‘Getting fired by Vincent Browne made me finish my first novel’
Mary O’Donnell’s ‘The Light Makers’ is being republished 25 years after initial release
Authors Mary O’Donnell and Evelyn Conlon at the Writers Museum for Nollaig Na Mban last year. Photograph: Alan Betson
Can one love a character? I believe so. If you can’t love yourself in real life, perhaps it’s possible to love the thing you’ve created, which, after all, has sprung from the innermost well of the self. So it is with my first novel The Light Makers, which appeared 25 years ago this year. The affection I hold for its protagonist Hanna Troy has never been surpassed in any other novel I’ve written.
But it might not have been written had Vincent Browne not fired me. Every so often at Baggot Street’s Sunday Tribune offices, a mercurial and somewhat younger VB would do a staff clear-out. During one of his Year Zero changes, I too was politely shown the door. Did it matter? Of course it did. I’d lost my job as the Tribune’s theatre critic, a position I’d worked damn hard in, and which I also loved.
However, I shook myself down and looked around. On my desk, on a sheet of A4, lay a few sketchy ideas for a first novel. I was approaching 35, with one book of poems and one book of short stories already published. But a novel beckoned, and I hadn’t had time to work on it. In a flash, getting sacked became a clarion call for writing and finishing my novel.
I set to working on The Light Makers, day by day, writing six hours non-stop, making occasional raids on the fridge. I never left the desk without having a rough outline of where I might bring the story the following day. It centred on photojournalist Hanna and her architect partner Sam, whose relationship is sinking fast in the swamps of infertility.
Another part of me was terrified I wouldn’t be able to finish the novel, because I didn’t know while writing it how it would actually end. A common novelistic dilemma, I now realise. Sam won’t get himself checked out medically, and there is tension and passion as Hanna wanders Dublin on a sunny summer afternoon trying to make peace with herself while examining what life is, with or without children.
I wasn’t into rose-tinted perspectives in those days. I’m still not. So the story is a warts-and-all discovery for Hanna as she looks back over her past, growing up in a border county of romantic lakes, within a secure if unusual family – and her present, which is challenging. Hanna is an old-style feminist, the 1980s kind, who wants to clear everything in her path to set the world to rights. And I still love her.
It makes sense to me to see The Light Makers republished by 451 Editions. There’s a new generation of readers, and the problems of infertility have not gone away. I read about it often, the sense of loss endured by couples who cannot conceive. How cruel is that, when everything else in life flourishes around us, to witness one’s own body not doing one of the primary things it’s designed to do?
And society is annoyingly calibrated to think in terms of couples having families. The advertising hasn’t changed much since I was a young woman and in a similar situation to my protagonist Hanna: advertising which glorifies grinning family quartets, or strong, cool men cradling newborns, or golden women breastfeeding. It must be galling to have this rubbed under your nose in daily dollops.
And so 451 Editions, which specialises in “new” publishing, and the possibility of widespread digital uptake as well as the hard copy of the novel, has honoured me by bringing out this lovely, tender and passionate (if I say so myself) novel. It’s 25 years on, and some things haven’t changed all that much. I’ll always thank Vincent Browne for releasing me.