IMAGINE how it must be to gain overnight success? To secure a whopping six-figure book deal, and for the first book to live up to its best-selling promise?
What if, after all that, you were unable to come up with a second book that your publishers approved of?
It’s the stuff of nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to the former RTÉ News journalist, Kathleen MacMahon.
“It was a terrible shock,” says Kathleen.
Life had always worked out for her before. After taking a degree at Dublin City University she did a master’s in Cambridge.
Becoming a freelance journalist, it didn’t take long before she was working at RTÉ.
“As a reporter I would go home every evening with the story finished. You’ve covered the plane crash, and the next day you will report on a flood in Bangladesh. That was completely different to working on one thing for 18 months that wasn’t going right. And no matter what I did to it, it wouldn’t come right.”
Her publishers hadn’t hated the book; there was a lot they liked about it, but they felt the story just wasn’t strong enough. And this was hard to take.
“My greatest fear after my publishers parked the book, was that I would be unable to do the job; not through ability, but that I mightn’t have the mental resilience required. Because I found the process of failing, trying again, and failing again emotionally difficult.”
It was then that Kathleen went to Scandinavia on a book tour, where she picked up an appalling head cold.
“My hearing went down to about 20%. This was September, and the cold lasted until Christmas. I could hardly function.
“I couldn’t talk to anybody so I got into bed with my laptop. And I hammered out the first draft of a new book in a kind of bubble. In a way it was lovely.
“It was an easy book to write because I had it ready in my head. I’d been lining it up for a long time, and I always knew what would happen to the characters. I knew the story would continue chronologically and I knew that it would segue from character to character.”
I absolutely loved The Long Hot Summer — it’s the best book I’ve read all year. I spent a day happily immersed in the family’s world, but it’s a huge book — with nine main characters who have clearly distinct lives. How can writing it have possibly been simple?
“I wrote each character vertically, almost like a short story, and in the second and third draft pulled the threads through horizontally, making sure not to leave any of the characters behind.”
The Long Hot Summer is about four generations of the MacEntee Family.
Many of them are in the public eye, and when TV star Alma is attacked, the repercussions affect every member of this closeknit family who adore the public eye. How does Kathleen describe the book?
“If you say it’s about families that sounds lame, but families are a jungle of anger and bitterness and regrets and things that are understood and things that are misunderstood, and things that are out in the open and things that aren’t.
“There is a lot of love in the book, but it’s not Mills and Boon love. It’s what love is like in real life — the glue that just about holds people together. Love ties you down. It ties everyone down.”
Granddaughter of the short story writer Mary Lavin, Kathleen has recently lost her mother, and both her mother’s sisters, who all died in their fifties and sixties.
“We lost the whole generation 20 years before their time,” she says, “And that’s a very strange thing to happen in the landscape of a family. That was on my mind.”
The book opens with Deirdre, a former Abbey actress, who can’t bear the thought of getting old. Told she needs cataracts, she wants to take things into her own hands.
“My mum had a horror of getting old. She had been a beauty and was bohemian and unusual. She was worried that with age there would be nothing to distinguish between her and another old lady.”
Deirdre’s husband, the eccentric, larger than life Manus, left her for an exotic young man.
Their eldest daughter, Alma, loses all sense of self when she is attacked, and her sister Acushla is nursing former hurts.
The author includes the lives of their husbands, the political brothers Michael and Liam, along with their daughters Nora and Connie.
Then there’s their brother, Macdara, who struggles through life, but finds redemption in everyone’s eyes. It makes for a rich tapestry.
Connie sails through life; feeling anything is possible, until motherhood stops her in her tracks.
“She was the hardest character to write because hers was the experience closest to my own. I was a bit of a misogynist as a young woman. Men seemed nicely uncomplicated and women seemed always to be giving out.
“That section is a kind of apology to my late mother. I judged her from the outside as a young woman. I was harsh on her. I was unsympathetic, because you don’t want your mother to be difficult; you want her to be happy.
“Now, as a wife and mother, I feel her from the inside, and of course I am more sympathetic. I see where she was coming from.”
This wonderful book explores sibling rivalry and power struggles within marriage, but the central theme is what happens if you have to change the script you have written for your own life.
This happens to Alma, early on, but the attack on her sets off a chain of events that leaves all the characters questioning their sense of identity.
“People change in each other’s eyes and that is interesting. A death, a scandal, or a sickness happens and the family typecasting is recast. Suddenly the tough sister doesn’t seem to tough, and the useless brother is more useful, and has insights to offer which weren’t ever sought before.”
There are many issues contained in his novel. Most prominently there’s abortion and end of life issues. But Kathleen swears she doesn’t do this deliberately.
“It’s the job of the novelist to explore other people’s lives. I wanted readers to see the inside of the lives of someone that has happened to. Not to think anything; just to understand.
“It’s like the recent same-sex marriage referendum. It wasn’t all political. Once people start telling their stories it becomes personal. It was the courage of gay people over the years that made the referendum possible.
“Every grandmother wants to see her grandson being free and equal. Similarly, if it’s your sister who had to go to England after being raped, politics goes out of the window.”
Kathleen sighs. “I do miss RTÉ. I was very happy there. It was a lovely job. I nearly died, looking at all the reporters at Dublin Castle on the referendum weekend. I thought, what was I doing giving up that job?
“But I’m a mum, and I’ve got teenage kids. I wanted to be around more for them, and it did feel like there was a fork in the road. I had to take the writing path. I’ve been thinking of doing it since I was a child. And now, here it is!
“And I’m aware that I am lucky. Not all writers have their books stacked high in shop windows. My greatest desire is to be worthy of this incredibly fortunate position I have been put in.
“You can’t write to please, but I hate the thought of anyone not liking the book and being disappointed.”
The Long Hot Summer is published by Sphere, €18.99; ebook, €14.77
© Sue Leonard. 2015