LOATH to describe herself as a vocational writer as she thinks that’s pretentious, Sarah Harte says her need to write is “more like a disease.”
Having published two novels with Penguin in 2011 and 2013 which went to numbers one and three respectively in the Irish book charts, Harte is moving away from “upmarket commercial fiction” (which was Penguin’s categorisation of her books) and developing a distinctive and more literary voice. Her short story, ‘Submerged’, about a middle-aged closeted married man, won this year’s Bryan MacMahon Award at Listowel Writers’ Week.
Dublin-based Harte — of the family who run the Farmgate Cafe in Cork’s English Market — worked for a while as a lawyer after graduating in law from UCC. She then worked as a journalist before going back to her first love which is fiction. Since publishing her two novels, Harte says that life has thrown her “a few knocks.”
Her husband Jay Bourke’s business failures (and successes) have been well documented. Harte feels that having come out of the Celtic Tiger boom/bust cycle (astutely observed in her novels) she has more material to write about.
She is currently working on a collection of short stories centred around a group of UCC graduates. She doesn’t have an agent or a publisher yet which is a big change from when she sought out and found an agent who got her a book deal with Penguin with a decent advance.
Looking back, Harte says she was tenacious in securing an agent. Now, she says she’s happy to support her writing “through doing other things like a bit of freelance journalism, teaching and doing some work with my mother and sister.”
Harte says she got good advice regarding her work. “I was told to keep my head down and focus on the writing. When I have my work at a pitch I’m happy with, then I should go looking (for an agent). When I got an agent in London for my novels, it was from looking up the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It wasn’t straightforward by any means. Everyone involved in writing knows that you get as much rejection as anything else.
I remember whinging to my mother about how hard it was. She gave me a dry look and said ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.
Harte finds the commercial fiction versus literary fiction debate interesting. “It goes on and on. My own perspective as a reader — and I’m very strong on this — is that there are good books and bad books. As to which is which, it’s a movable feast. I’ve seen loads of female authors write about this, sometimes very wittily.”
It annoys Harte that women writing about the domestic sphere are trivialised. “The ‘domestic sphere’ is too reductive. It’s used to describe books that actually deal with fundamental relationships in your life, lives we all lead. But if you’re a woman writing those books, the covers are different (from those of male writers) with the pastel hues. I don’t understand it.”
Harte says she admires the work of Colin Barrett, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and Kevin Barry. Does she ever feel intimidated by the high standard of writing at the moment. “I think you have to plough your own furrow. You just have to compete with yourself and ask, ‘am I doing the best I can?’.”
Brought up to appreciate the arts, Harte is proud of her mother and sister for their support of artists with paintings, sculptures, photographs and poetry by local artists and writers on display in the Farmgate. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. The artists give back too. Mum and Rebecca love the arts. It’s not a pretentious thing with them.”
- Sarah Harte will read her short story, ‘Moby and Us’, at the Cork International Short Story Festival at the Cork Arts Theatre today, Thursday, at 7.30pm