You work yourself into a frenzy, you live: eat, sleep, dream with and about your characters and then one day they’re gone. Off to another reader. To an agent perhaps if you’re lucky enough to have one and then you wait. And hope. And hope some more that the agent will like it as much as you do.
The letting go of your characters is harder than I thought, this time around.
What is it about? The Year of Two Blue Moons is a contemporary novel set on an island off the coast of New England with some of the action taking place in New York. Its main character is Ally Winmann, single, 42, a healer, who’s desperate to have a child.
Her own family have been broken apart by tragedies leaving her estranged from her father, Josiah, a NYC lawyer.
By the end of the first chapter a surprise visitor will trigger an explosion of the cocoon she’d been building around her life and send her on a journey where she will have to heal the past.
My better half, novelist, Niall Williams, says, The Year of Two Blue Moons is a novel
about family, American family, the messiest kind. It’s about an afternoon in June that shatters a privileged youth. It’s about accidents and chance. It’s about a woman who craves to make her own family, and a brother who almost destroys his. It’s about escaping to an island, and a nephew who comes to find the missing part of his family. It’s about a healer who has to learn how to heal the past.
It’s the most true and emotional thing I’ve written. These are real people with big awkward messy complicated relationships, which, in real life I know something about. It’s also about death and loss and grief and guilt and birth, and ultimately, joy.
Fifty strokes out to the cool center of the lagoon. Spearing the water in perfect rhythm like a metronome, one hand after the other. Spearing like forked arrows. Each cupped palm diving, pulling forward.
Counting strokes. Alternating breaths. Green blue white brown. Mouth a crooked OH as the chin turns to suck in the air now blue. Left right left right. Now white. Now green. Counting backward from nine and down again. Opening eyes under water they see only the brown of the lagoon. When she reaches her destination – the dead center – she stops. Her legs hang down to where the sun hasn’t penetrated, where the water numbs her legs.
Treading water, quivering, she turns, flips around fish-like. Her body remembering its turning because a body holds a memory — a memory she’s held from countless turns in swimming pools. Here, she turns without a wall to guide her, tumbles like a seashell rolling in a wave and swims fifty strokes back, concentrating only on each stroke, each breath, each kick propelling her. Only that. Her body moving.
Eight . . . Nothing matters. Everything matters. Listen to your body. She empties her mind.
Cupping. Diving. Pulling. Kicking. Focusing on the spine’s centerline. Straight, keeping her hips from turning. Not thinking but feeling cold stiffen her hands. Four . . . Three … Two . . .One . . .. She counts once again down from ten. And swims. Breathes to the right. And to the left. Her mouth twists to catch only air. She strokes ten more laps. Water flowing, soothing. Making her feel flexible, weightless, free.
She always feels that she’s left something behind when she comes out of the water. And she turns back to see just the shrub oak leaves on the horizon forming a pattern against the sky. A language of their own. She listens to the leaves rustle. She is going to be late for her next patient. A man with cancer, losing his hair. Cancer frightens her. It’s so fucking random.
She stands in the shallow, sandy edge of the tidal pond. Loosening her arms and circling wide in a kind of Qi Gong posture she calls Scattering the Debris. Eyes closed she imagines the flotsam and jetsam of abandoned rubbish pooling in clumps after a storm. She circles her arms and her hands move aside the waxy plastic shopping bags, a blue rope, bird feathers, a clear plastic baby’s bottle, a girl’s orange nylon bathing suit, a green Frisbee. Thigh-high in the water, moving her arms, clearing a space, dismantling the debris. She stands one moment longer. Breathes and counts, and leaves the lagoon.
There are two things in life she wants to be good at. One is swimming.
Fellow Prime Writer, and novelist, Louise Beech, interviewed me about writing and music and family and the US trade paperback publication of HER NAME IS ROSE. Here’s the interview from the prime writers website.
Louise Beech: Christine, I absolutely adored Her Name is Rose. It was like a gorgeous lyrical piece of music, with language so rich and descript it put me in the heads and homes of your characters. I desperately wanted Iris to be well, and I was with her every step of the journey to fulfil the promise to her husband, and give the ultimate gift to her daughter.
Tell me how much of your own life influenced the many themes in the book?
Thank you, Louise. As a debut novelist of a certain age, it would be a challenge not to use some of my life experience. Like Iris, I love gardening so I do share that with my character. And both of my children grew up playing music so the music theme seemed natural fit. I used to wonder what would happen to my children if something were to happen to my husband and me. Our families are scattered across the globe and I thought: who would mind them? That was one of the inspirations for writing the novel. As for the cancer aspect, at the time of writing I didn’t know I was living with a tumour. So that was not rehearsed as they say. Fortunately, a year later I’m cancer free.
Louise: You have a master’s in Irish Literature and I wonder how much of what you learned influenced the poetry of your writing. I loved the meaning of certain birds being seen, the references to omens and dreams, and the reason Rose had her name. Who are your favourite Irish writers? (You’re officially one of mine, if only because you live there now!)
I think what makes a writer great is the balance of being a good storyteller and being an artist with words. Many Irish writers seem to have that balance. They’re born storytellers and lyricists. I like John Banville, especially his Revolutions Trilogy. Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright are two others, but there are so many new young writers and I have them all on my must read list. And, I have to admit to a certain fondest for my husband, Niall Williams whose History of the Rain is a terrific Irish novel with a wonderful story and a lyrical telling. Unfortunately, I’m not Irish, except by extension (my paternal grandparents were Irish and Niall is Irish) but I continually aspire to being a good storyteller and a better writer.
Louise: Do you play music yourself?
Piano and guitar, but poorly.
Louise: How long did the book take to write?
Louise: Do you have a particular place where you write, or prefer a particular time of day?
I write in several places in our house but I can write anywhere and anytime. I’m not terribly disciplined but I’m working on that. : )
Louise: What challenges did you find when writing a book exploring so many emotional family themes? How much research did you have to do?
I researched what it might be like for a birth parent to search for a birth child. And at times it was an emotional release to explore my own feelings about adoption. Family is the most important theme to me. (Good thing it has endless dimensions and there will always be plenty to write about.) I researched about classical music masterclasses and the making of violins. I used to work in a garden nursery so I know a lot about that and used my knowledge for Iris’s sake. I’ve lived in NY and Boston and Dublin and London so I didn’t need to research locations.
Louise: I found the ending to Her Name is Rose to be a surprise, not what I expected, but in the most perfect way. Did you know the full outline of the book when you started it?
No. I didn’t know how exactly how I was going to get from A to Z but I knew what and where A was and what and where Z was. You often hear writers say that they don’t know what’s going to happen until the characters speak. In my case, one morning in the novel when Iris was sitting down to breakfast in a Boston guesthouse there was another guest having breakfast. It was almost as if I didn’t put him there. He just appeared. He became Hector the jazz pianist who falls in love with Iris. But I always knew Rose was at the centre of the novel and that everyone in her life would work, eventually, towards her best interests.
Louise: I adored Iris. Did you have a favourite character?
Thank you Louise. I actually quite love Rowan. But he is based on my brother who passed away so perhaps that is why.
Louise: Tell me about your journey to publication with the book.
I was shy about looking for an agent because I thought I was too old. Not quite 60 at the time. I submitted it to two agents and both said they would represent me so that was encouraging. But in the way of these things my novel didn’t get a UK publisher but was sold instead to the US and eventually Poland and Turkey. Hope Dellon was the editor at St. Martin’s Press who asked all the right questions and prompted me to find the answers to make it a better book.
Louise: Are you working on something else now? I can’t wait to read your next book.
I am working on a second novel. It’s about a woman who is a homeopath and she’s in love with a man, an artist, who doesn’t want children. But she does. One day a young man comes to her door. It’s the nephew of her dead brother. So I’m writing about how families come together in different arrangements. You may have to wait a while to read it… but I’ll keep you posted. Thank you for the excellent questions, Louise! And, good luck with The Mountain in My Shoe!
It was inevitable that I would end up living and writing in Ireland. It was kismet. I’ve had a handful of literary awakenings throughout my life — all of them involving Ireland. My first awakening was as a ‘Junior Year Abroad’ student from Boston studying at The School of Irish Studies in Dublin. This was in 1975. Who among those 20-odd, 21-year-old Americans will forget Professor Jim Mayes’s final exam question on Joyce? “Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.” Discuss! Somewhat mutely, I passed. My second awakening came 5 years later when I returned to Dublin to do a Master’s in Anglo-Irish literature. From Molly Keane to Samuel Beckett. From Elizabeth Bowen to George Moore. From Maria Edgeworth to James Joyce. I did my master’s thesis on an Irish writer not well known at the time, John Banville, who went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2005. My third awakening followed soon after when I fell in love with a writer, a Dubliner. Between the jigs and the reels, and as luck would have it, we eventually moved into a rustic and vacant cottage in the west of Ireland where my grandfather had been born. The last Breen had left 5 years before we moved in.
In this quiet, rural place in west Clare I have lived for 30 years. Raised my children, and untangled a garden. I’ve learned about cows and hens and horses, and muck and rushes and couch grass, and rain and wind that steals your breath. This quiet place has demanded a survival of self-exploration and examination and expression, and, finally, after making a family, and a garden, and co authoring four non-fiction books, this expression eventually evolved into a novel. My debut, Her Name is Rose, was accepted for publication in the US during the same year that my husband, Niall Williams, was long-listed for his novel History of the Rain for the Man Booker Prize. Luck of the Irish cuts both ways and this time we were lucky. For luck is surely involved, it catapults the hard work above the parapet.
In Kiltumper, where we live, there are no cafes where we might meet a fellow writer. There are no launches or bookstore readings. Very few invitations arrive in the post-box at the bottom of the garden and when they do the invitations are for events in Dublin or London, a world away from here. It’s like we’re an island on an island. An island marked off by crossroads and townlands with names like Kiltumper and Clongiulane and Greygrove and Cahermurphy. So in our green quiet we continue to write and garden. My husband is writing screenplays and working on his tenth novel. My second novel is in the works and although the year of my debut, 2015, was challenged with cancer from which I am recovering, my next novel continues to evolve, albeit slowly. The first quarter of 2016 has dropped into the post-box at the bottom of the crooked path a Polish edition and a Turkish edition of Her Name is Rose and in a few weeks I will take up a two-week writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamaghkerrig, County Monaghan to continue writing the new novel, Two Blue Moons.
In this leap year, there’s a half moon rising on St. Patrick’s Eve. May the luck of Irish may well be upon us…all.
I finished writing ‘Her Name is Rose’, in the summer of 2013. It was published in New York this past April, 2015 two days after I turned 61. I’m what the industry calls a late bloomer, and although it feels as if I’ve lived a few life times, I am not really a late bloomer at all. I’m just having a second flush. A bit like a delphinium in early summer. Give her a little fertiliser, cut her back, and she blooms again in September. This time I’m blooming as a debut novelist.
To complete a novel, have it published, and reach book stores is achievement at any age. There are many hurdles to leap. It takes stamina, self-belief, somewhat of a thick skin, and a good bit of luck. Consider the journey of the salmon. It’s a miracle.
In my own case, a book deal with a major publishing house in New York came within a year of the novel’s completion. A Polish publisher is bringing it out next spring and it will also appear in Turkey sometime in 2016. I had hoped it would be picked up by a UK or Irish publisher. But to date it hasn’t which is more than curious to me as ‘Her Name is Rose’ is about an Irish widowed mother, a garden journalist living in the west of Ireland and facing a health scare. She goes in search of her adopted daughter’s birth mother. It’s a journey that takes her to Boston and back to the west of Ireland. The publishers, Saint Martin’s Press, likened it to Maeve Binchy, but I’m afraid it’s not like the great Maeve. Nor is it a thriller or speculative fiction or a murder mystery. It’s a story, just a story about hope and heart and what do you do when the plot of life takes a turn for the worst. In a starred review ‘Publishers Weekly’ said “Breen’s characters immediately invite the reader to go on a heartwrenching journey that’s enhanced by her skillful plotting and authentic, lyrical descriptions… A moving first novel.”
However, coupled with the excitement of being published was the disappointment of not seeing my book in an Irish book store. That’s where having a thick skin comes in useful, which I’m developing, as well as a supportive network, which I have on two counts: being married to an Irish novelist and being a member of The Prime Writers.
Interest about novelists publishing their first book, not in their 20s or 30s but after they’ve hit the big 40, (or the bigger 50, or the enormous 60) is growing. Claire Fuller, author of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, was recently awarded the Desmond Elliot Prize for best debut novel. She’s a year shy of 50. Vanessa Lafaye’s ‘Summertime’ was picked up by Richard and Judy’s Best Summer Reads. Both are members of a group of debut novelists whose first novel has been published, or will be, in or after their 40th year. The group was founded by Antonia Honeywell, author of ‘The Ship’, after she proposed it on Twitter. The call was answered by many. Turns out there are a good few of us older, first-time novelists out there. The Prime Writers has a supportive membership with over 60 writers, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a website. I think numbers are blossoming.
Should it matter what age an author is? On the one hand it seems not. It’s all about the story. But built into publicity and marketing is a bias towards younger writers because publishers want to be part of a novelist’s career. They want to brand and build and market. It is somewhat rare in this celebrity driven and corporate world for a book to journey out with little or no publicity and end up on the best seller list, although, quite wonderfully, salmon do get through. But the older the salmon, the harder it might be.
I have experienced a very rich life in my 60 years and I believe I have a lot of ‘story’ left in me. My second novel is underway and I have big hopes for it but the continuation of building my career as a late blooming novelist depends on me writing. And I like writing. The rest is beyond my control, like a lot of things. The experience of getting my novel published fulfilled a lifetimes’s ambition. But it wasn’t uncomplicated. It coincided with an emergency operation, and a diagnosis of colon cancer, followed by chemotherapy. And although all that threw me off course for a few months, I realised that one of the things that writers have to do to stay alive is write. I’ve begun again. Started a new novel. I’ve returned to the river.
This article first appeared in BooksIreland Sept/Oct 2015 issue.
What do Turkey, Poland and the USA have in common? Her Name is Rose. My novel is coming out in Poland next spring and in Turkey soon after. Very exciting. Niall’s novel, HISTORY OF THE RAIN, is also being published in Turkish (but not in Polish, yet). Istanbul awaits…
“Christine Breen creates an emotional story that tenderly explores the depth of a mother’s love. You will root for her characters as they lift you up with their compassion and goodness.“—Diane Chamberlain, international bestselling author, The Silent Sister (and 24 other novels).
“This is a novel that will appeal to Anne Tyler fans. Christine Breen has a lovely feel for language and great affection for her characters. There’s something humane and kind about the way she writes, which is a great quality. It’s hard to do ‘nice’ and Breen does it very well.”—Jane Harris, bestselling author of Gillespie and I and The Observations
Some wonderful book bloggers have reviewed HER NAME IS ROSE…
Long and Short Reviews writes: “Her Name Is Rose has so many wonderful things in between its pages. Colorful characters, a story that has you turning the pages, and settings like London, Ireland and Boston that add just another layer.”
Katherine Scott Jones writes: “This was one of those rare but delightful occasions when a novel exceeded my expectations. I try not to quote other reviewers or endorsers very often, but this one from Jane Harris (Gillespie and I) is worth repeating: “It’s hard to do ‘nice,’ and Breen does it very well.”
Kritters Ramblings writes: “I absolutely adored this book. Just like the cover, it read so elegantly and I loved having both a mother and a daughter go on a journey where they are trying to find themselves. There aren’t that many books where you get to follow both mother and daughter and both have a need to find something.”
RT Book Reviews: “Breen’s emotional tale is perfect for fans of complex novels, thanks to the deep emotions exuded throughout and the many travels embedded within, which incessantly tug on the heartstrings. There are more than several surprises, which keep the engaging plot moving freely, and our admirable heroine, Rose, teaches us exactly what the scent of a woman is all about.”
Ms Em Recommends writes: “This is my favorite kind of women’s fiction; everyday characters, ordinary problems, extraordinary situations looked at through lenses of love and kindness. The kind that leaves me with hope for the human condition and the world at large.”
Debbie Krenzer writes: “I read this all in one sitting and was thoroughly entertained. Although I was very bummed to see it end. I wanted to hear more of became of the couples, but alas I’m just going to have to think they lived happily ever after.”
WTFAreYouReading writes: “Her Name is Rose is a beautifully emotional read. …a story of connectedness. Its beginnings, endings, reasons, and justifications.”
Chick Lit Goddess writes: “Written in lyrical prose that brings the music within its pages to life, HER NAME IS ROSE is a gorgeous and intimate debut novel about the bond between a mother and daughter, and what happens when life does not play out the way you expect.”
Writers aren’t always techno wizards. This I have found out. WordPress isn’t always easy to figure out. This I have also found out. I had wanted to write on my blog page for months now, but between the jigs and the reels as we say in Ireland I couldn’t. And help came dripping slowly…
Her Name is Rose was officially published in the US on 14 April, two days after my 61st birthday. I was here in Ireland, but determined to see it on a shelf in a NYC bookstore, the husband and I went over on the 19th. We stayed for a week and managed in those short days to see my sister in law Carlene Carter and my brother Joe Breen sing as support to John Mellencamp on stage in Carnegie Hall. We went wedding dress shopping for our daughter followed that night by an engagement party given by her soon to be sister in law , Gucci, and husband, David, of Rag & Bone fame in a very chic-cute place in Williamsburg.
I read from my novel to a good crowd at Barnes & Noble on the upper west side accompanied by Carlene and Joe who sang from Carlene’s album Carter Girl. I’m so grateful to friends and family, from near and far, who came to help me celebrate.
The day before we left I read in my hometown, Katonah. Another day full of gratitude as other friends and family gathered, including my three bridesmaids, all from the Boston area, who hadn’t seen each other since my wedding. Talk about feeling honoured, even cherished.
It’s pretty tough in publishing today to get any notice. And depending where you are on your publisher’s radar, based on size of advance and pre-pub praise, and whether the media is attracted to your story, anything, or not much, can happen. For my experience I am grateful!
It’s still early days for Her Name is Rose…. I await news of the publication date in Poland and still expect an enlightened UK/Irish publisher will love it and publish it next year.
In response to articles both on the web and in print about debut novelists under 20, under 30, under 40, a writer named Antonia Honeywell wrote a piece for Faber called The View from Over the Hill in which she talks about being a debut novelist over 40. (Her novel The Ship will be published in Feb 2015. Antonia will be 43.) Wondering how many other novelists were publishing their first novels at this age (and beyond) she posted the question on twitter. The response was overwhelming. And all credit to her she planned a luncheon in London on the 22 January, so we could all meet.