Caroline O’Donoghue: ‘My luck has turned so quickly I have whiplash’

Caroline O’Donoghue: 'I feel so emotional about how fantastic life can be sometimes'
After suffering a double job loss, things turned around quickly for Cork writer Caroline O’Donoghue, as she landed a six-figure publishing deal for her tarot-focused YA novel, writes Amy O’Connor

Caroline O’Donoghue is talking about her newfound love of tennis. The author recently enrolled in a beginner’s class at courts near her home in London, having long been obsessed with the sport. During one of her lessons, she recalls having something of an epiphany. She proceeds to tell me about it with the caveat that it might sound “really pretentious”.

“I was playing and my teacher was saying to me, ‘Look, you go in for the ball too early and you’re going for it while it’s still too high in the air. You need to wait for it to come down and then you can bat it.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ I kept making the same mistake and I was really, really embarrassed and frustrated. And she just put her hand on my shoulder and she said, ‘Caroline, you always have more time than you think.’

When I was about 25, I started learning the tarot properly. And I just really loved it. I kind of collect them now. I’ve got about 15 decks

“Actually I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Because I just feel like ever since I graduated college, I’ve had this alarming sense of running out of time all the time. I just kind of write books one after the other when I think more literary and intelligent and confident people probably, you know, spend many years drafting their literary debut. And then they spend five years writing the next one and they really craft things. [Whereas] I’m just so desperate all the time that I’m going to run out of time.”

It’s precisely this sense of urgency that enables O’Donoghue to produce work at such an impressive clip. As a journalist, she has contributed to the likes of Grazia, The Pool, Harper’s Bazaar and others. She hosts Sentimental Garbage, a podcast that celebrates women’s fiction. (A recent spin-off saw her delve into Sex and the City with author and friend Dolly Alderton.) And, of course, she’s an author. She has penned two critically acclaimed novels for adults, Promising Young Women and last year’s Scenes of a Graphic Nature.

Now the 31 year old has dipped her toe into the world of young adult fiction. This month sees the publication of All Our Hidden Gifts, a mystery novel that was acquired for a six-figure sum in 2019. It follows Maeve Chambers, a teenage girl who doesn’t quite fit in and who has fallen out with her best friend, Lily. (Incidentally, the novel’s protagonist is named in honour of Maeve Binchy and Chambers, a gay bar in Cork.) One day in detention, she discovers a packet of tarot cards. She learns how to read tarot and starts offering readings to classmates in her all-girls’ school, revelling in her newfound popularity. Then she does a reading for Lily that goes terribly wrong. Two days later, Lily disappears. Believing it may have had something to do with her tarot reading, Maeve embarks on a journey to find out what happened to her.

Caroline O’Donoghue started working on All Our Hidden Gifts in 2019. Photograph: Jamie Drew

It allowed her to explore the “animal kingdom” of all-girls’ schools as well as witchcraft. O’Donoghue herself is a tarot enthusiast, having first bought a set of cards when she was a young teenager.

“I brought them into school and gave everybody readings. It was absolute crap. I was just making it up as I went along, but I was just really high on the sense of my own mysticism. And from then on, that was just sort of a love affair with everything related to that world.

“When I was about 25, I started learning the tarot properly. And I just really loved it. I kind of collect them now. I’ve got about 15 decks.”

O’Donoghue started working on All Our Hidden Gifts in 2019. At the time, she was going through what she describes now as a “really bad time”.

In the space of a month, she lost two regular freelance gigs. One was with The Pool, a women’s website that went bust. The other was with The Times Ireland, which ceased publication of its print edition and for whom she was a columnist. “Literally my entire livelihood was gone,” she says.

She quickly sprung into action, calling a meeting with her agent to assess her options.

The sense of someone being sort of lonely and out of options comes through and I really think it makes it a better book for that

“I said, ‘If you’ve ever thought that there was something I should be doing that I’m not doing, now is the time to tell me.’”

“I remember it was the coldest day of the year, and we were in north London. I was shivering. I felt like Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchit asking for more coal for the fire. Like, ‘Please just tell me what it is.’”

Her agent suggested that it might be time to look into young adult fiction. She surmised that a recent surge in middle-grade fiction – that is, books aimed at readers aged 8-12 – meant there was soon to be a generation of readers hungry for quality young adult fiction. Perhaps O’Donoghue, an avid reader of YA, could write something in that vein?

“I was like, ‘Well, that’s great, thank you. But I don’t have any ideas’,” says O’Donoghue. “And she said, ‘Think about it.’”

Around this time, O’Donoghue’s older sister fell seriously ill. (She has since recovered.) She returned to Cork to spend a few weeks with her family. It was the longest time she had spent in Cork since she moved to London in 2011. Much of her time was spent walking around the city and thinking about her own adolescence, which in turn helped her lay the groundwork for All Our Hidden Gifts.

“I sort of started to gather together this story of a teenager that was quite based on myself in that I was someone who was not very good at school and just felt really lost in the mess of all my siblings because I thought of them all as being so much more charismatic than I was. I started making up this character and then the rest of it came after that really.”

It’s a really, really fortunate time to be writing about teenagers because I just felt like one the whole time

She wrote 20,000 words in a matter of weeks and sent it to her agent. Her agent asked her to develop a plan for a series and shopped it to publishers. An auction ensued and it was eventually bought by Walker Books. Just like that, things started looking up. As she tweeted in 2019: “My luck has turned around so quickly that I have whiplash. I feel so emotional about how fantastic life can be sometimes.”

O’Donoghue is clearly deeply passionate about the world and characters she has created.

Despite all that, she acknowledges that the book likely wouldn’t be what it is were it not written at what was a tumultuous time for her, both professionally and personally.

“I think that sense of desperation . . . You can read it in the novel. The sense of someone being sort of lonely and out of options comes through and I really think it makes it a better book for that.”

Lockdown was a “creatively fecund” time for O’Donoghue. She wrote the sequel to All Our Hidden Gifts and was grateful to have something to focus on.

“It was really useful especially in this year when I’ve never felt more like a teenager in my life, right? No one’s allowed to leave their room, and everyone feels awkward and strange. And everyone’s social skills have regressed. You’re spending a lot of time in parks with people. It’s a really, really fortunate time to be writing about teenagers because I just felt like one the whole time.”

She also kept up her work as a podcaster, hosting episodes of her podcast Sentimental Garbage. In it, she aims to correct the narrative around so-called “chick-lit” and dives into the work of authors such as Marian Keyes, Maeve Binchy and Jackie Collins.

Caroline O’Donoghue also hosts a podcast called Sentimental Garbage. Photograph: Jamie Drew

Growing up, she was struck by how films she loved – films such as The First Wives’ Club and The Witches of Eastwick – were often reviewed dismissively by male critics. It fostered a belief that work “made by women and for women and specifically to showcase the talents of women’’ should be celebrated and championed on its own terms and not viewed as some sort of guilty pleasure.

Recently, she teamed up with Dolly Alderton to create a mini-series about Sex and the City called Sentimental in the City. In each episode, the duo revisit a season of Sex and the City and discuss it in depth. It’s very funny and very entertaining.

The show has become much maligned in recent years, but O’Donoghue is adamant that it is deserving of more credit than it’s given.

So much of my work is just women talking to each other just forever, just for pages and pages. I feel so inspired by that stuff

“I do really feel like it’s so easy to dismiss [Sex and the City] because of all the things that it didn’t do well. Like diversity, its representation of gay issues, the insane wealth – all these things that we all know are wrong with it and we all use as a stick to beat it with. And then we just really ignore all those amazing things that it did in that, like, these were conversations that were happening for the first time on television. And it really influenced the way I write. So much of my work is just women talking to each other just forever, just for pages and pages. I feel so inspired by that stuff.”

You get the sense that O’Donoghue could talk about this all day, but alas she has to go. She has another podcast to record and is late.

She’s always going, that girl.

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue (Walker Books) is published on May 27th