Chucking in the day job and writing a novel is a dream many of us harbour but the reality can be far from glamorous, as many successful writers must still juggle their craft with a career.
Many of us at some point in our lives fantasise to some degree about writing a novel. Perhaps as we drag ourselves to work on some squashed, sauna-like mode of public transport we think of our favourite author wrapping their hands around a mug of coffee and settling into a morning of writing.
“If only I had the time,” we say to ourselves. But the fact is, most published writers are probably somewhere on that same bus or train on their way to the day job, dreaming the same thing. But while you lament the fact that you would never have the time, they are coming up with ways of making it.
“You steal an hour on lunchbreak or whenever you can,” says author Sinéad Crowley. “I often wrote parts of the first novel in the car outside the crèche or if I’d arrived somewhere early. I was able to do it by doing an hour here and there. It worked for me.”
Crowley’s debut novel Can Anybody Help Me? has been shortlisted for the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Book of the Year in the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Now in their ninth year, the awards recognise and celebrate the very best of Irish literary talent. Readers are asked to vote for their favourite books in 12 separate categories through the awards website.
For authors like Crowley, the nomination is reward for what has been a long and sometimes arduous journey fuelled only by sheer determination. Since sitting down to write her first novel, the RTÉ arts correspondent has had two children, kept up a day job and started a second novel.
“Your first book is a punt in the dark,” she says. “You do it because you really want to write a book. I started my first book when I was expecting my first child but I edited it on my second maternity leave. I got my agent six weeks before I gave birth [to my second child] and I got the deal six weeks after. So I was editing and looking after two children. Now I did have to hire a babysitter for that but between that, naps and working at night I got it done.”
Crowley’s first novel was published some four years after its inception. Her second novel, which is due to hit the shelves early next year, had to be completed in less than 12 months.
“I’ve been lucky that the children are both good for going to bed at about eight and I do most of my work between eight and ten at night,” she explains. “That’s still the case. I tend to work in short bursts actually and that has evolved really since I’ve gone back to work the second time.”
Speaking of the day job, Crowley says she has no intention of giving up her role with the national broadcaster. She points out that although writing might sound glamorous, authors have to shift pallets of books before they make decent money.
“It’s not the path to ‘millionairedom’ that everyone thinks it is,” she says. “But I also love my job in the newsroom. I have what’s generally considered to be the best job in there. It would be very difficult to give that up.”
Author Anna MacPartlin was forced to choose between “the cushy day job with a pension” and her “passion” when it became apparent that the two could no longer co-exist.
Having spent time as an actress and a successful stand-up comedian, MacPartlin realised that she wanted to write.
To sustain herself she took some temping work with a small insurance company, who eventually persuaded her to become permanent. She eventually made her way up through the ranks to become a claims adjuster.
That was during the day. At night she would write “taking her meals at the screen”.
It took the best part of eight years before Pack Up the Moonwas published and while the waiting game was sometimes frustrating, that period was nothing compared to the pressure that came with success.
“I was still working the day job,” she recalls. “Because Ireland is such a small market you can’t give up the job. The book did go in at number two on the bestseller list and I was delighted but it meant nothing really in terms of finance. So I’d be in work and I’d say ‘listen I’m going to take my break now’
and I’d run around the corner and do an interview with Ryan Tubridy or someone, or a photoshoot, or an interview with a newspaper.
“I wasn’t just doing the job, I was promoting the first book and writing the second book. Bananas.”
By the time MacPartlin’s second book came out she was drained. Her body had had enough and in work one day it decided to let her know.
“I woke in the morning with swelling on my face and my toes, and I had a rash,” she recalls. “I had to go into work because there was nobody else in the department that day.
“But as the day progressed I noticed that the rashes were getting bigger. I ran to the doctor’s, got a concoction off them but I was back an hour later. At this stage my tongue, lips and throat were beginningto swell up and I was going into anaphylaxia.”
After ten days in hospital Mac-Partlin returned to work but it soon became apparent that something had to give and although she estimates she was on at least €60,000 per annum she was never going to give up writing.
Six novels later and she has no regrets. Her latest novel The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes has been shortlisted for the Best Popular Fiction Book in this year’s awards.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she says. “I’m one of those people who thinks ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’. But I don’t have children. If I did, it might have been different. The same level of fear doesn’t apply.”
“You have to give them enough time,” says Nenagh-born Donal Ryan of his children. “Even now when I go away for a few days I feel terribly guilty. I went on a tour recently to the United States and my six-year-old, Thomas, was crying before I left because he thought I was going to be killed in America by a tornado for some reason. That side of it can be hard.”
Though going away for long periods is a drawback of being a full-time writer Ryan describes his days as being “beautiful” since he left his job in Clare with the National Employment Rights Authority.
“When you’re not published there’s really no pressure on you writing wise,” he says. “You’ve no deadlines, you’ve no meetings or readings to attend; you’re just working towards being published. It’s when you get published that the little bit of pressure comes on. I got very nervous about letting my writing life impinge on my working life but I was doing fifteen, sixteen hours work a day.
“It was becoming unmanageable. I loved the work really but between it and the writing and doing readings I just couldn’t sustain it.”
It has helped that Ryan’s books have won him awards both at home and abroad, most notably the Guardian’s First Book Award in 2013 for The Spinning Heart. At this year’s Bord Gais awards he is up in the short story category.
“Now, it’s beautiful,” says Ryan of his work-life balance. “I take my children to school in the morning. I come back and I write.
“I pick them up, come home do some exercise and I edit in the evening so my day now is just lovely.”
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