Like an actor who is so successful in a role that audiences always identify him/her as that character, Patricia Falvey is typecast as a novelist. The two books she’s published, the third that’s on the way, and the fourth that’s in the works are all historic Irish romance stories with strong female leads.
Should Falvey ever branch out, she has plenty of material for a compelling book about another strong Irish woman, albeit a modern one driven more by passions than romance. Let’s call it, The Life and Times of Patricia Falvey.
Falvey’s own amazing story starts in Ireland, unexpectedly zigs to England, and then zags to the United States. A charming tale lands her in Boston at Suffolk University and a lover’s advice leads her to become …an accountant. After a prominent rise, a chance encounter prompts her to embark on her greatest adventure of all: becoming a full-time novelist.
Here’s a rough draft of that would-be book.
Falvey spent her first eight years in the picturesque, small town of Newry, County Down, in Northern Ireland, living with her older sister under her maternal grandmother’s care.
“Then my mother came and stole me,” Falvey says. “She insisted she was taking me to the west of Ireland to visit my aunt, which we always did when my parents would visit. I was savvy enough to know we were headed the wrong way on the train. We were headed to Belfast. And the next thing, we’re on a plane. And the next thing, I found myself in England.”
An airplane routinely flew over her new house and each day she would point up and say, “I'm going home on that plane tomorrow.” Meanwhile, in Ireland, her sister would look over a wall behind their childhood home and say, “My sister’s coming home on that train.”
Falvey’s fondest memory of her years in England is of going to the library on Saturdays with her father to check out books by Irish writers. Falvey began to write, winning “little competitions,” and began hatching her first juicy plot: escaping. “I just needed to get away,” she says.
Coming to America
She arrived in New York at age 20 with $200. She couldn’t get a work visa and was warned the same challenge would face her in other big cities. “I looked at a map and saw that Omaha, Nebraska was in the middle,” she says. “I thought I could get a car and on weekends go to the coast. I was so clueless.”
She signed up with Job Corps—then an upstart federal program helping disadvantaged youths find work—and took college classes at night. A classmate recommended that if she was serious about education, Falvey should go to Boston. “I wrote to every school in Boston that I could find, from community colleges all the way to Harvard,” Falvey says. “I just stated, ‘I'd like to come to your school, please, but I don't have any money.’ Suffolk was the only one that answered. They offered me a foreign scholarship.”
She enrolled as an English major and loved it—only to be talked out of it.
Although this was the Flower Power, Free Love era, she’d fallen in love with a practical man who warned her that English majors don’t get jobs. Learning that she’d dabbled in accounting classes in England, he encouraged her to pursue that. He became her husband…then, ex-husband.
Falvey worked for Travelers Insurance in Hartford, Connecticut, for 14 years, before joining KPMG and then PricewaterhouseCoopers where she rose to the role of managing director. “I loved the notion of the debits and credits having to balance to zero,” she says. “If you could get that to work, it was like all was right with the world. But there was always a little voice inside saying, `C’mon, Patricia.’ Writing was a calling, I guess, that just was always there.” She joined a writing group in Hartford. In the 1980s, she became a regular at the International Women’s Writing Guild Conference at Skidmore College.
Still, as the years passed, the likelihood of a career change faded. “I knew the odds, because I'm an accountant!” she says, laughing. “That’s why the way it happened was truly a miracle.”
Answering the Muse
She was in New York for work and was supposed to meet a friend for dinner. He canceled, so she went to her hotel’s bar. Falvey sat at a table for two and a woman asked to join her. They hit it off so well that the woman invited Falvey to join her and her friends on a trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica. ‘What the heck?’ Falvey thought.
Of the 12 women in the group, two turned out to be literary agents. On the last night of the trip, Falvey worked her annual trip to Skidmore into the conversation. “Oh, does that mean you’re interested in writing?” asked Denise Marcil, one of the agents. Their friendship blossomed and over dinner months later, Marcil asked Falvey what she wanted to write. “I'd had a couple of glasses of wine and this book—The Yellow House, the story of my grandmother— just came pouring out,” Falvey says. “I didn't even know it was in my head. I’d never made any notes about it or anything.”
Marcil gave Falvey four months to turn in 50 pages. She met the deadline and received the following note: “Where’s the rest of it?”
In Search of an Author
Despite the lure of this new life, Falvey stayed true to her accounting career—so true that the characters in her books felt jealous.
“I would dream that my characters were stomping around the stage like five actors in search of an playwright,” she says. “They would come to me and ask, `What do we do next?’ So that was my come-to-Jesus moment. I finally decided I couldn’t keep doing both.”
Falvey left PricewaterhouseCoopers in September 2008 and finished her manuscript in December. By March 2009, Hachette Book Group offered her a two-book deal and a “pretty nice advance.” The Yellow House came out in 2010, and The Linen Queen followed in 2011. Her next book, The Girls of Ennismore, is due out on March 28, 2017.
The Yellow House remains her favorite because of its connection to her grandmother. It’s worth noting that Falvey never saw her grandmother again after being taken from her. Falvey dedicated the book to her grandmother and invested some of her royalties in her memory. “I went to find where she was buried and nobody was really totally sure,” she says. “I finally found a little marker, so I got a new gravestone set up and made it nice.”
About a year ago, a friend told Falvey that her alma mater might be interested in knowing about her success. Falvey was too humble to call, so he did. He reached Caitlin Haughey, MEd ’96, Suffolk’s managing director of alumni engagement and a fan of Irish literature, who had enjoyed Falvey’s first two books. Haughey invited Falvey to participate in the Women in Leadership Alumnae Network’s spring event. The theme was perfect: inspirational stories of second chances.
It was Falvey’s first visit to campus in four decades. She was amazed by the University’s growth and awed by the welcome she received. “It felt like a homecoming,” she says. “I've been thinking about moving from Dallas anyway and Boston is a possibility. I feel like I could come back here in a second and be part of something.”
Haughey also set up an opportunity for Falvey to speak to students in Associate Professor Richard Miller’s creative writing class, sparking memories of the path she’d left behind. Like discovering her grandmother’s grave, it struck her as a circle being completed and reminded her of a popular narrative concept in storytelling. “It’s like the hero’s journey,” she says. “There’s the starting out and the coming back.”
So, if this is the end of the would-be book about Patricia Falvey, what message does the protagonist want readers to take from it?
“Follow your heart,” she says. “I try not to regret having let myself be talked out of being an English major. Even though it was not the most practical of choices, I spent my whole career coming back to it. I often wonder what would have happened had I just gone with it.
“My advice to any young person is to pursue your first dream, the thing that really excites you. And to the people that never did it—those who say, `I'm too old, I've let the chance go by’—I say it is never, ever too late. You can do it. You can have a third act or you can have a first act. Just act.”
Falvey pauses, replays those last few lines in her head, smiles, and laughs.
“Yes!” she says. “That’s rather pithy!”