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Niamh Mulvey: ‘I thought people who wrote books were in a different category of brain. I didn’t think I had that’

The author has surprised herself by writing her first novel, The Amendments, after a career in publishing

In 2019, Niamh Mulvey found herself at a crossroads. After more than a decade in publishing she had built an impressive career, editing the likes of Louise O’Neill early on and progressing through the ranks to become a senior commissioning editor at Quercus, the UK publisher. But she had recently been turned down for a role for which she thought was a shoo-in.

“You know one of those really mortifying career disappointments, where you think you’re going to get something, and then you don’t?” she says. “And you feel like all the worst insecurities that you ever entertain about yourself are actually true.”

In the flesh, Mulvey looks like someone who’d have little time for insecurities. With twinkling eyes and smiling freckled face, she’s easy, relaxed company. This morning she got the train to Dublin from Kilkenny, where she lives with her husband, Thomas, and two young children, Seán and Rosanna. But five years ago she and her family were living in London, she’d spent a number of years writing novels that weren’t good enough to publish and suddenly she’d had enough.

“I had been working so hard to get ahead in the industry, and also to write a book, and I felt like I had run into a brick wall with both things,” she says. “I was, like: ‘Maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe I don’t want to be in the literary world at all.’”


So she decided to leave her job, reasoning she could tide herself over with freelance work. “I remember thinking: ‘Well, who cares? The only thing that really matters is that I look after these children. And pay my rent.’ And luckily” – she gives a wry laugh – “publishing is so badly paid that their childcare was the same as my salary. So it didn’t really make much difference at that point whether I worked or not.”

Her identity had become wrapped up in her career, and now she wanted that identity back. “I was, like: ‘F**k it. I’m not a writer. I’m not a publisher. I’m not an editor. Who cares? I’m still a human.’ And that was a big moment. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it really was very clarifying.”

Of course, the moment she let go was the moment her writing began to fall into place. She had launched a start-up, called In the History Books, with a friend in tech, but in the background she found herself tapping away at short stories. Lockdown fell, the business venture fizzled, but the writing continued. By the end of 2020 she had enough for a collection. She signed with an agent – her friend Sallyanne Sweeney – and by 2021 her collection Hearts & Bones: Love Stories for Late Youth had sold to Picador. “It all happened quite quickly,” she says. “But it was this real flush of creativity. It was amazing, to be honest. It was quite transformational.”

Mulvey had published bits and pieces before then, including a short story, in 2011, in the notoriously hard-to-crack journal the Stinging Fly. “I used to always think about that story as just a momentary lack of judgment on Declan’s part,” she says, referring to Declan Meade, Stinging Fly’s publisher. “I just kept trying to write other stories, and they were just terrible. Nothing was working. I was, like: ‘Oh, it was just a fluke. I will never write anything good.’”

Thirteen years on, a dog-eared and underlined proof copy of her debut novel, The Amendments, sits between us. “I still can’t really believe that I’ve written that book,” she says. “I just thought people who wrote books were in a different category of brain. I thought it was something that set you apart from everybody else, and I didn’t think I had that.”

The Amendments is a brilliant book that’s hard to describe if only because it’s different, at every turn, from what you might expect. In brief, it tells the story of a woman named Nell, who hopes to start a family in London with her partner, Adrienne. But past ghosts are haunting her, and the narrative jumps back to her teenage years in 2000s Ireland, when she was involved with a Catholic youth group. It jumps back further, too, to her mother’s youth in 1980s Ireland and her involvement with the women’s-rights movement.

Mulvey drew on her own experiences when writing, although it took her a while to understand there was anything there to write about.

Born in 1983, she grew up in Carlow, then Kilkenny, the eldest of five – two girls, three boys. Her mother was a psychiatric nurse, her father a public-sector worker. Her primary education was through Irish – she attended Gaelscoil Osraí, in Kilkenny; her secondary education was at Presentation convent school. At university, in Galway, she studied English and history – all of which she thought of as fairly regular, and “not good enough material to draw on to write”.

“I just felt it was very ordinary. Not particularly difficult. Not particularly privileged. But actually, when I started to permit myself to think about various things that I used to think about as a young person, I realised actually there was quite a lot of richness and interesting stuff there.”

For example, as a teenager she had been involved with a Catholic youth group.

“It was similar in spirit to the one in the book, and it was a really lovely experience – I made some really great friendships through it. But I kind of left all that behind as I grew up, and I think I was really embarrassed, then, at having been drawn to Catholicism,” she says. “Ireland was all about liberal, let’s forget about all that, we’re cool now. And I was like, yeah, I’m cool, too – I definitely never went to Mass willingly. I just didn’t really want to think about it. And then when I did think about it I realised it’s interesting to be drawn to something that most people aren’t.”

When she allowed herself to write, the floodgates opened. First came the title story in Hearts & Bones, a sort of warm-up act for The Amendments, in that both are set in the same world, among the same characters. But when she shared this story with a friend, the friend was curious to know the bigger picture. Suddenly, Mulvey realised she had a novel on her hands.

“And I know, again, it sounds really cheesy, but I went home and wrote 10,000 words in a week. It just kind of came. The first draft was too much; there was too much emotion in it. A lot of the work I had to do in terms of getting it to where it is now was pulling back a bit. It was very intense.”

The finished product is engrossing, heartbreaking but never too much. In fact, Mulvey’s hallmark is her control. She writes with an ice-cool tone, slices through the status quo, reveals the complexity beneath.

In the background the 1983 and 2018 referendums – introduced and then lifted the abortion ban – are simmering, but this is decidedly not a “repeal novel”.

“One of the things I’m really interested in is the gap between top-line history and actual experience,” she says. “I kind of feel sorry for politicians, because they’re trying to simplify things that are hard to simplify. Because life is so messy and complex. And I think yes/no questions don’t often do a good job of capturing reality.”

Mulvey describes herself as a contrary person. “I really have to watch it in myself,” she says. “I won’t read the book everyone’s reading out of stubbornness.”

In fact, at the moment, her reading is consigned to spy novels and second World War books (in her words, “the reading habits of a grandad”). “I don’t read any contemporary literature, not because I don’t think it’s any good but because I’m scared of being too influenced by it, and of my own instincts being crowded out,” she says. “I want to be brave enough to write as I see it.”

When she was writing Hearts & Bones, in trying to inhabit the consciousness of her characters, she became interested in meditation. “The minute you ask [what consciousness is] you’re straight into meditation, Buddhism, mindfulness, all that malarkey,” she says. “I was learning to write in this much more in-the-body kind of way. Sometimes I’d write in the dark, with a sleep mask on.”

She brings this approach to her creative-writing classes, which merge writing and meditation. “I think writers have a lot of shame and tension and fear, and [the meditation] is a way of trying to sidestep that.”

This sounds quite out there for someone with a very practical, editorial background. “I know,” she says. “I agree. And I am a very sceptical person. I’m kind of allergic to woo-woo. However, I think there’s something a bit mysterious about writing. I thought that you would probably ask me about religion, and I’ve never come so close to believing in God than I have when writing fiction.”

The Amendments, by Niamh Mulvey, is published by Picador on Thursday, April 18th