Louise O’Neill on Niamh Mulvey: ‘I often say her name should be on the cover of the book as well’
Authors and editors by Sarah Bannan: ‘The feeling of finding a special manuscript, like Only Ever Yours, is the best in the world. It’s a bit like falling in love’ – Niamh Mulvey
Louise O’Neill: Niamh was passionate about the book, she wrote me this beautiful letter about why she wanted to work on this book and how she felt that she could help me fulfil the book’s potential. She seemed to truly understood what I was trying to achieve. Most of all, I just liked her as a person – I thought she was funny and interesting. Photograph: Miki Barlok
Niamh Mulvey: To be perfectly honest, Only Ever Yours was, at first, a bit of a hard sell. Looking back on it now, I think it was because of a lack of understanding of how ambitious young adult books can be. There is a perception that young adult fiction is simply commercial fiction for teenagers. But with Only Ever Yours Louise aimed for – and achieved – something more ambitious
Louise O’Neill was born in 1985 in Clonakilty, Co Cork. Her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, was published by Quercus in 2014 and won the inaugural Bookseller YA Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Louise was also awarded with the 2014 Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year. Only Ever Yours is currently out in paperback, with a new adult edition due this July. Louise’s second novel, Asking For It, will be published by Quercus on September 3rd.
Originally from Kilkenny, Niamh Mulvey now lives in London. She is acting editorial director at Quercus Children’s Books.
Sarah Bannan is author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)
Niamh, how long have you been an editor? What drew you to the profession? What keeps you there?
NM: I’ve been an editor for about four and a half years now. Before working in publishing, I faffed around quite a lot, dabbled in a bit of this and that including two years as a secondary school teacher – but I always felt restless. I never had any proper hobbies apart from reading, and I didn’t care about anything as much as I did about fiction – so publishing seemed like a good idea. As soon as I joined Quercus, I felt I found the profession for me, despite the low pay in the beginning and the fact I couldn’t get a job in Ireland. What keeps me in it is my utter obsession with discovering new writing talent and with helping my existing authors write the best books they possibly can. The feeling of finding a special manuscript – like Only Ever Yours – is the best in the world. It’s a bit like falling in love.
Louise, how long were you working on Only Ever Yours? And how long was your own editing process?
LON: The first draft took me six months. I had left my job working in fashion in New York so I was writing full-time and I completely immersed myself into the world of the book. I was obsessive about it – it was all I could think, talk, even dream about. I didn’t drink, I didn’t socialise, I didn’t do very much really except write. Once I had that initial draft I did a cursory edit which took about three to four weeks. I started submitting the manuscript to agents in November 2012.
Niamh, what attracted you to Niamh’s work? Was it the voice? The story? The world Louise created?
NM: I knew Only Ever Yours was special – really, super, totally, once every five years special – right from the first few chapters. It has a visionary quality to it; Louise built the world of the story so effortlessly. You are right there, in the school, and it has this eerie familiarity – you feel like you already know this world. Only the best kind of authors can make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar – and in Only Ever Yours, Louise manages to do both. I am also obviously a massive feminist so the uncompromising and bold nature of the story really impressed me.
Louise, I can only imagine that there was a large level of interest in Only Ever Yours when your agent was selling it... and that you had a tough decision to make when it came to your publisher and editor. What made you choose Niamh?
LON: There was huge interest in Only Ever Yours at an agent level. I had offers from five literary agents, all of whom were very well respected and represented hugely successful authors. After I signed with my agent, Rachel Conway at Capel and Land, in February 2013, I think I expected that I would immediately sign a six-figure deal and while the reaction from publishers was once again overwhelmingly positive, there was trepidation about how “dark” the book was. Editor after editor said they loved the story but that they were concerned the material, particularly the ending, was too bleak for a young adult market. Luckily, I did have offers from a number of different publishers and I went to London in May 2013 to meet with editors. As soon as I met Niamh, I knew I wanted to work with her. There were similar reasons for why I chose Rachel as my agent; Niamh was young, she was hungry, she was ambitious. I probably recognised these traits in myself and I wanted my “team” to feel the same way. Niamh was passionate about the book, she wrote me this beautiful letter about why she wanted to work on this book and how she felt that she could help me fulfil the book’s potential. She seemed to truly understood what I was trying to achieve. Most of all, I just liked her as a person – I thought she was funny and interesting. I knew I would be comfortable working with her.
Niamh, Only Ever Yours is a first novel, so your colleagues wouldn’t have been familiar with Louise or with her work. What kinds of things did you do to get everybody on board? I imagine all you had to do was convince them to read the book, which speaks for itself...but maybe in a big publishing house you have to do more than that...?
NM: So much more! As an editor, one of your most important jobs is to convince your colleagues of two things: 1) the potential of this book to sell and 2) that your vision – for the publication plan, the cover, the retailers you want to get behind it, etc – is going to work. If you can’t sell your vision to your colleagues, they can’t sell it to the wider word.
To be perfectly honest, Only Ever Yours was, at first, a bit of a hard sell. Looking back on it now, I think it was because of a lack of understanding of how ambitious young adult books can be. There is a perception that young adult fiction is simply commercial fiction for teenagers – that Young Adult (YA) novels are fun, perfectly readable, but ultimately a bit trashy and disposable. They are, for adults, “a guilty pleasure”. And this is true for many YA novels, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (I’ve published plenty of commercial YA myself). But with Only Ever Yours Louise aimed – and achieved – for something more ambitious. If one of the definitions of literary fiction is that it seeks to challenge rather than maintain the status quo, then Only Ever Yours is certainly literary. And because all of the big YA hitters in recent years have been more commercial, it was tricky to get people to understand what this book was about. Getting external validation from Jeanette Winterson and Marian Keyes prior to publication was a huge help. As well as that, there were some very passionate in-house advocates who just wouldn’t let this book go – even when it struggled to make an initial sales impact in the UK. Our marketing department in particular just loved it and they were determined to get people to read it – and they did a lot of extra work simply motivated by their own passion. And now we are planning an adult edition in the summer – which is a reflection of how passionate Quercus is about this book.
Louise, this is your debut and, so, your first time working with an editor on a novel. How did it tally with your expectations of an editor? Was it more intrusive than you expected or more supportive?
LON: I had no clue what to expect as I had no experience working with an editor before. I tend to find editing difficult, especially that first round of edits where the work that needs to be done seems so extensive that I doubt I’ll ever be able to manage. From the very beginning, Niamh was so encouraging. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who can phrase constructive criticism in such a gentle manner – essential for working with sensitive writer types! By the time I signed with Quercus, I had brought Only Ever Yours as far as I felt I could by myself so I was eager to hear someone else’s notes. I never felt precious about my work, I was willing to listen to her advice. In general I implemented any changes Niamh suggested and the very few times I disagreed with her, she would support my decision.
Niamh, how does working with a debut author differ from working with someone who has a long publishing history?
NM: Because Quercus is a relatively young company, and because I’ve only been in the business a few years, most of my authors are debuts. So I can really only say that I love debuts – it’s very rewarding to be part of the process of helping someone achieve their vision for their writing and to be the person who brings this vision to the wider world. Nothing makes me happier than seeing readers react with passion to my authors’ books. Louise has had some incredibly passionate reactions – especially from teen readers – and I do feel proud of helping to bring a book into the world that inspires such strong feelings in people.
Louise, what was the most challenging part of writing Only Ever Yours?
LON: The most challenging part was the uncertainty. There was no guarantee of future success, there was no guarantee that the book would even be published. To know that, and to still get up every day and keep writing, takes a level of dedication (or lunacy?!) that I didn’t know I possessed. But I couldn’t not write this story.
Niamh, how do you make your edits? As a set of questions or as notes and suggestions in the margin? Or a combination? And where does the editing happen? Over email? Lunch? Drinks?
NM: Great question! It’s a really long process. It usually begins with the first, crucial conversation you have with an author before you’ve signed their book. It’s so important that the editor and the author have the same vision in mind for the book. So at that meeting, you outline (nervously!) your understanding of what the author is trying to do, and how you might help them do that. Sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t right, and your ideas diverge, but usually, if you love a manuscript, it’s usually because you admire and understand what the author is trying to do. Then, if you are lucky enough to acquire the book, the fun really starts. I usually write quite a long editorial letter that outlines in broad brush strokes what aspects I think need work. This is time for the really big stuff: new characters might need to appear, or some might be disappeared; any problems in the plot have to be addressed; whole sections might be added or (more likely, as I am a ruthless pruner) removed. I like to talk to the author as much as possible during this process – a good long phone call, or chat over lunch (if they’re in London) can be very productive. With Louise, we talk on the phone a couple of times a month, and email a lot. Once the author has addressed all of this – which might take a couple of drafts, you can move onto my favourite bit – the line edit. At this stage, I usually work in track changes in Word. This is the time to look closely at the language, make sure that at a sentence level, the writing is as tight and clear as possible. I love this stage because it’s less headache-y than moving the plot around, but mostly because it really shows how powerful language is – sometimes all you need to do is remove a single word from a sentence to change the entire atmosphere of the writing.
Louise, what’s the best thing about working with Niamh?
LON: Where do I start? She is a superb, insightful editor, her notes are always incredibly incisive, and she cares so much about her books and her authors. She invests so much of her energy into her work – it’s not just a job to her. I didn’t understand before working with her that publishing is a hugely collaborative effort and now I often say that I feel her name should be on the cover of the book as well! I trust her implicitly, not only as an editor, but as a person. Both she and my agent have become close friends of mine.
And, Niamh, same question for you (about Louise!)...
NM: Let me count the ways! Louise is a dream to work with. I know, I know, it’s so luvvie, but it’s true. Everyone knows she’s talented, so I won’t go on about that. Aside from that, the best thing is how collaborative she is – a lot of authors can be precious and possessive, but Louise is always ready to engage with and to take on board editorial feedback – which is not to say we don’t disagree sometimes of course. It’s such a pleasure to talk about writing with someone who is as passionate about it as she is – we’ve had some really rewarding discussions about nerdy things like point of view, tone, character formation, all of that stuff. I suppose the fact that we are around the same age and from a very similar background (around same age, both from small-town Ireland) definitely helps and we have become close friends as a result of working together.
Louise, I know you have a two-book deal with Quercus. Have you discussed with Niamh what you’re working on next? Have you sent her any of it yet or are you waiting until you have a full manuscript? And can you share a little bit about it with us?
LON: I’ve just finished the copy edits on my second novel. It’s called Asking For It and it’s due to be published by Quercus on September 3rd. It’s very different to my debut novel as it is contemporary fiction and is set in a small town in Ireland. It deals with issues of rape culture, victim blaming and consent.
I had a conversation with Niamh before I started writing the manuscript in January 2014 about my overall ideas for the second book and then submitted the first draft in September. Once again, the book is infinitely improved as a result of her hard work.
Niamh, Only Ever Yours has had such a wonderful critical reception, both in Ireland and abroad. And it’s won a number of prizes. How important are prizes to a book’s success, in your view? To see Louise win a prize for her novel must be a very validating experience for you as an editor?
NM: As I said, Only Ever Yours is an unusual book, and unusual books really need lots of TLC from the literary community – reviews and prizes are absolutely crucial for more offbeat, braver and different kinds of writing. It was the Irish literary community who first really got behind Louise, and it meant the world to both of us in those nervous few weeks before publication. I wrote to a lot of authors, journalists, retailers, bloggers – you name it! – including Marian Keyes, and the immediate interest of those people based in Ireland was so heartening. People in London publishing sometimes says how much they admire how seriously we Irish take our books and writing – but I never really believed it until Only Ever Yours came out. It took a little longer for the British book world to wake up to it, so winning the Bookseller Young Adult Prize has been so incredibly important. Louise was interviewed on Front Row on BBC Radio 4 after her win which was amazing – it’s one of the biggest radio slots for the arts in the UK. The book is selling more copies now than it did when it first came out – which is all down to the prizes and the continuing great reviews. It’s coming out in the US next month and has already had a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which I believe is a really big deal. With the adult edition coming out in July, and lots of film and TV interest, I really believe this is only the beginning for this wonderful book.