14 May 2021
The bestselling Irish novelist describes how took the plunge to writing a novel about wild sea swimming
Living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it seemed like a book about people wild sea swimming was just waiting to be written. Locally, there’s a great tradition of all year-round sea swimming – even though the water temperatures can drop to 7.2° C – hardly Caribbean by anyone’s standards!
Mostly, it seemed to me, the swimmers are women often of a certain age, although sometimes younger, always with a healthy appetite for fun, friendship and laughter – exactly the sort of woman I love to write about. These women have stories to tell. They are survivors and maybe it’s their general ability to get on with things that both propels them into the freezing Atlantic waters and sustains them through the bigger challenges of life. These are my kind of women; this should be my tribe… there’s only one small problem – I’m not a great swimmer.
In fact, when it comes to swimming in the local pool, I’m more of a width than a lengths girl! I like to know the floor of the pool is just beneath my feet and when I stand, my head is well above the level of the water. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent years going to the local swimming pool – watching my children progress from doggy paddle to cutting lengths energetically. One after the other, if I counted up the number of years, I’m sure, with four children it reaches into double figures. Sometimes I’ve wondered, if I invested the cost of this, would I eventually have enough to build a modest pool in the back garden – even a paddling pool might be nice on long lazy summer afternoons.
For years, I’ve stood on the pier at Enniscrone on New Year’s Day and watched while hardy men and women took the plunge. For the most part, there are no wetsuits, just a spirit of togetherness, fun and moving as fast as you can both in and out of the water.
But I did just stand on the side-lines and then one fine day, I sat down to write a novel which was very firmly situated in the water. I’m not sure I thought far enough beyond the characters and plot in relation to what would come next. I just loved the idea and I knew, the Ladies Midnight Swimming Club simply had to be written.
The problem is, I think, a fear of heights. The very notion of being out of my depth makes my finger nails sweat. I am the woman who halts before jumping into the baby pool – I will happily sit on the side, dangling my legs over the edge, dawdling, before cautiously stepping in.
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to be one of those girls who just jumps in, cuts through the water and emerges like some modern-day Honey Rider without the curves. Of course, that’s the dream… but the thing about dreams is, they are far more easily achievable when you sleep, or it turns out when your write your own!
I had memories of course, of long childhood days spent at the beach. My mother calling from the bank, you’ll catch death if you don’t come out soon. Apparently, I regularly turned a very fetching shade of blue on those days.
So, I sat in my comfy writing chair. Closed my eyes and immersed myself in the memories of childhood. It proved to be easier than you’d imagine – try it. For me, the first thing I notice is the taste of water that’s seeped into my mouth, up my nose, it’s salty and stingy. Strangely enough, when you’re a child the very last thing you notice is the cold. My agent had to remind me of the fact that when friends of hers go swimming in London lidos and English rivers, the one thing they absolutely must battle are the temperatures. The temperatures are what drives them from the water quickly. Perversely, it’s the cold, seeping into their bones, that makes them feel most alive.
A year ago, knowing that I’d have to talk about this when the book eventually hit the shelves, I went to a nearby beach with my eleven-year-old. We played in the water for over an hour.Obviously, I went no further than waist height. It was FREEZING, but it was so much fun, I fully intend to do it again this year. It turns out, I still go a rather interesting shade of cadet blue and even if I don’t have Honey’s curves, it absolutely suits me much better than you’d ever imagine!
The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan is published by Aria Fiction.
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