Carmel Harrington

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 18th October 2017

Just before I met Carmel Harrington in a gloriously sunny Enniscorthy, she had a text from her editor in Hodder. It said they loved the first draft of her recently commissioned novel.

“It’s such a relief,” she says, sitting down opposite me. “It’s great to have positive feedback. Now I just have the fun bit of polishing it up.”

This isn’t just any novel. Carmel was chosen by the ITV team responsible for the hit series Cold Feet. The fifth series screened in 2003 – but it was brought back for a sixth series last Autumn. Deciding fans would enjoy a novel filling in the years between series five and six, Hodder bought the rights from ITV. The caveat was that Mike Bullen, the creator and writer of the series should be able to choose and approve the writer to pen it.

Many writers would surely jump at the chance to bring more life to the characters they love.  How did the task fall to Carmel, a relatively new, little known writer?

“My agent, Rowan Lawton, is with the James Grant group,” says Carmel. “The stable has a lot of TC clients, including Mike Bullen. Rowan thought I would be a good match. I write with humour and emotion and Mike does too. She rang me and asked if I was a fan of the show, and I said ‘yes.’

“Rowan sent my last year’s book, The Things I Should Have Told You, to Hodder, who said they liked my style. She asked me to write a 4,000-word brief covering any time between 2003 and 2016, about any, or all of the characters. She said, ‘you decide.’”

Carmel tried to keep calm, because she knew a number of other writers were also submitting to Hodder. Before starting to write, she decided to watch the boxed set. But none were to be had in Wexford. Her husband, Roger, scoured Dublin. And Carmel watched the first and last series. Then, with the voices in her head, she wrote the words and sent them in.

When she heard she had been selected to write the novel, Carmel was over the moon.

“When I spoke to Mike Bullen he said that my script had been on top of the pile. He read it and said, ‘I don’t need to read any more. This is it!’

Carmel’s next job was to write a chapter to chapter outline, something she had never done before. That took two weeks. But approval came back.

“They didn’t want changes. I was thrilled. I’d invented a couple of new characters and they were happy with that.”

Mike Bullen gave her his mobile number, telling her to ring him, any time, and she set to writing the draft in just two months – taking herself off to a hotel for a week, then on to the Artist’s Retreat in Annaghmakerrig for a few days in order to concentrate without the distraction of her two young children.

“I wrote a lot about Adam because his wife had just died and he was struggling as a single parent. I wanted to include a lot about his parents; his mother had never been in the series, so I got to create her character from scratch. I had to come up with a plausible story of why she had not been in her son’s life.”

Carmel might be a newcomer to most readers; but she’s famous in Wexford, and not just for her novels. Hugely encouraging to other writers, Carmel was one of the founders of The Wexford Literary Festival.

Although she was born in England, to an English mother, the family moved back to her father’s Wexford roots soon afterwards. Carmel left the county after school, to take up a post with Aer Lingus, and she loved her fun years sharing bedsits and flats in Dublin.

“I spent almost ten years working in contracts with Aer Lingus, and did a huge amount of travel, and that had a big impact on my life. You can’t go to places like Maputo where you walk out of the airport, and see all these children with missing limbs, begging, without being changed.

“On my first trip, I arrived and saw a man holding up a card with ‘Mr O’Grady,’ on it. O’Grady was my maiden name. I said, ‘that’s me,’ and he said, ‘No, no! Where’s Mr Grady?’ It took me ages to persuade him to take me to the hotel. Women just aren’t in business there, not even as secretaries.”

She left Aer Lingus for an American multi-national where she worked in marketing, and spent time touring round Ireland.  But when, at 35, she met Roger and they became serious, she told him, in no uncertain terms, that if they were ever to have children, it was essential that they live in Wexford.

“Roger was in the Civil Service, and when we were married, we looked for jobs in Wexford, but there weren’t any. Luckily a civil service job came up when we needed it, and we moved to Wexford when Amelia was ten months old.”  Nate completed her family. The children are now aged 7 and 5.

Roger encouraged Carmel to write; and, when there were two completed manuscript under the bed, to send them out to agents. Many rejections later, she self-published her first novel as an e-book, and it then got picked up by Harper Impulse, who publish in a digital first imprint. The following two books were also digital first.

They sold well, but it wasn’t until she gained a contract with a mainstream imprint, Harper Collins Fiction, that she gained recognition. The Things I Should Have Told You was nominated for the Newcomer Award at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Books Awards last Autumn.

Carmel hasn’t stopped writing her own novels; and I enjoyed her latest with Harper Collins. The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is an emotional rollercoaster embracing loneliness, agoraphobia, and domestic abuse. And if that sounds gloomy, the element of unlikely friendship, and the inclusion of characters such as the cross-dressing hairdresser Charlie, lifts the mood no end.

The novel focuses on Stella Greene and her husband, Matt, who appear to be the perfect couple. But Rea, living next door, is well aware that things are not all that they seem. Her own life isn’t great either. Why has she become a grouch who never leaves her house?

“I started with the theme of fear; how it changes you and colours relationships. What makes us afraid? I lived in a semi-detached house once, in a bedsit in Clontarf, and in spite of the thick walls I’d hear noises from neighbours.

“I’d meet one guy in the lobby, and he seemed serious in his suit and bicycle clips. Then I’d hear him rocking out to loud music, and realise I’d read him wrong. Once a couple were arguing and I felt embarrassed, aware that I was a silent witness. It wasn’t a serious domestic, but that feeling stayed with me.”

Carmel recently signed another two-book deal with Harper-Collins, and has begun writing her next book. She’s excited about the future, and would like, one day, to write a children’s book and a few full-length plays.

“I’ve written a few short plays and one was performed at the Wexford Arts Centre.”

Meanwhile, she waits, a little nervously, to see what Cold Feet fans make of her story lines. If it’s successful, might there be more Cold Feet novels?

“They did mention a possibility. I hope readers and fans of the show will be satisfied with how my book ended. I’ll be happy, if that is it. But I left a number of loose threads and it would be lovely to get the chance to pick them up.”

The Woman at 72 Derry Lane. Harper Collins Publishers: € 14.74   Kindle: € 4.64.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 16th September.

© Sue Leonard. 2017

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