Former RTÉ journalist Kathleen MacMahon found herself in the limelight in 2011 when she landed a €684,000 advance as part of a two-book deal with Little, Brown. Here she talks about coping with the attention, quitting the day job, and overcoming ‘difficult second novel syndrome’.
I had been secretly writing a novel for years, before I finally forced myself to send it to someone I knew who worked in the book business. I assumed that the poor guy would sit me down and find a kind way of telling me that I was wasting my time, but he came straight back and told me he was sending it to Marianne. She had a few people look at it before reading it herself, and then she signed me up.
What happened with your (unpublished) first novel, and why did Marianne make the decision to withdraw it from the 2009 London Book Fair? Would you consider trying to get it published now?
That first novel was a near miss, in that a publisher was very interested in buying it, but some logistical problems intervened and Marianne made the decision to withdraw it. It was the best thing that could have happened, because whatever about the merits of that particular book, I wasn’t ready to be out there as a writer. I was hugely relieved when it didn’t happen and I got the opportunity to go back and marshal my resources in preparation for the next time. It acted as a really valuable dress rehearsal and allowed me to prepare myself for the real thing. I wouldn’t ever want to have it published. It’s firmly relegated to the past.
Did you always believe you would become a published author, even if it wasn’t with your first novel?
I always knew I would write, but I had a great fear of being published. In some ways I still do. I love the process of writing but I find the public aspect of it difficult to reconcile myself with. For me it wasn’t a case of yearning for a book deal, but rather a case of bracing myself to cope with it when it did happen. Once Marianne had signed me up, I knew that I would be published sooner or later, because she doesn’t mess around!
This is How it Ends took about eighteen months to write, and at the time I was working part-time as a reporter on the television foreign desk in RTE. My twins were in junior school, so they were out of the house in the mornings. On my days off work I would seize every moment and write from the instant they went out the door until they burst back in. The writing time was a luxury rather than a chore.
Can you recount what happened at the 2011 London Book Fair? How did you feel when you heard the news of your book deal, and how did you celebrate?
I had found the experience of the ‘near miss’ with my first book so stressful that I was determined not to go through that again. I asked Marianne to tell me nothing unless there was white smoke in relation to This Is How It Ends, and she respected that to the letter. The first I heard of it was when she rang to tell me that the book had been sold. I spent the evening drinking wine at my kitchen table with a small team of friends and family while we all tried to get our heads around it. My brother kept saying, ‘are you sure this isn’t a gag?’ I can honestly say there was not a moment of begrudgery when the news was announced. I had people beeping at me on the street and crossing the road to shake my hand. It was the depth of the recession and I think people were thrilled to hear of a good thing happening to anyone.
How has the book deal changed your life?
On a professional level, everything has changed. Whereas before I was working on news reports that had a turnaround time of three or four hours, now I’m working on projects which can take years to complete, which is a huge change. And of course I’m working in isolation at home, whereas before I was working in a busy newsroom. It’s like going from being a crew member on an aircraft carrier to sailing solo around the world. But in the context of the family, I try to keep it in perspective. This new job gives me more freedom, and more time with the kids. Over and above that, it’s just work.
You left RTÉ to concentrate on writing. Do you ever miss the buzz of the newsroom, or the companionship of colleagues?
Absolutely. There’s no place more fun to work than a newsroom and I’ve tried to capture a bit of that in my new book, The Long, Hot Summer. I loved the sense of shared interests and the black humour that you have amongst journalists, and I miss all of that enormously, without regretting the choices I’ve made. My book deal presented me with a fork in the road and there was never really any doubt in my mind as to which direction I had to take.
The mistake I made was to start writing the second book too soon. There was great pressure from all sides to produce it quickly (not least from myself) but by starting it prematurely I got myself into an awful mess. To cut a very long and painful story short, I ended up abandoning that book and starting from scratch with another one. What I discovered is that I need to do a lot of the writing in my head before ever it goes down on paper. So it’s true what they say, that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. By the time I sat down to write The Long, Hot Summer, I had it well thought out.
Kathleen MacMahon’s second novel The Long, Hot Summer was published in May 2015.