On Writing Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan

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Though the Bodies Fall by Noel ORegan

By Noel O’Regan

Author Noel O’Regan on the journey to publication of his novel, Though the Bodies Fall.

The journey to publication can be long, with many twists and turns, but it should never be made alone. I started work on this novel in December 2018. At the time, I was three years into a desk editor role with an independent publisher in Cork. I was mentally drained, anxious and grumpy (so my partner has since told me). From the age of thirteen, all I’d wanted was to be a writer. Every significant decision in my life throughout my mid-to-late teens and twenties had been made with that goal in mind. And while my journey had brought some success on the emerging writer scene – stories appeared in literary magazines, some awards, a residency – I had yet to fulfil my dream of publishing a novel.

In truth, by the end of 2018 that dream felt further away than ever. I did enjoy editing other people’s work – labouring constructively with the author to bring the manuscript up to its best level, vicariously revelling in the fulfilling of their dream – but it takes a lot out of you. The truth of being an aspiring author masquerading as a full-time editor is this: you learn that you draw from the same creative well when working on others’ work as you do when working on your own. (Or, at least, this is how I found it to be.) By the end of the day, very often, when I returned home, I realised that the well had run dry. That it needed time to replenish for the next day’s work.

As a result, my writing had slowed to a trickle. In hindsight, perhaps I was even on the verge of giving up. But there was this one idea I had to try to get on the page, an idea that had been tugging at my subconscious since I first scribbled it down in my notebook almost four years earlier – the idea that would go on to be Though the Bodies Fall.

The following year was much the same as the preceding ones: a heavy workload, that creative well at points near-depletion. But, when I could, I carved out time for this new project. The story, the characters I was coming to know and care for, even the fictional space itself – that remote headland – were generating a sense of creative excitement in my gut. Writery butterflies. And that was enough to keep me returning to it whenever I could. That earlier listlessness and sense of slow but inevitable drift were gone.

So, in 2020, when I lost my job and found myself with weeks, if not months, of having to stay indoors, away from the plague, I threw myself into the book. And maybe, even though the word ‘pandemic’ doesn’t appear once in the text, something of that time has found its way into the novel: the forced anchoring to a particular place, the drudgery of the daily routines, the near-constant tension. It’s also true to say that writing likely helped me through that time, too. Allowed me to escape the dread.

In three months, I had a solid draft completed.

That’s when the early readers came in. One quote I often return to – both as a writer and an editor – is this nugget of wisdom from Michael Crichton: ‘writing a novel is like building a boat from the inside out. Sometimes you need someone on shore, to tell you if the mast is crooked or one end is out of shape, things like that.’

Rewind six years: I’d just won the 2014 Sean Dunne Young Writers’ Award. Part of the award was a mentorship with a writer of my choosing, kindly arranged by Writing.ie’s own Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin. Somewhat cheekily, not expecting to get her, I asked if Claire Kilroy was available. I was an enormous fan and so was thrilled when Vanessa responded, saying Claire was willing to mentor me.

We met for a coffee in Howth in early summer. Claire was kind and warm and asked all the appropriate mentor questions: what was my background in writing? What did I hope to achieve? What was I working on at the moment? I told her that I was writing a novel, which I confidently declared would be ready to send to her in a couple of months. Autumn at the latest. She nodded, sipped her coffee. (I now see a knowing glint to her eye.) Get it to me whenever it’s ready, she said.

Cut back to six years later – with that previous book-in-progress long since consigned to the ‘practise novel’ phase of my journey – I was now, finally, ready to send Claire something. Of course, that was if she was still willing to read it. So much time had passed, after all, and there was the matter of a pandemic that showed no sign of letting up.

Thankfully, she agreed to give it a read. And, unsurprisingly, came back with some invaluable comments and suggestions. Hope came, too, with her proclamation: ‘I think you will get this published.’

After Claire, I sent it to my usual early readers, the writers Victoria Kennefick and Cethan Leahy. We’ve been critiquing each other’s work for years now – in the brutally honest but constructive way that is necessary for a work to reach its best self. After that, I sent it to writers Tadhg Coakley and Mary Morrissy and her ‘Deadline Desk’ service.

I was eager to get multiple eyes on the text before submitting it to agents. I’ve spoken of this elsewhere, but I had a palpable sense that it was now or never, in terms of getting published. That may not have been true, but it was how I felt. As a result, I wanted to be sure the manuscript was as strong as it could be when sending it out.

Even when you’re taking on feedback, of course, it’s essential that you have already cultivated your own version of Hemingway’s ‘in-built shock-proof shit detector’. You need to know which comments ring true and which clash with what you’re attempting to achieve. But, if you can get even just one comment or edit that chimes true, well, then, the work will be stronger for it. And that’s the most important thing here. That the work be its stronger self.

If there’s one lesson for other aspiring writers to take away from this piece, it’s to develop a trusted and honest coterie of readers around you. To seek out mentorships. As the author Danny Denton has often noted, your name may be on the cover of a book, but there is a camp behind every writer, those who have helped bring the book into being. And this is true for most writers. Danielle McLaughlin sings the praises of her writers’ group. Sheila Armstrong, Louise Nealon and Stephen Walsh are in a writing group together.

It works. So go assemble your team.

But back to my own journey: after all that feedback, and my own re-reading and re-reading and re-reading, I felt confident that the work was finally ready to submit to agents. So it went out. And thankfully, Claire Kilroy’s words proved prophetic.

Though the Bodies Fall is now out in the world. And that is due to years upon years of hard work and perseverance on my end. Some luck, of course. And those ashore who helped to right the mast.

(c) Noel O’Regan

About Though the Bodies Fall:
Though the Bodies Fall by Noel ORegan

Micheál Burns lives alone in his family’s bungalow at the end of Kerry Head in Ireland. It is a picturesque place, but the cliffs have a darker side to them: for generations they have been a suicide black spot. Micheál’s mother saw the saving of these lost souls – these visitors – as her spiritual duty, and now, in the wreckage of his life, Micheál finds himself continuing her work. When his sisters tell him that they want to sell the land, he must choose between his siblings and the visitors, a future or a past.

‘Noel O’Regan writes beautifully. Though the Bodies Fall is a beautiful book’ – Audrey Magee

‘I opened it up one evening and was instantly captivated… The atmosphere is haunting: the imagery so powerful that it gave me strange dreams. This novel is a little bit archaic but also incredibly contemporary… I loved it’ – Sara Baume

‘A stunning debut from a talented new voice in Irish fiction’ – Danielle McLaughlin

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Born in Tralee, County Kerry, Noel O’Regan is the recipient of a number of awards, including an Arts Council Next Generation Artist Award. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, Ambit, Banshee and The London Magazine. Though the Bodies Fall (Granta Books) is his debut novel.

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