Putting in the Groundwork: Generation by Paula McGrath

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction

By Paula McGrath

My novel, Generation, will be published at the end of July. Its journey to publication was straightforward: when I was satisfied with the manuscript, I sent it to my agent; she loved it and sent it out on submission to a handful of publishers; within a few weeks, John Murray made an offer, and we signed contracts. Editing was a pleasure, and it’s been nothing but fun and excitement ever since.

Ok, the last bit is true, but I would be telling big porkies-by-omission if I didn’t fill in some of the in-between bits. In reality, the journey to publication for me was a long and windy one, best told in reverse order. Allow me to rewind.

‘When I was satisfied with the manuscript…’ Generation began as a single short story, published by the Ofi Press in 2012. It went through a number of shape-changes and took off in many different directions before it found its finished form. Through trial and error, and fairly rigorous research into form, the right questions gradually began to emerge and formulate, then to solidify. Even more gradually, answers emerged, and after many redrafts, ‘I was satisfied with the manuscript’.

Much of this process took place while I was enrolled on the MFA in Creative Writing in UCD. A writing course is not necessary in order to write a novel, and it’s not for everyone, but getting onto a good MFA – and I can’t recommend UCD’s enough – was very valuable to me. My work was inspired and stimulated by discussions with peers and mentors, by attending conferences and talks, by writing papers, and teaching classes, and just by random roots through the James Joyce library – so much so that I hope to continue writing in tandem with critical research at doctoral level. [Read more about the MFA at UCD from Dave Rudden here and Julie Morrissy here.]

But let’s rewind another bit. Getting onto the MFA was a path in itself. For a start, it was very expensive, and there was the question of how much I could afford to spend on something which, it could be argued, was a self-indulgent luxury. The amount of time it would require was another consideration, since I had toddler twins at the time, as well as two older children. Even if I could afford the time and money, there was strong competition for a handful of places, and fairly rigorous application requirements, including a post-graduate qualification, previous creative writing experience, a portfolio, and both academic and creative writing references. I had completed a year long course equivalent to an MA in Creative Writing, and several shorter courses, and just for good measure, I had an earlier MA in Women’s Studies and a BA in Single Honour English, and I was able to draw on these for my application. That’s seven or eight years of groundwork right there, without which I wouldn’t have qualified for my place, without which in turn I would not have written this particular novel.

‘I sent it to my agent and she loved it and sent it out on submission.’ It sounds so slick, doesn’t it? But it was a hard-won line which it took three novels and approximately five years to earn. An earlier novel had impressed Ger Nichol enough to sign me, and a still earlier one did not impress her at all, though she was encouraging in her rejection letter. Those were the years I spent supplying fodder for the slush piles of agents, publishers, journals, and competitions; my pile of rejection slips is second to none. They did become friendlier over time, indeed occasionally they were downright raves, but rejections nonetheless; in more optimistic moments, I learned to see this as a sign that I was on the right track.

paula-mcgrathFurther back, before I had any notion of agents or publishers, there were decades – decades! – of false starts. I went to LA after my first degree to ‘become a writer’, and while I did learn to type, and read Dorothea Brande’s On Becoming A Writer, and even read some poems OUT LOUD to an LA crowd (they liked my accent…), a writer I was not. I just couldn’t seem to find a way in. Bukowski and Carver and Kerouac, whom I was reading avidly at the time, were all well and good, but their characters’ lives, and indeed their own, bore no resemblance to mine. I read more women – Amy Tan, Doris Lessing, Anne Tyler – but it wasn’t until I paid proper attention to Edna O’Brien that I began to feel something shift. I knew rural Ireland, and boarding school, and escaping to Dublin, and while I didn’t necessarily want to write about these subjects, O’Brien showed me that her background, not dissimilar to my own, was as legitimate as any for a writer.

Like O’Brien, I knew scandal and travel too, and these subjects did interest me, but I had excuses. Work threw me. Children threw me. Ideas came and went, and never got written down because I had Excuses. An attempted novel faltered when I discovered (finally!) that I didn’t know even the most rudimentary elements of writing fiction. Another novel was written with the help of a ‘how-to’ book. A writing group offered some encouragement. A Saturday morning workshop in the local library offered guidance.

And, one day, I decided it was time to get serious.

I suppose there are twenty-somethings who arrive onto the writing scene perfectly formed. Maybe they have lived many writerly past lives, or maybe they’re just quicker on the uptake than I was. My novel, Generation, will be published at the end of July, and it only took me about 25 years to write.

(c) Paula McGrath

Generation by Paula McGrath is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

Generation is a short novel that contains a huge amount, taking place over eighty years, three continents and three generations.

At its heart is Áine, a recently divorced woman in her thirties who wants some kind of escape from her life in Ireland: from her ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend, her mundane job and unexciting love life. So she goes to stay for a few weeks on an organic farm near Chicago with her six-year-old daughter Daisy. The trip doesn’t turn out as she imagined it would, and that summer will have unforeseeable consequences for everyone involved.

‘She takes a step closer to the mineshaft and it’s as if she steps back in time. Her grandfather is standing where she is standing now, a young man not much older than she is, who knows nothing about the future, nothing about her.’

Ambitious and gripping, Generation moves effortlessly from the smallest of details to the largest of canvases, as the repercussions of the decisions taken by parents play out in the lives of their children for years to come.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books