Thursday, 6 March 2014

Debut Spotlight: Liz Nugent

Under the debut spotlight this morning is Liz Nugent whose debut psychological thriller Unravelling Oliver is published today by Penguin Ireland.

Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children's books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease - enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma. 

In the aftermath, as everyone tries to make sense of his astonishing act of savagery, Oliver tells his story. So do those whose paths he has crossed over five decades. What unfolds is a story of shame, envy, breath-taking deception and masterful manipulation.

Only Oliver knows the lengths to which he has had to go to get the life to which he felt entitled. But even he is in for a shock when the past catches up with him.

In her early career Liz Nugent worked as a stage manager in theatres in Ireland and toured internationally. More recently, Liz has written extensively for radio and television drama.  She has been shortlisted for the prestigious Francis McManus Short Story Award. 

She lives with her husband in her native Dublin. UNRAVELLING OLIVER is her first novel.

Can you tell us a little bit about your debut book Unravelling Oliver?
Unravelling Oliver is a psychological suspense tale told with a wry sense of humour about a very flawed man who wittingly and unwittingly manages to inflict pain and suffering on those who care about him.  To the outside world he is a charmer and a success story but he harbours the darkest of fears and secrets. His story is told primarily by him, but also by those who think they know him. But as is gradually revealed, nobody knows Oliver. He does not even hold the key to his own identity.  It is set in middle-class Dublin over 50 years, with a seminal event taking place in a French vineyard in 1973.

Where did the inspiration come from for this book?
The first line came to me about a year before I wrote it down: ‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her’ but at the time I didn’t know who was saying it or who ‘her’ was. But I knew a person who was incredibly intolerant and impatient and, I thought, capable of violence. I began to see if I could write from inside that person’s head. That character became Oliver, only I made him worse. And then I had to think what made him this way and that lead me back to finding the humanity in the character, not condoning his attitudes and actions but understanding them.

Do you think your experience as a script writer for TV dramas made the whole writing process of writing a full-length novel easier or is it a completely different experience? Writing for radio and tv is entirely different because it is such a collaborative process. Even if you write the script, you can’t really call the finished product your own work. The layers of editorial input, the directors, the production values and the actors all bring something to the script- and sometimes take something away- but it really is no longer ‘your’ story. 

Writing a novel is your work alone until you think you’re finished and then your publisher appoints an editor. But maybe as a result of that collaborative training, I had a great relationship with my editor Patricia Deevy. You have to trust that your editor wants your book to be the best it can be, so you are working together towards the same goal and there is only the two of you. The writer has the final say and I could have objected to a lot of her suggestions but you should at least try them and see if they work or not. 

Also, working on a soap opera taught me a lot about hooking your audience/readers. I don’t want them to book the book down so I hint and tease about what might come and try to leave every chapter with a cliff-hanger. It’s a great discipline

How long did it take you to get your publishing deal? 
About four months from the time it was first submitted to an agent. I am represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor. I was very lucky that my writer friends Claudia Carroll and Julia Kelly recommended me to her so I think I bypassed her slush pile. She was really quick to get back to me but asked if I was willing to do a little work on it before she submitted it to publishers. I did, and within four months Penguin bought it- and a month or two later Luebbe in Germany bought the German translaton rights. I was exceptionally lucky.

Are you currently working on a new book?  If so, are you able to tell us anything about it? 
Yes, I can tell you that it seems to be much harder than writing the first one! It is not a sequel and has nothing to do with the first book, but certain voices from the first book keep creeping in. My protagonist in this second novel begins as an obese friendless 17 year old schoolboy, who loses his virginity to a girl who is, frankly, desperate. It is lighter in tone so far but I think it’s about to get a little dark.

Do you have a set writing routine? 
I would love to say that I am very disciplined but I’m not! I have only recently got into the habit of writing every day. The first novel was written over many years during my holidays from work and the odd weekend here and there. Now I have given up the day job but I’m still finding it difficult to treat writing as a job. Must try harder!

Have you got anything exciting planned for publication day? 
The only thing planned for publication day is breakfast with my agent but I have invited almost everyone I know to the launch which is a few days later. Even though the launch is just a glass of wine in a gorgeous bookshop, there are a lot of very dear friends and lovely cousins coming from far and wide to support me. I’m really looking forward to it, but also strangely looking forward to it being over! I’m not sure if I like the spotlight and detest having my photo taken.

Are you going to treat yourself to something nice to celebrate? 
I had intended to borrow a dress from a friend but my mum wouldn’t hear of it ‘No daughter of mine is having her own book launch in a borrowed dress!’ so we went shopping the other day and I got a very nice simple dress that I will wear a million times afterwards. I’m all about practicality. Oh and yes, I nearly forgot, a weekend in London in May with lovely husband! I can’t wait. 

Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat? 

A tropical island. I would insert a USB key into my ear and let the words download directly to the laptop while I spend the day on a hammock at the beach with my best friends drinking margaritas- oh you said idyllic? I was going with fantasy.  

I’m actually writing this at my idyllic location. It is the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co. Monaghan.  It is a stately home left in trust to the Irish government for the exclusive use of Artists, Musicians and Writers. The house is set in acres of woodland around a lake. Luckily the weather is terrible because if it was fine outside, I would not be sitting at my desk. I never come here in the summer. I am in the John Jordan room which is indescribably beautiful and about the same size as the downstairs of my house. The only rule is that every evening, the residents must gather for dinner at 7pm when the incredible staff here serve the most delicious and calorific meals (I’ll need to go on a diet when I get home to fit into that dress). I have met great people here over the years and I’m incredibly grateful to Tyrone Guthrie for the legacy and to the team who keep it in such perfect condition for us.

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