He is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor
I was in my late twenties and living in Oxford, working as an assistant editor in the trade department at Oxford University Press, when I started He Is Mine and I Have No Other. It was a very happy time for me, as close to settled as I had managed in my adult life. And so I sat down at my lovely old desk in my lovely room in Summertown to write. I’d been working up to this since my teens, so it seemed appropriate enough that my protagonist should be a fifteen-year-old girl. Lani notices a boy walking past her house to the cemetery, to visit his mother’s grave. That was the image that set the whole thing in motion. They fall in love, she and this boy Leon. I wanted to capture the intensity of first love, of adolescence, the claustrophobia and boredom of small-town Ireland in the early 1990s.
Things started to turn a little sour at work, and so I made the difficult decision to leave Oxford. I returned to my parents’ in Cavan and continued working on the book, spent three wonderful weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and produced a first draft of the novel, before returning to find work in London. I was lucky in that I very quickly found an agent, and was sure that things would move on swiftly from there and I would be published before I turned 30. Oh, the daydreams I had while temping! But time went on, and though several publishers were keen on the book, none enough to take a punt. Meanwhile, I had a niggling feeling that it wasn’t really finished and that it had gone out to publishers prematurely.
I started working as a commissioning editor on an international fiction list at Saqi, a small family run publishing house situated above a bookshop on Westbourne Grove. My boss there very kindly allowed me a seven-month sabbatical to be a writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District in 2005. So I celebrated my thirtieth birthday on the shores of Lake Grasmere. Time was moving on. But one thing I did do while I was there was develop the story of the orphans who haunt Lani in the book. Thirty-five girls had perished in an industrial school fire, like the one in my hometown in 1943, and were buried in an unmarked grave near Leon’s mother. I had been haunted by them myself since I was a girl, and it felt important to tell their story, and to contrast Lani’s life with theirs by giving some of them a voice. I felt I was a little closer to the book I wanted.
Back in London, work was all-consuming, but I managed to start a second novel, which I completed just after my son Bruce was born. My agent and I parted ways. Then my husband Will and I made the decision to move to Ireland in 2008. We took up residence in a freezing cold old farmhouse outside Cavan Town. It had a hole in the front door, and the sole source of heat was a temperamental stove in the kitchen. You could see your breath in the living room. It was a hard winter. We slept in our clothes. I worked as a freelance editor in the spare bedroom upstairs while Will looked after our son.
The following year we moved to a warmer house, and then, in the summer of 2010 we produced the first issue of The Moth. Finding time to write became more and more of an issue as we tried to find our feet business-wise. The Moth was expanding. It was now The Caterpillar magazine too, and several literary prizes, and an artists’ studio, and a touring theatre company for a while … The family was expanding too. We had two more children. Still, I managed to produce my first collection of poetry, We’ll Sing Blackbird, in 2012.
Finally, we found somewhere to settle in the summer of 2015, when we bought an old farmhouse in rural Cavan. We threw ourselves into making the house liveable in, and into setting up The Moth Retreat in the barn next to the house. It was wonderfully exhilarating, but incredibly exhausting too.
Sitting in front of the fire one evening in the winter of 2016, Will and I were discussing what we could do to raise money to fix the roof of our house. I joked that we could sell He Is Mine and I Have No Other, and Will said that he wanted to take another look at it. I felt a huge sense of relief when he suggested cutting a section of the book. It was so obvious to me, once he pointed it out, that it wasn’t working, and yet I hadn’t been able to see it.
Donal Ryan, whom I had met at the University of Limerick around that time, offered to read the manuscript, and very kindly endorsed it, so with that I resolved to start sending it out in early 2017. As Seamus Heaney once said, ‘Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.’
One day I emailed the agent Caroline Michel to request an interview with Edna O’Brien for The Moth. She very quickly, and politely, declined. Then it occurred to me that I could cheekily send her my manuscript. Within a fortnight I was signed up by her agency Peters Fraser + Dunlop, and shortly after that they found a publisher, when Jo Dingley from Canongate read it ‘in one big gulp’, as she put it, on a train journey from London to Edinburgh.
(c) Rebecca O’Connor
Rebecca O’Connor’s first collection of poetry We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Shine/Strong Award. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Spectator, Poetry Review and elsewhere. She was a writer in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, the Centre for British Romanticism and is a recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. She is co-founder and publisher of The Moth magazine. She lives in County Cavan, Ireland. He Is Mine and I Have No Other is her first novel.
@RebeccaMoth | themothmagazine.com
About He is Mine and I Have No Other:
‘I was frightened of him in a way – of his grief, his loneliness – for he looked like the loneliest person on earth just then . . . the type of boy who wondered about things, as I did, who broke his heart wondering about things . . .’
In 1990s-small-town Ireland, amid the sweaty school discos and first fumblings of adolescence, fifteen-year-old Lani Devine falls in love with Leon Brady, whose mother is buried in the cemetery next to Lani’s house.
Lani is haunted by the stories of thirty-five orphaned girls, buried in an unmarked grave near Leon’s mother. As the love story unfolds, and then unravels, it becomes clear that Leon too is haunted – by a brutal family tragedy that has left scars much more than skin-deep.
He Is Mine and I Have No Other is a captivating, eerie and atmospheric novel about the obsessive power of first love, about the claustrophobia a tight-knit family and community can cause, and about buried secrets and the havoc they wreak.
Order your copy online here.