Patricia (“I Love Men Really”) Scanlan came to the Hinterland Festival in Kells last weekend and her adoring public are still raving about her.
She has a Bette Midler sort of warmth and if her wit is slightly less bawdy it’s certainly no less funny. Interviewed by Georgina Godwin, she hardly seemed to need questions to talk about her friends, her family, and her career.
Asked why she started writing, she launched into an explanation about her battle with endometriosis and frequent absences from her job in the Ballymun Public Library. Convinced she was going to be fired, she decided she needed to find another source of income. She turned, naturally, to writing.
Her first book, an attempt at a Mills and Boon story, was not a success and she didn’t like the restrictions of writing to a formula. Some time later she saw a Cosmo contest announced. It was one of those, ‘write a book and get published’ jobs. A word processor–remember those?–was the big allure of this particular contest.
With advice from her friend Maeve (Binchy, whom she met through the library), she decided to write about what she knew, that is, Irish women. Writing City Girl was liberating. “The power!” she exclaimed, “Over Life! Death! Everything!”
The English publisher who was the first recipient of the manuscript rejected it on the grounds that it was ‘parochial.’ Scanlan says the word with withering contempt. Why should the lives of Irish women be considered any more parochial than those of English, Welsh, or Scottish people? The nerve! She added, with considerable glee, that the same company approached her 12 years later pleading to publish the same book. She allowed them to do so… for a price.
Undeterred by their initial rejection, she sent the manuscript to Poolbeg Press with a short letter that said, “If you want to be a millionaire, publish my book…” It worked, and the novel was accepted. She negotiated an advance of £150 despite the fact that Poolbeg wasn’t paying advances at the time. There’s no denying Ms Scanlan’s powers of persuasion.
Her most recent book, Orange Blossom Days, is about female friendship. Her books focus on women finding strength in themselves.
Though she is, as she says more than once, “Very fond of men,” Scanlon speaks scathingly of those males who have used their power to make women’s lives difficult. For instance, the many gynaecologists who could not diagnose her endometriosis, and whose response to her distress was a withering assumption that she must have a ‘low pain threshold.’ If she writes about women finding their own power and strength, you get the feeling this was a lesson she first had to learn for herself, and learn it she did.
Ms Scanlan isn’t afraid to explore taboo subjects in her books. Women who don’t want children, for instance.
She likens beginning a book to being at a wedding where she knows no one. Then, “You get to know them, and then they take over…” Her characters develop their own personalities but “They’re all me.”
One of her great passions is her work for adult literacy. She created the Open Doors Series to encourage other writers to produce short works of fiction intended specifically for those people who are just learning to read. Such books are, she says, very difficult to write. Sentences cannot be too long and writers must keep the vocabulary simple. She’s persuaded her friends Roddy (Doyle), Nick Hornby, and John Connolly to write for the programme, which is now in its 8th series. (Have I mentioned her powers of persuasion?) In addition to novellas, they print collections of poetry. The books have, in recent years, also been used by students who are studying English as a foreign language.
Ms Scanlan’s appearance was greeted with great enthusiasm and you could hardly get near her afterwards when she signed books. As I watched the crowd lined up to shake her hand and wish her well I thought there could hardly be a wedding anywhere in the country where she isn’t known.
If you’re interested in the titles in the Open Doors series, you can find them here
And for Patricia Scanlan titles, see her Amazon page here