‘I guess it would be weird to never argue with a colleague, but no, we haven’t scrapped!’
A Q&A with Henrietta McKervey, author of The Heart of Everything, and her editor Ciara Considine
Ciara Considine, right, on what she likes about Henrietta McKervey’s writing: “Her gift for prose, the sense of economy and containment in her work – something which always allows the reader to engage in a fuller, more meaningful way – and the knowing and warm humour that gently edges its way in, make for a very human writer who is intrigued by and observant of the ordinary world”
Henrietta, how did you end up working with Ciara?
I don’t believe authors when they say they got published through their own hard work and persistence alone. Like so much else in life, there is always a moment of something else in there too – luck, timing, whatever. Five years ago I wrote a book called Loss For Words, inspired by Ettie Steinberg, the only known Irish victim of the Holocaust. One of the first publishers I sent it to was very interested in it for a while, and it got me an agent, but then after an agonising few months the publisher decided against it. Around the same time my agent disappeared into the ether.
So, even though I was a few months into writing another – which would become What Becomes Of Us – I wasn’t feeling very hopeful about the whole enterprise. Around the same time, a friend invited me along to a Hachette book launch in Easons. She knew the author and offered to introduce me to the editors so I could pitch my book. But on the day – a Tuesday evening, wet, miserable – and in the rush of feeding small children and feeling tired and fed up I decided not to go, that it wouldn’t be worth it. I mean, what unpublished letting-on author gets to chitty-chat to publishers at a launch?
It’s probably just as well I didn’t because my friend phoned me later and said, “I pitched your book for you anyway, you’ve to get in touch with Ciara Considine.” And what happened next suggests she made a better job of the pitch than I would have.
Can you describe the moment when the offer was made?
I contacted Ciara the following day. Loss for Words was packed off onto a USB at that stage, and because this was October 2013 and What Becomes Of Us was set in 1916/1966 (the 1916 centenary was on the horizon already, even then) we agreed that it would be the better one to read. About a week later she emailed to say she was enjoying it and really liked the writing and suggested we meet up for a chat.
Because she had been pitched to by someone we both knew, I decided that she was meeting me to give me some editorial advice. Daft as it sounds, it didn’t occur to me that she was going to offer me a deal. I didn’t realise the book business worked that way. We chatted for a while and then she said, very calmly, that they wanted to make a two-book offer. All I could think then was: “another one? I have to write another one after this one that’s not even finished?”
The woo-hoo moment really only caught up with me afterwards. I had been keeping a spreadsheet of all the submissions I’d made to publishers and agents and the feedback I got. It was a lovely moment, when I went back to the computer and realised that I could stop dutifully archiving rejection. (Hachette was number 42.) I still didn’t have an agent, but – again, through another chance conversation with a friend a week or so later – I was put in touch with Robert Kirby, one of the founders of United Agents, and I’m now represented by his colleague Margaret Halton. She’s a great sounding board, and her “but why…” questions about characters were a big help when I was going from draft one to two and teasing out what was really going on in The Heart of Everything.
How much time did you spend writing each of your novels?
They roughly took the time of my MFA in UCD. I did the course part-time over two years, so I wrote one per year. I had each book started before the academic year began and pretty much finished by the end.
How rocky was the road to publication?
From the offer letter to the bookshop shelves didn’t feel particularly rocky at all. I’ve worked as a design and advertising copywriter for years, so I’m well used to people taking their red biros out to what I’ve written. I’m not sure if it’s some internal “sure who’d be listening to you talk about yourself” mechanism that kicks in or what, but there were aspects of the process I found particularly tricky; odd things like writing a blurb, or a synopsis. And titles. Titles are really hard.
Who is your first reader?
I’ve three. Two friends, Catherine and Denise. They are both people I talk to about books and reading, so they understand what I’m trying to do and whether or not I’ve managed it. My husband Feargal reads a first draft too. He mainly reads non-fiction (I don’t) and he’s good at spotting when I’m trying to gloss over something or take too big a jump because I haven’t really figured out what is going on yet.
What’s the most discouraging feedback you’ve ever been given?
There are always going to be people who tell you your writing is rubbish. That’s fine. There are lots of books other people like that I think are rubbish. That’s how it goes. When I was submitting work cold to agents and editors, getting feedback that began “I love your book” and then goes on to say “but I’m not in love with it” was very disheartening. It seems to be some sort of industry meme and it’s meant well I’m sure, but it doesn’t really say anything and I always took it to mean, “I like it, but I don’t know how I could sell it”.
Oddly, the most discouraging at the time quite quickly became the most encouraging (which was the point of it, I realised afterwards). At a tutorial in UCD one day quite early into the MFA, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne gave me back my first chapter with her (always thoughtful) comments written at the end. Then I noticed that the very first page – my lovingly crafted first page, every word of every line sweated over – had a single blue line running diagonally through it from top to bottom. I kept that page. When I can’t decide whether something needs to be edited out or not, I find myself thinking of the page, then I know the answer is: out.
Do you discuss your ideas with Ciara in advance?
Yes. What Becomes Of Us was quite well advanced when she first read it, so it became more about shaping it and resolving a few things – okay, characters – that I’d left hanging. The core of the book didn’t change. She saw The Heart of Everything from the first chapter so she was more closely involved in how it came to life.
Do the two of you ever argue?
Thinking back to people I worked with for years when I was a copywriter, I guess it would be weird to never argue with a colleague, but no, we haven’t scrapped!
What’s the best thing about working with Ciara?
She understands what I’m trying to do even when I haven’t quite figured it out for myself, or haven’t managed to do it yet. She suggests directions without ever being pushy. And she’s calm. I like calm.
From the embittered housewife Anita to guilt-ridden Elin to feckless Ray, the adult children in The Heart of Everything all have issues. Do you have a favourite?
My favourite of them all is Mags, I liked her from the first sentence. Of her three children, Ray is my favourite. I understand his general bewilderment at life as well as in his life. Somewhere in my head a little bit of me is still waiting to be called to dance with the Bolshoi, or act with the RSC, or sing on Top of the Pops or whatever my childhood ambitions were in any given year. I’m not sure if that feeling ever quite goes away. But Raymond got to have that life for a while, and then it was taken away from him. That must be such a wrench, to be young and feel that it’s over; that you peaked when you weren’t even aware of it happening. I like that he’s funny and bewildered and lazy and drinks too much instead of thinking too much. In the book he’s forced to change, to show that he cares. Maybe that’s why I like him. He didn’t know he cared.
Memory loss is central to the novel. What drew you to this topic?
It’s such a powerful idea, that memory, something that defines us as individuals, can just disappear. But of course it’s not just an idea, it’s the real life of thousands of people around the country every single day. I wanted to pitch Mags’ fear and desperation at the prospect of losing her memory – and thus, herself – with her children’s determination to forget, in their different ways, about an earlier tragedy in the family and its outcome.
“She will continue to live narrow days, days in which she is breathing only for others.” The loss of a child is also movingly examined in the novel. Was it a difficult thing to write about?
As soon as I had children myself I started worrying about what I’d do if something happened to them. In that way it’s a horrible contract, the birth one, but I wanted to figure out a way of dealing with it. I was circling around one scene in particular for a while. In the end, I wrote the entire section in one go, trying to write it in as much real time of the action as possible. As it turned out, writing that scene was okay; it was thinking through the emotional and moral guilt and pain of all the characters in the aftermath was the hard part.
Women’s invisibility in society at certain times of their lives is a recurring theme. Can you say a bit more about this?
It’s something I noticed when I first became a pram-pusher. You become weirdly invisible, except to other women with buggies. (They do a swift assessment that guesses the baby’s age and pits it against possible maternal weight loss since the baby’s birth and a guess at recent number of hours’ sleep. This complex algorithm happens in a single blink). When I commented on this to my mother, she said that was nothing compared to the casual disregard given to older women. Women are judged by appearances for so much of their lives, and then as they age that seems to just fade away to nothing, as though they are disappearing bit-by-bit. Making Mags actually disappear from her house in the book is in response to that. She is furious with the way society treats people of her age and older. And I don’t blame her.
“She can really push my buttons,” says Ray about Anita. “She’s your big sister,” comes the reply. “She installed your buttons.” Why are relations between the Jensen children so strained?
In any family there are probably a thousand tiny reasons as to why relations become strained. Their father left to go work in Oslo when Anita and Ray were teenagers – Elin is ten years younger – and though he was meant to return, he never did. They each blamed themselves and each other for this. They are such different people, different personalities. If they weren’t related, there is no way they’d be friends, Anita and Ray particularly. There’s a passage in the book where Mags wonders what it would be like if you could choose new children when yours were grown up. That once you’d dropped them off safely at adulthood you could get new ones, more suited to you, adult-to-adult. She tells Ray this but the idea upsets him. He’s taken it personally, she realises. But with your own children, she supposes, how can it ever be anything else?
You did an MFA in UCD in 2012. Would you encourage aspiring writers to do the same?
I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, but I don’t think anyone needs to do a course in order to write. It’s not for everyone. I didn’t even know it was for me for a long time. I think if you want to write, just write. If you find after a while that the discipline or the support or the intense scrutiny or just the plain learning of it all, the way you’d learn if you went off to study music, or computer coding, or anything else would help, then it’s worth thinking about. Once you’re putting the words down, one after another, that’s the main thing. That’s the trick of it.
If you could be any famous author, who would it be and why?
PG Wodehouse. Hard-working, funny, happy. Wealthy.
What’s your favourite novel by an Irish author?
I don’t have just one. I read There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult last year and it’s rattled around in my head since. The subject matter – age, loneliness, memory – and the setting – London in World War II – are so vividly captured. It’s heartbreaking. I loved Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, and Oscar Wilde, and Castle Rackrent and…
Every author’s favourite question … What are you working on now?
A book about a group of friends in contemporary Dublin. All making a mess of things even as they think they’re not. Their lives are so transparent, yet they can’t understand them. It’s about activism and how an urge to change society at one level doesn’t necessarily play out at a smaller scale. At the moment it’s called Where Do You Think You’re Going. I wrote a radio play last year, based on my experiences of travelling the sea areas of the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. I’ve an idea for another radio play, about an American in Dublin in the 1940s. It’s better to have two writing projects on the go at once I think. On the days when one isn’t your friend, the other will be.
Henrietta McKervey was the winner of UCD’s inaugural Maeve Binchy Travel Award in 2014. She won the Hennessy First Fiction Award 2015 for her short story The Dead of Winter. Her debut novel What Becomes of Us was published to acclaim in 2015. She has just published her second novel, The Heart of Everything (Hachette).
Ciara, what attracted you to Henrietta’s writing?
Its clarity, assuredness of tone, emotional intelligence. I knew immediately she was a writer whose voice was formed.
What was the biggest selling point of The Heart of Everything when pitching to colleagues?
As it was Henrietta’s second book with us, the Hachette team were already fans, so there was no pitch exactly. When presenting to sales I talked about the universality of theme: ageing parents, sibling relationships and how family members can experience a shared past in differing, sometimes opposing ways. Also the gripping central plot of a missing mother and a family in crisis.
Henrietta’s debut What Becomes of Us is historical fiction. Were you concerned about her second book not following suit?
No. Henrietta is not a writer of genre fiction. People who come to her work will stay for the quality of her writing, not the genre.
What was the most challenging part of editing The Heart of Everything?
It wasn’t a challenging edit, to be honest. Henrietta is very open to dialoguing on her work, and willing to explore any areas that need consideration. Like all committed writers I’ve worked with, she sees the editing process as an opportunity more than a task. We dialogued a little around certain aspects of characterisation as it related to the siblings’ relationships to each other.
How do you prefer to see work (both aspiring authors and those you represent)?
It’s always good to get a completed work to consider. Anything short of that, and you just don’t know how or whether it will be realised.
What’s the best thing about working with Henri?
It’s a pleasure to work with such a fine writer. How can it feel like work when you are engaging in something that you would choose to read, and you get the added bonus of helping to shape it in some small way. Her gift for prose, the sense of economy and containment in her work – something which always allows the reader to engage in a fuller, more meaningful way – and the knowing and warm humour that gently edges its way in, make for a very human writer who is intrigued by and observant of the ordinary world and all that is in it.
Is Henrietta an “Irish writer” and if so, how?
Henrietta lives here. She’s from here. Her books are set here. And if she wrote a book that wasn’t set here, she’d still be an Irish writer. But in honesty I’m not sure what the phrase Irish writer means, or is intended to denote. Certainly there is nothing limiting, in the manner of an island, about Henrietta’s writing – indeed, she explores universal themes that would translate anywhere: identity, relationship, memory, the past as it relates to the present, love. And I believe the “geography” of shared human experience takes shape on an emotional rather than physical plain.
Which is one of the great joys of literature.
Whose writing does her work remind you of?
There are shades of different writers. Maggie O’Farrell is one. Sometimes I think of Clare Boylan when I read Henrietta. Carol Shields. Even Kate Atkinson.
Family and memory are common themes in fiction. The Heart of Everything has a similar plot to Anne Enright’s recent novel The Green Road, which published last year (after THOE had been completed). How did you feel about this as an editor?
I read and loved Anne’s novel The Green Road. As a writer, Anne is one of a kind and I can’t say enough in praise of her uncompromising talent, and the twin forces of rigour and lack of sentiment that she brings to bear on her work. The nearest comparison I can think of is Alice Munro – yet she is utterly her own voice. It didn’t concern me at all that there was any overlap of theme to the two novels, in fact I didn’t particularly find that they did overlap in plot as their trajectories are quite different. I read a lot of novels and themes/plots are constantly replicated – for good reason. Novels exist around crises, and human experience delivers this in certain ways – maybe not as diverse as we might imagine. For me, however, the essence of a novel lies in its tone, and the tones of the two novels are quite distinct.
What books have you passed on that you wish you hadn’t?
I never wish I didn’t pass on a novel, even when something goes on to become a success (which isn’t to say you mightn’t question your instincts), because I know that part of what made it a success was finding the right editor and publisher. So you can’t think like that. I’m genuinely always glad to see a novel become a success, because it’s such a tough business, and when something breaks through, there is a shared sense of pleasure in the fact that good things do happen, in a world that isn’t always fair.
What’s the worst thing about working with authors?
Seriously?! I find authors to be a fantastic bunch to work with. As thinkers and artists, they are interesting people. They are also very hard-working and they recognise that tenacity and endurance are key to being a writer. So generally they don’t have unrealistic expectations. It’s not to say that there aren’t challenges sometimes – that’s a reality of any job. Good communication helps, and managing expectations at the outset.
What’s the biggest misconception around your job?
That it’s the poor relation to being a writer. People often ask if I wouldn’t like to be a writer myself, and I find that amusing. As if being an editor/publisher isn’t in and of itself a full pursuit. In Ireland, being a writer – a novelist – represents some kind of holy grail, it occupies a prize position.
I’m a songwriter also – Ciara Sidine – and when I tell people this, you sometimes see them thinking, ah but that’s not really a writer. Songwriting, though, does give me a direct understanding of the writing process, because for me it’s a long road, a deep process, and something that takes a lot of work to reach a small moment where you feel you’ve hit on something that rings true.
Is there any type of book or genre that you feel has been neglected in recent years/due a resurgence?
I’m not the person to ask as I’m not a big follower of genre fiction. I really wish they’d bring back girls’ comics though, speaking as a mother.
What are the titles to watch out for in 2016, both from Hachette Ireland and in general?
From Hachette Ireland we’re soon to publish two great reads, The Ponzi Man by Declan Lynch and The Difference by Justine Delaney Wilson. Others I’m looking forward to are This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, Naming the Stars by Jennifer Johnston, To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey and Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple.
Ciara Considine has worked in Irish publishing for over two decades, formerly as editorial manager at New Island Books, then publisher at Hodder Headline Ireland, now Hachette Books Ireland. She is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, under the name Ciara Sidine. She lives in Dublin
The Heart of Everything is published by Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99. Hodges Figgis offers a 10 per cent discount on Irish Times Book Club titles. Throughout May, we will publish a series of articles by the author, fellow writers and readers exploring the novel, culminating in a podcast to be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday, May 26th, at 7.30pm, and published here on May 31st.