I have recently published my first novel, Penny Baps. A story about brothers and home and the kind of purpose that sustains a marginal life. It is a picture of absolute belief, of a consuming moral certainty. It is my first story, long-form proof of self-obsession, a search for anything sure, or funny, or true.
I was one of those children who read books. Fairytales, fantasy, and when I was older, anything that had been declared important. I wanted to be sucked in, to dissolve. I wanted to learn other lives and ideas, witness what is beautiful or terrible in the world. I wanted to fuse with the words so that I’d emerge at the end mourning, unsettled, casting about for an anchor, some idea of who or where I was and how I was going to live. What a smart trick, I thought.
I always imagined myself writing but that was as far as I got. I wrote nothing outside schoolwork. My first major writing project was a thesis at University about the cardio-protective properties of a peptide I can’t remember. It was seven thousand words. The experiment depended on accurate use of a pipette and my sloppiness was frequently deadly to the mouse heart cell lines. Unsurprisingly, we were left with a mixed bag of results. Amidst the struggle for proper bibliographical formatting and graph creation, the crafting of a coherent discussion and conclusion was an early example of creative writing.
After my thesis, I went back to not writing. I went back to expecting myself to write novels while never actually writing. I dropped out of Medicine and went travelling. I read all of Beckett and became sad and started writing bitter travel diaries about how annoying the Australian backpackers were and how boring it was to stay in hostels with people who had all been to the same exotic places. I wrote descriptions of the landscapes and the people that I saw and I was very impressed with myself.
I came home and started a business with my brother and began to write Penny Baps on my day off over several years. It was a kind of secret. I wouldn’t tell anyone I was writing until I had actually written something, until I had some feeling of voice, some command of myself. It’s a long process to begin. Also, it’s an embarrassing hobby. Evidence of serious character defect. The conceit required for writing seemed to clash with strongly held belief; that if in doubt you should stick to silence. Say nothing. And yet here I was with my broken lyrics, my impressions. Here I was with my descriptions and plots, asking people to pay attention, presuming they should care when the only person who needed this performance was me. And I did need it. It had become essential to me; those small breakthroughs and connections, those sentences which when assembled stayed assembled.
In May 2019, with a draft of the novel complete, I applied to the Stinging Fly summer school and was accepted. It was the first time anybody had read an extract from the novel and the first time I would get feedback on something I had written.
Around a long table with ten writers from all over the world, I was vibrating. I took written note of their comments but I don’t know how because I was levitating. The workshop had an extraordinary leader in Mia Gallagher who patiently, rigorously, interrogated our responses. Later that year, through an incredible act of kindness from Mia, I got in touch with Becky Walsh, commissioning editor at John Murray. Becky was the first person to read the entire novel and her offer to publish it remains incredible, perfect. As the pandemic was forcing lockdown on Ireland and the UK, I was signing up with Lucy Luck and agreeing to publish with John Murray Originals.
Right from the beginning, I had complete trust in Becky and in how she understood the story. We edited the book over seven months and in January 2021 I surrendered the manuscript. The next few months were a dreadful, sometimes thrilling wait. This was my first time publishing anything and I had given myself completely to this story for a long time. Everything I’d written was in this book or had been discarded in making it.
Publication has been a period of intense excitement and hope, vulnerability and pride. I’m grateful to so many people for their kindness. I’m saying goodbye to something that I made and loved and let go. It’s finally the end and I’m remembering who and where I am after an obsession. I’m starting another time with the assembly of sentences, unsure again.
(c) Kevin Doherty
About Penny Baps:
‘He won’t tell Dan about the trees yet. In the spring maybe, when he knows if they’re living or dead. Cahir is the right man for a secret. The great secrets of the world are best kept by fat boys and girls. Fat boys like Cahir with no shortage of capacity or cover or practice, the ones who’ve been hoarding for years, building heft in the quiet when backs were turned.’
Cahir and Dan grew up on Inishowen, in north Donegal. It is their last year at home together. When his brother leaves, Cahir will be left behind, but he has plans too.
Cahir plants trees outside the town, on a scrap of ground belonging to their mother. In a world full of badness, he wants to do something good. It is a secret, even from Dan.
Dan works full time at the supermarket, content where he is. He has taken a year out before university and is messaging Lydia. If it works out with her, he might stay longer.
But the land doesn’t belong to Cahir or to Dan. It has been sold to Lydia’s brother and when Lydia finds Cahir tending the trees, on ground that isn’t his, things spiral out of Cahir’s control, threatening everything he has worked for.
Order your copy online here.