Before My Actual Heart Breaks|Tish Delaney|Cornerstone|ISBN: 9781786331984
by Carina McNally
‘The worst advice you’ll ever hear as a writer is to write the first three chapters for a publisher.’
According to Northern Irish writer Tish Delaney you should ‘write the whole book, rewrite it, then write it again, back to front. Only then should you send out your first three chapters.’
After reading her debut novel, Before My Actual Heart Breaks, I’d listen to anything Tish has to say about writing, and, to quote her book ‘soak up the words like a blood starved tick.’
‘You just have to keep knocking with those drafts,’ she says, ‘from getting picked up by my agent Lizzy Cremer to reaching the publication stage took ages; the whole book from start to finish took the guts of three years to pull together.’
Tish’s story centres on Mary Rattigan. Raised on a Tyrone farm in the 1970s, her sadistic mother Sadie uses dogmatic Catholicism as a stick to beat her family. Mary believes that she is worthless, but dreams of escaping to America and marrying a doctor.
She fulfils her mother’s prophesy by getting pregnant at 16. Refusing to reveal the father she is branded a tramp, forced to leave school and marry a neighbour. Mary slips into a cage of self-pity ‘like a boned corset to hold myself together and keep him out’—the ‘him’ in this case being John Johns, her new husband.
Although often hilarious, this is not a happy story.
‘I was constantly editing the book. Initially it was more about the Troubles; the word count went up and down by about 60,000 words as I tried to incorporate the whole Northern-Irish story. I wanted to show that growing up in war was extreme but it was wallpaper; we never knew anything different than the town being barricaded and people running around with guns. Everybody was living the same life—going to school, trying to meet boys.’
Every character is a memory of somebody.
‘My Mum remembers girls ‘in trouble’ who were kept in convents and enclosed orders.’ Tish recalls them being pushed into marriage. ‘When you look back you see the lies everyone was telling—the doctors, the priests.’ Many of the issues in the novel are topical now—the border, the Tuam mother and baby home
Science-fiction lover Tish is a prime example of a writer who writes what they know. Now living in Alderney, the Channel Islands, she previously lived in London.
‘I was in my forties trying to write about London. I couldn’t. I almost gave up. Finally I gave in, and wrote about what I knew. All my characters are from my childhood, many of whom have been with me for a long time. I used to wonder who would want to read about small farms on Northern Ireland; well, it seems there’s an appetite for it after all.’
Tish grew up surrounded by storytellers.
‘It gets into you. Every word of my book has come out of my childhood and teenage years. The next book is set in Ireland as well; when I write about Ireland, it just flows.’
‘I always wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t from a well-off background and writing wasn’t encouraged. I’d no idea for the longest time that I could sit down and do it; I thought nobody would appreciate it. Then I just did it; it’s like anything inside you—it comes out in the end.’
Speaking to Tish on Zoom, I comment on a painting depicting what she describes as the famous Alderney breakwater, an architectural world wonder. Alderney is also home to writer Rachel Abbott, for whom Tish works. Involved in the Alderney writers’ festival, Tish will feature as this year’s debut author.
‘My book is a year late due to covid. It was supposed to be published in May 2019 so it’s been in warehouses all this time. It’s strange to go from two book launches to none overnight: I had to cancel one in Alderney and one in London the same afternoon.’
Derry Girl actor Saoirse-Monica Jackson has voiced the audio book, the darkness broken up by the hilarious and irreverent.
A friend writing for Mills and Boon once told Tish that readers ‘love to love the characters’. ‘It’s liberating writing the man of your dreams, like John Johns—nice, quiet, and randy.’
Tish’s writing is stupendous. Before My Heart Breaks has resonances of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (set in the same era). When you finish the last page of McBride’s book you feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach; the last page of Delaney’s is a punch in the heart.