‘Get to it!’ was the slogan for the 2009 Dublin Book Festival, and the picture that went alongside featured a boat with a sail of pages, flying seagull books and a whale’s tail fluke. It was eighteen months since I’d started writing Look into the Eye, my first novel with a whale of a sub-theme, and I was beginning to lose faith that I would ever finish writing it. So I cut out the festival advertisement and hung it beside my bedroom mirror. Every day I would look at the picture, seeing it as motivation to Get to my desk and write. It helped me to imagine the day when Look into the Eye would finally be published, and I might even be talking about it at the Dublin Book Festival. It’s difficult, but so wonderful, to believe that four years later, I’ll be launching the book during the festival this year.
I started to write Look into the Eye while I was on a six-month career break. I had just finished running a challenging multi-million euro fundraising campaign, so I naively expected that, in comparison, writing a novel would be relatively straightforward, and that six work-free months would be ample time to finish it off. Oh how wrong I was. It turned out that, compared to penning a first novel, fundraising is a relative walk in the park!
But I don’t regret a single second of the time it took to first write, then rewrite, edit, and re-edit the book again and again. I loved learning this new craft of novel-writing. Starting with a ‘Write Your Novel’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre with Claire Hennessy (now of the Big Smoke Writing Factory); I went on to join a new writer’s group; became a book and writer’s festival groupie, and read every book ever written about novel-writing. And any time I hit a wall or had a precious week’s holiday to spare, I spent it writing at Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat on the Beara peninsula in West Cork – a magical place for writers, where the words simply flow.
Once I had a draft I was happy with, I sent it off to Vanessa O’Loughlin of www.writing.ie who gave me invaluable feedback on the story-line, structure and potential audience. Then I submitted my first chapters to a handful of editors and publishers who Vanessa advised might be interested, and I entered several novel-writing competitions. Of course I stacked up the rejection letters, but finally the day I’d been waiting for arrived – Paula Campbell of Poolbeg Press called to say that Look into the Eye had come in as runner-up for the TV3 Write-a-Bestseller Competition, and that they wanted to publish it and offer me a three book deal – a very happy day!
Look into the Eye is the story of the right people who meet at the wrong time. When the two main characters Melanie and Richard meet there is an obvious spark between them, but it is not until after they each look into the eye of a whale that Richard can start to let go of the past and Melanie stops fixating on the future. Their paths cross again as they begin to sort out their respective lives.
Melanie’s story is largely inspired by my own travels to Norway at the end of 2007 to photograph killer whales in the arctic waters. I found myself profoundly moved by an eye-to-eye close encounter with a huge killer whale. The only way I could attempt to fully express the impact of the encounter on me was to write it down. What started as a travel piece of sorts, went on to become the beginning of the first few chapters of Melanie’s story.
The inspiration for Richard’s story came a few days after my return from Norway. I spotted Irish Greenpeace activist Dave Walsh speaking from Japan on RTÉ News about the Japanese whaling expedition that was about to start in Antarctica. I knew that whaling still happened in parts of the world, but I had no idea it was taking place on such a large scale. I couldn’t understand why, in this day and age, anyone would need to hurt a whale, let alone set out to hunt down and kill over one thousand of these beautiful animals – the realisation shook me to the core. I wrote to Dave on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, and started to follow their anti-whaling campaign closely online. I became so impressed by this small group of committed activists who seemed unafraid to make a peacful stand against the might of the Japanese government-run whaling industry. So I got more and more involved, and raised as much money as I could to help support their campaign, ultimately becoming Greenpeace’s top international online fundraiser that year.
It amazed me how deeply I could feel for the fictional characters in the book – they seemed so real to me. I genuinely felt such a responsibility for Richard, Melanie and the whales. I wanted to do right by them all, to help them through their difficulties, and get them out the other side – it was what drove me to finish the book, and to persevere through the lengthy process of trying to find a publisher.
So I felt compelled to write Look into the Eye – both as a way to explore and try to understand the almost ethereal mystery and magic of these beautiful creatures myself, and thereafter to try to share it with others. I am delighted to be donating half of my royalties to the protection and conservation of whales in the wild, and to youth mental health charities in Ireland.
(c) Jennifer Barrett
Look into the Eye is available in all good bookshops and online here.
Jennifer Barrett is chief executive of a developing world charity, and a former board member of Childrens Books Ireland. Over the years Jennifer has worked in a number of fundraising, marketing and development roles across a wide range of Irish arts organisations, schools, colleges and charities.
A keen photographer, Jennifer spends much of her spare time travelling far and wide to photograph and observe whales and other marine life in their natural habitats. She is an advocate for the freedom and protection of whales and dolphins in the wild, and became Greenpeace’s volunteer International Fundraiser of the Year in 2007 It was a special eye-to-eye encounter with a killer whale in the arctic waters of Norway that inspired Jennifer’s first novel ‘Look into the Eye’ published by Poolbeg Press in November 2013.
Follow Jennifer on Facebook: JenniferBarrettAuthor or Twitter: @JenBarrettEye