This is How it Ends author Kathleen MacMahon on Second Novel Syndrome
Ahead of her discussion on the subject with Pat Kenny, Liz McManus and Donal Ryan in the Irish Writers Centre, the bestselling writer reveals the perils and pitfalls of the second book
Kathleen MacMahon, whose second novel, The Long, Hot Summer, is published on May 21st: “I could make a long list of the mistakes I made in writing that second book. I started writing it too soon, and without a clear enough idea of where I was going with it. I threw too much at it, determined to make this one novel a vessel for everything I wanted to be as a writer.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Do you remember when you were a kid, how from about October onwards, every second person you met would ask you what you wanted from Santa? Every third person made a joke about a sack of coal. Well, if you’re a debut writer, every second person you meet asks you when your new book is coming out and every third person makes a joke about “the difficult second album”. If it’s hard to work up a smile at the beginning, it gets harder and harder as time goes by.
It’s been three years since my first novel came out. My publishers had hoped to have the second book out within a year of the first, in keeping with a preference in the book trade for “a book a year” from any writer deemed to be commercial. That phrase filled me with dread from the moment I heard it, not because I’m afraid of a deadline – I worked as a reporter for 15 years and never missed one – but because I feared that the process of creating fiction might not be so amenable to a strict time schedule. And so it came to pass.
The first problem I encountered with the second book was the fact that it was a book before I even started writing it. It existed, as a line on a contract. In my case it even had a tentative title and an approximate word count. Whereas the first book started out as a secret I kept even from myself, this book was out there in the world before a single page of it was written. Its publication was assured, or so I thought, which removed the safety net I had enjoyed with the first.
While I was writing the first novel, I had soothed my anxieties with the knowledge that it was likely to languish for eternity in a dark drawer, without ever finding a reader. As it happened, the first book was published effortlessly and it was the second book that would end up languishing in that dark drawer. After two years of writing, and a series of seemingly endless re-writes that only succeeded in creating more problems than they solved, any hope of publishing it was finally abandoned. The polite term that was used was “parked”.
I could make a long list of the mistakes I made in writing that second book. I started writing it too soon, and without a clear enough idea of where I was going with it. I threw too much at it, determined to make this one novel a vessel for everything I wanted to be as a writer. I seemed to have forgotten that the success of the first book was in large part due to my conscious determination to spare it the burden of any literary vanities I might have had.
When my first book found a publisher, I went on Morning Ireland to talk about it and the first question I was asked was, “what’s the book about?” I hesitated to answer the question, because for one awful moment I couldn’t for the life of me think how to explain what my own book was about. In subsequent interviews, I did thankfully manage to achieve a modicum of eloquence in talking about the book’s themes, so much so that I sometimes wished I could go back and start writing it all over again, with the benefit of this new clarity I had achieved. But it may be that you only come to fully understand what your book is about after you’ve finished writing it, the process of writing being a journey through a fog of ideas towards this lovely, and maddeningly elusive, clarity.
I don’t use the word “maddening” lightly. There were times during the writing of that second book when I feared for my mental health. The fog that I was operating in was so dense that I couldn’t see my way out. The prospect of not fulfilling my contract was terrifying, especially since I had by then given up my day job. I was no longer a journalist but a full-time writer, with a highly publicised two-book deal, and no second book.
To be a writer without a book is not a good thing to be, and there are only two ways out of this situation. The first is to cease to be a writer, and I did give this option serious consideration, despite the humiliating defeat it would constitute. There were times when I felt incapable of writing, but I also suspected that there would be times in the future when I would be incapable of not writing. It was this grim realisation that led me to start work on a new book.
I had it half-written in my head, which helped. All the time that I had been struggling with the doomed second book, ideas were forming for its successor. I knew that I wanted to write about people who lived to a greater or lesser extent in the public eye, people who were driven by the force of their own certainties. I knew that misfortune would befall these people, and I wanted to find out whether their personalities would bend or change as a result of those misfortunes. Before I even wrote the first page, I had a scrapbook stuffed with notes about each of them, from the clothes they wore to the cars they drove. For every character, I had a picture in my head of a face.
Perhaps because of this clarity, it was not a difficult book to write. I won’t pretend that the editing of it was pain-free, but the first draft wrote itself and the central ideas underpinning the novel remained mercifully clear throughout. What emerged may be my second published novel, but it’s not really a second book. It’s a third book (or a fourth, if you count an earlier, never published, novel that I wrote 10 years ago.) The second book, like the thirteenth floor in a hotel, has been passed over.
Pat Kenny discusses Second Book Syndrome with Kathleen MacMahon, Liz McManus and Donal Ryan on Thursday, May 21st, at 7.30pm, in the Irish Writers Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Tickets €10, €8.
The Long, Hot Summer, Kathleen MacMahon’s follow-up to her bestselling debut This is How it Ends, is published on May 21st by Sphere.