It took a long time to write my first novel… because I had to fit it in around the job I had, which was Middle East correspondent. I was always on the call. I would go on the road for weeks at a time. And even when you’re at home, you’re not always in the mood to do side projects. You’re producing an awful lot of words for your newspaper. It takes up the same kind of mental energy, so it was hard.
I knew nobody at all in publishing… My journalist background was entirely in news. There was no crossover. I think arts journalists tend to do pretty well launching themselves as writers because they know who to talk to.
I sent the book off to around a dozen publishers… and a dozen agents. I got 14 rejections and the rest didn’t bother answering, which as far I know is absolutely standard. At that point, I had the same anxieties as anybody else. I sat back for a while, then decided to start making another round of submissions.
It’s really, really hard to get people to read your stuff… It’s like fishing for very, very finicky trout. You can’t disturb the waters. You just have to make it very tempting.
Around then I had a lucky break… I happened to see in a newspaper that someone I used to work with had got a job with a publishers. I now knew one person in publishing – the former journalist Patricia Deevy in Penguin Ireland. I emailed Patricia. Her remit wasn’t literary fiction, so she said to send it to her colleague Brendan Barrington. He read it and liked it but he had some caveats.
Brendan likes editing, in the old-fashioned sense, which is great… He thought we should re-work some of it a bit and thrash it out before he’d commit to a book deal. He didn’t say ‘I want to change this, that and the other’. He looked through it and thought it was too long. As is always the case with first books, you have to take out parts that you really like. We fought like cats and dogs over them, then met halfway.
We did a one-book deal… If I’d had an agent I might have got a better deal, perhaps a two-book deal, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. The important thing was to get published. I was delighted. It was great. It meant I was going to fulfil the ambition and shift the 110,000 words that I’d been working on for the past seven years.
If you can get a publisher interested… don’t hang around looking for an agent, not for your first book. If it’s a massive million-selling best-seller, you’re going to make the same amount from it anyway as if you had got a big advance.
The book deal didn’t pay for me to become an independent writer… It wasn’t anything that big. There was the advance, and there were earnings beyond that, and the American rights. It made some money, not a living wage.
It made sense for me to do a lot of the childcare, and write books… My wife and I had moved back to Ireland when we had one very young child and another about to be born. Pretty soon thereafter my wife started working full-time. I’ve more time now that both children have started primary school.
For now, I’m a full-time writer… and I hope always to be a full-time writer with burners on the side.
Writing is a bit like the Klondike gold rush… Very few people made any money off it, but many people had the time of their lives even though they never even got there. That’s kind of what writing is like – it’s the dream and the journey that’s important.