How I wrote Mother Mother
Something new is coming
For those who might be curious about novel writing, here is an article about how I wrote Mother Mother. It details my whole process, from initial inspiration to taking a writing course to meeting agents and finding a publishing company, to my research trips to Belfast and the people I met along the way. Any questions or comments can be left at the end. Thank you, as always x
I went to Queen’s University by chance. My mother suggested I try to go there through clearing after I failed to get into the drama course I had dreamed of doing at Trinity College. My mother also went to Queen's, moving to Belfast from the farmhouse she grew up in in rural Antrim. She was the first of her family to go to university and there was something desirable about following in my mother’s footsteps, and I liked that Queen’s was far enough from Dublin for it to feel significantly far from home, but still close enough to get home on a whim. So we travelled up there together, my mother and I. I made my application to study English Literature, and a few months later I was walking around my shared bedroom at a students’ residence, wondering who my bedroom partner would be. That was the beginning of three transformative years where I got to know a totally different side of the island of Ireland. I fell in love with Belfast and the people that lived in it. I learned that Belfast natives were warm and convivial like all Irish but there was a deeper shade of black in their humour. I wrote poetry and studied Greek mythology and contemporary Scottish literature in parallel with falling head-over-heels in love with dance music and club culture. I was lucky enough to make friends for life.
Just under twenty years later after leaving Belfast, I began to write my first novel. Turning forty compelled me to do that thing we do on significant dates: to take pause and look backwards. And so, when I started to write a book, with no plan, no strategy, no plot, the first thing that came out of me was a memory of my time at Queen’s. I had left Shine nightclub and stumbled across the road to the manicured front lawns of the University. I had lain on my back in the grass and lost myself momentarily. There were lights on my face and I remember thinking they were quite beautiful - until I blinked a few times and my vision came into focus on the silent blue and red flashing of a police car. The lights were shining on me, exposing me in my inebriated state, much to the amusement of the police officers. I was moved on. Or maybe I ran. I don’t really remember the aftermath as much as the fright of the exposure. I wrote this scene from the perspective of an eighteen year old boy from Belfast called TJ.
And that was the start of it. I sent this piece of writing to a writing course and got accepted into a six-month programme with one-to-one tutoring where I had to deliver five thousand words every three weeks. It was brilliant for keeping my head in the project and I appreciated the deadlines. I hadn’t been through any formal education since university and I lapped up any feedback and criticism I could get. After the course, my teacher Susanna kindly agreed to continue critiquing my drafts. Her input was absolutely invaluable.
Through all this time writing the first part of the book, I did not know how the story would end. My friend Tiga recommended a book called On Writing by Stephen King, It’s a surprisingly effective hybrid of memoir and instructional guide to writing a novel. In the book he speaks about every one of his novels starting with a scene in his head. A picture that he transposes into words. That is the seed. There are no plot lines in advance, no arc, just a scene that grows in all directions, like a spider’s web, until the novel is finished. I felt enormous relief at this. I am a naturally very impulsive person and I worried that my lack of desire to strategise and plot would mean I didn’t have the capacity for writing a novel. I loved the immediacy of this technique; the idea of starting the day with nothing and finishing with a brand-new character in the world. And so the story fell out of me - and that was the easy part.
A mutual friend told me about a friend of his called Ben who was a literary agent. I contacted him in September 2019 and he agreed to read my draft. The idea of my story being read by anyone petrified me, it had been such a private experience and I had absolutely no measure of whether it was good or bad. When I met Ben in a City bar to talk about the draft he told me that he and his wife had read it and loved it. I cried happy tears and gave him permission to send it out to publishing companies of his choice.
That was the start of a run of rejections. The feedback I received was that no one could see a way to sell this novel. Given I was known for being a music broadcaster and DJ, so immersed in that world, how would people get their heads around a story from me that has nothing to do with music? A fictional story about growing up in an abusive household; about single parenthood, addiction and trauma? This was not aligned with what they perceived to be my public perception. I felt frustrated. I wanted people to forget about what I had done before and just focus on the novel. But one woman, a senior editor at a small publishing company called Wildfire, read it and responded within two days of receiving the book. She said something about how Mary’s quiet determination in the face of so much adversity got under her skin. She was moved to tears time and time again. And that was that.
The following year was spent trying to make the book come alive, from a sketch to a full colour drawing, with light and shade and sense of place. It involved many hours of scouring google maps and a few really unforgettable trips to Belfast.
The first of those was with my mum and sister.
It involved lots of walking up and down the Falls road and a visit to Roselawn Cemetery with my mother, where we walked the paths and looked at the gravestones together. It brought back memories of a long-ago visit to a graveyard in Rasharkin, Co Antrim where my grandmother was laid to rest. I remember standing over the grave with my mother as she wept for the loss of hers, telling me how she felt anchorless, like a boat adrift on the ocean. It was the first time I had witnessed grief up close.
At Roselawn my mother talked me through the differences between Catholic and Protestant gravestones, and we walked silently through the garden of remembrance trying to comprehend the loss to the families of all those babies and children. On our way out of the cemetery a Belfast City Council Van pulled in and the driver leaned out to say hello. His name was Gil, he was a cemetery operative, specialising in horticulture and ground maintenance. Gil was good humoured and happy to help. We exchanged numbers for my next visit.
The next research trip was in February 2020 and I had organised it well in advance. I flew into Belfast City Airport, hired a car and drove down the A2 along the coast to find a beach. In my book I had imagined this beach as messy, not easily accessible, pebble filled. Not a place people visited for anymore than a dog walk or for things that they didn’t want other people to see. I wanted to find a real beach that could reflect this made-up beach, so that I could map out Mary’s journey and see where she could have ended up. I drove through Bangor and out the other side and eventually found this carpark off the coast road where I left the car. I crossed the road and walked through some brush - and there was a beach, nearly exactly as I written it in the book. I spent a while there, taking in the view from every direction. I felt huge relief at the idea of being able to move through a scene in actuality that had previously lived in my imagination. Like Mary in the book, I had taken a private journey which had delivered me to this beach. No one in the world knew where I was at that moment. I imagined Mary standing by the water and what would have been going through her head. Suddenly the book was feeling real.
After the beach I went to meet three Belfast locals, Caitriona and her two friends Maeve and Claire. I had been put in touch with Caitriona on an earlier visit to Belfast by a friend, who knew she loved history and would have some helpful knowledge to impart. She introduced me to Maeve and Claire Boyle, sisters who grew up in an estate called Cloona Drive in West Belfast. We had already chatted extensively on a Whatsapp group created for my research purposes. We met in Maeve’s house and spoke for two hours, then all four adults and Claire’s nine-year-old daughter Caoimhe squeezed into my hire car for a tour.
I loosely based Mary’s home in the book in the same estate that Maeve and Clare grew up in. Seeing these roads in real life and hearing the stories of Maeve and Claire growing up, playing on the street, the military presence, where they went for discos, for swimming, for mass; it was as if I was seeing the book go from black and white to colour. I recorded as much as I could on voice memos on my phone and kept stopping and starting to take photos. We ended up at Maeve and Claire’s childhood home where their mother brought us tea and scones. Claire told me about what it was like to become a mother at sixteen years old. How the school made her hide her bump in order to do her exams. Claire’s mother told us what it was like from the parent’s perspective. It felt very like solidarity, these two generations of women talking about pregnancy and male attitudes and growing up in religious patriarchy, while Caoimhe played on the carpet beside us They were remarkably generous and kind, and when we said goodbye we all hugged as if we had been through something special. It was certainly special to me.
The next morning I drove over to Roselawn Cemetery where I was to meet up with Gil again. Storm Ciara was just starting to hit Belfast and there was a forceful gale howling around us as Gil drove me round the cemetery, fielding my many stupid questions with grace and humour.
Gil is a horticulturalist, endlessly fascinated by the vegetation he presides over. He patiently listed all the different flowers and shrubs they put in the beds. He talked about photosynthesis, lichen, algae, and when we came across a copse of silver Birch trees he stopped to talk about them. He told me that in winter, when cars drive through the cemetery, their headlights illuminate the trunks and they look like ghosts.
So much of Gil’s knowledge and passion went into Mother Mother. There is a character in the book called Sid, a benevolent older friend of Mary’s who worked in the cemetery. Meeting Gil felt incredibly serendipitous. Here was this charismatic man who came out of nowhere who knew so much what Sid would have done in his job every day. I feel so lucky that Gil decided to pull over in his van that day. And to have had time with him on that blustery morning.
I drove as fast as I could to the airport to catch my flight home. The rain was coming down hard and big buffets of wind were hitting the car from the side. On arrival at the airport it was chaos. All flights were cancelled. I spent another night in Belfast, recording ideas as voice-notes and trying to write down as much of what I had experienced as possible.
I spent the next six months filling in the history and the sights from Mary’s youth. My work and personal life were busy and I was finding it really frustrating not being able to give the book the time I wanted to. Eventually I took a weekend off, borrowed my manager’s office and spent two consecutive days there, alone fourteen hours a day. I wrote out a time line on a huge whiteboard and tried to feel the rhythm of the reading experience. I tried to fill in moments of suspense and to add momentum to the latter half of the novel. I vividly remember cycling home from her office on a Boris bike at 1am feeling euphoric. The hours had flown by, I got totally lost in the experience. It felt like such a luxury to be able to give it my whole attention.
It was this weekend that really confirmed for me how much I want to write books. How freeing it was to be able to jump into another world and be totally immersed.
I have two stand-out memories of signing with the publishing company. The first thing was learning that the book was going to be released a year and a half after I handed it in. I was horrified. I might be a different person then! The world might change for ever! ( it did of course ) - but I had no idea how much I would need that time to write, put the novel away in a drawer and become removed from it, and then come back to it with fresh perspective. I had no idea that I would have to do that about six times. I needed all that time.
The second thing I remember was my initial visit to meet everyone at Wildfire, sitting in a boardroom with the full team, and the boss asking me,
So where did this book come from Annie?
And I was utterly lost for words. No one had asked me this before, I blushed and scrambled for an answer. The truth is I still don’t know where it came from. I know there are fragments of my life in there, of my experiences. There are rooms in the book that I have occupied in real life. There are things that happen in Mother Mother that I have seen in my life. And there are things that I have not. I have to get better at talking about my motivations but all I know for now is I’m grateful that I wrote it without thinking about how I was writing it, that it was such a private affair, and that the analysis only happens now, a year later, when I can see the bigger picture.
Now my relationship with Mother Mother is more removed. I come back to it often and re-read chapters, in an effort to see it how readers will see it. Still every time I read it, I want to try and improve the writing. I’ve been told by other authors that you have to learn how to let go: that the moment you hand in your book is the moment ownership transfers to the reader. I know I have to let this one go now. I have learnt so much and I want to channel those learnings into a new book. But I wouldn’t change how I wrote Mother Mother. I will treasure the experience for the rest of my life.