My latest novel, ‘The Memory Box’ (published in the UK in September) is the story of an Irish woman, Pandora Schuster who on the eve of her thirtieth birthday discovers that she may have her mum’s heredity cancer gene, Breast Cancer Gene 1. As you can imagine, this sends her into a complete tail spin, and makes her question her life and also the future of her nine-year-old daughter, Iris. Pandora is a single mum and she has never told Iris’s French father that he has a daughter. So she travels to Paris to find him, with disastrous consequences.
As a writer I like to tackle big subjects that mean something, situations or life experiences that interest me as a person and that I hope readers will connect with too. Popular fiction (or ‘chick lit’) is often dismissed as ‘fluffy romance’ but as its loyal readers know, it’s far from it. I greatly enjoy reading books by authors such as Jojo Moyes and Sinead Moriarty, writers who also tackle life’s big questions and dilemmas.
When writing about topics such as adoption, infertility or in the case of ‘The Memory Box’ a hereditary cancer gene, it’s vital to get the facts right. You are writing about issues that affect real people, people with first hand knowledge. And if the general reader spots an inaccuracy, the ‘reality’ of the whole book is called into question. Details matter. Writers need to do their research.
I have published sixteen novels for both adults and children and I have dealt with many different issues and themes – from being a single mum, to depression, divorce, abandoned children and the loss of a parent. Before I start a book, I immerse myself in the world of my chosen subject.
For ‘The Memory Box’ I read cancer memoirs, including Emma Hannigan’s excellent ‘Talk to the Headscarf’ (see below). I read blogs and forums about cancer and most especially Breast Cancer Gene 1, the gene that Pandora may or may not have (she’s waiting for the test results during the book). I also spoke in depth to a breast cancer specialist, an amazing woman consultant surgeon called Sarah Rastell (Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital in the UK), who very kindly read an early draft of my manuscript for accuracy.
I also tried to ‘feel’ how Pandora would feel while waiting for her test results – anxious, scared, alone, but yet determined to fight. Emotional truth is also vital and a character’s reactions must be honest and believable.
I’m very lucky, over the years book research has taken me to some extraordinary places. I’ve watched ballet in Budapest and interviewed ballerinas (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze); I’ve fed the elephants in Dublin Zoo (The Shoestring Club); and most recently I’ve camped on a small island to research the setting for my new children’s series, The Wishing Girls. In March I’m travelling to China to read at a book festival and to visit the place where one of my new characters, Soon Yi, is originally from. It’s a tough life, but someone’s got to do it!
Information on Breast Cancer Gene 1
Breast Cancer Gene 1 - or BRCA1 for short - is a human caretaker gene that produces a protein that repairs DNA. If this gene mutates or is damaged, DNA is not repaired properly and this can increase risk for cancers.
Woman who have this gene have an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer.
If you are interested in finding out more about the gene, Emma Hannigan’s memoir of her experience, ‘Talk to the Headscarf’ is highly recommended.
For more information see www.cancer.ie or www.arccancersupport.ie
Writer and Cancer Survivor, Emma Hannigan
Writer and mum of two, Emma Hannigan found out that she had the BRCA1 gene in 2005. She says ‘Several members of my family had been through breast and ovarian cancer, so we were approached by the genetic testing centre.’
Emma went on to have both breasts and her ovaries removed as a preventative step. She explains that it wasn’t a difficult decision. ‘I saw the surgery as my way out of a big hole! The genetic diagnosis was my warning. I knew I could get cancer, but I viewed the surgery as my get out of jail card. It was the answer to my conundrum. I felt like a ticking time bomb. The surgery defused my bomb!’
Talking about cancer and the BRCA1 gene is important she feels. ‘The more people know the better,’ she says. ‘Knowledge is power. The most scary thing about this gene or cancer is the unknown. It's also vital that people don't feel as if they're alone. Nobody wants to be isolated or feel as if they're on a solo journey. The gene is relatively rare - but only because people don't know about it. As more people find out about it and get tested, the numbers are growing. But - to avoid any scare tactics, only 3 to 5% of cancers are genetic.’ Emma advises anyone who is concerned about the incidences of cancer in their family to contact their GP.
Emma's new book ‘Perfect Wives’ is out now.
(This article first appeared in Woman’s Way)