“If the world says ‘No’, pretend you’ve gone deaf – that’s the only advice I could give to an aspiring writer,” says Orla McAlinden, author of The Accidental Wife. “And, keep faith with your work, otherwise who will, if you don’t?”
Orla McAlinden started writing in 2012 with no experience other than that garnered from a lifetime of passionate reading. She took the famous advice to write what you know, and crafted a web of interlinking short stories based in her home-place of rural Northern Ireland, and set against the fraught, ever-present menace of the Troubles. She drew upon her deep personal knowledge of Northern Ireland’s history, sociology, and religious and gendered politics —both national and familial— to create a collection described as “Superb, confident and stylish” (Irish Examiner) and an “excellent collection…a writer of great originality and promise” (Books Ireland).
“And then reality bit,” she says. “I sent it to every Irish publisher I could find. It was a bit raw, a bit rough round the edges perhaps. No one wanted it. I couldn’t place the book anywhere, but I put my faith in the characters as they were now old friends. I had to keep editing, keep submitting, keep trying.”
Two years later, the book won a publishing deal with boutique Philadelphia publisher Sowilo Press by way of a competitive process, winning the 2014 Eludia Award for a debut book by a woman writer. Slowly, slowly the process ground on, and The Accidental Wife was published in September 2016.
“Then I hit another snag. My tiny American publisher has great faith in the stories, and has produced a beautiful book. But they have no pull in Ireland, no contacts, no relationships.” McAlinden was faced with a book available only by mail-order from Amazon. “That’s not what I wanted; I wanted my mum to see my book on the shelf of my local bookshop. I couldn’t bear to tell my friends and family to order from Amazon. I truly never really expected anyone but my friends and family to read it.”
A further blow came when the major Irish book wholesalers declined to carry and distribute the collection.
Never one to accept ‘No’, McAlinden ordered and paid for a bulk delivery of five hundred books and set about laboriously contacting every bookshop she could find. The Accidental Wife is now on the shelves of several independent bookshops and is available to order from www.kennys.ie. “I have been literally driving to bookshops with half a dozen copies and an invoice, and posting signed copies round the country to individual readers,” she says. “Sometimes I make two euro on a copy, if the shop is close to home, but often I just about cover my costs.”
A critical breakthrough came when the fourth story from the collection scooped the BGEIBA Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award 2016, but the commercial breakthrough was already ticking away in the background.
“I didn’t expect people to buy my book when it couldn’t be found on most of the shelves in the country, but I really wanted my stories to reach a wider audience. I reached out to the library service where I live in County Kildare, and in Portadown, where I was born and raised. I offered to donate free copies to the library collections.”
The responses were positive: Kildare library service declined the donation with thanks, but purchased ten copies instead; Portadown library agreed to accept a donation of four copies.
“I just wanted my mum to be able to say to her friends ‘Orla’s book is in Portadown library’ so they wouldn’t have to pay for it!” laughs McAlinden. Within weeks, LibrariesNI had selected The Accidental Wife as the inaugural title for Northern Ireland’s first massed reading initiative The Armagh Big Read.
The Armagh Big Read is a free, open-access reading event. Three hundred copies of The Accidental Wife are available for library members to borrow, in the nine
LibrariesNI branches in County Armagh, and available to order in other branches throughout Northern Ireland. Individuals, schools and clubs are encouraged to borrow and read the book during February and March. McAlinden is travelling to the North to attend four free, open-door events during March 2017 – in Armagh, Bessbrook, Portadown and Lurgan – hosted by LibrariesNI and facilitated by internationally best-selling local crime writer Anthony J Quinn. Readers and library members will be encouraged to read and review the book, attend the public sessions, meet the author and engage in the Q&A and discussions parts of the events.
“I can hardly believe it’s happening. I can’t advise anyone on their publishing journey, as mine has been so odd and haphazard, so full of bizarre twists and turns. All I can suggest is, publishing and bookselling might be the one area of life where you shouldn’t take No for an answer.”
Read the BGEIBA writing.ie short story of the year 2016 The Visit here.
About The Accidental Wife:
Set against the tense background of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, The Accidental Wife follows the twists and turns of the McCann family over seven decades. How many generations will these secrets destroy? Marion Smith has a secret. So does Colette McCann. Why did Matthew Jordan slip his passport into his pocket before he kissed his wife goodbye and drove to work? In a land riddled with suspicion and fear, secrets are not easy to keep. How long can Marion Smith hide what happened in Derry at the height of the Second World War? How many generations will her secret destroy? Lies, half-truths and omissions litter the stories of the McCann family, spanning seventy years of Northern Ireland’s turbulent history. Who will come through unscathed and who will pay for the sins of the fathers?
Thought-provoking, visceral, authentic. Martina Devlin
Superb…confident and stylish. Sue Leonard
A remarkably mature depth of voice and narrative range. Anthony J Quinn
Order your copy online here.