Writer for The Irish Times on business, books and random other things. Below are some of my features and book reviews:
March 28 2015, The Irish Times
Five tips for would-be writers
No 1: if you want to shine, you have to polish
The road to publication is often paved with rejection, says myfirstbookdeal.com blogger Caroline Madden, where she interviews authors such as Donal Ryan about their struggle to get into print
“I received 47 rejections spread across a few years.”
“I sent the book off to around a dozen publishers and a dozen agents. I got 14 rejections and the rest didn’t bother answering.”
“It got rejected left, right and centre.”
The first two quotes are from Booker Prize-nominated authors Donal Ryan and Ed O’Loughlin, and the third is from the award-winning novelist Liz Nugent. Even for the most prodigiously talented of writers, the road to publication is often paved with rejection. So how did these authors finally get their big break after so many knock-backs?
It was with this question in mind that I recently launched the blog myfirstbookdeal.com, where I post interviews with writers on how they surmounted the slush pile and got their first novel published. What quickly became clear from these interviews is that while talent is a necessity, it is not always enough to crack the world of publishing, so here are some of the top tips I’ve gleaned from successful authors:
1. Become obsessed with your book
Of all the possible endeavours to choose from, writing a novel has to be one of the most quixotic. Prepare to sacrifice lie-ins, holidays, and your social life in favour of sitting alone in a room making things up and writing them down, until you have crushed somewhere in the region of 100,000 words into submission, all in the knowledge that the odds of publication are stacked against you.
Louise O’Neill, author of the feminist-dystopian young adult novel Only Ever Yours told me she became obsessed with her book. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I didn’t have a life. I didn’t go out. I didn’t drink. I got up at 5.30 every morning and was at my desk at 6.”
And in his interview for the blog, former Irish Times arts editor Shane Hegarty recounted that just before Christmas 2012, he was in Holles Street hospital with his wife, who was having twins, when he got an email from uber-agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor saying she really liked the partial submission of his children’s fantasy novel Darkmouth. She wanted to know when he could have it finished. “I told her Easter, then thought, ‘What have I done? This is a ridiculous promise to make.’”
But he wrote every chance he got: on the train from Skerries into The Irish Times every day, on his lunch break, in the evenings, on annual leave. A few weeks before Easter he got enough material to Marianne that she was able to secure him a high six-figure deal at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
2. Write for yourself
Resist the urge to try and write the next Gone Girl, and instead write the story that only you can tell.
“You’ve got to start from the point of telling a story because you need to tell it,” Shane Hegarty advised. “Just write what you want to write and like nobody will ever see it.”
Ian Flitcroft, a Dublin eye surgeon whose novel The Reluctant Cannibals was published in 2013, advised emerging writers not to write for the market. “Write what you like,” he said. “It makes it more enjoyable and you end up with a book that you’d love to read.”
However, Ian suggested that before you actually start writing, take a little time to ask yourself how you’re going to sell the book once it’s finished. “Are you going to be able to give it an interesting, compelling tagline? If not, then maybe that’s the point to re-jig what you’re writing into something you could sell more easily,” he said. “Having said that, the art is in the rewriting.”
3. If you want to shine, you have to polish
It’s easy to get carried away by that first flush of creative pride and send a partially completed manuscript out into the world but it’s generally a mistake. Before you press the send button, ask yourself if you would be happy for the book to be published in its current state. If the answer is no, then keep polishing.
The Wexford writer Andrew Hughes recalled how he jumped the gun and sent his novel The Convictions of John Delahunt to an agent when it was only half-finished. The agent liked the first 10,000 words and wanted the full manuscript but the book wasn’t ready. “It was a mistake because then I had to put her off.”
Orange Prize-nominated author Aifric Campbell never lets work go until she feels she’s done as much as she possibly can. “With a first novel you have one shot of somebody reading it, so it’s got to be your best shot,” she said. “Sometimes people get tired and send out extracts too early. I would advise people to re-draft endlessly.”
4. Explore all your options
If a brilliant cover letter and three chapters of sparkling prose fails to hook you an agent or publisher, wrack your brains for any contacts you may have in the publishing world, however tenuous. No one’s going to publish your book because you’re a friend of a friend, but it might just help you to bypass the slush pile.
Ed O’Loughlin, former Africa correspondent for The Irish Times, told me his lucky break came when he happened to read in the newspaper that someone he once worked with had got a job with a publisher – it was the former journalist Patricia Deevy, now an editor at Penguin Ireland.
“I emailed Patricia,” Ed said. “Her remit wasn’t literary fiction, so she said to send it to her colleague Brendan Barrington.” Brendan worked on some changes to the manuscript with Ed and then they signed a one-book deal. Ed, naturally, was delighted. “It meant I was going to fulfil the ambition and shift the 110,000 words that I’d been working on for the past seven years.”
Also, consider entering competitions like the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. Niamh Boyce, author of the bestselling novel The Herbalist, was selected as one of 20 winners of the IWC Novel Fair in 2012. She got the chance to pitch her book to top publishers and agents at the Fair, and very shortly afterwards her book was picked up by Penguin Ireland.
5. Don’t give up – you never know how close you are
Consider Liz Nugent. Her agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor said she never had so many “near hits” as with Liz’s debut novel Unravelling Oliver. “I think she stopped telling me after the 19th rejection. Nobody wanted it. They all had the same criticism about the ending – they didn’t like it,” Liz said. But Marianne didn’t give up on the book – instead, she appointed an editor to Liz to see if there was something they could do about the ending. “I rewrote the entire latter half of the book within about a month,” Liz told me. Marianne sent it out again and this time around, it was bought by Penguin Ireland.
And then, of course, there’s Donal Ryan, whose remarkable tale of being discovered and championed by an intern at The Lilliput Press, after 47 rejections, has strengthened the resolve of many a despairing writer. “I can say with pride that the first publisher I ever wrote to, Antony Farrell of The Lilliput Press, accepted me,” Donal said. “There was just a bit of a gap between his receipt of my manuscript and our first meeting, during which time I’d asked everybody else in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook who looked vaguely promising to represent or publish me.”
Still, it’s hard to keep the faith when the rejections start coming, but try to keep in mind the words of the American writer Joe Konrath who once said: “There’s a word for a writer who doesn’t give up – published.”
February 13 2015, The Irish Times
Wild Geese: Ivan Mulcahy, founder of London literary agency Mulcahy Associates
If Ivan Mulcahy ever writes his life story, the opening chapters will read like an inspirational how-to guide for aspiring corporate high-flyers.
Though he rocked up in London in 1984 with a “ropey” degree from Trinity and “a talent for partying”, once he got a foot in the door at news agency Reuters, his natural business flair saw him rise swiftly, and seemingly effortlessly, up the corporate ladder. By his mid-30s, he was managing a staff of about 300 people and was responsible for all of Reuters’ business across the Nordic region. By most people’s reckonings, the Blackrock man had it made.
But Ivan Mulcahy is not most people: as the crossroads age of 40 approached, he made the dramatic decision to switch genres. Though he had no contacts or experience in the publishing industry, he figured he could make it as a literary agent, selling authors’ books to publishers and managing their careers.
He was a huge reader and knew he had the ability to sell and to negotiate contracts, but his secret fear was that he wouldn’t be able to spot raw potential in a manuscript.
“The question was: ‘Did I have taste?’” he says. “Publishers need to feel that when I recommend a new writer, they should take notice.”
Mulcahy felt the fear but did it anyway, setting up the Mulcahy Associates literary agency in London and beginning the hunt for unpublished authors. He spent his savings and earned almost nothing for three years. In the fourth year, the agency turned a profit and Mulcahy was finally able to pay himself a living wage.
“I went out and bought a Cartier watch to mark the moment,” he says. Mulcahy, who describes himself as a left-wing capitalist, admits with self-deprecating humour that this celebratory splurge makes his leftie credentials “a tad suspect”.
More than a decade on from striking out on his own and it’s clear Mulcahy does have taste. Recently the agency had three bestsellers in the UK book charts at the same time: Vivienne Westwood’s own story written with historian Ian Kelly; comic David Mitchell’s collection of essays; and broadcaster Clare Balding’s second volume of memoir.
He takes great pleasure in introducing the world to new talent, such as Irish novelist Lisa McInerney whose debut novel The Glorious Heresies will be published this year. He also persuaded Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang from South Korea to write for general readers about economics. Today, Ha-Joon’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold millions of copies.
After spending a few years in London with Reuters early in his career, Mulcahy says it took moving to New York in 1987 to sense that being Irish was an advantage.
In London, “you were sometimes taken less seriously than your British colleagues”, he recalls, though he stresses that being Irish in London became a more positive attribute over time.
“But in New York, being Irish felt equivalent to minor celebrity status . . . I’m shallow enough to enjoy any special attention,” he jokes. “It made connecting for business easier too. You stood out a bit.”
After four years with Reuters in New York, Mulcahy returned home to run the company’s Irish operation. During his time here, Reuters launched its Irish news service, which meant it was, for the first time, reporting constantly on the Irish financial market for its worldwide customer base. Though the launch was a success, Mulcahy wanted to get away again.
His next move took him to Stockholm where he was responsible for the company’s business in north Europe. It was there his left-wing leanings grew stronger as he was struck by Scandinavia’s more egalitarian version of capitalism. “Over 300 staff on my payroll, yet when you looked at their salaries, you could see that everyone from senior managers to office assistants were earning amounts within a pretty tight range. And I thought, why not? They all worked hard and had skills.”
Now back in London, he says being a literary agent is “a truly great job, entertaining and always a privilege”.
So what do the next few chapters hold for Mulcahy and his business? Despite the Doomsday soundings about the future of the book trade, he says publishing has a healthy marketplace with lots of sellers and buyers, “but it is seeing the dangers of excessive corporate power with the increasing dominance of Amazon as a bookseller”.
Amazon charges lower and lower prices for books in order to grow its customer base, he says, and of course readers don’t mind because books are cheaper and Amazon runs a “strikingly efficient service”, but there are consequences. “The profits being stripped from the industry mean authors are offered less money by publishers and struggle to live by their writing income.”
Mulcahy speculates that after all the hype and the massive changes that must take place in publishing, the book will thrive in both physical and electronic form.
April 19, 2014 The Irish Times
TRAINS AND LOVERS by Alexander McCall Smith
How to put a fresh twist on that hoary old chestnut, the love story? McCall Smith’s solution is to draw upon the romance of rail travel. In Trains and Lovers , four strangers find themselves sharing a booth on a train journey from Edinburgh to London and pass the four-hour trip by recounting and recollecting stories about how love has touched their lives. Unfortunately this narrative framing device is so contrived as to make it almost impossible to suspend disbelief.
That said, there is no getting away from the fact that McCall Smith is a born storyteller. He interweaves four sweet vignettes with ease and carries the reader along with the deceptive simplicity of his prose. He is at his best when dealing with the story of an American, David, who has harboured an unrequited love for his friend Bruce since the summers they spent together as teenagers. The tale is quietly told, and all the more poignant for it. Not as satisfying as The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, but a pleasant enough way to while away a train journey.
March 29, 2014 The Irish Times
THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT by Andrew Hughes
This genre-spanning debut, based on true events that shocked Victorian Dublin, brings us inside the mind, and cell, of John Delahunt, a Trinity College student who faces the hangman’s noose for murder. But this is more than just another penetrating portrait of an upper-class killer in the tradition of John Banville’s Freddie Montgomery. Hughes also gives us a Kafkaesque rendering of the authorities at Dublin Castle as a sinister bureaucracy whose agents operate a clandestine network of paid snitches and dole out a warped version of justice. Delahunt, an unpromising student, is recruited into this web of informants. Unfettered by anything as inconvenient as scruples, he discovers he has an aptitude for this lucrative line of work, but he finds himself committing ever more sordid deeds as the Castle’s grip tightens. Unprepossessing Delahunt may be, but there is a guilty pleasure in following such an amoral antihero through Merrion Square salons, seedy back-alley bars and brutal interrogation cells. With its polished prose, vivid period feel and debauched protagonist, this assured first novel will be relished by fans of literary crime and historical fiction alike.
November 12, 2011 The Irish Times
A PERFECT PLACE TO WRITE
GETTING AWAY:Whether you’re an established author, or someone who has always had a secret urge to give it a try, going on a writers’ retreat is a tried and tested way of finding inspiration, writes CAROLINE MADDEN
WRITING IS A SOLITARY pursuit, but finding solitude can be difficult. The 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau moved to a shack in the woods in search of the simple life. Dylan Thomas used to shut himself away in his “word-splashed hut”, a shed perched on a cliff ledge, from 2pm to 7pm every day so that he could write, think and sleep. Roald Dahl would disappear down to his private writing shed at the bottom of the garden, which no one else was allowed to enter, and it was there that he wrote all of his children’s books.
However, most 21st-century writers don’t have the luxury of having their own sanctuary where they can escape the interruptions of modern life. Retreating from the distraction of daily chores is crucial – to paraphrase the author Joy Held, people with clean houses do not have finished books – which is where residential writing retreats come in. Some give writers the space to do their own thing, others offer a more structured experience with workshops and tutorials, but all of these retreats allow participants to take a brief break from their responsibilities and devote themselves completely to what they love doing best.
Castletownbere, Co Cork
The library at Anam Cara says it all – eight shelves are needed to house all the books that writers have worked on while staying at the west Cork retreat. Several are even dedicated to the woman who modestly calls herself a “literary midwife”, Sue Booth-Forbes.
Writers who retreat to Anam Cara will find themselves first nourished physically, with three hearty meals cooked from scratch every day. “My father was a poet and my mother took care of him. He wouldn’t have been the poet he was if he didn’t have her,” says Booth-Forbes, who was born and raised in Utah.
Then there is the place itself, with its views of the Coulagh Bay and the Beara peninsula. The house sits on five acres of land with walking paths that lead down heather-covered hillsides, through a hazel grove, past a duck pond, and then skirt along a river bank past a cascading river-island waterfall. In all there are more than 30 nooks and crannies – from hammocks to meditation huts – dotted around the grounds, where people can sit and think.
“The Beara is such an inspirational place where people can come to really focus, in the quiet, on their own work and for the first time in a long time, to hear their own voice,” Sue says. “It’s amazing the impact of giving yourself time and space in a quiet place, just telling yourself that you are retreating.”
At Anam Cara, working hours are sacrosanct, and conversations during those times are to be kept out of earshot of others. In the evenings the writers and artists gather together for dinner and sometimes share their work, but other times it’s just a chance to unwind and enjoy each others’ company.
“Last night we all ended up in the hot tub out on the deck and the stars came out and it was just fabulous. We sat out there in the bubbling warm water and talked,” says Booth-Forbes.
However, according to writers who have stayed at Anam Cara, the magic ingredient is Booth-Forbes herself. As an experienced writer and editor, she can provide support if people have hit a block or would like some constructive feedback on their work. Chef, food writer and poet Gerry Galvin worked on his first novel, Killer à la Carte(a thriller about a London food critic who is also a serial killer) at Anam Cara and describes her as “a great mentor in a most low key way”, being both kind and rigorous. “What Sue gave me was a very clear picture of possibilities, and a sense that just because I hadn’t come to serious writing until my 60s that that was no barrier,” he says.
Irish crime writer Alex Barclay has spent time at the centre for each of the 13 books she’s written (and she has dedicated a book to Booth-Forbes), and describes it as an alternative universe where you can shut out the rest of the world. “Anam Cara is a beautiful, inspiring retreat with breathtaking views across the sea. But, really, Anam Cara is Sue,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing your first book or your 20th, whether you’re published or unpublished, even if all you’ve got is a pencil, a sketchpad and a plan, you will be welcome, and you will be supported.”
COUNTRY HOUSE WRITERS’ WEEKEND
Askeaton, Co Limerick
The writers’ getaway hosted by Yasmin and Donagh O’Grady at their ancestral home of Inchirourke, in the medieval Limerick village of Askeaton, has an unexpected dimension. As you drive deeper into their estate, passing through the woods, pausing to let a posse of turkeys cross your path, and finally crossing the threshold of their 150-year-old house, there’s a sense of retreating not only into a different world, but into a different time.
Inchirourke is a treasure trove of trappings from a bygone era. An enormous crocodile head lurks by a door. Beside a window, a lioness skin is draped upon a chest. On the stairs are glass cases of stuffed birds and collections of unusual eggs, and the walls are hung with displays of ancient riding crops and family portraits dating back as far as the 18th century. “The house is the extra team member,” says one participant who was on the writers’ weekend in September.
The retreat tutor, best-selling novelist Denyse Woods, who is also artistic director of the West Cork Literary Festival, made great use of the atmospheric surroundings. For one of the many creative-writing exercises employed over the weekend, she set the 10 participants the task of writing a brief story about some aspect of the house, which sparked tales featuring everything from the dinner gong to the enormous tree needed to fill the great hall at Christmas time.
The hall also served as the perfect setting for author Kevin Barry’s reading on the first night, while the workshops took place around a table in a wonderful, light-filled studio, complete with comfy sofa, a little wood-burning stove and a writing desk by the window. In the diningroom every evening, the writers helped themselves to sublime dishes (they use home-produced beef and lamb) from the sideboard under the watchful eye of Donagh’s grandmother and great-grandmother, looking down from a painting above.
The charming chatelaine of Inchirourke – or “a farmer’s wife”, as she describes herself – Yasmin O’Grady has a background in television and a huge interest in literature and so when she and Donagh decided that their home should help to earn its own keep, the idea of a house party-style writers’ retreat seemed perfect. Maintaining a large old house is such a challenge that you can start to view it as a burden, O’Grady says, but welcoming writers into their home has enabled the O’Gradys to see it with fresh eyes and appreciate it anew.
A great coup was getting literary agent Faith O’Grady to give an afternoon session on how to get published. While some people on the retreat were only starting with their writing projects, others had completed novels and Faith was able to give them insider tips on how best to approach agents and publishers. While she spoke of how competitive the marketplace is, she was also encouraging. “It can be difficult for new writers to find a home but if it’s a really good story, with intriguing characters and a distinctive voice, I believe they will succeed eventually,” she says.
As everyone says their farewells over a wonderful, old-style afternoon tea before heading back to real life, many of the writers are already making plans to return. One woman admitted that on her way down to the retreat, she had been so unnerved by the thought of attempting creative writing that she had very nearly turned her car around and driven home. “But I loved every minute of it. I’m sorry I didn’t start 20 years earlier.”
TYRONE GUTHRIE CENTRE
Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan
If the kitchen table in the Big House at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan could talk, it would surely have some great stories to tell. Over the past 30 years, countless Irish writers have gathered around it to eat, drink, talk and sing in the candlelight. Everyone from Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney to Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry have at some point pulled up a chair and broken bread there.
When William Tyrone Guthrie bequeathed his ancestral home to the Irish people as an artists’ retreat, he laid down one rule: that the evening meal should be shared by the residents. And so, at 7 pm each evening, after a long day of intense work, everyone comes together at the kitchen table. What this simple ritual means is that a young emerging novelist can find themselves elbow to elbow with an internationally acclaimed writer. Although intimidating, it is also a huge confidence boost, as both will be treated with equal respect.
“Annaghmakerrig endorses and galvanises those who practise the creative arts,” says Robbie McDonald, director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, which opened its doors in 1981. “It’s one of the few places in the country where you can sit around a table among your peers and everyone is in the same dilemma – trying to keep family and relationships and maybe a part-time job going, and at the same time get a few hours done.”
Hidden away in a remote corner of Co Monaghan, Annaghmakerrig has been described as a parallel universe, a place of heightened creativity. Time and again, writers have found inspiration in the lakeside country house, with its winding corridors, its cubby holes and curiosities, its Victorian feel. Those who tire of tackling the blank page indoors can seek inspiration while gazing out over the silent lake or wandering the forests of pine and fir that shroud Annaghmakerrig from the outside world.
Idyllic as it may sound, the work ethic is “very pronounced,” McDonald says. As it is a retreat for professional artists, writers must have had work published in order to be accepted by the selection committee. “We don’t correct your copybook,” he says. “Most people when they get here are delighted to have a week away from work and domestic responsibilities.”
A book published to celebrate 25 years of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre contains a selection of extracts from projects conceived, begun, progressed or completed in the house, and reveals just how staggeringly creative people have been while staying there. There are extracts from John Banville’s The Newton Letter, Colm Tóibín’s first novelThe South, Colum McCann’s Dancer and many, many more. Although this fascinating volume runs to 250 pages, one of its editors, Evelyn Conlon, notes in the foreword that because of the embarrassment of riches to choose from, the selection is “only a corner of the mirror, a truncated glimpse of the thousands of ventures that learned to stand on their shaky feet in the rooms of this house”.