By Michael McDonagh
For nearly thirty years, Ann O’Loughlin, from Ennis in County Clare, has been a leading journalist in Ireland, covering all the major news events of the day. She spent much of her career with Independent Newspapers, as a Security Correspondent at the height of the troubles and was a senior journalist at both the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald. Currently, Ann is a senior journalist with the Irish Examiner, primarily covering legal issues. In 2015 she published her first highly successful novel and is now better known as a best-selling author.
With her fourth novel My Mother’s Daughter becoming a best seller and the audio version and large print formats about to come out, we spoke to her about her twin careers.
IW: Journalism that has been your main profession for 30 years and indeed you are still with the Irish Examiner. Tell me about that.
“Well, I always say that writing is my first love but very happily I got diverted into journalism at a very early stage. I used to write short stories and I wanted to be a writer but growing up in the West Of Ireland I wondered what was I going to do, so I decided on journalism and went on to the College of Commerce, Rathmines, nearly all the people on that journalism course ended up on national newspapers.
“I worked freelance for a number of years then I worked for the Irish Independent for about 23 years. I was a senior journalist and correspondent and tribunal reporter. Then I took five years off because my kids were young and I thought I’ll take five years off to have more time with them and then when they were at school I thought what am I going to do now and I thought now is the time to do it – if I don’t do it now I’ll never do it, so I sat down and started to write.
“The first book I wrote nobody will ever see as I was only trying to write, but the second book was The Ballroom Café, which became a worldwide best seller as my first published book.”
IW: Has your experience as a journalist been helpful in your career as a novelist or is it hard to divorce the discipline of journalistic facts from the more creative inspiration required to write a novel?
“As you know, with journalism it is all about getting the facts and you only have so many hundred words, so it is a short succinct way of writing.
“Writing a novel is not like that. What I like about it is that it gives me time to linger and I can control where I am going and I can go down say the five roads but you don’t get to go down the five roads in journalism, as you are governed by space and deadlines. It is a very different kind of writing. I do think my journalism informs my fiction, and particularly in my work now.
“I am working in the High Court at the Four Courts, where you see a lot of ordinary people coping with difficult and tragic circumstances and I think that really informs my fiction.”
IW: How did you ‘transition’, if that is the right word, to become a writer and what inspired your first book?
“I took five years off and said to myself if I was going to make it as a writer, I have to do it and to be frank I thought I was going to sit down and write a book and the whole world was waiting for it.
“But the reality was that it was not like that.
“There were a lot of rejections and it took a long time to find an agent. It was a very, very difficult and a disheartening process as well.
“I always see it as pure luck at the end of the day, and there is a story attached to it.
“My agent is Jenny Brown in Edinburgh in Scotland. I had been making all these submissions to agents. Some asked for three paragraphs, others for two chapters, and some for fifty pages, formatted in a certain way, and it took a lot of time.
“Every Monday morning, I would sit down and do five submissions and it was dominating every day instead of being able just to sit down and concentrate on writing.
“I saw the format that Jenny Brown Associates wanted and worked on that then just checked back on the website and then saw that they were now closed for submissions – and I was after doing all the work.
“I thought Goddamnit, pressed ‘send’ and off it went into cyberspace. I thought I’d never get an answer, as often times they never bother to answer. To my surprise fifteen minutes later I got a phone call.
“It turned out that Jenny was on a train from Stirling to Edinburgh and her laptop was dead as her son had used it the night before and had not charged it.
“She was just checking her phone for her email and up popped my submission, as she had nothing better to do on the train she read the first two chapters and she rang me.
“This was The Ballroom Café and it all took off from there. She got me a publishing deal with Black & White in Scotland, and I did three books with them with my work being translated into, I think, eleven languages at this stage. Now I have moved to Orion Publishing in London.”
IW: The success of that book must have encouraged you to write more but was the blank page when of coming up with a second novel a bit daunting?
“It was – but I suppose because it had taken a little while to find an agent, then a while to find a publisher, because, you have to remember, nobody knew me. I was a debut writer and publishers won’t take chances with people anymore, so it took a while – it was nine months before we found Black & White or, rather, they found me.
“By then I had already been writing my second book so didn’t really have the success of The Ballroom Café hanging over me. Maybe I did for the last third of it, when I was finishing it, but a lot of the work had been done already, so I was certainly lucky in that respect.”
IW: When you start a new book do you have the whole plot and the characters planned in your mind before you hit the blank page or does it all just flow from the initial idea?
“For me it is usually an idea that has been knocking around my head for a while and it may sound really odd but when I start to write the characters start talking to me and talk in my head and they become very alive to me and they literally talk in my head and then I just type.
“I know a lot of authors have big storyboards and books full of notes and have backstories and plot plans and things like that, but I don’t do anything like that, I just let the characters go where they want and it works well for me.
“I don’t think I am patient enough to sit down and do back stories or mood boards. I prefer to do what I do when the characters are fighting out of my head and the longer I am doing it now, I have book four out and I am finished book five, so I know what is going to happen or where you are going. About three-quarters of the way into it, the ending usually comes to me, so it is a matter of moving in that direction.”
IW: Edna O’Brien wrote her first book The Country Girls in just three weeks, which was remarkable. How long does it take you? And do you do lots of research?
“It was probably in her head for quite a long time and then she just sat down, and it started to flow, but she had all that time to herself.
“I remember her saying that, when writing later novels, she would lock the door and the children would be banging at it but she would ignore them, so she could just concentrate.
“It is hard for me to get a block of time like that. It is not possible with my work and my family commitments. I would love that, and I am very envious of people like her, who can just have the time to write exclusively.
“But when I sit down it starts to come – they are the good writing days, others are not so good, but that is just the way it is.”
IW: After three best sellers ‘My Mother’s Daughter’, your very moving latest and fourth book, is different in that it is actually based on a true story of babies accidentally swapped at birth. Tell me about that and how you came to use the facts to create fiction?
“Well I’ll just stop you there for a second in relation to the others – I know you don’t know this – but they are all sort of based on factual stories.
“The Ballroom Café was based on the scandal of the adoption of Irish children to the US, The Judge’s Wife was based on the whole issue of the incarceration of Irish women in the ‘40s and ‘50s and The Ludlow Ladies’ Society tackled the whole issue of suicide – which is a big issue in this county.
“My Mother’s Child was inspired by the case in France, when two babies had been accidentally swapped at birth. I was intrigued when this case came up in the French courts when two women in their twenties were suing a hospital, or medical centre, as they had discovered they had been swapped as babies and they got about a million euro each.
“That case became the inspiration for My Mother’s Daughter, so in my book you have two women, mothers with daughters. Margo, in Ireland, and Cassie, in America, and the novel asks the question: what would you do if you found out that the child you named, and love, and raised as your own, turned out not actually to be your ‘own’. Where would your loyalty be? Would it be to the child that has your family name or to the child that is yours but whom you don’t know?
“The novel deals with this and the joining of the two women and a lot of things happen in the book, it deals with the journey of the two women. When it came out in Ireland people were saying ‘God, what would I have done in those circumstances?’ It is different to the other books in that it is not a historical issue but an interesting issue.
IW: The world of writing by women in Ireland now seems to be a much healthier place than it was those dark days when Edna O’Brien started out. Were you influenced by her or other writers?
“Yes, but I hate being called a ‘woman writer’, I would prefer to be just called a writer.
“When you are called a ‘woman writer’ you tend to be put into a category that people sometimes look down, that’s unfair because a lot of ‘women writers’ are tackling major issues, which is overlooked.
“Writers like Marian Keyes, and myself and others, are writing about issues that are of concern to women in Ireland now.”
IW: You are already working on a new book?
“I have done it and just sent it to my editor and I am waiting for her to read it and come back to me now with edits. The edits are really important and may involve structural changes and edits or revisions, which take time to do, so it will come out next year.
“I don’t think you are going to be a published author today if you don’t work with an editor and make the changes necessary and the book evolves as part of your writing and the book comes out better in the end.
“The editing process is the most important part of the finished book and I know all my books are better for having had a good editor
“As a writer, you can get too close to your manuscript and sometime an editor may say it is great but perhaps it needs to be extended as you want to make it a good reading experience.
“Having a professional editor who reads the manuscript and comes back with considered well-thought-out ideas and comments, who wouldn’t want that, it is an exciting part of the project.