When the recession hit, Cork-born solicitor Dervla McTiernan moved to Australia and started a writing career. It was the best decision she ever made, reports
Australia has been a land of opportunity for generations of Irish people. Dervla McTiernan is one of the many who struck out for new territory Down Under, except she struck gold in a somewhat different way, realising her ambition to
become a writer.
McTiernan was born in Cork where she spent the early part of her life in Carrigaline and Douglas, where she attended Eglantine primary school.
She moved from Cork to Dublin at the age of six, and then to Limerick, as her father climbed the ranks his banking career.
McTiernan did law in UCG and trained as a solicitor in Dublin, before spending six years building up her own practice in Oranmore, Co Galway. Then the recession hit. For her and her husband Kenny, an engineer, it was a time of reckoning.
“There were a lot of clients who weren’t in a position to pay their bills. I had a little girl at that stage, she was coming up on two, I was pregnant with our second. I couldn’t face doing it again and I had lost all interest in the law at that point.
Kenny and I talked to each other. We sat down and did the numbers. We could probably get work in Dublin, rent out our house in Galway, rent a house in Dublin, put the kids in daycare. We would be dropping them in their pyjamas and picking them up in their pyjamas. Even doing that, we would have been down €500 a month. It made no sense.”
The couple decided that a drastic move was in order.
“We said, right, we have to do something completely different. At the time, there was loads of engineering work in Canada and Australia.
"We applied for permanent residency here and it came way faster than we expected, to the point where we ended up travelling when I was 36 weeks pregnant with Oisín, which is crazy looking back.
"We got here and Kenny started work 10 days later. We had a frantic search for a house during a crazy mining boom.”
While the move to the Australian city of Perth was a huge adjustment for McTiernan and her family, it has paid off handsomely, allowing her to follow her dream of becoming a writer. Her debut crime novel, The Ruin, was the subject of a six-way auction and has been a huge success in Australia.
“I’m not going to pretend it was easy,” says McTiernan. “For a few years, it was really hard. But everything we hoped for has happened and then some. Australia has been very good to us.”
McTiernan is doubtful that she would have written the book if she had stayed in Ireland; she says starting with a clean slate allowed her and her husband take risks they never would have dreamed of taking here.
“I had always thought about writing but something always got in the way. I thought it was a fantasy — kids dream about writing but grown-ups get a job. But being a grown-up didn’t work out.
"We were highly responsible, made all the sensible decisions and it all went to hell in a handbasket. When we moved to Australia, it was very much with the narrative that we played by the rules and it didn’t work out so now we get to set our own rules and we don’t have to apologise for it.”
McTiernan got a part-time job with the Australian Mental Health Commission and set herself a target.
“It took a couple of years but in 2014, I was really ready mentally. I said ‘Right, I’m going to do this for five years’. I committed to writing for two hours every night when the kids were in bed. I took one night a week off — Thursday night was wine night, which was very important for my sanity.
"Any kind of career change would take a five-year commitment so writing at least deserved that from me. I did some writing courses at weekends. I got every book I could get my hands on about the craft of writing.
"I read all my old favourites and tried to understand how the writers had achieved it. I wrote and wrote and it was terrible. It takes time.”
McTiernan’s talent for plotting and characterisation shines through in The Ruin, which is set in Galway and follows detective Cormac Reilly as he delves into the dark side of small-town Ireland, examining corruption and institutional abuse. McTiernan says the crime genre was a natural fit for her.
“I read a lot of crime fiction. I grew up reading mostly fantasy but in my 20s and 30s I found most of the books I bought were crime novels. A well-written crime novel has it all.
"You have human experience, some examination of society but you’re also going to have pace and a bit of excitement. You have a resolution at the end. I want escapism and entertainment and I get that in crime fiction.”
The character of Cormac O’Reilly helps make The Ruin a thoroughly absorbing read. McTiernan says he has really struck a chord with readers, which may be because he doesn’t follow the well-worn template of a male detective.
“My editor loved Cormac. One of the reasons she wanted to buy the book was because he wasn’t drinking whiskey at 4am and listening to jazz or whatever with 45 broken relationships in his past."
"It would have felt really artificial for me to create a character like that. It wouldn’t reflect the men that I know. If I wrote some completely emotionally illiterate guy who doesn’t know how to pick up the phone or doesn’t know how to have a conversation, it would have felt very fake.
"I didn’t want Cormac to be perfect either. He’s had it a bit easy, he’s a guy who’s gone into the right job, he’s athletic, he’s popular, he’s never been confronted by really grey areas before. It has been easy for him to be on the right side of things.
"In these books, I put him in a position where he is going to be confronted by morally ambiguous problems.”
McTiernan has signed up for two more books with her Australian publisher Harper Collins.
“In Ireland, I’m published by Little Brown, who are part of Hachette, so it is two books with them. At the moment, we’ll see but I hope there will be a third in Ireland. I’m writing that at the moment.”
Meanwhile, The Ruin has been optioned for a television adaptation by Australian production company Hopscotch, which plans to shoot in Ireland. “It’s very exciting. Hopscotch have a great team — Andrew Mason was a producer on the original Matrix movie,” says McTiernan.
Ahem. Can't tell you how excited I am about this and absolutely thrilled that The Ruin is in such safe hands with Hopscotch. Can't wait to see what they create with my story. Happy, happy days! https://t.co/bq2merH0SW— Dervla McTiernan (@DervlaMcTiernan) May 11, 2018
Earlier this week, McTiernan was in England for the prestigious Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Top crime writer Val McDermid had chosen The Ruin as one of four books to feature in the ‘New Blood’ panel at the festival.
McTiernan, in turn, is keen to use her own experience to encourage other people trying to break into writing.
“There are easier ways to make a living, it’s so uncertain even if you get a great deal for your first book or your second book, there are no guarantees after that. But if you are driven to do it, find a way.
"Just squeeze those few hours out of the day. Giving up TV is probably the best way to do it. Feel that it is a thing for you, your time and commit to it. You read all of this stuff online about nobody getting published, don’t pay attention to it, just get on with it.”