Kate Kerrigan on how Maeve Binchy’s editor helped her redesign The Dress
The writer who opens herself up fully to a tough editor, far from ‘giving their novel away’ to the whim of another person’s opinion, is making a true commitment to serve the story over their writer’s ego
Kate Kerrigan at home in Killala, Co Mayo, with her editor Rosie de Courcy, right, who also edited Maeve Binchy: “Darling,” she kept saying. “I went through exactly this process with Maeve on Circle of Friends.”
‘Do you know – this is the very spot where I first met Maeve?’
I don’t know quite what I was expecting from Rosie de Courcy, the London editor who first discovered Maeve Binchy and went on to be her editor for 23 years, but I was instantly starstruck. I’m of a generation of writers for whom the Irish Times columnist and bestselling writer holds legendary status even though I was lucky enough to have met her, albeit fleetingly.
Maeve and I shared a Danish publishing house, and one year they accidentally sent me her Christmas chocolate gift by accident. I left it on my desk and looked at it all through the holiday wondering if it would seem presumptuous of me to forward it to her. In mid-February I got a lovely letter, handwritten, apologising for having eaten my chocolate. I can’t remember what I said in reply but I’m pretty sure it was gushing.
She was, from me, the perfect writer. An honest and entertaining columnist, and novels were full of wit, pathos and a broad mix of humanity. Who felt better for having read them. Most of all, Maeve was a cracking storyteller. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. So when I got the opportunity to move publishing houses and work with her editor I jumped at the chance.
Coincidentally, being the first Irish writer that Rosie had taken on since Maeve, we met in the very same spot. Head of Zeus’s offices in Clerkenwell Green occupy the same space as Maeve’s agent Christine Green, who first made the introduction.
Head of Zeus had already bought my book, The Dress. It was my seventh Kate Kerrigan novel, and everyone in the dynamic new publishing house seemed very pleased with it, although I had not met “the main woman” yet. Rosie was taller, younger and prettier than I had been expecting. She was a warm, friendly person and we became instant friends, in that way that is always wise when you are about to work closely together.
We got through the eating part of lunch entertaining one another with publishing gossip before finally I broached the question, ‘so what you think of The Dress?’ It had been two years in the writing and had already been through three substantial edits, one with a very talented editor who my wonderful agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor, had secured for me. Above all other books, I wanted this one to be right. Rosie’s face darkened somewhat, then she paused in a way I was to become terribly familiar with before saying, ‘well, it certainly has potential’. Even at the memory of it, my blood runs cold.
Over the coming six months Rosie put me through my paces. I’ve been a professional writer for over 30 years, 15 of them as a full-time author. I’ve worked with some of the best editors in some of the biggest publishing houses all over the world. But I’ve never been through such a forensic, painstaking and, at times, painful process.
In those early weeks as notes for yet another rewrite came through, feeling like a novice again, I would call her looking for reassurance. ‘ Darling,’ she kept saying. ‘I went through exactly this process with Maeve on Circle of Friends.’ I was disbelieving that the great Maeve Binchy ever had to rewrite a word. Even after all these years of being a professional writer some part of me still buys into the myth that a truly great writer should be able to get it right in the first draft; that it’s only me that has to work this hard at it. The truth is to make a good novel great takes editing, and editing, and still more editing. There are no geniuses. Hard work pays off. The writer who opens herself up fully to a tough editor, far from ‘giving their novel away’ to the whim of another person’s opinion, is simply making a true commitment to serve the story over their writer’s ego.
The Dress was slashed, rewritten, somewhat reimagined and certainly corrected to within inches of its life. Rosie is old school. She works on paper with sticky notes covered in pencil scribbles and my mother was delighted to see me finally have an editor who put manners on my punctuation! It was hard going, but at the end of the process I was so empowered by Rosie’s aggressive editing I was killing off characters and reinventing them myself, right up to the very last draft. The result is the book that I had always thought and hoped The Dress could be. For all the changes we made, it is truer to my original idea.
Working with Rosie has been a real eye opener; challenging, rewarding – a masterclass in storytelling and fiction writing. When it was all over she visited me at my home in Killala, Co Mayo. We walked through Belleek Woods in Ballina and talked about writing and friendship. She opened up to me about her close working relationship and friendship with Maeve. She was on holiday in Africa when she died so missed her old friend’s funeral. ‘What made Maeve Binchy as great as she was?’ I had to ask it. I wanted to know what to reach for. Rosie thought and, after one of her terrifying pauses said, ‘Maeve gave of herself as a writer. She was generous. Readers can feel that you know. They can always spot a fake. Maeve was the real deal.’
The Dress, the story of three generations of women whose lives are woven together by the threads of a magnificent 1950s dress, is published by Head of Zeus, €16.99