Arts

Felicity Hayes-McCoy on writing and her friend and ex-Latin teacher Maeve Binchy

Jenny Lee chats to Irish novelist Felicity Hayes-McCoy about becoming a best-selling author in her 60s and the influence that her former Latin teacher, Maeve Binchy, had upon her fiction

Dublin-born novelist and actress Felicity Hayes-McCoy

SET in a fictional county on Ireland's west coast, Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s Finfarran novels centre on the life of local librarian Hanna Casey, who has been piecing her life back together after discovering after 25 years that her marriage had been a sham.

Her sixth book in the series, The Heart of Summer, sees Hanna looking forward to al fresco lunches and balmy evening with her boyfriend Brian in their stunning new home, when the unexpected arrival of Brian’s adult son and an encounter with an old flatmate she shared a London flat with in her 20s, makes Hanna question her apparently perfect life.

In the books foreword, Hayes-McCoy writes “life is for living” – something she fiercely believes in.

"I didn't start writing the Finfarran books until I was 60 and now I am a bestseller. It can happen to anyone. Just keep at it and doing the things you love, enthuses the 66-year-old.

Born in Dublin, where she studied Irish and English, Hayes-McCoy then travelled to London to train and then work as an actress in theatre, radio and television.

“My very first job was an amazing job. It was the premier of an Elwyn Williams two-hander with me and Michael Redgrave,” she recalls. “I did an awful lot of radio and television plays, as well as working for The New Shakespeare Company in Regent's Park. But when they told me there wasn’t going to be the security of a weekly cheque anymore, I decided to write radio scripts.

“I knew who to send my scripts to and those first few were entirely about writing scripts that had Irish-language words in them, so I would also get cast as an actress and then get paid twice," she laughs.

But after a few years multi-tasking, the writing took over as Hayes-McCoy found herself very much in demand. Among the books she adapted were those written by well-loved Irish novelist and playwright Maeve Binchy – someone who very much influenced Hayes-McCoy.

And fittingly, on the cover of The Heart of Summer, fellow novelist Patricia Scanlan is quoted as saying: “Maeve Binchy fans will adore this."

“Maeve was my Latin teacher at school and subsequently my French and history teacher. Years later we met again when I was adapting some of her books for television and radio," Hayes-McCoy recalls.

 

“She had already met my husband Wilf separately and we became dear old friends of Maeve and [Binchy's husband] Gordon. She was lovely, supportive, terrifying and amazing and a great, great part of my life.

“What a lot of people don't know about Maeve is her feminism. When I was 17 or 18 growing up in Dublin, she was a feminist icon and I always find it hilariously funny how in people’s minds she became this warm fluffy writer of so-called chick lit.”

Binchy died shortly before Hayes-McCoy’s memoir, The House On An Irish Hillside, was published, but she was delighted that her friend had read the proof copy before her passing.

“She never knew I was going to write the kind of novels I’m writing now, but I worked on adapting many of her books and her accuracy and clarity of approach to her writing and her work ethic certainly must have rubbed off on me.”

It’s not surprising that an author whose background includes TV drama and radio soap, evolved to writing feel-good commercial fiction – something she’s not ashamed of and something she passionately believes should not be pigeon-holed.

“Marian Keyes has been kicking against the labels that are stuck on women's writing for so long. A time will come, probably in about 50 years, when people will look back and be surprised that books written by women about community or families or relationships were stuck into a particular box.”

Hayes-McCoy’s underpinning challenge within her novels was to produce an accurate, unsentimental picture of rural contemporary Ireland “with no shamrocks and no leprechauns”.

The setting of The Heart of Summer in both rural Ireland and London mirrors the author’s own life, in which she and her husband Wilf Judd divide their time living in their apartment in the old Hartley’s jam factory in central London and their renovated cottage on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry.

Hayes-McCoy first fell in love with the Gaeltacht region and its folklore as a 17-year-old student and finds herself “lucky” that her husband was also smitten and become very interested in traditional Irish music. A classical pianist and former opera director, he even learnt the concertina to join in trad sessions.

Her protagonist, Hanna, shares Hayes-McCoy’s love of both literature and design, and she managed to combine both in her latest novel with a very descriptive visit to Persephone Books in the Bloomsbury area of London.

“I can't paint but art and design absolutely fascinated me and it’s a theme that runs throughout my books. My brother, who died earlier this year, was an architect and I grew up with a Iove of buildings,” says Hayes-McCoy, who with her husband renovated and designed a number of their homes from scratch.

“I adore this shop. It’s so lush with fabric covered book designs from the period in which they were written. Like so many independent bookshops during this Covid-19 crisis it's been staggering on, working behind closed doors and trying to find ways of selling through its website and talking to readers through social media.

“Now as things open up I hope people will stick with the independents, because if we don't use them we will lose them,” adds Hayes-McCoy, herself a great believer in reaching out to her readers all over the world, from America to South Korea, through Twitter.

She even describes the virtual launch of The Heart of Summer as “one of the nicest book launches” she’s ever had.

“From the moment I got up in the morning there were readers sending tweets and pictures and using the hashtag Heart of Summer, as well as lovely messages from other authors.

 

“The writing community has really come together online during this time and it's one of the good things that have come out of this pandemic.”

The Finfarran series has been translated into six languages and already Hayes-McCoy has a publishing contract for two further books.

“When you create a community and a cast of characters you have such scope. Characters that are in the background in one book catch your eye and you question why she is like that? Or has she been misunderstood? Then in the next book they come to the foreground.

“I wouldn't keep writing the Finfarran books if I wasn't still excited by them. There is a bit of me that enjoys writing them purely to find out what will happen next to the characters myself.”

:: In the Heart of Summer by Felicity Hayes-McCoy Is published by Hachette Ireland and is out now.

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