Michael O’Higgins on writing Snapshots: it took eight years but it wasn’t a trial
The ability to harness raw material and present it coherently helps but the precision needed to prepare a criminal brief can inhibit imagination, which is vital for fiction
Michael O’Higgins: Some people have commented that Snapshots captures the spirit of the 1980s very well. I like to think that this essence is there because I spent so much time working on it
A lot of people ask me where I get the time to write.
The truth is that you never do. You have to be ruthless, and even obsessive. If it were otherwise, writing would never get beyond the “to do” list. I began writing Snapshots in 2007. Eight years later it is about to be published – as the interval would suggest it took a fair bit of time and a few turns on the way.
Writing is a selfish and introverted pursuit. There is lots of solitary confinement in the study. A compromise was reached in my home: I would work at the kitchen table. Constant writing and re-writing to little effect is frustrating and sometimes drove me daft. The men on Laputa (the island of odd inventions in Gulliver’s Travels,) randomly turning the letters of a printing press, on the basis it must, by the law of averages, eventually produce a masterpiece sometimes sprung to mind.
There is no let-up, even during summer holidays. Mornings, I would sit in the shade, typing away like a metronome, while Patricia, my partner, lolled by the pool. I would frontload the day with some penance so that I could enjoy myself afterwards. Patricia did hers later, reading and re-reading text, always supportive and with an enthusiasm that was infectious.
Mostly, I wrote in the evenings – a couple of hours passed quickly, and it’s a pleasurable way to unwind.
The ability to harness raw material and present it coherently, learned as a journalist and lawyer, was helpful. But fear of defaming people and the need for precision in preparing a criminal brief can inhibit the imagination, the quality, which is at the core of writing fiction.
I decided against creative writing classes, for fear that I would end up writing not very well to formula. I had, of course, still to write to formula; it took me far longer than was necessary, but I like to think that in my own convoluted way I learned a customised version.
There were fallow periods when I abandoned the manuscript or nothing new was suggesting itself. I would re-work previous material, go through phases of layering the story up and then months later stripping material out so that it was bare.
There were many different versions. In the autumn of 2012 I sent off one of them to some agents and publishers.
Authors, when published, like to talk with what seems to be a degree of fondness about the many rejection slips. There were days when I would have been very grateful to get one. My book was ignored.
I received a single reply from a literary agency in London. The reply was part generic – it advised that I take a course in creative writing – but also took me to task for writing that an 11-year-old boy in that draft could have understood that the book Animal Farm by George Orwell was an allegory for communism.
She was wrong, of course: I was that boy and we all easily recognised the book for what it was. In a moment of clarity I realised that this was a rebuke that could only have come from someone born after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Elsewhere, I read an interview with John McGahern, given a short time before he died, about a trip that he had taken to Thailand. Bangkok had fascinated him but he had said with what appeared to me to be an air of resignation that it was a place for the next generation to write about.
Such comments made me seriously wonder, was there a “best before” or “use by” age for writing?
Around this time I got an idea that it might be useful to have Snapshots read by a book club. I went to the library and enquired of one of the librarians. She announced – somewhat imperiously – that she would read it. A couple of weeks later she handed back the manuscript without saying a word.
I was unnerved.
The underwhelming response could not be ignored, though.
The worries – too many characters, too many storylines, too ambitious an agenda to tie them together – were the same worries that I had on day one, now five years ago.
I jettisoned almost three-quarters of what I had written. It was a big call. I knew the characters and what remained of the plot very well. In that sense it was not quite like starting over.
Strangely, once I’d done it I felt nothing but relief. It took just 18 months to write the story that is published now. I will not go as far to say that it wrote itself, but the writing and pace were now far more fluid.
The story percolated slowly enough, so being unable to write full-time was not a disadvantage.
The book is set in inner-city Dublin during the 1980s against the backdrop of the IRA/ INLA hunger strikes and the abortion referendum. The action centres mainly on Wayne Clarke, his criminal father Christy who is given to cruel and random violence, the detective-sergeant whose mission is to put Christy behind bars and the local curate who hot-houses Wayne’s preternatural musical talent but not for wholly altruistic reasons. Wayne ducks, dives and weaves past the many obstacles in his path, ahead of the posse.
If anything, the lack of a deadline and interest actually helped. I’d already decided that I wouldn’t regret putting in the time, in the event that the book was not published. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would finish this book.
Some people have commented that Snapshots captures the spirit of the 1980s very well. More than one person has said that this is surprising given that it’s not mired in period detail. I like to think that this essence is there because I spent so much time working on it. The book eventually garnered a rhythm and a flow.
New Island Books accepted Snapshots in February last year. They sent it back to me in March of this year for final editing. I was still working off typed pages on Word. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I opened an email to see it typeset, complete with copyright and disclaimer, that I could conceive of it as a book.
Since then there have been a flurry of emails dealing with the cover, the blurb, the launch. It’s all quite intoxicating.
I wrote with an imaginary reader in mind, or sometimes a group of readers. They were all faceless. As publication looms, I now see the book through the eyes of people who know me, and feel anxious. Some days I think I have written a good story that is worth publishing. Others I’m full of doubt and racked with anxiety.
I’m always glad that I did it, though.
Michael O’Higgins is a senior counsel. His debut novel Snapshots has just been published by New Island Books. Declan Hughes will review it in The Irish Times on October 24th