I’ve always loved stories. Such a short sentence, that one. It feels inadequate, but superlatives sound insincere, so that’s what I’m left with. I learned to read when I was three, because I couldn’t find anyone who was willing to read me all the stories, all the time. As a child I always had at least two books on the go. I never did homework, but I read all the fiction I could get my hands on. I was an early adopter of the Kindle, then an early dropper of it. I still lug multiple paperbacks with me wherever I go. My to-be-read pile and my book shelves are out of control and my husband has resigned himself to living a life weighed down by paper.
So I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to become a writer. When I was young writers seemed to me to be almost magical beings. I couldn’t begin to see myself in their number, but every book I read was a step down that path. There comes a time when other people’s stories aren’t enough. You need to go deeper, stay longer, and make your own.
It was 2014 when I finally turned to writing seriously. I decided to commit to it, give it the respect it deserved. I would write for five years, I decided. Every night, when my day job was done and the kids were in bed, I would write, and I would learn, and I would write some more. If at the end of those five years I had made no outward progress, well, then I would reassess.
It helped that I had a story, or at least the beginning of one. It was a single image, really. A girl, fifteen-year-old Maude Blake, sits on the stairs in a crumbling Georgian country house. She’s holding hands with her little brother, Jack, who’s only five. It’s getting dark outside, and they are afraid. Without writing a word I knew who Maude was, knew how deeply she loved her brother, what she had done to protect him. I knew, too, that things had reached a crisis point. I had to write the book to find out what happened next.
The first forty thousand words were terrible. They were hard words to find, drawn out slowly five hundred at a time and they were bad. The gap between the vision in my head and the words on the paper was a mile wide and horrifying. I didn’t know how to fix them. Then life got in the way and interrupted my writing routine for a few weeks, and afterwards I was slow to get back to it.
But the urge to write, to disappear into a story, never really goes away. It tugs at the back of your mind until you are forced to give it attention. I knew I couldn’t – didn’t want to – walk away from writing, but I felt I needed a deadline, something that would force me to finish a piece of writing. I found a short story competition that was closing in three weeks. Perfect. I wrote my story, sent it off, and promptly forgot about it. I was proud of myself though. I had finally finished something. A month or so later I found out that my little story was shortlisted in that competition. I didn’t win, but it really didn’t matter. That little bit of external validation gave me the boost I needed to keep going.
Three months later I had a finished manuscript. I set it aside. Waited. Then I read it again and scrapped half of it. Rewrote it and set it aside again. Waited. I was less brutal with the next edit, but still scrapped at least thirty thousand words. I rewrote it. Polished it. Set it aside again. I knew it wasn’t ready, knew it needed more work. I thought about sending it to agents. I did my research, used free online resources to learn how to write my query letter (Query Shark is genius). I wrote the letter, polished it, set it aside. You might see the theme here.
I took a few tentative steps towards querying agents. I entered a Twitter pitch competition, and an agent liked my pitch. I sent her my query letter and first fifty pages. Sent it to one or two other agents, then ran back into my cave and went back to polishing. Early one Friday morning an email arrived in my inbox from a major New York agency. The agent liked my first fifty, would I please send on the rest of the manuscript.
I sent her the manuscript and queried ten more agents the same day. The first offer of representation came a few weeks later. Then another, then another. Being in a position to choose your agent is never something you expect. I chose my agent because we had a similar communication style. I thought we would work together well. It’s worked out beyond my wildest dreams.
The book went on submission on a Friday. The following Tuesday, my agent called me that a pre-emptive offer came in. The publisher was great. I very nearly took it. I called my husband and we decided to wait. Five more offers of publication followed. Six all together. There was an auction. An auction. For my book.
I went with Harper Collins in the end. They are publishing me in Australia and New Zealand, and have been absolutely fantastic. The book went on to sell to Sphere in Ireland and the UK, to Heyne in Germany, and to Penguin in the USA and Canada. I’m writing this from Adelaide, where I’m attending Adelaide Writers Week. The Ruin was published in Australia just over a week ago, and it went straight into the top ten bestseller list. I’m about to get on a plane and come back to Ireland for the launch of the book. I couldn’t be more excited.
(c) Dervla McTiernan
Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel The Rúin sold in a six-way auction in Australia and New Zealand, and has since sold to the United States, the UK and Ireland, and Germany.
Dearbhla was born in County Cork, Ireland, to a family of seven. She studied corporate law at the National University of Ireland, Galway and the Law Society of Ireland, and practiced as a lawyer for twelve years. Following the global financial crisis she moved with her family to Western Australia, where she now lives with her husband and two children.
About The Ruin:
CORMAC REILLY IS ABOUT TO REOPEN A CASE IT TOOK HIM TWENTY YEARS TO FORGET . . .
On his first week on the job, Garda Cormac Reilly responds to a call at a decrepit country house to find two silent, neglected children waiting for him – fifteen-year-old Maude and five-year-old Jack. Their mother lies dead upstairs.
Twenty years later, Cormac has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and returned to Galway. As he struggles to navigate the politics of a new police station, Maude and Jack return to haunt him.
What ties a recent suicide to the woman’s death so long ago? And who among his new colleagues can Cormac really trust?
This unsettling crime debut draws us deep into the dark heart of Ireland and asks who will protect you when the authorities can’t – or won’t. Perfect for fans of Tana French, Jane Casey, Liz Nugent, Susie Steiner and Caz Frear.
Order your copy online here.