Today we’re delighted to be joined by Siobhan MacGowan, whose second novel The Graces was released in June to excellent reviews. Siobhan talks to us about overcoming rejection, learning her craft and the joy of seeing her book on display in bookshops for the first time
Did you always want to be a writer? If so, do you think your upbringing played a role?
Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. There were two things I dreamt about as a child: books and chocolate cake (things have not progressed).
There is a story I often tell (and it plays into one of your following questions) of when I was about eight: I had a vivid mental image of myself putting a book up on a shelf and it had my name on the spine. That image kept me going through many rejections.
My upbringing definitely helped me fulfil my dream as my parents were exceptionally supportive of anything their children wanted to do. They helped us believe we could be anything we wanted and supported us in any way they could.
Although unpublished, my dad was/is a satirical poet and playwright using the name of George Geneva (his suggested epitaph: Have a laugh on George Geneva, whose nom de plume was never needed, since all his works went quite unheeded).
My mother was a great lover of literature and they both shared their love of language with us. So they were a big influence on me.
Can you tell us how your children’s story Etain’s Dream came to be serialised in the Nenagh Guardian?
Etain’s Dream was my first attempt at writing a novel, many moons ago. It was a mythological story for children, but it was probably far too long!
I completed/revised/completed/revised it many times. During one of its many revisions I was inspired by the idea that Charles Dickens had serialised his stories in newspapers, so I suggested it to the editor of my local paper, The Nenagh Guardian and he very kindly agreed to publish.
So, although it was only a portion of the story that appeared, at least it was in some way in print!
Did you experience much rejection before getting your debut novel The Trial of Lotta Rae published? If so, was there anything in particular that helped you to stay motivated?
Oh my goodness, how long have you got? So, initially my children’s novel Etain’s Dream was submitted to publishers, with the aid of Dublin literary agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor (Marianne was not my agent but had very kindly agreed to help me. More on that below) but the novel did not get picked up.
After quite a long while I put it aside and, without an agent, began to write another novel called A Mortal Word. I approached, and was rejected by, many agents but eventually I was signed by one in London.
She submitted the novel to publishers but, again, the novel was not picked up. My agent was very kind about it and suggested I start another novel, which I did.
In fact, what I started to write then was the novel that eventually would become The Trial of Lotta Rae. However, I suffered a personal tragedy when my mother died suddenly. This completely shook my foundations and changed the nature of my writing.
As writing and stories have always been my refuge, I kept writing in the wake of her death and finished another novel but when I showed it to my agent she did not like it (in hindsight, she was right. Grief did not produce my best work) and eventually we parted ways.
It was then I returned to The Trial of Lotta Rae and I did so on faith, without an agent and without any guarantee of one, which is most writers’ lot.
After I had completed the book, once again I started approaching agents and this time, luckily, I received two offers: one from Sara (O’Keeffe) at Aevitas Creative Management in London, which I very happily accepted.
You asked if there was anything in particular that kept me going through years of rejection: yes. I wanted to be a writer so much, felt so compelled to write, that I believed, if I worked hard, eventually I would achieve my aim.
As I told you, my parents gave me great faith in my dreams and that helped.
And that childhood image of placing a book on the shelf with my name on the spine stayed with me.
I would tell myself there must be a reason I’d envisioned something so vividly so young. That it must mean I would somehow get there. That all kept me going.
I’ve read that you once started writing a mythological story, working with the legendary literary agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor on learning the craft. Could you tell us a little about that experience?
Yes, Marianne was very kindly helping me when I started out with my story Etain’s Dream. She saw something in the story and, over time, tried to help me hone my craft.
I’ve often said that you can have natural talent or flair as a writer but you have to learn the craft of writing a novel. Like a musician might have a flair or talent for music but they have to learn how to play their chosen instrument.
So, through many different drafts and versions of my first novel, and others following, I learned my craft.
Marianne was the first to help me on that journey and I am very grateful.
– Find out more about Marianne Gunn O’Connor here
You’re now represented by the Irish literary agent Sara O’Keeffe. How has Sara helped you with your writing career?
Sara has helped in so many ways. Firstly she signed me!
Then she very carefully studied my original manuscript and sent me hugely detailed editorial notes which, as I implemented them, made the manuscript so much stronger and taught me more lessons about the craft. I think you keep learning on every draft, every novel.
Then, after a couple of months of revision, she submitted the manuscript to publishers and, of course, got me my first publishing deal!
Throughout the publishing process she has been there to advise, counsel and step in if she spies a potential pitfall.
She keeps a very steady eye on all matters to do with the production of the book, cover design, copy, marketing/sales plans etc. and is there to help everything move along as smoothly as possible.
And, of course, she is the voice of encouragement if needed and, I suspect, constantly working behind the scenes on her master plan!
– Find out more about Sara O’Keeffe here
Your two novels, The Trial of Lotta Rae and your new book The Graces, are published by Welbeck Publishing. How did the deal with Welbeck come about? How did you feel when you realised you were going to be a published author? Can you remember if you did anything in particular to celebrate?
I knew some of the publishing houses that Sara was approaching, but not all, so when I heard there was a possibility of an offer I didn’t know which house was interested and, for some reason, I didn’t ask. I probably didn’t want to jinx it.
I knew that the editor at the mystery publisher really loved the book but, as you probably know, the editor has to take it to editorial meetings and sell the book to a board of sales and marketing teams, and those teams have to be as enthused by the book as the editor, so the process is very nerve-wracking.
The final meeting was on a Friday, so I was on tenterhooks that day but happened to be at a routine hospital appointment all day with my elderly father and didn’t receive Sara’s email to call her until quite late at night. I emailed her quickly and she said I could call, better than waiting all weekend!
So I did and she told me that we had an offer and that it had come from Welbeck. I can’t tell you how wonderful that felt. After all those years of rejection and trying.
The fact of finally being a published author felt in a way like coming home. That I had reached the place I had always wanted to be and where I felt I belonged. I remain very grateful for it.
As I say, it was late at night, so I didn’t do anything that night to celebrate, just some whoops and leaps with my husband and cat in the kitchen!
But, of course, over the next days, as I told friends and family there were many celebratory get-togethers. They all seemed as happy as I was!
What kind of discipline does it take to fit writing into your daily life? Do you have any rituals that help to inspire your writing?
I’m lucky in the way that I can write full-time. It took me many years to gain the discipline needed to produce novels, but once I gained that discipline (probably somewhere in my 30s) I didn’t lose it.
I sit down at my desk every morning and work on the book for about 4 hours. That could be writing, it could be research, it could be a polishing of something I had written the day before.
But the important thing is, as one writer put it, I show up. You have to show up. I don’t wait for the muse to strike.
The muse mostly strikes at the most inopportune moments (i.e. when putting head on pillow to sleep and I have to sit up, switch on the lamp, and write a note) and also, very often, when I am out walking. So I keep the words or ideas in my mind and write them down when I get home.
Someone recently asked me why I don’t just dictate them into my phone – I’d never thought of it. An excellent idea and one I will probably employ.
So I don’t have specific rituals, only in the sense that I need peace.
I need to be able to stare out the window at nature (which, fortunately I can) and I need to be alone. With those ingredients the words will come.
What has been the highlight of your writing career?
There have been many great first moments to celebrate: seeing my printed book for the first time, then seeing them in thousands at the printers.
But I think the absolute highlight was seeing my book on display in the bookshops for the first time. That was the greatest feeling.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve been given is advice that I think applies to much of life:
If something is causing you a problem (in the text, story etc) then leave it, go for a walk, switch off and do something else. Don’t force it. Let it be and the answer will come.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to crack the world of publishing, but who might be getting disheartened?
I really can’t stress enough how important it is not to give up.
If you truly believe you have been born to write, if you feel utterly compelled and driven, then you must carry on no matter what rejections you receive.
I received so many I can’t count, and every other writer I know has the same story to tell.
So believe in yourself. Believe in your dream. And write on.