This is the dedication at the start of A Good Hiding. The words are nicked from what are reportedly Heaney’s last, written in a text message to his wife. I knew when I was writing the dedication that some people might think I was being a pretentious knob. Then again, I think that about everything, so these days I just tend to go with whatever seems right. Here’s why it seemed right.
A Good Hiding is, I hope, a book about courage. The entire time I was writing it I had a phrase from one of Heaney’s poems stuck in my head like a mantra: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. It’s a phrase I heard a lot as a kid growing up during the Troubles. It was just common sense at the time. But it is a sentiment which has had a lasting impact on Northern Ireland’s collective psyche, and I had it in mind as I wrote Nollaig, Stephen and Brian: whatever you say, say nothing. Here’s the Heaney poem.
I was on the way home from a writing retreat in the North of England, having just completed A Good Hiding, when I heard the news of Heaney’s death over the radio. Just days before, as I left the country, I had found out that I was pregnant. Much of the writing retreat had been spent feeling very ill and not being able to tell my friends why, and worrying about all the millions of things which could go wrong (as well as what life might be like if everything went right). Noli timere: do not be afraid. The biblical words spoken by the angel to Mary when she is told of her pregnancy- the same angel which also appears to Nollaig as she contemplates her pregnancy in A Good Hiding. This is what writing a novel is like to me- following a collection of things which won’t leave you alone to find out where they go and how they’re all connected, because they always are. I’ve always admired the ones who aren’t afraid, or who are afraid and do it anyway. The best I can do is to write about people like that in the hope that one day it’ll rub off on me.