- 17 May 21
Speaking to the Dublin native from her Westmeath home two years after the publication of her award-winning debut 'When All Is Said', the author’s warmth for the everyday stories of human nature is plain to see.
Anne Griffin’s highly-anticipated follow up to the No. 1 bestseller When All Is Said meets expectations, with her second effort taking her audience even further down the path of heartfelt prose. Curating poignant portraits of her characters during their most uncertain moments appears to be a trademark for Griffin, whose deep understanding of her subject’s fears and flaws shines through.
Listening, Still transports readers to the small, rural town of Kilcross, the hometown of family undertakers The Mastersons. The protagonist, Jeanie, bears the often-heavy weight of her gift, which allows her to hear the recently dead and give voice to their final wishes and revelations. When her parents move to retire and leave the funeral home under her care, Jeanie comes face-to-face with a barrage of life choices. Meanwhile, her decision to stay in Kilcross 17 years ago rather than move to London with her teenage sweetheart comes back to haunt her.
“Am I excited about Listening, Still heading out into the world? I think the word is petrified,” Anne laughs down the phone. “There’s always trepidation, but the expectations placed on my shoulders come from myself, as my own worst critic. I certainly didn’t expect When All Is Said to ascend to that level of success. It’s been brilliant, but carving out space to dedicate yourself to the second novel was a challenge. It came with pressure, and my mind was often occupied with that sense of imposter syndrome. I grappled a lot over whether I could recreate the formula.”
According to Griffin, the notion of writing for a living only dawned on her at the age of 44, with numerous careers behind her. Having spent five years working with asylum seekers, Travellers and other marginalised groups before specialising in financial management within the charities sector; a conversation with Irish author John Boyne sparked Anne’s successful attempt at obtaining a creative release.
“Because I was immersed in finances for a long time, I began to lose my way. It was doing nothing for my soul,” the author says, earnestly. “I went around with potential stories in my head, but I figured the whole world did that. My decision to pursue my passion was impacted by John Boyne, who I had employed at Waterstones and worked with for a long time. I was bemoaning my life’s predicament to him, and he asked me if I had ever thought about writing as a creative outlet. At the time, it was just something to help me through a crossroad. I did four months of writing on Cape Clear island, looking out at the Atlantic. As soon as I started, I was hooked.”
Later completing her MA in Creative Writing at UCD, Griffin’s outlook on her potential new career was impacted by one of her mentors, Anne Enright.
“Anne taught me something I’ve never forgotten - that women must choose their partners well. To be a female writer trying to make it in this world, you need somebody who will completely support you, but who won’t feel threatened by your endeavour. I was lucky enough to have a partner like that, and one definite wage. I had the freedom to take a risk, but many women don’t have that.”
“A huge amount of women take on the burden of obligation in life, as Jeanie does in the novel,” Griffin says, paralleling her decision with the tough options facing her Listening, Still protagonist. “It’s about choosing your own voice and finding your way, but also, it’s about allowing yourself to listen to that voice.”
While a chance encounter in a hotel bar inspired When All Is Said, the author’s inspiration for Jeanie Masterson and her trade as an undertaker excavated a long-standing fascination of Griffin’s with the industry of funeral directing.
“I didn’t have one of those lightbulb moments for Jeanie, it was a concept that naturally evolved. I wanted to explore a person’s discovery of what matters to them at a particular point in their life. In those late teen years, when you’re supposed to be making major decisions about your life, you don’t have a clue,” Anne remarks, smiling. “It’s about that insecurity of not having found your footing in this world yet.”
“I was also drawn to the mystery of undertaking. I remember in school, one of the people in my year lived in the graveyard of our local century in a beautiful Gothic house. Her father must have been the manager of the graveyard. Every time I drove by that place, I was floored,” Anne adds. “I thought there was something incredibly special about her world. The funeral industry in Ireland has a dignified outer shell. I wanted to look beyond that, into the ordinary occurrences within that world. So I showed an undertaker in turmoil, burdened (or gifted) with a mystic ability.”
A power inherited from her father, Jeanie has learned to censor some of the dead’s last messages to the living to avoid any conflict - a move she has long felt uneasy about. What did the author learn about this delicate balance of respecting both the living and the dead on her visits to some of Ireland’s funeral homes?
“I met with three undertakers, and I came away with immense respect for them and their craft. Their philosophy is centred around helping the public understand how well they care for the dead. Many funeral directors emphasised how important it is to do your best for the living, and referenced a spiritualism that often lingers in the room when the embalming process begins, as if the person hasn't passed on yet. It’s like they’re still with you. I took it one step further with the character of Jeanie and allowed the dead to actually say what was still holding them to earth.”
“A dominant theme in When All Is Said and Listening, Still is what we’re willing to admit to the people that matter, and what we’ll hold back,” Anne emphasises. “Not everybody in the book has unresolved issues, or feels the need to admit regrets. If I were lying on the embalming table with Jeanie right now, I would most likely want to tell my 16-year-old son that I think he’s brilliant.”
“He’s turning into a young man, and is almost at Jeanie’s age when she was trying to figure her life out, but he has a lovely, quiet confidence about him. Who he’s becoming, and what he’s finding out about himself, is absolutely mesmerising.”
Listening, Still is out now, via Hachette Ireland.