Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Lauren Mackenzie, whose debut novel The Couples is getting rave reviews. Lauren talks to us about her screenwriting background, the importance of writing masterclasses, and how she refills the creative well…
Did you always want to be a novelist?
As a young teenager, I wrote stories and kept a journal but dreamed of being a movie star.
When it came to college I was considering medicine or psychology but in an aptitude exam, my score on questions of logic and deduction was only average but in creative thinking I was in the top five percent.
Obviously the cohort was biased but nonetheless I took the note and undertook a BA in Communications instead, majoring in Film and Creative writing. I wrote stories, poetry and made short films.
Back then the idea of writing a novel was overwhelming.
Screenwriting could provide an income.
I read voraciously, often reading writers’ journals alongside their fiction – Sylvia Plath, Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald for example.
No doubt I made many inaccurate assumptions but it was a great way to see how real life sparks the imagination, and even more interesting to notice what the writer chose to change.
I have always been content with being a writer, rather than screenwriter or novelist. And, as it turns out, psychology is an essential element of my everyday writing and editing work.
You’re an experienced screenwriter, having written for a number of successful TV shows including Red Rock and The Clinic. How did this screenwriting background help when it came to writing a novel?
When I started to write fiction again, I attended masterclasses and courses [including Irish Writer Centre courses, The Stinging Fly workshops, and masterclasses held at a number of Irish literature festivals] and I was surprised at how much crossover there is.
The language of craft is almost identical in conventional story telling – protagonist, antagonist, goal, conflict, obstacle, scene, theme etc.
But I have to say after years of screenwriting, the freedom in fiction was exhilarating. No one is going to tell you that you can’t afford to send your character to Iceland or to a graduation ball and there’s also far fewer people giving you notes and demanding you consider the market as you write.
When it came to The Couples, I leaned on my screenwriting skills when I was losing my way, checking in with my characters’ wants and needs, ensuring that the story was always building.
The Couples has six main characters, and the story is told in a relay through the six POVs [points of views], with some skips back and forth in time.
I don’t believe I would’ve embarked on, let alone imagined, such a complicated structure, without my screenwriting experience. And even then, it wasn’t always easy.
You did an MA in Creative Writing in UCD, finishing in 2018. How did that experience help you as a fiction writer? Do you feel it propelled you along the path to publication?
I enrolled in the MA at a time of creative frustration. I was earning a good living as a screenwriter and story editor in television but my speculative feature film screenplays had been riding the development rollercoaster for years.
I was looking for a challenge and the MA delivered that, along with a precious dose of inspiration and validation.
I needed to read widely (many were writers I’d never heard of) and wrote thousands of words a week. It was a hugely productive time.
Work that originated in class — poetry, stories, and flash fiction — was published that year.
My first acceptance was a story that was shortlisted for Hennessey New Irish Writing.
And of course, the beginning of The Couples was written for my thesis.
Doing an MA is not the only way to get published by any means but for me, shifting the tired parameters of my creative life changed everything.
Did you experience much rejection before your debut novel The Couples (released last week) was acquired by publisher John Murray? If so, was there anything in particular that kept you motivated?
As a screenwriter, rejection and criticism is a near daily occurrence. It never gets easier, but the more I worked on the other side of screenwriting as a story producer, the more I saw how varied professional responses to a single piece of writing could be.
Objectivity is a bit of myth. It’s often true there can be a project or story already accepted that’s just like yours. And at other times you might have exactly what someone was looking for. There’s definitely a matter of luck and timing involved.
One day it could be you, but only if you keep knocking on the door.
You were a joint winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2021 and got the chance to pitch your novel to agents and publishers. This led to a choice of two agents. Can you tell us why you chose to go with Grainne Fox (a literary agent originally from Dublin who now lives in New York and works for United Talent Agents), and how Grainne has supported your writing career?
It’s a very personal [decision], choosing the right agent for you. You need to be on the same page in terms of the writing and the future career but also agree to the same type of relationship – hands on or off for example.
Grainne is a wonderful agent, so experienced, so astute and completely upfront. She edited the book with me before we sent it out on submission and she’s kept me fully informed along the way. It’s a working relationship that’s hugely important to me.
Would you advise aspiring authors to enter the IWC Novel Fair 2024?
YES! It changed my life. The encouragement and exposure that the IWC Novel Fair brings to you and your work is priceless. And I avoided most of the torture of querying agents and submitting.
How did you feel when you discovered The Couples had been pre-empted by John Murray? What did it mean to you?
Joyful. Jocasta Hamilton, my editor, came back to us with such enthusiasm it was irresistible. It was a win-win to not only be published, but to find the right champion for my work.
Champagne was drunk on more than one occasion. My boat was kept afloat for months.
The TV rights for The Couples have been sold to a production company in London, House Productions. Are you tempted to write the script yourself when it goes into production?
I’m well aware of what it takes to write a television series and how long; as tempting as it was, I’d rather write Book 2. I will be involved in the development of the series as I’m executive producing.
Do you have a set writing routine, or any rituals when you’re in need of inspiration?
I dream of being the kind of writer that gets up at five, goes for a run, does tai chi, drinks green tea and writes until lunchtime, then reads for the afternoon.
I have been going to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan for a week or two a year since my children were small. Working intensely, night and day, with coffee, suits me and I’m always able to get a huge amount done there but at home, while I’m at my desk most days and some evenings, I’m not always so productive. But that’s okay; I’m always thinking about work.
I’m currently working as story consultant on a new TV series and it’s invigorating to get out of the house every now and then to talk ‘what if’s’ with a hive of other creative minds.
And when things are not flowing for me, I leave my phone downstairs and block the internet with the Freedom App.
Finally, what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Just write. Remember that no one else reads your first draft but you. Don’t look back until you get to the end. Forgive the simplicity but mostly that’s all there is to it. Write. Write. And write again. Nothing is ever wasted.
And lastly, always feed the creative well.
Feeding the creative well for me is often independent of what I’m working on. I’m always reading or watching movies or TV for my work.
For me it’s live music, concerts; often my mind starts whirling with ideas as I’m listening.
Or heading out to the countryside, walking in forests or by the sea. Or any kind of art that makes you think about meaning.
And of course, listening to writers talk about their work and process is always inspiring. I thank lockdown for zoom. Access is so much easier now.
The Couples is available for purchase here