Were you always a writer or was it something you discovered later in life?
RD: I have been writing for a lifetime. I think that most writers you talk to will tell you this, that it was one of the things they did as children. I was always, always, writing something. The first thing I had published was a review of childrens books in The Irish Times. Then I got lots of bizarre jobs, like an agony aunt in a weekend newspaper. The first piece of fiction I got published was an hour-long radio play. This inspired me to go on and write a childrens book.
Was there a particular moment when you felt you had become a proper writer?
When does one become a writer? I think the answer to that is when you start getting paid for it. It shifts you from just being a person who expresses yourself through writing to someone for whom it is a profession, and it progresses from there. When I first started earning my living from writing, I knew then that it was something that was always going to be a huge part of my life.
You have written both adult and childrens fiction. Do you have a preference for either genre?
I havent been in the world of children for several years. I prefer writing for adults, but I want to write a stage play more than anything else. I like the spareness of a play. You have to show, not tell. You have to pare back and give everything in words and actions. I like the challenge of that.
You have won both the Hennessy Short Story Award and the Bistro Childrens fiction award. Do you find that such recognition motivates and validates you as a writer?
RD: I didnt actually apply for either award. But when I found out, it was a great surprise and certainly very cheering! At the same time, I am very aware that there are many people doing really good stuff who dont get enough recognition. Its hard sometimes to keep going and believing in yourself. I was really lucky getting published early. Once you are published, sadly, nowadays you have to quickly click with the collective consciousness and the latest trend in publishing. Or else be so f—ing brilliant that you sell anyway!
Do you have a fixed idea in your head before you start writing or does the story develop organically?
I always have an idea that I want to develop but it grows organically when I get started. I do a lot beforehand: working out characters, place, location, plot line, and putting it all down over several weeks. For the last few books I have done far too much research; Im trying to cut back on that.
When you first sit down and start writing, you have it marshalled, but ideas grow, no matter how you try to control them. You know your story and your people, and so feel confident enough to let the organic growth happen, knowing that you can bring it back to the story line. You literally cant lose the plot if you know the plot. I believe that you can be more creative with boundaries than if its all over the place. You can have 25 pots of paints and 80 canvases, but if you have only one small canvas and three pots of paint and are confined it explodes. The tension created by having boundaries to push against is a creative force in itself. Thats what a plot line is for me.
What would you say are the main challenges of being a full-time writer? RD:
Money! Getting paid and getting published. You also have to remove yourself from the society of friends and company a lot of the time. Your habits become very bad; you start drinking too much coffee and eating too many carbohydrates; getting lazy and all the rest. But despite all of that, you feel great, because this idea is bursting within you. You just have to keep writing. The more you do it, the better you become.
For a writer starting out, what would be your top tips for success? RD:
Firstly, there is no Golden Typewriter, no perfect laptop, perfect day or right moment. You sit down and you write this very minute. Start now. Set your own time limits. Be strict with yourself. There is no point saying that you have the rest of your life to write the book. You dont.Sometimes you get paid for it, and thats alright too!
Following a successful debut, many Irish authors move to UK publishers or beyond. Do you think that this is a necessary move if they want to succeed? RD:
I did it myself. It used to be that Irish publishers didnt sell on. Years ago they had very small success in selling foreign rights. But that has improved drastically. You can now go with one of the bigger Irish publishers, or even smaller ones, who can sell on the rights and have agents in New York and beyond. I think that nowadays Irish publishers can do everything that UK/USA publishers can do. Some Irish publishers arent as aggressive as they need to be, but they are going to have to be.
Is the Irish industry strong enough to sustain new Irish voices, or are we just too many fish in a small pond?
Publishing has had a terribly hard time since the advent of e-books. When the Net Book Agreement was broken, and books went into the supermarkets, it changed the landscape of the publishing world. Bookshops had to bring down their prices and all sorts of things. And then came e-publishing on the heels of that. But publishing is full of wonderful characters and people who believe in books. It hasnt been as quick to change as other industries, which is in its favour, I think.
Do you feel that self-publishing and e-publishing will be a positive thing for new writers?
I do think that good writing and talent will always emerge. A year ago, I would have been very uncertain about self-publishing, but now I know a couple of people who tried it and got picked up afterwards. If thats the way to get it out, why not? It also helps to keep publishers on their toes.
From your experience, is an agent an essential part of the process for getting your book out there?
I would recommend taking an agent. Its almost a prerequisite. Most publishers wont read your book unless it comes via an agent. Its worth paying the money. Plus they know their way around the place; if they say a books good, a publisher will listen to them.
Nowadays an author is expected to produce a book a year. What kind of impact does this have on the writing process? Should writers be pushing back on tight time-lines for the sake of quality?
They should definitely push back or it becomes about producing a product and not a book. Then they wonder why people are disappointed with a second book or why a third one doesnt sell. If writers are pushed and pushed, it isnt going to be their best work. Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot really. Some people can only write well under pressure, but there is pressure and then pressure. Its not like churning out a pound of butter!
You wrote the foreword for the recent reissue of the late Theodora FitzGibbons autobiography A Taste of Love; have you any other projects in the pipeline?
Im full of projects! Ive had a hiatus of several years but I have lots of ideas now. I recently started writing a historical novel about an American woman who came and worked in Ireland during the Famine. I had all the research done and a first draft and then I thought to myself, why am I always writing worthy historical novels? Ive always wanted to write a crime novel, so thats what Im doing now!
If you werent a writer, what would you like to be?
A painter: thats what I really would have liked to have been. But I just wasnt that good! Also, I found I could make a living out of writing, which is much harder to do as a painter.
And finally, when your book is finished, where do you send it next?
Normally I would have a contract before I started a book, and when finished it would typically go to an agent.