Liz Nugent on getting published in the most difficult period ever for the industry

This week, to mark the end of our How to Write a Book series, we will have a daily Q&A with a debut author

Author Liz Nugent. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Author Liz Nugent. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Liz Nugent has spent most of her working life in broadcasting and has written for TV and Radio. Her first novel, Unravelling Oliver, published this year, became an immediate bestseller.

What was the first book to make an impression on you? I think it was either Cider House Rules by John Irving or Dreams of Leaving by Rupert Thomson. I read them both around the same time when I was 18/19 and was really struck by how they both raised huge moral questions without answering them.

What was your favourite book as a child? The Shoeshop Bears by Margaret J Baker. It was the first nonpicture book I read, though there were a few illustrations. I was impatient with picture books because there wasn’t enough story in them. I bought it in a bookshop in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, when I was about six years old on holiday with my family. Somehow, it got given away and about seven years ago, I went looking for it, but sadly it was no longer in print. I did, however, manage to track down a copy that was being dumped by a library in New Jersey and now it sits proudly on my shelf between Banville and Faulks.

And what is your favourite book or books now? I change my mind about this with fierce regularity and depending on my mood. I think Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane was a masterpiece of modern literature. Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude was very good, and John Williams’s Stoner made me cry.

What is your favourite quotation? “You’re not really drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.” (Dean Martin) . . . Oh, you were looking for a literary quote?

Who is your favourite fictional character? I’m attracted to the dangerous weirdos (in fiction only). Banville’s Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence, Faulks’s eponymous Engleby, and, of course, Heathcliff.

Who is the most underrated Irish author? I’m really surprised that Claire Kilroy hasn’t got more attention. Her writing is beautiful, her ideas are enormous and her books are so readable.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version? Print. I don’t own an ereader and am resisting conversion. The battery lasts a lot longer in an actual book and they look great on shelves. There is substance to them and I can own them.

What is the most beautiful book you own? Aesthetically? I’m not sure. Once I have opened a book, I rarely think about the cover. I think you can’t beat the old Penguin Classics covers, which I think were often details from paintings in The Ashmolean or The Tate.

Where and how do you write? Slowly, in an armchair in my kitchen, with laptop on my lap, but it’s my husband’s house too, so when I want to give him space, I go to Deansgrange Library.

What book changed the way you think about fiction? I have not changed the way I think about fiction. I love it. It’s where I live most of the time.

What is the most research you have done for a book? I’ve only written one book so far and was surprised by how much information is available at the click of a mouse, so I didn’t have to do a whole lot. I had email exchanges with professors of anthropology in Penn State University and UCD and a phone conversation with a retired nurse in the Central Mental Hospital. I think research can be a bit dangerous. You’re tempted to show how much work you’ve done by putting it all in the book, and that’s usually not very interesting.

What book influenced you the most? I’m not easily influenced, but I guess the book that inspired me to write was The Book of Evidence by John Banville.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? Delia Smith’s How to Cook.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young? Ulysses. I should have read it when I was going through my pretentious phase in my 20s. Instead, I read the entire Avignon Quintet by Lawrence Durrell. I don’t think I’m ever going to read Ulysses now, unless the internet breaks down or something.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Get off the internet and read Ulysses. I hear it’s great.

What weight do you give reviews? I only believe the bad ones, but then I hate the people that wrote them and suspect that they were put up to it by my mortal enemy (I really hope I don’t have a mortal enemy).

Where do you see the publishing industry going? It’s not looking good, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I can’t be the only one who will always want stories. As a debut author published in the most difficult period ever for the industry, I consider myself very lucky. It’s really, really tough for an unknown to get published now. Unravelling Oliver was rejected by many publishers because they couldn’t define its genre, so while the editors wanted it, their marketing departments didn’t. God help us if the money men are taking over literature as well as everything else.

What writing trends have struck you lately? There was a vampire thing a while back and then erotica. I’m aware they were trends but they didn’t affect me.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading? Not everyone can do this, but I have read my way out of anxiety, loneliness and depression. Not from the subject matter, just the mere fact that I can live in a different world when I pick up a book and take my mind off whatever is bothering me.

What has being a writer taught you? I need to write more, faster, better in order to make a living.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? Only the ones who seem like they’d be good fun. I know a few like Frank McGuinness, Claudia Carroll, Sinead Crowley and Kate Thompson, who are all fabulous. Kevin Barry seems like he’d be entertaining and Marian Keyes is hilarious. I think that would be a good mix too – and no enormous egos amongst them. Plus, they’re all alive, which is an advantage.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read? There’s a scene in Frank McGuinness’s Arimathea between a priest’s mother and a butcher about lamb chops that had me howling with laughter.

What is your favourite word? Love

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject? Malcolm McArthur. He murdered two people in the summer of 1982 and was found hiding out in the home of the attorney general. I don’t think he had any previous convictions and came from quite a middle-class privileged background. I’d love to ghost-write his story. I’m fascinated by him. Malcolm, if you’re reading this, get in touch.

Take the first step to your debut novel with the Irish Times How to Write a Book series.

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