Fifteen novels in, Deirdre Purcell has certainly earned her ‘grande dame of popular fiction’ stripes. Yet she has blazed a trail for her contemporaries more times than she has perhaps been given credit for.
Her 1997 novel, Love Like Hate Adore, saw her shortlisted for the Orange Prize alongside Carol Shields and Anita Shreve. Long before many other Irish writers broached the subject (and were lauded for doing so), Purcell wrote about an instance of rape, albeit from the vantage point of a family member of the perpetrator.
It was a blindingly original and nuanced work at a time when the conversation around sexual violence was anything but.
The book changed Purcell’s life, but “not in a good way”.
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“I like grey areas, and I’m cursed with seeing every situation from both sides,” she reflects, over coffee at a Dublin hotel. “If I see someone being sent to jail for a terrible crime, I think, ‘What’s that going to be like for him or her?’ It was stated in the US that I was being sympathetic to rape, so they wouldn’t publish it, and I never got published in the States again.”
It’s certainly the sort of story, were it published now, that might easily draw attention and admiration; something that Purcell doesn’t necessarily care to dwell on.
“I don’t do ‘what might have been’,” she notes. “Although I did notice, when I watched Falling for a Dancer (a BBC adaptation of her novel of the same name, aired in 1998) when it was on last Christmas, and I was a bit taken aback. A lot of it still seemed really current to me.”
Purcell has often been described as having a sure handle on storytelling and the finer points of human relationships; something, I wonder, if her previous life as a journalist afforded her.
“[Journalism] served me well in terms of knowing the human condition,” she muses.
“If you’re interviewing a wide swathe of people, you realise that humans are all the same, really.”
After a breakneck whirl around several careers – among them Abbey Theatre actress, civil servant, travel agent, Chicago cocktail bar waitress and Aer Lingus employee – Purcell finally landed in journalism, becoming the first woman appointed as a staff newsreader on RTÉ’s Nine O’Clock News. She was often referred to as ‘the Irish Angela Rippon’, and soon had to get used to being a familiar face.
“I noticed at the time people would follow me around the supermarket, look into the trolley and say things like, ‘She must be a millionaire. Why is she buying cabbage and white bread?'” she laughs. “And of course, somebody somewhere would get you up against a wall and go, ‘What’s Gay Byrne really like?'”
She soon found out, but not through her work in the RTÉ newsroom. In 1989, Purcell would ghostwrite The Late Late Show legend’s biography The Time of my Life.
On Byrne, whose death after a long illness was announced this week, Purcell notes: “He was very reluctant in the beginning, though he didn’t realise it. I ended up having to say, ‘You’re treating me like a bit of a nuisance,’ and he replied, ‘Am I, dote?’ From then on he was absolutely open and brilliant.”
Eventually, Purcell moved to the Sunday Tribune, where she was tasked with conducting long-form interviews under Vincent Browne’s steerage.
Among her most memorable interviews were Jeffrey Archer (circa the ‘Fragrant Mary’ years), and, in a particularly exciting coup, disgraced US Democratic politician Gary Hart, then on the run from the world’s media and exiled in Connemara.
“The actors and the writers were always prepped, and the most interesting people to talk to were the backroom people,” she recalls. “No one had really spent time listening to them or asking them piercing questions.”
Purcell had a bloodhound’s nose for news. Still, a book publisher, Townhouse’s Treasa Coady, had long admired the narrative arc in her interviews.
She suggested that Purcell write a novel; a suggestion that Purcell ignored for six months.
“I was very happy in journalism, and once you put your head above the parapet and do something different, there’s a sort of ‘tall poppy’ thing,” she recalls. “Eventually, Treasa persuaded me to come up with a plot.”
Having an intriguing story is one thing: writing a novel to the end is another matter entirely.
“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it’s getting harder,” Purcell admits.
“You recognise your mistakes more easily [the more experienced you get]. The journalist within me can’t sleep if I’m up against a deadline. Non-fiction is a doddle compared to novels.”
Purcell is working on a book of non-fiction now – an examination of the Vision For Change strategy which was designed to revolutionise mental health services in Ireland – and her research gifted her the germ for her 15th novel, Grace in Winter.
It’s the story of Grace and her grown-up daughter Leonie, who take a cruise together. Also on board the ship is young American novelist Ben, who is instantly taken with Leonie.
Yet Leonie, who experiences several mental health challenges, goes missing onboard. Spoiler alert: amid it all, Grace ends up having a fling with the much younger Ben.
“[Grace] is essentially a carer for her daughter – she loves her daughter to bits but has no life of her own and is very frustrated in her role as carer,” explains Purcell. “She’s a very passionate, intelligent and competent woman, and yet she misses sex. This guy is gorgeous and I suppose that’s a bit of a cliché on its own, but she succumbs to her own passion.”
Like her previous novel The Christmas Voyage, Grace in Winter uses a cruise liner as an intriguing backdrop.
“Oh, I love ships,” Purcell enthuses. “Life for me is quite busy and stressful in some ways, and on a ship you have no decisions to make at all.
“In writing, you can make it whatever you want – someone can go missing, or die in mysterious ways.
“But I love people-watching on them because everyone is in great humour and there to enjoy themselves. It’s a way to live a life without care. Although, if you’re a writer, I suppose you still have to care. Otherwise, you’ll never pay off that advance.”
Deirdre Purcell’s novel ‘Grace in Winter’ is out now, via Hachette Ireland
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