By Susan Daly
Áine McCarthy who writes under the pseudonym of Orna Ross, has a knack for unlocking hidden potential. As a writing teacher, she developed a method to help her students tap into their deeply buried creativity. As a former journalist, she pushed and prodded herself into finishing her first novel at the age of 43, the best-selling Lovers' Hollow.
So, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last April, she once again drew upon her talent for looking for the deeper perspective. She and husband Phillip had been about to make radical changes to their life. With their son and daughter both fully grown-up, the couple had decided to divide their time between Ireland and Aine's “spiritual home” of California. They had sold their house in Clontarf, Dublin and Aine's literary agency was expanding into London and San Francisco.
Then came the C-bomb. “It's an instant clarifier,” says Aine “It was instant and complete. A very sudden shift of perspective within a few weeks.”
The 48-year-old speaks with clear, unwavering eyes about what must have been a devastating blow for her and her family. Her daughter Ornagh remembers being shocked and upset when she heard the news: “You want to know why is this happening to you. But after a while I realised that there is good and bad in everything and it's making me appreciate what we have.”
When we settle down for coffee in Clontarf Castle, Aine removes the woollen hat that has been keeping her bare head warm. Chemotherapy is grim, she says, and she's had “the works”.
It is all the more remarkable that Aine speaks of the seismic shift in her world as “a real gift”. She says: “Relationships change, friendships change. People that I wasn't seeing enough of, I'm seeing more of; people I was seeing too much, I'm seeing less of.
“When illness comes in the door, your priorities change. I was very busy and, while I loved that, I realised that I'm almost 50, I have cancer and my time is limited. It can take weeks, months or even years to implement the changes, but you know almost instantly what has to go, what will stay, what's important.”
Years of mentoring other writers, essentially helping others by sharing her experiences, shine through in the blog on her website. In it, she broaches the subject of her cancer. “I didn't know for a while if I was going to go public about it at all,” she says, “but I've decided to talk about it because I don't see other people talking about it, or having the opinions about it that I have.”
One touching, yet funny, entry in September records her indecision about what to do with her newly hairless head at the launch of her second novel, A Dance in Time. After toying with the idea of wearing a wig or a scarf, she finally decides to go bare-headed. “So I have decided: no wig, no scarf, no hat. Just me, in front of the audience, bald.”
Another post has a title that speaks volumes: Good Things I've Gained From Having Cancer. It is inspiring, moving stuff and takes issue with the traditional notion of tackling cancer as a “battle”.
She elaborates for me: “I'm very opposed to the idea of cancer as the enemy; that you're having a battle, and that the people who die have somehow lost the battle and those who live are somehow survivors. All that metaphor I find quite difficult. I think cancer is what it is. You don't have control.”
Instead, Aine finds that tools — rather than weapons — have helped her through the days. She begins each morning with meditation and with a session of ‘FREE' writing. This is the inspirational writing method she has taught her students for years and which she says she “cobbled together” from her wide-ranging reading about writing.
“It stands for ‘Fast, Raw, Exact but Easy'. Essentially, it's when you write fast as thoughts come into your head and you give yourself permission to write sh*te,” she laughs, whispering the last word. “You're very often startled by what emerges. I've seen it again and again — I've used this technique in all sorts of contexts, with everybody from MA students to women recovering from drug abuse to immigrant groups.”
Aine founded Font Literary Agency partly because she is — “or was,” she corrects herself — a bit of a control freak. “One of the reasons why Lovers' Hollow was difficult to publish was because it was 600 pages long, and everyone wanted me to cut it. There was no agency in Ireland that was doing the sort of things I was. I kind of fell into it.”
Her illness forced Aine to take a sabbatical, but she has decided not to go back to Font, leaving it in the capable hands of her business partner, Ita O'Driscoll. That “instant clarifier” again: she knows now that all she wants to do is write.
It was a long road that brought Aine to this point. Raised in rural Wexford where, as a child, books were her “escape” into another world, she looked destined for the teaching profession. However, no matter where she applied, she couldn't not get a teaching job. “I found out later I had been blackballed by the nuns,” she says. “In my fifth year, I was kicked out of boarding school for going to a dance. So every time someone went over to them for a reference… I can understand it now but at the time I was outraged.”
She found herself working at a manufacturing company, where she met her husband. “I left because I was going out of my brain trying to sell toilet rolls to hotels!” She went on to manage a fitness centre, and got into freelance journalism from writing articles on health-related issues.
“In a sense, writing gave me the headspace I needed, but it was a juggling act with the children. Many a piece was written at 3am! In another way, it was a very nice job to combine with motherhood, in that it was flexible and I could do it from home.”
It was only as her children grew that Aine began to tap into her real potential — as a novelist. “I had always wanted to write fiction,” she says. “When I started my first novel, I was coming up to my 40th birthday. I stopped dead the journalism because I tried for a while to do both, but they are very contrary energies. I had done an MA at that stage, so that's when I went into teaching at university.”
Her first novel, Lovers' Hollow, was inspired by her MA history thesis on the committal of women to Enniscorthy lunatic asylum from 1916 to 1925. “Those women haunted my dreams. One of the book's characters was based on that research,” she says.
A Dance in Time started with a similar historical fascination of Aine's. The figure of the revolutionary Maud Gonne kept popping up in her research for Lovers' Hollow, and brought back a childhood memory for her.
“Books for me start with a question,” she says. “The question for A Dance in Time went back to school. At some stage into our studies, our English teacher made this throwaway remark that Yeats, having proposed to Maud Gonne and been turned down, had in later life proposed marriage to her daughter, Iseult. That just knocked me for six. Her daughter? He'd made a career out of his love for Maud Gonne — how could that possibly happen?”
Not many people would be familiar with Maud's illegitimate daughter Iseult, but in her time she was a powerful muse for everyone from Yeats and Ezra Pound, to her husband, Francis Stuart. Aine's tireless research uncovered a young woman who was possessed of a searing intellect and a literary talent that went largely undiscovered.
The novel also draws parallels across the story of Iseult and Maud Gonne, and that of a modern narrator, Iseult ‘Izzy' Mulcahy, and her daughter, Star.
“I think the mother-daughter relationship is endlessly fascinating,” says Aine, “and I think a lot of women are afraid to explore it. I've worked with so many writers in the past who have said, ‘I would love to write about that but I can't until my own mother is gone'. I'd recommend just diving in there.”
Of her own mother-daughter relationships, Aine seems on rock-solid ground. Her mother is waiting for her at home in Clontarf as we speak, visiting for the weekend. She talks of how wonderful it is to see her own daughter, Ornagh, making her way through university. “My daughter is almost 21 and my son is 19, so they are grown up and that's the first thought you have as a mother when you get that cancer diagnosis: ‘Well I've got them to this point anyway.'”
And this is the nub of why an hour in the company of Aine McCarthy/ Orna Ross is life-affirming. She is pragmatic rather than dramatic, and her clear-headed approach to life is reflected in the books she writes. They encompass great universal truths and historical events, but she never loses sight of the humanity of her characters. It's the mark of a woman always on the lookout for hidden treasure.
A Dance in Time by Orna Ross, published by Penguin, is in bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.co.uk