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The Price of Experience: Stephanie O’Brien

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price of experience by stephanie obrien

By Stephanie O'Brien

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There aren’t many things that I would say come easily to me by way of natural skill, but writing by some minor miracle is one thing that always has. I began writing short stories during weekly ‘English’ lessons while a student at the French school Dublin in the 80’s.  During this time, because I was learning in two languages simultaneously, I found creative writing offered me a great respite from the structural learning I grew up with in an all French speaking school. When I moved to Mount Anville secondary school in my mid-teens the flood gates really opened and so began what really became a ten year learning curve inside and outside the classroom trying to hone skills that might some day make me a commercially viable writer. It was at this time I also discovered my favourite author – Margaret Atwood, a woman who’s body of work, even when I was just 15, floored me. I knew then that this was the kind of author I wanted to be, and that if I was to ever get that good, even half that good, I would need to invest in my writing like nothing else.

The process of writing my first novel at 14 was an arduous , clumsy but interesting experience. Though I lost that particular novel when my fathers old computer crashed, I had got the bug for expanding stories and character development and wanted to get cracking on another one as soon as I had the right idea. Fast forward four more years and besides completing a body of some 40 unpublished short stories I had secured the points to study at TCD and for the next 5 years. Even while studying for my degree, even while abroad studying at the Sorbonne and even while working full time for the Student’s Union in 2005, if I wasn’t in the Beckett Centre on campus, performing stories, I was in my room writing them.

The seed for the plot behind The Price of Experience came about at this time. I was living full time on campus, in my little cocoon, and fully engrossed in the politics and day to day business of the university. I was enthralled by the little scandals and dramas that went on at the higher levels within college which no-one on the outside ever heard about. I loved it, I felt privy to things, complicit. But was also I was,  and remain to this day, an avid World War II historian – my grandfather was a lieutenant in the NZ army in both WWI and WWII. So, amidst this historic campus, in my only little world, I came up with this idea of an affair at a university in 1962 between a student and a mysterious professor – a student in search of escape and a professor with a secret that may cost them both their lives. I wanted to examine the emotional impact of the fleeting relationships that were born during the war, and contrast that with the burgeoning sexual and romantic freedom of relationships in the sixties. The novel is therefore a coming of age tale about love, survival and sacrifice set against the back drop of war. It’s about three very different lives, irrevocably altered by one very simple choice.

Having completed the novel while temping at University College London in 2008, I put it down for a year but then, with the support of BAFTA winning author John Foster and Hollywood Screenwriter William Gray, I tackled the script once again in 2010, finding that, with fresh eyes it needed a complete overhaul. Then began another eighteen month editing process where the whole novel was restructured, reedited and revamped, much like a movie script, for clarity. At the same time I had also begun my second novel based on the true story of an Irish banker who, in the space of a year, went from top of the proverbial pile to bottom of the heap, finding his way back again by the unlikeliest of routes – beneath the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001.

I decided to self-publish in 2013 as the DIY publishing market had changed considerably in the past ten years and there was no longer such taboo around the quality of this kind of publishing. If James Joyce and Roddy Doyle could try it, so could I.

So, I begged and borrowed and released a small print run in the UK and Ireland through Matador in March of this year and miraculously it sold out in 3 weeks, meaning another print run had to be released only a month later. That run too, I only discovered a few days ago, has also all but sold out. However, amidst all this great success, critical support and positive press attention came the stark realisation that self-publishing works as far as getting your book out there but is no good if you need a return on your investment in order to keep reprinting at your own expense.

The dilemma I myself now face is that without a trade deal , I have a book, the supply of which can not possibly meet the demand, with royalties being minimal and costs exorbitant. I feel that the right agent is vital at this point and not much more can be accomplished without one, not in today’s industry anyway. But regardless , the process has been exhilarating and has put me in the driving seat of my own production, from cover design to press, to marketing and layout and for that alone I am delighted I began this way, took the risk and tried.

So I am home in Dublin this muggy Wednesday in July to meet friends and fans of the novel at The Gutter Bookshop Temple Bar and to say thanks for the support. I am here to remind myself why I did this and to experience the pleasure of walking around my home town and seeing my book there on the shelves of book shops I’ve known and adored since I was a kid. I am here to remember that regardless of agents, contracts, royalties or rejection letters I am a writer because writing is something I have to do, not just want to do, and I have chosen to put my work out there, share my stories and to defend them as worthy of an audience. Whatever the outcome, it’s a risk worth taking.

(c) Stephanie O’Brien

Praise for The Price of Experience

​”…evocative…”

Bafta winning author John Foster

​​”…mesmerising…”

Hollywood Screenwriter William Gray

“…loved it, a strong debut…”

Lord Julian Fellows – Award winning writer of Downton Abbey & Gosford Park.

Find out more about Stephanie at  www.stephanie-obrien.com

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