• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 15, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    How my editing mistake got John Healy back in print

    Laurence Mackin

    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.

    • Julie says:

      Love how this worked out for you. Your blogs are always so entertaining Laurence :) j

    • Brendan says:

      It’s a crying shame that an author as gifted and talented as John Healy should be so effectively censored because of an altercation with the head of Faber. It also speaks volumnes about the cosy clique in the printing world that no other house has taken up his new work. Of course he shouldn’t have threatened to take an axe to that man in Faber but it ill behooves a firm to engage in what amounts to literary vandalism in failing to reprint The Grass Arena or endorse the authors other works. It always seems to be case of Big Business keeping it’s thumb firmly on the little guy. Well done to you for highlighting the talent of such a gifted author.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Julie – ah stop it now :)

      Brendan – I agree with a lot of what you said. I didn’t go into the details you alluded to because I’ve covered that ground before, as did Eoin Butler in his recent article for this newspaper and Erwin James’s interview from 2008, not to mention Paul Duane’s documentary. I am very surprised that no one has taken on John Healy’s existing work, if not purely from a money-making point of view – even if you didn’t like the work, surely with such an astonishing back story a savvy publisher could shift plenty of copies. I could just see him on Oprah ….

    • Aaron Mackin says:

      Im currently reading the grass arena and It really is an extraordinary novel. Hes had a real rollercoaster of life and he tells his stories in such a placid manner.

      I wonder why another publisher doesnt take him especially after all the exposure he has received from the documentary and you’ re fine column Laurence.

    • We (New In Chess publishers from Alkmaar, Holland) just published John Healy’s new book: “Coffeehouse Chess Tactics: an Astonishing Trip into the World of Competitive Chess”, available all over the place. It is about Healy’s chess careeer, and includes a fine piece of vintage John Healy non-fiction called “Blood Sport”.

Search Pursued by a Bear