‘Anybody who finishes a novel deserves praise and attention’

After what seemed like a dream job in the ‘Sunday Tribune’, Deirdre Purcell left to pursue fiction writing. Sue Leonard sits down to chat with her follwoing the launch of her 14th novel. 

Marian Lescher, the lead character in Deirdre Purcell’s new novel, is a journalist. A freelancer, she is delighted when she’s offered a job on a start-up magazine. She has to interview someone every week, and produce a 4,000-word profile. But she must approach the most well-known people possible.

This sounds, to me, like a dream job. And judging from the way Deirdre’s grey eyes light up when we discuss it over lunch in a hotel, it’s clear that she thinks so too. Back in the mid1980s, when Vincent Browne restarted the Sunday Tribune, that is precisely what she was doing.

“I didn’t have 4,000 words though,” she qualifies. “My profiles were 3,000 words long, but I always fought for more. It was great. I had the whole of the front page of the second section, and, sometimes, if the piece was special, I had another half page as well.” Acknowledged as the best profile writer of the time, Deirdre chose her own subjects. The only person she wanted and failed to get was one Charlie Haughey.

“I asked him three times, and he always said yes, but Vincent said, ‘You can’t have him unless he covers the arms trial,’ and of course, I knew he wouldn’t.”

I express amazement that, as a full-time employee, she was allowed the luxury of producing just one piece per week, and she agrees that it took some persuasion. Indeed, she fought with Browne over that, yet she was so thorough, she says, that the piece really did take her all week.

“I’d meet the person on a Monday or Tuesday, in a place like this. I always hoped the lunch would drag on, and sometimes the interviews lasted for four, or even four-and-a-half hours. The object was to keep them talking; to keep them interested and to change the expression in their eyes. Then I would go home and transcribe every word. And we’re talking up to 30,000 words on the longest ones. That’s a third of a novel!”

It was the transcription that made the personality of the person clear to her, and she would write the piece up based on that. “I had to deliver on Thursday afternoon and the rest of the week was taken up with the backwards and forwards of subediting, and in setting the next interview up.”

Following the success of her first novel, A Place of Stones, written at the insistence of Treasa Cody of Townhouse, Purcell left the Tribune in 1991 to write fiction full time.

This wasn’t her first change of career; after school Deirdre followed her father and brother into the civil service, but left when a more interesting job came up at Aer Lingus. Although happy there, Deirdre was delighted when she was offered the chance to become an actress at the Abbey Theatre. After that, she joined RTÉ, becoming a television newsreader.

Fiction writing, Deirdre says, is far from easy.

“I’ve never had a job harder,” she says, explaining that, in contrast, non-fiction is a doddle. (She ghosted Gay Byrne’s memoir, and has taken on similar projects since.) “Fiction writing is a horrendous task. It’s very long and immersive, and consumes you for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“When you finish, you get it published, which is another hurdle to overcome. It’s not like handing over your baby — that’s a cliché, but it’s like handing over part of yourself. You’re setting yourself up for rejection and it doesn’t get any easier.”

She sighs. “Anybody who finishes a novel deserves praise and attention.”

It’s for this reason that Deirdre doesn’t review books. “I won’t review books I don’t like, so newspapers don’t ask me anymore.” She doesn’t read her own bad reviews because she believes they are damaging.

“I read the one bad review for my first novel, and it stuck with me. It damaged me when I was writing the second one. I was second guessing as I was writing. The adjective I remember from it is ‘flowery’.

“I spent more time trying to make sure I wasn’t being flowery than I did writing it. I’d be writing a scene, maybe describing the chandelier over there, saying the gold and pink combine to create a shimmer, and think, ‘Jesus, is that too flowery?’ It stops you in your tracks.”

Forewarned, she did not read the one bad review for the book she describes as her best — the otherwise lauded Love Like Hate Adore, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize.

The Husband is Deirdre’s 14th novel. Surely, by now, writing fiction must have become easier? To the contrary, she tells me this one has been the hardest of them all. But there’s a reason for that. Shortly after starting the first draft she had a health setback, and there’s a domestic situation which is difficult, complicated, and ongoing.

Today, Deirdre looks serene. Her top, a flattering shade of pale pink, is set off by a chunky necklace in turquoise and rose. The effect is stylish, and softly pretty.

“My health is all right now,” she says. “I have good doctors, but it was a crucible of a book. I knew the first draft wasn’t working, and I needed help, which doesn’t usually happen. It was messy, and there were lots of drafts, but in the end that made it a better book.”

The plot is based on an interesting concept.

Marian, a Chicago native marries late, having put her own life second to that of her ageing parents.

She’s content enough, until Daniel Lynch, an Irish doctor, enters the fray. Giving herself over to a most passionate affair, Marian throws her solid, if predictable life away. She remarries, but is there a darker side to her second husband?

It’s a fascinating tale exploring the power of passion, and the story zips between Chicago and the Irish midlands to great effect.

How does she get into the heads of her characters so well? “I always start with a single image or a character. It takes hold of my brain. I start writing about the character or the image and wait to see what happens. So I didn’t set out to write about passion. I just wanted to write about this woman.

“I write scenes as they occur to me, and go back and forwards like a leapfrog.”

Clasping her hands in front of her, she opens out her palms. “It opens like this,” she says. “You have to justify what she is doing now by what has gone before.”

Deirdre has an idea for another novel. Does that feel exciting? She laughs. “It feels like a mental, emotional, and imaginative task. I have to find out why I am thinking about this woman, ask what she is doing, and why. I can’t yet say, and anyway, the idea will change.”

She is contemplating writing another non-fiction book first. Meanwhile, she loves her stints on Morning Ireland’s ‘What the Papers Say’, even though that means leaving her house in Meath at an ungodly hour.

When I ask her what her ideal, next job, might be, I expect her to mention a radio show of her own. But she takes me by surprise.

“I’d like to run an animal sanctuary,” she says.

“I’m passionate about animal welfare. I don’t believe animals are there for us to vent our frustrations on, or as extensions of ourselves. I am actually having nightmares about a story that came up in What the papers say about how greyhounds are treated in China. I cannot get that picture out of my head, and it distresses me terribly.”

The Husband by Deirdre Purcell is out now.


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