The Way We Were
Dublin author Sinéad Moriarty gives shelter to fiction fans in Bangor with an intimate discussion around her latest novel and writing career
Sat inside a cosy yurt within Bangor Castle’s Walled Garden as the rain hurtles down outside, myself and other Aspects Festival attendees enjoy listening to Sinéad Moriarty as she is interviewed by broadcaster Louise Cullen on her latest novel, The Way We Were.
Having only launched into a writing career in her early 30s, the Dublin author has impressively already penned over ten books, including No.1 Irish Bestsellers Me and My Sisters, Pieces of Heart, and This Child of Mine, with The Way We Were recently winning the 2015 Irish Book Award for Popular Fiction.
Although named after the Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand’s film of the same name (a favourite of Sinéad’s), the story of this morning's focus is one that very much stands apart:
'The main theme of the book is a marriage that has gone stale,' explains Moriarty. 'Nobody has a perfect life and for the family featured that is certainly the case…'
In the book, the story’s main characters Ben (husband), Amy (wife) and daughters Holly and Jools are each given a voice for the reader to hear from their perspectives, which was quite a bold and explorative step for Moriarty's writing. 'It is the first time I have written in a first person male voice but I just felt that the story needed his voice in order to see his point of view,' she says. 'I also wanted a child’s voice and how the daughter's life is affected as well.'
Indeed, it's the actions of the book's principal male which provide a catalyst for much of the plot. 'I think a lot of men go through a midlife crisis and, in Ben’s case, there is a sense that he is unsettled with his life and wanting more adventure. Then,' the writer warns, 'he ends up making a decision that shatters all of their lives.'
Amy, on the other hand is frustrated with her husband’s lack of awareness of the sacrifices she has made for the family over the years and the story really explores how these different areas chip away at their relationships.
'The world has changed and there is so much talk about feminism but women are still predominantly the carers of the children,' says Moriarty. 'It’s still a rarity for stay at home dads. Amy had previously made the decision to take a different route in her career – and is happy enough with her decision - but it does bug her at times. She feels Ben doesn’t appreciate what she has done for the family.'
Without giving away too much of the story, when surgeon Ben takes on an opportunity to travel to Eritrea, Africa and is kidnapped, things quickly fall apart for the family and it is Amy who has to pick herself up and raise two kids of her own.
Essentially, this is a story about a family’s ability to move on from something that could potentially be devastating and, when they finally seem to be, that's when the book takes on a surprising turn of events.
A keen researcher, it's clear Moriarty's approach to character development is far from half-hearted. She notes meeting with a surgeon through her uncle, who delivered medical training in Eritrea, in turn adding real world authenticity to Ben's narrative path.
Describing Amy’s response to her husband’s decision and eventual disappearance, there is a sense that the author wants to present a strong female lead through her character. 'I do think women are amazing,' she affirms. 'You either sink or swim and I think women are good swimmers.'
In reality, there are several themes running throughout The Way We Were that Moriarty seems passionate in unfolding: from feminism to midlife crisis to loss of a loved one. However, with all this, the book is not without a solid structure and fluidity, which she admits to learning how to do well over the years.
'When I decided I wanted to be a writer I joined a creative writing group and it is there that I received a lot of guidance,' she reveals. 'I was told by my tutor that I would keep going off on tangents and needed some structure. And, to this day, I use the advice she gave me in every single book that I write: I have structure, a storyboard, a chapter breakdown, and I'm very sure of where I'm going with a story.'
Despite her very well thought out novels, Moriarty emphasises the space she allows for her stories to take on a life of their own at times:
'In the middle of writing a book I once had an unexpected female character join a dinner scene and she did in fact become a very important character to the book... So the creative process does not need to be stifled by structure; you can be open to inviting new ideas but you just don't go off on mad tangents.'
As Sinéad shares her expertise, she acknowledges Stephen King On Writing as a notable launching point, professing it to be a bible for her writing. She also highlights the need for a trusted editor to honestly critique and give good guidance to any writer.
As we launch into Q&A, Moriarty is remarkably honest in divulging her routine and efforts as a writer, which – in reality - have required sheer determination and hard work.
'If I had a pound for every rejection letter I received at the beginning of my career, I could pay for my house,' she admits. 'But I knew writing was something I was really passionate about and wanted to do..."
As a group of us huddle around for a signed copy of her latest novel, there is a clear admiration for the author's work. And, as I make my way out of the yurt and back into the walled garden that lies outside, I am glad to have braved the not-so festival-friendly weather to hear from her.