Annette Sills’ first novel, ‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’, is set in Manchester and around Ballinrobe and Cong. At its heart lies young Manchester couple, Julie and Billy, and their search for a school for their young daughter. Their search triggers flashbacks to the their own childhoods, awakening memories of traumatic events yet to be dealt with.
Serious themes are explored, but with a light touch that draws readers in, and with laughs to offset the darker storylines. A difficult balance, perhaps, but one that the author has struck, judging by the reviews the book is receiving on Amazon.
While this is Sills’ first novel, she is no stranger to writing. Her short stories have been longlisted and shortlisted in a number of competitions, including the Fish Short Story Prize and The Telegraph Short Story Club. ‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’ was Shortlisted for the Rethink Press New Novels Competition 2014.
Sills lives in Manchester with her husband and two children. Her parents are both from Mayo, and she is a regular visitor to the county. Here, she talks about her Mayo links and how they have influenced her writing; the unexpected ways in which the book unfolded during the writing process; finding her ‘inner bloke’; dealing with rejection; and the novel writer as a long-distance runner.
CM ‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’ is set in Manchester and Mayo, perhaps hinting at your own heritage as the daughter of Mayo parents. Can you tell us a little about your connections to the county?
AS My father is a Corley from Breaffy, and my mother is a McGrath from Cong. They settled in Wigan in Lancashire in the ’60s, where I was raised along with my three siblings. I consider myself second-generation Irish, and I am proud of my Irish heritage.
I have wonderful memories of travelling to Mayo on holiday as a child. The beauty of the landscape was very different to the urban landscape where I was raised. My extended family are close, and we stay in touch even though we are scattered over the world. I usually stay in Mayo when I come to Ireland. We hold reunions every five years in the US and Cong. Last year we held one on English soil for the first time when over a hundred of us took over a hotel on the Wirral in Merseyside for three days. We love to party, and party we did.
CM Can you outline the plot of the book and describe its major themes and tone?
AS The story is set in 2007, and it centres around Julie and Billy O’Hagan, a working-class couple who are looking for a primary school for their daughter in a fashionable Manchester suburb.
The hunt for a school triggers traumatic memories for both Billy and Julie about their own school days in Manchester and Mayo, and at the heart of the story is their struggle to come to terms with what happened to them.
The themes of parenting, bullying, abuse and the obsession with school places are some of the themes in the book. That makes it all sound pretty grim, but the tone of the novel is light hearted and there are a good few laughs in there.
CM If you had to pick a genre that ‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’ falls into, what would that genre be, and why?
AS I’d describe it as contemporary women’s fiction, though I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many men have read and reviewed it positively.
CM What motivated you to set some of the book in Mayo rather than setting it all in Manchester?
AS The story dictated the Mayo settings. While it is mainly set in Manchester there are flashbacks to Billy’s life in Mayo and Galway and the ending of the novel is set at a wedding in Mayo. I am currently writing my second novel which has a similar shifting setting. I am interested in writing about the ghosts that people bring over from Ireland when they emigrate and how those ghosts affect the lives of families down the line.
As a second generation Irish person I find my identity floating somewhere between here and Ireland, and without really intending to, that idea has found its way into my writing.
CM Did some parts of the book flow easier than others for you? Were there aspects you found difficult to write about?
AS I worked very hard on the male characters in the book, Billy, and Julie’s dad, Tony. Julie’s voice came a lot easier as it’s closer to my own. But the more I wrote, the more Billy’s story and character took over. It felt like riding a horse that I couldn’t completely control, and by the end, Billy’s story became dominant one. I was very proud when one male reader wrote in an Amazon review, ‘Annette Sills seems to have found her inner bloke’.
CM The chapters swing forward and back between the voices of the protagonists, Billy and Julie. Was it hard to change back and forth between the characters, as a writer? Why?
AS When I first wrote the novel, I wrote it from the point of view of four protagonists, which was wildly ambitious for a first-time novelist, and it didn’t work at all, so I rewrote it and cut it down to two.
Writing from two points of view isn’t easy either, as you are effectively telling two parallel stories. You have to keep both narratives focused on the main themes and make sure that the characters are emotionally in tune with each other so the reader isn’t distracted or confused.
CM This is your first novel, but you have written short stories before. How did you find the transition to the longer form?
AS I love writing and reading short stories. In terms of going from one to the other, the obvious difference is the stamina needed to finish a novel. It’s the difference between running a 10k race and a marathon. You can finish a short story relatively quickly and get feedback, but writing a novel is a more solitary business. It’s the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
CM On your blog, you mention ‘rejection filled’ months when you first were approaching publishers with your novel. It’s an experience many writers both dread and share. How did you cope?
AS ‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’ was my first attempt at writing and I truly had no big expectations of getting it published. But of course I hoped it might. I soon got used to the rejection e-mails and started on another novel. Sylvia Plath once said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” I’d also say ‘They show me I need to try harder’. Every rejection was wounding, but they pushed me on to improve my writing.
CM And now that it has been published, and well received, do you plan to turn your hand to more novel writing, or do you hope to return to the short stories?
AS I am currently writing my second novel, which is going steadily. I have recently also been writing some stories as part of a very enjoyable project run by Irish writers Liam Harte and John McAuliffe from the Creative Writing Department at Manchester University.
I have been working with the Manchester Irish Writers group, a very talented bunch, many who also have Mayo links. Our work is due to be published in an anthology by Dublin publisher Liberties Press next year.
CM What authors do you most admire? Have any influenced your own writing style?
AS I’ve always felt drawn to Irish writers. Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry and John McGahern are some of my favourites. I have recently discovered Nuala O’Connor, Donal Ryan and Walter Macken and I love the short stories of Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett. I am also big fan of Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro and Eleanor Ferrante. I find it very hard to tell if any other writers have influenced my own writing. I think you find your own voice and off you go.
CM What are you reading at the moment?
AS I’ve just recently finished Donal Ryan’s ‘The Thing about December’. I loved the voice of Jonesy the main character. It’s got that great combination of being laugh-aloud funny but poignant as well.
CM Finally, if you had one piece of advice for a new writer starting out, what would it be?
AS I’d tell them to come off Facebook, find a space you like and go there and write every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. I’d also tell them not to try and write like anyone else and to discover their own voice.
‘The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan’ is published by Rethink Press. It is available on Amazon and Kindle and can be ordered through any good bookshop.