INTERVIEW: Carol Coffey

The Butterfly State author speaks to Lyra McKee on writing about ordinary people facing extraordinary difficulties

Wrong place, wrong time or could a ten year old girl be guilty of murder? That's the question posed in Carol Coffey's novel The Butterfly State.

If life really does imitate art, then one would be forgiven for thinking that Carol Coffey’s life has been a tough one. Yet the Wicklow-based writer finds great fulfillment in teaching children with special needs, the inspiration behind her novels.

'While I enjoy writing fiction, I wanted my books to have substance to them and to tackle social issues that not only occur in Ireland but in the rest of the world. The lives of people with special needs are not written about often enough so few people understand the difficulties these people face in their every day life and how a lack of understanding causes so many people with disabilities to lose out on opportunities in life.'

Doffey’s first novel, The Butterfly State, was published last year by Poolbeg with a second, The Penance Room, published in March 2010. Both books have done well with the former being translated into German.

The Dublin native, who has several nieces and nephews with autism and Down’s Syndrome, began writing at the age of ten in her bedroom. 'I’m from a big family and loved hiding upstairs and writing stories in the quiet. I always wanted to be a writer, and a teacher. I love books and I was always reading. My aunt Anne Mangan was a children’s writer and my cousin John Seagrave in Canada was also a writer, so perhaps it is in the genes.'

So what was the path from writing stories in her childhood bedroom to global sales of her first novel?

'I was actually quite fortunate. Like many people, life had got in the way of realizing my dream of becoming a writer as I worked full time in a very busy job. When I was off work recovering from major surgery, I decided to start the book that I had been writing in my head for years. By the time I was due back at work I had written about a third of the book.

'I felt that I had to finish it so I wrote every evening and on weekends. When I was finished I didn’t have the courage to send it to a publisher so it sat in a drawer at home for a few years. I eventually sent it to only one publisher (Poolbeg) who accepted it which I am told is really unusual (and lucky!) as a lot of writers send their manuscripts to several publishers before acceptance.'

Were their difficulties in getting a novel touching such sensitive issues published?

'Autism is very much in the public domain these days so I didn’t feel that writing about it in The Butterfly State was considered a taboo subject at all. Poolbeg were interested from the start and didn’t have any reservation about the topic. My second novel, The Penance Room, centres on a deaf child living in his parents’ nursing home and whose hearing impairment results in him leading an isolated, lonely life. Again, the book has received a lot of publicity and reaction has been positive.

'People who’ve read the book tell me that they could almost feel the child’s isolation living in a silent world and unable to communicate with the people he loved. These reactions inspire me as I want people who do not have to live with a disability to walk in the shoes of people who do, even if it’s only for a short while.'

As the conversation progresses, the topic of art versus life comes up. Are the novels, like other art, meant to reflect life?

'I hope so. That’s what I am aiming for. Not many people would buy a textbook on autism or deafness or any other disability if it didn’t relate in some way to their own life so I wanted to bring the issues relating to people with disabilities to the general population in a general and uplifting way while also portraying the difficulties faced by these people and their families, difficulties few of us can even imagine.'

After having two books published on the subject, although passionate about her work, Coffey contends that she didn't set out to write about special needs.

'They say write about what you know! I really think that readers need to feel that the characters are believable and I think we can write well about people who seem real to us. I wouldn’t be any good at writing about happy, functional, high-flying people as I don’t know many people like this and therefore don’t feel that I could portray them realistically. I’ve worked in for so many years with people who for one reason or another have struggled in life; this is what I know about. This has been my reality. I received a card from a lady in London that read, "Thank God someone’s finally writing about ordinary people."

'I didn’t actually set out to write about special needs. It just happened. My first book’s main character has autism and it just seemed to roll on from there. But special needs is something I am passionate about. I’d have no problem writing about other topics and probably will do some day.'

So what will be the focus of Coffey's next offering?

'I’ve finished my third novel for Poolbeg which will be published in March 2011 and which centres on two sisters whose disrupted and dysfunctional upbringing in turn affects the lives of their young sons. The overall message in the book is that no matter what happened to you in the past, you can turn your life around by facing your demons and becoming the person you were meant to be.

'I am now focusing my completing my master’s degree in emotional disturbance after which I think I’ll have earned a break! However, there are four or five more novels rattling around in my brain so I might not get a long break after all.'

The Butterfly State can be purchased at the CultureNorthernIreland shop.

Lyra McKee