Tyrone author gets to the heart of organ donation in new novel
Jenny Lee chats organ donation, bucket lists and love with Tyrone author Emma Hetherington whose new novel offers readers a poignant and life-affirming tale of high emotion
'SOMETIMES time is all we have with the people we love the most. I ask you to slow down in life. To take your time, but don't waste it. Life is, most of all about love – follow your heart, live out your dreams, smile, be happy, see the good in everyone you meet and rise above those who try to make you feel low.'
These are the life-affirming words and advice of Maggie O'Hara, the latest character from Tyrone author Emma Hetherington, whose eighth novel, The Legacy of Lucy Harte, is published this week.
The book is Emma's first new work for publishing giant Harper Collins and she believes it's her best yet.
"This is my first new release in four years, which is crazy because I used to churn out two books a year, but life got in the way and for all the right reasons. I've had some big changes in my life," says Emma, who has herself been through a divorce, moved house, met a new love in artist and songwriter Jim McKee and given birth to their two-year-old, Sonny.
"The idea came to me three years ago and it's probably the book I know the best out of all I've written. I've done a lot of work on the characters and really got to know them and that's why the story works so well."
It tells the story of 34-year-old Maggie whose life is in a downward spiral after her husband of just 17 months has left her for another woman, her job is on the line and she has turned to alcohol to make sense of her world.
But an unexpected letter in the post leads her into the life of Simon Harte, who gives Maggie the memory box of his late sister Lucy – the little girl who saved her life through a heart transplant 17 years previously.
With no one to answer to and nothing to lose, Maggie decides to get her life back on track by following Lucy's teenage 'bucket list' which takes her in all sorts of new directions and on a journey of self-discovery, healing, friendship and true love.
The subject of organ donation is of worldwide interest and Emma is delighted with the news that her book is also being translated into German and Dutch – but the initial idea for the story came closer to home.
"My cousin Ciaran Campbell had a kidney transplant when he was young which saved his life," she tells me.
"He often confided in me that he felt as if he belonged to another family and wished to express gratitude to them, whoever they were.
"There are a lot of legalities surrounding finding out who your donor family are, but he managed to track them down and found out it was a young girl, Ashley, from England.
"It was very sensitive for her mother and whilst he has been in contact they have never met, but Ciaran said the closure he got from saying 'thank-you' was life–changing for him and it enabled him to move on with his life.
"That planted the seed in my head that most people with part of another human being inside them feel like Ciaran did.
"I decided to make Maggie a very vulnerable and real person. She's not shopping for shoes and reading self-help books – she is going through s*** and has forgotten that this second chance in life is so precious."
An emotional rollercoaster of a read, Emma admits that writing the novel was also a very emotional experience.
"I worked a lot on her character," she explains.
"The early versions of Maggie weren't strong enough. I worked with a fantastic editor, Emily Ruston, and she really squeezed the life out of me.
"Every time I sent her a draft, she replied that she wanted more and more emotion."
Emma, who hopes that her book will help raise awareness of the need for organ donation, admits her words and the life of Maggie caused her to shed many tears.
She also confesses that she didn't know how the story would end until last August.
"The clock was ticking but I wanted a big Jo Jo Moyes type ending that would 'wow' the reader and that there would be meaning to it."
The Donaghmore writer and mum of five says that her older children Jordyn (20), Jade (15), Dualta (15) and Adam (14) helped when it came to writing the diary of teenager Lucy Harte.
"My house is full of teenagers, I didn't need to do much research into that one, it just came very naturally," says Emma, who herself kept a diary and started writing song lyrics from the age of seven.
Having turned 40 this year, the novel also made her appraise her own life and think of her legacy.
"I know that things can change literally in a heartbeat – be it an accident, tragedy, death or job loss. They say life begins at 40 and I've learnt to appreciate the simple things like healthy children, a roof over our heads and being able to enjoy Christmas dinner, which people take for granted but not everyone has.
"In the last six years of my life there have been major changes and a lot of ups and downs. Being a writer isn't a very lucrative business but I'm just so determined to get this lucky break and I've a good feeling this might be the one.
"I'm in such a good place in my own life and it's maybe reflecting in my writing.
"My bucket list crept into Maggie's story because my biggest ambition is to go to Nashville. Before my 40th year is out, Jim has promised to take me there," adds Emma, who has already started working on the second book of her three book deal with Harper Collins.
Has she started to dream about a movie adaptation of The Legacy of Lucy Harte?
"I'd love to keep it local with Irish names in the cast, such as The Fall's Bronagh Waugh or Valene Kane – I even tweeted her telling her she would be perfect for it," laughs Emma.
:: The Legacy of Lucy Harte by Emma Hetherington is published by Harper Collins Impulse. It is released on ebook on January 6 and on paperback on January 12. Emma will be having an official book launch and signing at Sheehy's, Cookstown on January 21 at 4pm.