How my editing mistake got John Healy back in print
How articles make their way into print can be a strange business. Usually, a journalist pitches a story idea, or an editor comes up with an idea, and the piece is finessed and commissioned, after a bit of discussion. But sometimes, it is the slightest remark, an accidental meeting or a series of coincidences which can lead to a fantastic bit of writing seeing the light of day. In the case of last weekend’s Saturday Magazine, it was a mistake, and it was one of mine – but thanks to this mistake we got to publish an intricate and vibrant piece of fiction by John Healy, his first new piece of writing in decades.
I had first come across Healy in 2008 after he was interviewed by Erwin James in the Guardian newspaper. The arts pages of The Irish Times had reprinted the interview, and I was the sub working on the arts desk at the time. Images of Healy were difficult to come by, and quite luckily I managed to find some from a chap called Paul Duane, who was making a documentary about Healy.
The piece so impressed and moved me that I bought Healy’s autobiography, The Grass Arena, as soon as I could. Healy’s is an extraordinary story. Born to an Irish family that lived in London, he became an alcoholic in his teens, and managed to be a competent boxer before deserting from the army. He then became a vagrant in London and lived a violent and brutal life until, during a stint in prison at the age of 30, he learned how to play chess. He promptly gave up alcohol and became a top tournament champion, before venturing into writing. In 1988, Faber published his autobiography to critical acclaim, and it won the JR Ackerley prize.
Then, a few weeks ago, a short piece was published in The Irish Times Magazine about Duane’s documentary, Barbaric Genius, which was now finished and was about to be broadcast on RTÉ. Again, I was working production on the Magazine, and I went into the archive to find one of the pictures to reuse in a small way. However, in the cut and thrust of the editing process (honestly it really is like that, there’s blood all over the desks in here and the violence involved in arguing about grammar has to be seen to be believed), I omitted to credit the photograph to Paul Duane. He got in touch, pointing out the mistake, and politely and very reasonably asked that if the picture was used in future, that he be correctly attributed.
I replied to him, cap in hand, and we got to talking about his documentary and about John Healy. I watched the documentary a few days later, and got back in touch with Paul to congratulate him on a fine piece of filmmaking. In the documentary, he mentioned that Healy had a cache of unpublished material – he has found it difficult to get published following a row with Faber, which originally brought out The Grass Arena (this is largely the basis of the documentary). I wondered aloud if Healy would allow me to publish an extract from one of his unreleased works. Duane was sure he would, made the necessary introductions, and gave me John’s contact details.
After a few phone calls and a bit of banter, John Healy was good enough to send me the entire manuscript of one of his books, The Metal Mountain. He gave me free rein to select a section and edit it as I saw fit, for publication in The Irish Times Magazine. And so, last Saturday, we had the pleasure of publishing the first piece of new fiction by John Healy in 20 years. You can read it in full here, and on Saturday John Healy and Paul Duane will be doing a question and answers session after the screening of Duane’s documentary in the Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin, as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, at 2pm.
Sometime a little mistake can have far-reaching implications, and they don’t always have to be negative ones.