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The Art of Getting It Together: Innocents by Cathal Gunning

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction

By Cathal Gunning

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My debut novel, Innocents was released on September 27, 2017. I started writing the first draft on February 14, 2014.


I got caught in a lie, is what happened. A minute after starting in UCD, I decided I’d be a writer and a year and a half later I’d no writing to show for it, save for a few confused, misshapen attempts at poetry (embarrassing, but not the way you’re thinking. I thought I was Stein, not Bukowski).

After a bad break up I started what was sure to eventually be a novel, despite my creative writing tutor reminding us that “You need more than “My first heartbreak” to write a book”. When writing.ie posted an opportunity to pitch your manuscript to an editor, I jumped. The problem was my “novel” at that stage consisted of two pages, a single scene I was sure would make a good book if someone would just write the rest. I pitched my idea and the editor asked for my manuscript, at which point I realised I’d have to write it. I promised to send it on “as soon as it’s ready”. I sent on a first draft in January 2015.

In the interest of transparency, I should note Innocents took around four or five weeks to write; this is less a smug, attempted humble-brag and more a tacit admission that, even after a half decade of trying to write, I still find the process a nightmare. When it flows it’s transcendent, that’s true. What no one tells you is it almost never flows. More often than not, it’s tapping out a thousand words in a frenzied hour, cringing as you read through repetitive, redundant rubbish you can’t take responsibility for, then starting the process over. If you’re considering taking up the vocation, don’t try to use it as an excuse for your drinking/ drug habits. Despite what you’ve heard, none of them help. It’s still the same process, just through another filter.

I’d another excuse for procrastination, as 2014-2015 was my final undergraduate year. The start of the year was alright; late nights, blank pages, half-asleep early tutorials. When I learned my mother’s cancer could have returned, though, it’s fair to say I handled the news without grace (apologies to anyone who met or spoke to me circa 2014-5). We survived, though, and the first draft did end up finished prior to graduation (somehow). The editor told me the opposite of what everyone else said. A romance editor, she said the happy ending worked but the rest was too dark and bleak for her, despite attempts to clean it up. Everyone else said the novel could work if it weren’t for the implausible happy ending, a bum note which went against the rest of the book.

Leaving college, I hadn’t submitted the draft anywhere after that rejection. Just before finishing my final term, I was chosen for a career mentor programme and was paired with Joe Kearney. An accomplished author and supportive mentor, Joe mentored my progress, a polite way of saying he shamed me into actually looking through the draft again. In my last weeks of college, an excerpt from the novel was short-listed for the Maeve Binchy Travel Award, and the encouragement of Margaret Kelleher and Niall MacGonagle lead me to reconsider the tome I’d been trying to avoid.

I’d planned on emigrating after college, but life happens. I loaned my savings to my parents earlier that year, and after graduating I instead moved back in with them. Unemployed, broke, and uncertain of my options, I took a scalpel to the first draft and carved out Innocents. The first draft ran two hundred pages; of those, under a hundred remain in the final novel. The first forty were jettisoned, a few chapters were replaced, a time jumping structure was added. More important than the technical revisions was a difference in approach, one outlined by Chuck Wendig when he wrote about the difference between writing and trying to be published.

The first draft was compromised a thousand times as it was written. The plot was retro-fitted into a romance novel mould, the writing swerved from brutal minimalism to ornate poetics, the romance was both coy and overly explicit, po-faced and serious, then constantly interrupted by interjections of irony.

The finished novel could still have all these problems, but the difference in approach came after when I finished college and began attempting to inundate publishers and journals with piles of pandering, cynical stories, transparent ploys for publication credits. After a year and a half of toying with the idea whenever we got together, in March 2017 a few colleagues from college and I established Cold Coffee Stand, an independent online magazine of fiction and poetry. Reading the initial deluge of submissions sent into us, I realised no one cared how morally right or well-structured or contemporary your work is. If you fake it, it’s usless. It can be numerous types of useless— edgy, optimistic, experimental, blatant—but if once you make work solely for recognition, you’ll never say anything resonant or reach anyone. Get it together.

Reading Bright Lights, Big City on the train home for Christmas in final year, I remember wondering how McInerney was able to be as honest as he was. He knew he’d be judged by the book and still came across as arrogant, egotistical, and self-absorbed. I thought about how insufferable the Rules of Attraction kids were, how egotistical and spoilt The Secret History’s pseudo-intellectuals would be in reality. It occurred to me—dying hung-over, nose running from my face, eye’s blackened with the bags of staying up too long, falling asleep standing up—that I wouldn’t root for myself as a protagonist either.

Those are the only stories anyone wants to read.

Also, if more than one publisher talks to you, pick whichever one gives the most creative freedom. Once you, your friends, and your family have enough to get by, you can’t spend it in the tomb.

(c) Cathal Gunning

About Innocents:

A boy, a girl, an overcrowded dance floor, one or two drinks too many.

Five years later, they’re getting married. Not necessarily to each other.

The girl’s a Science student, outspoken and outgoing, moving to Dublin from England and starting a Masters. The boy’s an artist, a freelancing slacker, striving for greatness and struggling to pay his way. When they first meet, they fall for each other hard, veering between madly in love and just plain mad as young love crashes into the stark realities of modern life. Five years on, they’re ready to marry – each other, or somebody else?

The novel follows their lives, shifting between reminiscing on the past and grappling with the present as their paths continue to intersect in a tragi-comic story spanning a half-decade of falling in and out of love in Dublin city. Innocents is a story of love, sex, drugs, and being broke in twenty-first century Ireland.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Born in Blackrock in 1993, Cathal now splits his time between Dublin and Mayo. In university, he authored opinion pieces and satirical cartoons for the University Observer and film criticism for the College Tribune, and was selected for UCD’s career mentor programme. He contributed Malahide to online collective ‘Snakes of Various Consistency’, and he is an editor and co-founder of the online poetry, non-fiction, and literature collective Cold Coffee Stand. His story Hearts/Sinews was short-listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition and his poetry has been published in The Rose Magazine (Hark, Issue 4). He has stories, in Tales From the Forest (Trinkets) and the collection From the Candy Store to the Galtymore (Strike Up, Ballpoint Press).  Excerpts from his novel Innocents have been short-listed for the 2015 Maeve Binchy Award and the Cuttyhunk Island Writer’s Residency.

An excerpt from Innocents entitled The War on Good Taste is currently available to read online on Cold Coffee Stand

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