Orna Ross is a bestselling Irish author, now based in London, with novels, poems and nonfiction to her name. Ross has enjoyed both independent self-publishing and publication by Attic Press and Penguin. Her most recently published novel is After The Rising, a multi-generational murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War. Her much-anticipated sequel, Before the Fall, is due for release in January 2012.
Ross returned to London in 2009, having lived there in the nineties. Despite the fact that the majority of her novels to date have been set in Ireland, she feels that she needs “to live outside the country to be able to properly write about it”. Her new home inspires her creativity. “I walk the streets that Dickens walked, work in the library where Woolf worked, drink in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and feel part of a centuries-long continuum of writers,” she smiles. “I have two ‘offices’. One is at the London Library, which was founded in 1841, and has every book it ever bought (over one million titles) out on display, some going back to the 16th century. The other is the Free Word Centre, an organization that fosters literature, literacy and free expression. That’s my London: the best of the old and the new, side-by-side, all jostling together in an enormous, mad, magical mix.”
Tweeting that she found the self-publishing process “a lot more rewarding in every way,” Ross decided last year to forge her own path to literary stardom and cut ties with her traditional publisher, because she “was troubled by the loss of creative control demanded by [the corporate world]”. Her last book, After the Rising (previously published as Lovers’ Hollow by Penguin), was self-published on Amazon by Ross before Christmas.
“I’m having more fun than at any time since starting to publish fiction back in 2006. It’s enormously exciting to have the opportunity to independently publish and reach readers in this way. I believe that e-books and print-on-demand (POD) are the most exciting thing to happen to publishing since Gutenberg. This is a revolution. And I want to be part of it: to help mould and shape it if I can.”
She explains the relatively new phenomenon of self-publishing that has seen a sharp rise in the sales of e-readers. “Many writers have yet to understand the opportunities inherent in these new technologies. It’s not just that they shorten the supply chain, removing the need for agent, publisher, wholesaler, distributor or bookseller. They expand the market beyond your own territory – on the Internet, there’s no such place as ‘abroad’ – to a global readership. They mean there is now no such thing as out-of-print. And they provide a point-of-sale in the moment a reader decides they want your book.”
She was also convinced to self-publish by the fact that it seemed altogether a more creative solution, particularly as her blog slogan is ‘Go Creative! It’s Your Native State’. Ross believes self-publishing has launched a new era for the book industry. “If writers are to harness the opportunities inherent in this revolution, we need to start believing in ourselves and [in] our talents. To that end, I am launching a support and campaigning organization, The Society of Independent Authors, with core aims of fostering excellence, advancing the interests of self-publishing writers and democratizing writing and publishing.”
Ross declares that self-publishing, for her, has lifted the enormous stress of satisfying a publisher and she feels a closer connection to her readership as a result. “I don’t feel pressure from externals on my writing, not any more. That’s the chief joy of self-publishing and blogging for me. I have a network of supportive readers, and other writers, who get what I do. The competitive, hustling world of commercial competition – questions like ‘what will the buyer at Tesco’s think of this jacket?’ – is not relevant on this pathway to publication. The more I write – and I include Facebook, Twitter and blogging in my definition of writing – the more people discover the books. It’s writer heaven! I love it.”
Her first novel, After the Rising, is a murder mystery set in the era of the Irish Civil War. She chose that time frame because her “guiding principle as a writer” is a quote from Isabel Allende: ‘Write what should not be forgotten.’ Ross mentions the repressive nature of her history lessons as a child and how it encouraged her to discover the truth behind the lack of information – “It wasn’t so much ‘don’t mention the war’ as ‘there was no war’. In our schoolbooks, it was a blank; we jumped straight from the glories of the War of Independence to 1924. That sort of silence is always a magnet to a writer like me.”
She says that writing this particular story had a deep personal resonance with her. “My father’s uncle had been shot during the civil war, though nobody was able to say by whom. The event gave me an outline for part of what I wanted to say about silence and the struggle that every human being experiences between belonging and freedom. I very much wanted to include the female experience during that war – called ‘The War of The Brothers’, though women were more involved in it than in the Independence struggle – and draw parallels between that and other sorts of private, more intimate and personal wars, around sexuality, family, and love. So it turned into a family saga, with a contemporary (1990s) narrator tracing her family history back to a similar event and coming to terms with what the silence around this murderous event has meant in her own life.
Her research of the period for historical details to put in the book took three forms: firstly, the facts – “the local papers of 1922-23 were the most useful source; also, [she studied] the work of the most amazing group of local historians in Ireland, possibly in the world” – then, going through her own memories of the village where she grew up and, finally, using her own imagination “mainly […] to fill in the blanks, to answer the questions I couldn’t find ‘real’ answers to, and to make a pattern that was reflective of, but ultimately very different to, what actually happened.”
Ross’ sequel, Before the Fall, is set for release in January 2012. The novel is a “hall-of-mirrors mystery story”, says Ross, “that exposes truths haunting two families for four generations.” It weaves two narratives together; we find out about Jo Devereux’s family history as she journeys “beneath the surface wartime stories to what really happened [in] a more intimate warzone, where friendships and families are ripped apart.”
Ross’ book of poetry, Ten Thoughts About Love, was released in October of last year. She began writing poems when she started blogging and maintains that both outlets helped her to establish her “voice”. She says the different and shorter medium of poetry is “the purest form” of writing. “For me, the arrival of a poem is a gift, usually a return for living well: for holding creative balance, not being too busy, meditating often, staying open and receptive to life.”
She talks about the creative process as a way of living, rather than just a way of expression. “I have a deep and abiding interest [in it],” she says. “I write about how to apply the process to all dimensions of life in the Go Creative! Blog. I believe we have now left the industrial and information ages behind us and have entered the ‘creative’ age; yet our education system is still emphasizing analytical, rather than creative, intelligence. The blog is my small attempt to redress that balance.”
She emphasises the importance of solitary creation. “Staying in the creative zone means cocooning your creative capacities from the calls and pulls of the outer world, giving your imagination the time and space it needs.” She recommends two “profoundly effective” ways of achieving this seclusion: meditation – “I’ve written a book [available for free on her website] about my own preferred method of Inspiration Meditation” – and “FREE Writing”.
Her best ‘free writes’ come from the physical act of handwriting, especially if they are the early drafts of a novel or poem. “I don’t know whether it’s because that’s how we first learned to write,” she says, “or whether it’s something to do with the pace and rhythm of it, but in my experience, handwriting produces different – deeper – words. Once I’ve got to a certain point with handwriting, I’ll transfer it to the laptop, but will return again and again to ‘free writing’ when I can’t see a way forward or when the urge takes me.”
Her best work gets written in the morning. “If I get going before talking to anybody else, or reading anyone else’s words, I almost always get ‘keeper’ work.” She advises prospective authors: “Write, write, write. Read, read, read. And aim high. [Robert] Browning said it best: ‘The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life: try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to fate!’”
Ross has “a big year” ahead of her in 2012. Next for her, after the publication of Before the Fall, is the self-publication of her third novel. It’s about “a tug-of-love quadrangle between the poet W.B. Yeats, the Gonne mother and daughter (Maud and Iseult), and the Irish writer Francis Stuart.” Penguin has already published excerpts of the novel in A Dance in Time, but the author herself has this time “made some radical changes and additions”. She is also busy with the launch of The Society of Independent Authors, “networking madly on behalf of self-publishing writers with advisors, publishers, rights agencies, literary festivals and media”.
Her literary success has no doubt only benefited from her determination to never give up. “[I’m] finally bringing out various projects that have been in the works for a long time,” she declares. “I’m really excited about it all.”