Today we’re delighted to be joined by Irish Times contributor and author Miriam Mulcahy who explains how she landed a book deal with a big publisher before getting an agent
Did you always want to be an author?
I remember a lightbulb moment at around ten years old, realising the book in my hands was written by someone making a living from it and that was what I wanted to do. But I took the long way around.
Did you experience much rejection before getting your first book deal? If so, was there anything in particular that helped you to stay motivated?
I was told so many times my writing was beautiful but not commercial. Rejection hit me hard and stopped me submitting, sometimes for years, though I was constantly writing.
Over the last ten years I came close to being taken on by agents but missed out.
What kept me motivated was the need to get published, to show my kids nothing was impossible and hard work was everything.
My mother always believed in me and knew I would do it – I have a card affixed to my wall above my desk from her, with the words ‘write that bestseller, it will happen.’
Writing this book took a decade, and in a way, it’s lovely my first published book is about my family.
Did you take any steps to keep improving your writing (for example, reading books on the craft of writing, taking courses or workshops, revising your manuscripts based of feedback from a mentor)?
My degree is in politics and French, not English, so I read incredibly widely to make up for that.
I couldn’t afford creative writing courses, so I bought books on writing and read author biographies and learned from how their lives fed their work.
Listening to authors speak at writing festivals was invaluable, about their process.
The book that had the greatest influence was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread it every year – she compares writing to carpentry, a rewrite is like demolishing a wonky house and rebuilding it, excruciating but necessary.
I read poetry, John Donne, TS Eliot, John Ashbury and I think that has helped me, I write some too, but mostly for myself, to process things.
I reread a lot, I have books I’ve read multiple times.
Up until Covid I ran a writing group and that was brilliant for feedback on work in progress.
Your deal with Eriu – a new Dublin-based Bonnier imprint headed up by Deirdre Nolan – came about through Twitter. Can you tell us a little more about this?
More to do with an article in The Irish Times. During Covid I wrote a piece about my sister and what we had gone through – I saw it as a blurb for the book, and hoped in getting it out there, a publisher would see it.
A year after it came out Deirdre Nolan read it, her father had just died and it resonated with her.
But I was working on another Irish Times article, about women of the sea, and I came into contact with Gill Hess, who were scouting for writers, and they connected me to Deirdre, who asked me what I had.
I sent her four books. To my surprise, she liked the one on grief the best [now published as This is My Sea].
How did you feel when you realised you were finally going to be a published author? Can you remember if you did anything in particular to celebrate?
It was the craziest week, last February I got a message from Deirdre asking if she could call. It was Valentine’s day.
Next day she rang and said she wanted to publish the book, but had to take it to an acquisitions meeting in London with Bonnier and my book would be up against others, so not to be too hopeful, and marketing would have to assess it, finance would have to crunch the numbers… she would know in about a week.
So it was a huge shock to get a call from her at six the next day to say we had a deal, everyone loved it, I was stunned.
After the call I threw my phone in the air, hugged my kids very hard and texted all my family and friends with ‘I got a book deal!’ in shouty caps. And then had to continue cooking dinner!
The next day I got my agent, Ivan Mulcahy.
That Saturday I had a lunch planned with my college friends and that was a lovely day, as they have been listening to me banging on about books for a long time.
What has it been like working with Deirdre Nolan?
Fantastic, right from when we started talking a year ago. Deirdre could see the potential but like many publishers, didn’t have the time to get it into shape – I had to do that.
I did two huge rewrites last year, and she refused the first. I pulled the book apart for the second rewrite (of last year, mind, I’d say this book has gone through about six or seven drafts!), cut a lot of stuff out, rewrote all 60,000 words last December with lots of new ideas, and sent it to her in January.
Since the deal went through it’s been brilliant, we get on very well, I listen closely to what she says and mostly do what I’m told. I agree with 85% of her decisions, leaving room to argue for things that really matter to me – it works.
You’re represented by the London-based Irish literary agent Ivan Mulcahy (no relation!) of MMB Creative. How did this come about and how has Ivan helped your writing career?
I had won a place with the Date with an Agent competition to meet Ivan in 2018.
He didn’t like what I had submitted, a YA novel, but told me to keep in touch and to send him anything in the future.
About a year later, I started a protracted process with another agent and a mythical MG [Middle Grade] book about Kerry and the sea. It dragged on for two years, with rewrites and requests for more books in the series. When she came back with a final no I was utterly crushed – rejection really stopped me dead in my tracks.
I sent the book on to Ivan, who sent it to his colleague Sallyanne Sweeney, another no, but Ivan urged me to stay in touch, and during the pandemic gave me some great advice on a contract I was signing for another project that ultimately fell through.
I liked his energy, his presence, his very quick replies and swift action.
I emailed him that famous week in February that something might be happening and that night emailed him again to say I had a book deal.
He told me one in a thousand do what I did – got their own deal with a big publisher.
So in a neat reversal of the obvious order of things, Ivan has been coasting on my success on this particular book, as in I had everything done when he took me on!
It’s lovely to have him as an agent, I feel very privileged and the Mulcahy thing is funny.
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 don’t really believe in rituals. Nobody ever asks a nurse or a builder what their rituals are, they just turn up on time and do the work, and I see writing like any other work, it takes graft and determination to get things over the line.
I got a desk made to my own specs a few years ago, I like to keep it fairly empty apart from whatever thing I’m working on. But the wall in front of me is like a patchwork of images, I have old photos and cards, quotes from writers, pictures of the sea to inspire me.
Nothing gets in the way of my writing, like if I’m stressed, or someone is going through some crisis, (with four kids that’s pretty much a constant given) I can still write.
For years I’ve been balancing lots of things together, tourism writing, websites, journalism, so the week is pretty busy– but I normally am able to dedicate a day or two a week to my own work and books.
I don’t believe in writer’s block – I think when you’re as busy as I am with kids, housework, work, school runs, there’s actually no time for it. I write fast, and I adore every minute of writing.
Music – there are certain bands and albums I know so well I can put them on and it’s like white noise. I love guitar-driven stuff, but also instrumental, film soundtracks and I listen to a lot of classical too.
I curate playlists for different works and worlds and books, and it’s good to put that on when I start writing. My end of year Spotify wraps end up being quite bizarre and eclectic.
I rely on walking a lot. Most days start with a decent hike with my dog Juno across the Curragh. There’s a part the racehorses exercise on that I love, it has these open bowls of skies that remind me of being at sea out on open water. Walking is great for unravelling problems.
Yoga is good too, I like being strong, it’s a good counterpoint for the hours at the desk.
Has your work as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times and other publications helped you on your journey to publication? Do you think it helps to have a platform already?
For sure, it helped me, and I persevered with it after the fees were slashed to almost nothing – like the work you do on a feature article, the time on interviews and research before you even do any writing – we only get a quarter of what we should.
But I knew, by keeping my hand in and publishing even a couple of articles a year, I could say on my CV I wrote for the Irish Times, and it always worked for me in that my submissions were read quickly and I bypassed the slush piles.
I’ve worked with some brilliant editors over the years and learned so much from them, their input has been the greatest benefit to me.
I understood that writing something good is often collaborative so when the work with Deirdre and editor Amy Borg began on the book, I was totally prepared for it.
What editors ask of you is always right, you are enmeshed in the work and can’t see it, but they can.
The journalism taught me discipline, sent me to amazing places, taught me the value of meeting deadlines.
I don’t think I do or ever had much of a platform, I write for the property section now, which I love, it gives such an insight into people’s lives which for a writer is invaluable.
But various articles got me noticed by and connected to the right people, and that was my aim all along.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to crack the world of publishing, but who might be getting disheartened?
Read, read and keep reading. Read outside your genre and read a few bestsellers every year, critically, what made this work? I’m a huge fan of the classics, I’ve spent years reading all the Russians, they are exceptional, and American writers too.
I read a lot of writers’ biographies and the Paris Review interviews with authors are exceptional on the craft.
Join or start a writing group and share your work with others.
Read books about writing, but also watch drama, plays and films, with an ear for how the dialogue works.
Before you submit to an agent, examine their website, read their blogs or substacks, see who is on their books and would your work fit in.
I think it’s impossible to get taken on unless your manuscript is almost perfect.
As well as rewriting multiple drafts, consider sending it to a professional editor for a look. I know working with the editor Deirdre chose for my book transformed it.
Tear your book apart and put it together again. I think what made the difference for me last year was printing the whole thing out, cutting it savagely, physically stitching it back together, filling in the blanks, then rewriting the whole thing, the amount of new ideas that came was incredible.
Every word was weighed, those words and sentences had to work to be retyped out like that. It took about a month but it gave it a clarity, freshness and cohesiveness that years of cutting and pasting had never achieved.
You can read an extract of This is My Sea on The Irish Times website here.
This is My Sea can be purchased here.