Rachael English: Why I write, and why it took me so long

When I was a teenager, I wrote all the time. Did I want to be a writer? I don’t know that I thought in those terms. Even wanting to be a journalist sounded a bit showy

Rachael English: I get uptight doing Morning Ireland. Book nerves are different: waking at 4am in a froth of anxiety, wondering if it’s too late to change your mind and remove the book from the shops

Rachael English: I get uptight doing Morning Ireland. Book nerves are different: waking at 4am in a froth of anxiety, wondering if it’s too late to change your mind and remove the book from the shops

 

When I was a teenager, I wrote all the time. I spent hours honing my English essays while cramming the rest of my homework into 20 minutes in front of MT USA. I wrote rambling pieces about school in an old office diary. I scribbled notes about bands and books and everything that interested me. And I read. I read books from our school library and the larger town library. From Gone With The Wind to 1984, The Country Girls to Flowers in the Attic, I tore through everything that appealed to me.

Did I want to be a writer? I don’t know that I thought in those terms. Even wanting to be a journalist sounded a bit showy.

I came to feel that writing fiction was for others, for people from literary families or with degrees in English or in-depth knowledge of the classics. Most importantly, it was for the immensely talented

In the 1980s, you didn’t dawdle at school or college. Like most people, I did the Leaving Cert at 17. Three years later, I left college and got a job with Clare FM in Ennis. My writing became confined to 45-second audio reports about bust-ups at county council meetings and overcrowding in the local hospital. I won’t say I was too busy to write. That would be dishonest. The truth is, I enjoyed my job. In the 1990s, I moved to RTÉ. Those were good years to be a reporter. The country was changing. We had more freedom than today’s young journalists. Oh, and we didn’t have to listen to people telling us that the old media was dying and that soon enough there wouldn’t be any journalists left.

Rachael English aged 14 in Killarney: I spent hours honing my English essays while cramming the rest of my homework into 20 minutes in front of MT USA. I wrote rambling pieces about school in an old office diary
Rachael English aged 14 in Killarney: I spent hours honing my English essays while cramming the rest of my homework into 20 minutes in front of MT USA. I wrote rambling pieces about school in an old office diary

That wasn’t all. I came to feel that writing fiction was for others. It was for people from literary families or those with degrees in English or in-depth knowledge of the classics. Most importantly, it was for the immensely talented. I didn’t fit into any of these categories, so, while I remained an enthusiastic reader, my writing habit slipped away.

Then, six or seven years ago, a friend asked a question: what did you love doing as a teenager that you never do now? Her argument was this: as teenagers most of us are passionate about playing sport or singing or painting or something. Without thinking about it, we revel in being creative. But why shouldn’t we get the same enjoyment from those activities when we’re in our 20s or 30s ... or even older?

That this conversation took place during the depths of the recession wasn’t a coincidence. By then, I was presenting Morning Ireland. Every morning brought the red-light rush of news, most of it bleak. Our focus was on the arrival of the IMF and the implosion of the government, on cutbacks and tax hikes and the ever-climbing numbers of people without work. It felt like the perfect time to take refuge in a make-believe world.

What I hadn’t appreciated is how addictive writing becomes. When you’re working on a book, you hawk it around with you in your head. Normal life becomes an unwelcome intrusion

When I started writing, I thought of it as revisiting an old hobby. Save for my mother and my husband, I told nobody. I won’t claim it came easily to me. I gave up more than once. Many times I looked back over the previous day’s work, cringed and pressed delete. I spent month after month building my story then tearing it down.

Roisin Meets: Rachael English

What I hadn’t appreciated is how addictive writing becomes. When you’re working on a book, you hawk it around with you. You carry it in your head and in strange jottings saying things like, “Move paragraph on Tina Bennis to next scene”, or “Winnie Lafferty to reappear after trip to Carrigbrack”. Normal life becomes an unwelcome intrusion.

I’m often asked about the similarities between writing and broadcasting. In many ways, they’re completely different. Newsrooms are busy, chatty places, and few jobs are as collegiate as working on a daily radio programme. Writing is just you and every crazy idea in your head. As a radio presenter, I’m used to immediate feedback. Make a mistake, and within seconds listeners will be on Twitter to let you know where you went wrong. Then again, you usually get the chance to redeem yourself the next day. Writers aren’t so lucky.

My background as a journalist does seep into my writing. The American Girl tells the story of a young woman who becomes pregnant in the 1960s and is sent to a mother and baby home. Against her will, her daughter is taken for adoption. More than 40 years later, that daughter reaches a crossroads in her own life and decides to start searching for her birth mother. The consequences for both are dramatic. I first became interested in adoption stories more than 20 years ago when I spoke to a group of women who’d been born in the Bessboro home in Cork. They were finding it impossible to get information about their backgrounds.

I was like an interviewer who’s overly keen to display their knowledge. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t writing about an issue, but about characters. The story began to flow

When I started The American Girl, I did too much research. I was obsessive about the history of mother and baby homes and about the ways in which people who try to trace their birth parents are stymied by the system. I read books and listened to interviews and scoured message boards. The novel became clogged with detail. Eventually, it occurred to me that I was like an interviewer who’s overly keen to display their knowledge in every question. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t writing about an issue, but about characters. The story began to flow.

I get uptight doing Morning Ireland. Especially with a big interview, I worry that I’ll screw it up, that I won’t know enough or that a costly libel will slide past my ears. Book nerves are different. Book nerves are waking at 4am in a froth of anxiety, wondering if it’s too late to change your mind and remove the book from the shops. The American Girl is my third novel. People who have written 10, 20 books, tell me this madness doesn’t go away.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking that I’m not suited to writing. I tell myself I’m an imposter who should stick to what she knows. More often I wonder how I managed for so long without it.

The American Girl is published by Hachette Books Ireland

Róisín Meets podcast
In the latest Róisín Meets podcast, RTÉ presenter Rachael English talks to Róisín Ingle about accidentally writing a novel reflecting the news headlines of the day.

English’s voice will be familiar to the thousands of people who tune into Morning Ireland every day, but she has has just published her third novel, The American Girl.

It tells the story of 17-year-old Rose Moroney from Boston, who is smart, spirited and pregnant. She wants to marry her boyfriend but her parents have other ideas and ship her off to their native Ireland to a Mother and Baby home where Rose is expected to give up her baby.

This podcast was recorded a couple of weeks ago, as the controversy was starting to erupt over the Sisters of Charity’s ownership of the new National Maternity hospital and just a few months after the horrors of what happened at the Tuam mother and baby home hit headlines.

English spoke about tackling the thorny topics of abortion and mother and baby homes in her novel, and about accidentally writing a book that couldn’t be more “of the moment”.

To listen to the full conversation between Rachael English and Róisín Ingle, go to irishtimes.com/podcasts, or your preferred podcast app.

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