When Eilis Hanrahan, a bank clerk in the Midlands discovers that her husband is to be jailed for a serious sexual assault, leaving herself and their two children to fend for themselves, her world seems on the verge of collapse.
Friends, neighbours, and school pals abandon them as details emerge. However, when she decides to use a DNA ancestry kit, an undelivered birthday gift for her recently-jailed husband, her world opens up.
She makes contact with a Swiss office cleaner who also has a traumatic backstory, but a mysterious past that leads them to conspire to a common goal of a better life.
So goes Under The Butterfly Shed, the cracking new novel from Advertiser Group Editor and writer Declan Varley.
Varley has been writing novels for decades, including the iconic Kittyland which detailed life in college in Galway in the 1980s; and Under The Butterfly Shed is his seventh.
“I wrote the story two years ago before the lockdown, but in the past year, I flipped around the order of it and I think it works better. The two women who are the heartbeat of the story have been driven by their past to create a different future, so they form an unlikely alliance. I was always fascinated by the story of Anastasia Romanov and there are undertones of that in Under The Butterfly Shed.
“It is a bit of a caper with serious undertones, studying the unknown impact that certain traumas have on families, in particular innocent families of criminals who have been unwittingly caught up in a maelstrom of events through no making of their own. There is also a sense of quest for normality and often how difficult it is to see how underrated normality is,” Varley stated.
Of course, to write an informed story about DNA genealogy sites, he had to join one.
“In the process, I discovered about 30 new cousins from all over the world. Every few weeks, a new one pops up. They’ll probably all arrive at my door one day having me traipsing around graveyards.
Varley was recently awarded a first class honours MA in Writing, under the tutelage of author Mike McCormack at NUI Galway.
“I’d have been spending ten hours a week of wasted time sitting in traffic in and out of Galway anyway, and in that time, I reckoned I could do a Masters, so I used the time for that. Life is short, so I like to maximise every moment. I’ll be long enough lying down.
“People have asked me what would I be doing a writing course for, given that I have been scribbling for decades, but I believe the secret of lifelong learning is acknowledging that you don’t know what you don’t know, that every day’s a school day. I love the daily challenge of finding out stuff that I never knew,” Varley enthused.
Varley has also published several collections of poetry and fiction under non de plumes, and admitted it was nice to get back to putting his name on new material.
“Writing like this relaxes me in a way that newswriting doesn’t. But when you are doing both as a career and a hobby, it can be difficult to prioritise one over the other in terms of time as they spill over into each other. There is really no set fixed time for writing either.
“I think a lot of writers refuse to give themselves permission to prioritise writing over the realities of life, so they shy away from giving it the time it needs. The MA taught me the patience to find that permission and hopefully, I will find the space to make use of it,” Varley continued.
“I truly enjoyed the course, as it got me back into the habit of writing short stories as well. He is currently working on a collection of contemporary short stories entitled When I Caught Up To You, You Were Gone that he will complete and present to his agent Paul Feldstein by winter.
“Novels are fun, but they are a constant draw, whereas the immediacy of a short story is attractive to me and the way I organise my writing life. An idea for a short story can be fluffed out into something decent with a couple of sittings if you’re lucky.
“On the MA, I loved working with Mike McCormack and poet Liz Quirke and benefitting from other writers such as Donal Ryan, Sinead Gleeson, Lisa McInerney and so on. I also had tremendous classmates, and because we were all off-campus for the entirety of the course, we formed a unique bond and are all now part of the Static Caravan writing group which also has an anthology out later this year.
“I don’t sit down and write for a set number of hours in a set place. Because material for the newspaper is ever-flowing, there is never a downtime like there was say, 30 years ago in media when stories could wait.
“Now, with social media, breaking news stories have to fly almost instantaneously or they are of little use, so this calls for a more contemplative or reflective form of journalism.
“When I sit down to write, I might end up doing a few stories for the paper or online and then a few hundred words of fiction. It is hard to separate time for one or the other, as life gets in the way, just as it should.
“All my writing and journalism career has been snatching moments in cafes, lunch breaks and hoping that the accumulation of everything produces something worthwhile. In this case, I think it has. Under The Butterfly Shed is a good yarn and deserves to be read,” Varley added.
Varley wrote his first novel Footprints In The Water in 1989 and then he brought out the coming of age college classic Kittyland in 1991; Sure It Could Happen in 1992; The Elephants’ Graveyard in 1993; and Nightmusic in 1999, but there was an 18-year gap before The Confession of Peadar Gibbons in 2018.
“The Confession of Peadar Gibbons was conceived at a time when I had recommenced fiction writing with the handbrake off. That book was also recorded for a stunning Audible version using Irish actors Diarmuid de Faoite and Liz Quinn.
In between there were several plays and writing projects involving non de plumes.
“Writing fiction and poetry for me are moments of fun, so you can be one person one minute, and someone else the next. I’m not into launches or networking situations where people are forced to buy or read your work. Monitoring the reaction can be interesting, but for me, it’s all about the words and creating something new from nothing.
“I love the absolute joy there is of finishing one project, and then within a short while, of commencing something new. Standing still is never an option,” he said.
The short stories he has penned so far for the new collection are, like Under The Butterfly Shed, raw and contemporary. They feature unusual characters, like a man who, released from prison for a crime which embarrassed his family, returns to his rural village for an annual beating in return for being allowed the visit; a retired teacher who becomes an unwitting dominatrix; a man with dementia who unwittingly stole a piece of the Moon as a teenager; and a local town character who never forgot his brief romance with a friend who went on to become a national weatherman, in the title story When I Caught Up With You, You Were Gone.
“I love creating unusual characters, you take a piece of one person and a piece of another and mould them into one. Often, a big idea for a short story will become just the smallest detail in it. I love it and long may I continue loving it,” he said, as he returned to his laptop to finish a story with the strange title The Undeniable Scent of Petrol about a couple dealing with loss.
Definitely, no standing still for this busy wordsmith.
Under the Butterfly Shed is available in-store and online at Kennys’ Bookshop and Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, and available online as a paperback or Kindle edition.