Today we’re delighted to be joined by debut novelist Aoife Fitzpatrick who explains how entering fiction competitions, and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, propelled her towards her first book deal
Thank you so much for joining us, Aoife. Congratulations on the publication of your beautiful debut novel The Red Bird Sing (Virago). What led you to write it?
Thank you! The novel is based on the true story of a murder trial that took place in West Virginia in 1897. When Trout Shue went on trial for the murder of his wife, Zona Heaster Shue, there was a remarkable circumstance surrounding his indictment.
The victim’s mother, Mary Jane, claimed to have been visited by her daughter’s ghost who told her that it was her husband who had killed her.
On the surface, there is no doubt that the gothic tone of this real-life trial – and certain strange events following Zona’s death – are fascinating.
But it was Mary Jane who really drew me to the story – how haunted she was in her pursuit of justice. Her story poses a question still relevant today: what lengths must women go to before they will be heard?
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, in that it’s always been part of my make up to process the world through words. Being a published writer gives me the gift of readers, which feels like a beautiful privilege.
Almost every other artform – from dance, to visual arts, to music – allows an amateur to have immediate connection with an audience. But amateur writers have fewer opportunities to connect with readers, especially through longform work.
Feelings of isolation can be persistent, meaning that it can be good to write some shorter pieces – stories, or poems – that might be easier to perform, or to have published. Seeing a handful of my short stories in journals and anthologies was enough to keep me going through the marathon that was writing a novel.
Had you written any other novels before The Red Bird Sings?
There is another novel, with Faustian themes, in my drawer. Without it, I would never have progressed to writing The Red Bird Sings. But it’s a wild, rangy practice piece that will never see the light of day.
You completed the MFA in Creative Writing in UCD; did that help you on the path to publication?
A place on the MFA is offered based on a substantial work-in-progress; in my case, The Red Bird Sings. I had a full academic year to work in earnest on the novel, and to take chances in a supportive environment.
By the end, my compass was set, and I had about one-third of a draft under my belt. It was mind- and practice-expanding, spending time with brilliant writers like Gavin Corbett, Anne Enright, Sinéad Gleeson, Katy Hayes and Paula McGrath.
Exposure to others’ ideas, philosophies, skills and processes highlights those areas where your own might need development. When it comes to writing, there is always more to know. If I could, I’d do an MFA for every future novel. I still miss workshops with my talented peers.
Can you tell us a little bit about the role that writing competitions have played in your journey to becoming a published author? In particular, winning the Lucy Cavendish First Novel prize in 2020 must have been a huge boost to your confidence and writing career?
My first confidence boost was being short-listed for the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize with my very first short story in 2013.
The following year, I was a finalist for the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Prize.
And the year after that, I won the inaugural Books Ireland short-story prize.
It didn’t make me feel that my work was good enough, but I could no longer argue that it was hopeless, which was enough encouragement to pursue an MFA.
After reading about previous winners and short-listees of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, I didn’t think I had the slightest chance. But Nelle Andrew – my dream literary agent – was listed as a judge, and I figured I had nothing to lose.
Winning gave me faith in the book, and determination to make the finished novel worthy of the award. It also connected me with a network of brilliant, supportive writers associated with the prize, along with the ongoing support of the people at Lucy Cavendish College. The best part of winning, I think, has been these relationships.
Did you get many rejections from agents before signing with Nelle Andrew (who was Literary Agent of the Year 2021!) of RML Agency, who I believe contacted you after you won the Lucy Cavendish prize?
My story doesn’t include multiple rounds of submissions and rejections. Before signing with Nelle Andrew, I’d approached only two other agents; both of them through friends, and about ten years apart.
One was a near miss, the other a curt one-line rejection. I can see, now, that I wasn’t ready – practically or emotionally – to submit my work until after my MFA.
Nelle encountered The Red Bird Sings while reading the submissions for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and when we first spoke, she understood the book so well, it was uncanny. I was lucky to be signed on a partial manuscript, meaning that I benefitted from Nelle’s support and insight for over a year before the book was submitted to publishers.
How did your two-book deal with Virago come about, and how did you feel when you realised you were going to become a published author? Did you do anything in particular to celebrate?
Once the book was ready to go on submission, a book deal with Virago came about very quickly. Theirs was my preferred offer, and it would be impossible to explain how much it meant to me.
I have adored the imprint since I first read Angela Carter in my teens, and still struggle to believe that they acquired my book. They say never meet your heroes, but working with the people at Virago has been everything I could have hoped for, and more.
In terms of celebration, I took a few days off to catch up on all the sleep I lost during the two weeks on submission! I found the process very intense.
Was the advance enough to change your lifestyle?
Money and writing; an important topic for all aspiring authors. Even a small advance might occasion a change in a writer’s lifestyle – but will it be for better or worse?
If you can sustain a full-time job, (along with your sanity), while you write books, there is a chance that your advance will boost some aspect of your lifestyle, alongside a huge reduction in free time.
On the other hand, if you write full time – perhaps to meet deadlines for further contracted books – financial changes will almost always be for the worse when compared with average take home pay.
This includes book deals that might be considered ‘big’, given the nature of staged payments, commissions and taxation. For the majority of authors, finding the right balance is very difficult.
What would you say has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
I was very, very happy to be signed by my agent, Nelle Andrew, and by my publisher, Virago Press.
Your relationship with your agent is hugely important, and I feel so lucky to have someone who believes in my work and champions it with such integrity.
Likewise, it means everything to be published by Virago Press, with the values they represent and the incredible writing they publish.
It’s been brilliantly surreal to see the book in shops, and to have had some really terrific reviews.
I’ve also received private messages from several readers, expressing their appreciation of the novel’s depictions of coercive control.
The subject is still taboo – a kind of cultural secret within our society – and is very difficult for victims to talk about openly. If the novel can let even the smallest amount of light and oxygen into this dark arena, I’ll be very glad.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors? Are there any writing books that you would recommend?
There really is no one-size-fits-all; your path to writing the best book/story/poem you can will be as individual as your mind. There are lots of great books about writing, but my preference is for reading interviews with authors.
They give so much insight into process, motivation, and technique. I love finding comforting commonalities, thought-provoking differences, and new ways to think about problems.
We can often feel stuck, or stagnant. If you’re losing momentum, think about joining a writing group, either in person or online. If you can’t find one that suits, perhaps set one up. An alternative is to take a writing course that has been well reviewed, or that has been recommended by other writers you trust. Do anything but fester alone.
If you’re seeking publication, you don’t have to become an expert in marketing or sales, but spend a little time learning to communicate about your work very simply and clearly.
Literary agents, in particular, might be reading hundreds of pitches per month. A good submission letter is a wonderful opportunity to cut through the noise and give your work the best chance. It’s time well spent.
Once you’re published, this skill will stand to you through every book launch, reading, interview and promotional piece. And perhaps the occasional Q&A …
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