiful, moving story a fitting title. Did the title come during writing the novel, before or after? And if there were other possible titles, what were they?
The title The Heart Stone came to me as I was writing the book. Many children who find it difficult to verbalise their feelings can work very well with art materials, therapeutic stories, play therapy, drama and music. Putting myself in Mollie’s shoes, I asked what materials I as a therapist would offer her and what would she be likely to choose. Some children like working with clay, shaping it to see what emerges rather than setting out to make something in particular (a bit like the writing process!). It seemed natural and maybe expected, that for Danielle a heart would emerge, but her feelings are more complex than that, so she goes on to use the heart to express what she needs to express. It also tied in nicely with a happy memory she had shared with her Daddy, so it seemed a fitting title.
The split structure of The Heart Stone enables the narrative to be revealed in short chapters. Did you find that your experience in short story writing fed into writing your novel or is it the other way around?
Yes, it certainly was my experience in short story writing that fed into the novel. The Heart Stone grew out of a short story about a child’s experience of grief – not actually a story about Danielle, but about her classmate Dylan, a much more out- there, attention seeking character. This led to me thinking about grief in the silent child in the classroom and how that might be explored. As I began to write, the novel came to me scene by scene, in no particular order. It was almost completely character driven. As I got to know Danielle, I began to explore how she might react in different situations so gradually a narrative thread emerged.
Danielle is a feisty, strong and yet very vulnerable young girl with whom readers can identify with on an emotional and nurturing level. Can you tell us a little bit about how her character is the driver behind some of the difficult themes – such as depression and suicide – that you skillfully tackle in The Heart Stone?
Danielle is vulnerable, but she is also strong. She lives in a world where depression, drug taking, jail sentences, poverty and disadvantage are the norm. Young though she is, she may have already encountered suicide in her community. She and her friends are tough because they have to be. In some ways Ms. Phillips, Mr. Power and Mollie are part of another world – softer and less harsh, because that has been their lived experience. Yet Danielle and her friends survive, kept going by the love of the adults in their world but also by each other, as each child, at some level, recognises the struggle in the other. She is feisty and strong, and it may be necessary for her to become even more so. Although the book has a happy ending, the story must remain real. And in the real world, Danielle and Lisa and the others will inevitably face many more challenges. Resilience is a buzz word at the moment, but I have to say I admire children and adults like these because they are resilient without even knowing the term. They don’t have to be taught it – they embody it.
You are so right, Helen, I love how you express Danielle’s strength – that she doesn’t have to be taught resilience, she embodies it. While The Heart Stone is about grief and truth on one level it is also filled with humour and is, I feel, really about what it means to be human and perhaps delivers an important message about being kind. Did these sentiments emerge for you as you were writing or after you’d written the novel?
What I would like to say about this, is that it has been a privilege for me to work with children like Danielle, her classmates, her parents and her teachers – people often dealing with the most unimaginable circumstances. For some, like Danielle’s Daddy, it all becomes too much and they just can’t cope. But for the most part, they just get on with it, and fun and humour, and joy and laughter are a huge part of it. I enjoyed imagining what they might say or do in certain situations. The character of Nicola becomes an important one in lightening the mood, as does Dylan with his classroom antics. It was important for me too, that Danielle’s mam Lisa, not only survives but thrives, as transformation following adversity is possible too. As teachers and therapists, we are often told that one kind person or perhaps an act of kindness remembered, can make a difference to a child’s later life and I know that in schools up and down the country there are many people; teachers, principals, classroom assistants and other members of the school community who strive on a daily basis to be that one person who makes the difference.
I think you’ve touched on something very important here – how kindness can be the greatest gift and difference. Can you speak a little about your experience of the publishing process – from idea to draft to manuscript to editing and finally to launching and selling The Heart Stone?
This is, by choice, a self-published book, because I wanted to do the project that felt right for me. I did not initially set out to publish it but when the project was complete, I strongly felt that if it could help one child, one parent, teacher or therapist then it was worth putting it out there. I have had very many positive responses including from adults who have themselves lost a parent in childhood, and who found the book of benefit in terms of understanding their own experience of loss and grief. The editing process was interesting, I had to lose some parts that were dear to my heart, but which didn’t really contribute to the overall project.
The self-publishing process was made surprisingly easy by the staff at Millbrook Press and although a steep learning curve for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The launch was of course daunting, but I surrounded myself with family and friends and through the whole publishing process I read and re-read Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World, constantly reminding myself, “A book deadline in not a NASA launch. A concert date is not a countdown for nuclear testing.”
Lastly, Helen, some fun questions:
- Mountains or sea? Sea.
- Tea or coffee? Coffee.
- What’s on your Santa list? The Faber and Faber Poetry Diary 2020. I use it every year to record what I am currently reading, writing, studying and events I attend which feed my creativity.
- What are you working on now? After I finished The Heart Stone, I subconsciously distanced myself from Danielle’s world by writing a short memoir of a time I had spent living abroad. Some short stories arose out of that, but I am now back in there and working on a collection of stories featuring some of the more minor characters in the novel.
- What are you reading right now? Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
Some lovely suggestions for books and the Faber and Faber diary. Thank you, Helen, for being so open and honest about your motives and experience in writing your novel. It has already found its way into the hearts of many and I wish you much continued success with The Heart Stone.
The Heart Stone is available for purchase at: