“We need ten grand to fix the roof of the house, what are we going to do?”
For many people the answer to that particular question would lie in a credit union loan. Not so for Rebecca O’Connor and husband Will Govan. Necessity in the case of Rebecca proved the mother of reinvention of a novel she had penned over a decade earlier.
“We’re like joking, saying ‘We’ll get He is Mine and I Have No Other published’. I said ‘Right, that’s my New Year’s resolution.”
Rebecca is best known in this parish and beyond as the editor of the fabulous Moth and Caterpillar literary magazines. However, she’s about to become known much further afield for her debut novel which is written with the skill of a natural story-teller, the subtlety of an experienced editor, and the humour of someone who clearly relishes creating a work of fiction. It’s authentic and brilliant.
However, He is Mine and I Have No Other endured a stop-start gestation. Rebecca began penning the coming age story when she was 27, while living in Oxford and working as an editor for the illustrious Oxford University Press. Such was her commitment to the novel she actually gave up work to come home and concentrate on finishing it.
Her teenage protagonist and narrator, Lani is drawn to the tranquil melancholy of a cemetery close to her home. There she falls for a mysterious boy, Leon, who’s grieving at a graveside. The cemetery is a feature which echoes Rebecca’s own experience. She was reared on the Ballyhaise Road, nearby Cullies Cemetery, where the remains of the 35 orphan girls who needlessly died in a blaze in February 1943 are interred in a single plot. Those lost lives form a lattice on which O’Connor’s story blossoms, echoing and contrasting the experiences of her young characters finding their way in life in the early 1990s - Lani, her love interest Leon and pal Mar.
“That impacted on me as a kid, because as a moody teenager I’d wander up to the graveyard with my book of poetry or whatever and hang out there. Yeah I was very, very conscious of them,” Rebecca tells the Celt over a cuppa in their quaint artists’ retreat at their Drumlane home. Outside hubby Will is at an easel working on an oil landscape.
Rebecca believes those deaths continue to resonate through Cavan town to this day.
“People have tried to bury it, they don’t want to talk about it, but I think there’s always a kind of trauma, as subtle as it is, you can almost feel it, you can taste it in the water – that’s the way I felt about it growing up.
“I was conscious of it, as the character Lani is in the book, there’s a kind of presence there - because it was a huge tragedy for a small town.”
As such she is alert to the possibility of offending anybody. She assures: “I tried to be as sensitive as I could be.”
To the degree that not once does she name the setting as Cavan town.
“And the place is a fictionalised kind of place,” she claims unconvincingly.
It’s fictionalised, but... the Celt replies.
She laughs in acknowledgement. “Anyone living in Cavan will recognise it.”
The orphanage fire aspect was present in that first draft, but she had an “epiphany” while reworking the text during a residency at the Wordsworth Trust: “I’m going to give those girls voices.”
Spoken in the first person, those fictionalised voices offer deeply affecting vignettes of how the girls came to be in the orphanage run by the enclosed order of Poor Clare nuns, and their invariably grim experiences.
The novel’s first incarnation found a willing agent and it seemed Rebecca was on the express route to literary success.
“‘Right it’s all going to happen very quickly,’” her agent had promised of publishers picking up the rights. “But it didn’t. It got very close. It got lots of very nice rejections from some good publishers. But it just didn’t happen.”
Looking back on it now, Rebecca can see that, much like her protagonist, the novel wasn’t fully-formed at that stage.
Life got in the way of redrafting the novel: she was working in London as a commissioning editor when she met Will. They married within a year, then relocated in Cavan, Rebecca published a collection of poetry, they set up the magazines, ran an art studio, organised a major poetry competition - oh and had three children: Bruce, Ralph and Nancy.
“The whole point of us being here,” she says, “was that I would be able to write and Will would be able to paint, but of course that was totally unrealistic.”
Seemingly not now.
That winter when figuring out how to finance the roof’s repair, the laughs at the idea of returning to the novel soon subsided, and Rebecca set her mind to making it a reality. Rebecca credits Will with untangling its convoluted plot.
“I knew, every time I read the bits [that didn’t work] I cringed, yet I was too close to it to be able to do anything. But he literally went through it with a pen and went, ‘Oh you just need to cut that out, and that and that, and that.’ I went ‘Oh yeah!’ And that was it.”
Having hit it off with novelist Donal Ryan whom she had met through The Moth, the author of The Spinning Heart invited her to Limerick to give a talk to his creative writing class. Donal graciously took an interest in her book, and a glowing appraisal followed: ‘Amazing, heartbreaking, brilliantly done’.
“He gave me that endorsement and so armed with that, last year I started sending it out to agents,” recalls Rebecca.
Again The Moth proved an invaluable door opener. Seeking an interview with Edna O’Brien, she contacted the novelist’s agent, Caroline Sheldon. The interview didn’t materialise, but the idea to send on her novel to the agent did.
“So I was like: right I’m going to send her my book. And within two weeks they were back to me, and signed me up. And then very quickly they sent it out and then Canongate very quickly came back as well. So after all the years and years...” she breaks off in wonderment this is happening, “it’s mad.”
She has reciprocated the speed. She says, she has “polished” a second novel which is “totally different” from her debut.
“It’s about a man in his 30s living in London and his wife disappeared and he thinks that he can communicate with his plant – his plant knows what happened to his wife.”
The Celt doesn’t how to respond.
“ It’s a black comedy,” she says amused by her dumbstruck interviewer. “It’s surreal and it’s dark, and it’s funny.”
Much of the publicity around the ‘He is Mine...’ has had a focus on the orphanage fire, but that may give the false impression that readers are in for a relentlessly grim yarn, Cavan’s response to Angela’s Ashes. They aren’t, ‘He is Mine...’ is brimming with humour.
“It’s kind of the undercurrent,” she says of the orphanage fire. “And I wanted the humour because you can’t have a story of a teenage girl growing up in provincial Ireland without that humour.”
The book explores the familial love and friendship which give Lani the emotional resilience to deal with setbacks, which other characters have to find elsewhere or go without.
“I wanted to capture the real essence of adolescence – the sort of self indulgence. But I think that contrasts well with the voices of the orphans so you get the sense: well what happens to Lani in her life is disastrous and very sad, but in the scheme of things, she’s going to be fine – she comes from a loving family, her parents are very nice, benign characters, and her relationship with her best friend Mar is sweet and funny as well. You know that in a few years they’ll be having pints and laughing at the stuff they got up to.”
She explains that achieving the authenticity of the voice, and concerns of Lani came from memory, and dipping into her own teen journal - “which was mortifying” - to ensure she struck “the right tone”.
“I was trying to get back into the feeling of being that age, rather than how you actually carry on. It’s hard to explain, but there’s an atmosphere around adolescence I think, and I was trying to capture that.”
The book has many great moments of adolescent awkwardness.
“That was totally me tapping into how I felt as a teenager – and I was extremely self conscious, and very shy. You would only have to look at me and I would blush completely. And I was afraid to open my mouth, unless I was with close friends.”
It seems that she hasn’t entirely shed that sense of self consciousness, as Rebecca confesses that the “exposure” which comes with publishing the novel is “really anxiety inducing” She insists she’s not “terrified of bad reviews”.
“It’s a kind of exposure, like this, talking openly about your experiences – I’m shy. I spend most of my time in that office hidden away, I’m naturally introverted, I’m quite happy like that. So it feels weird for me to be going: ‘Yeah my book’s about...’,” she says affecting a light and breezy tone.
Given the strength of her novel, and the need to fix that roof, she’ll just have to get used to it.