Guest Post – The Route to Publication with John O’Donoghue. From the bad old days of the 80s to publishers competing for his memoir
I’m handing my blog over today to John O’Donoghue, winner of Mind Book of the Year 2010
I didn’t have a very good Eighties. For all the triumphalism you see in most of the TV compilations a lot of people had a tough time. Just like I did.
Three million unemployed, steep rises in homelessness, The Troubles, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, the Poll Tax. It was like a civil war, the Enemy Within versus the Government. These days when I look at the news it’s as if those days have come again.
So when I found myself with time on my hands in 2005 I thought I’d look back at and try to trace how I came through so much sheer hostility.
My troubles started when I was relatively young. My father died when I was 14, I was fostered at 15, sectioned when I was 16, in hospital again a year later. Just as I was due to leave foster care aged 19 my mother died.
There followed a decade in and out of the old Victorian asylums, interspersed with stints in a therapeutic community, a large hostel for homeless men, squats, the streets, and Pentonville Prison, where I was remanded for reports while unwell.
Some of what I had to remember was painful. Some of it made me laugh. Some of it made me angry.
I sent the first 3000 words to Granta magazine. Six months went by and I heard nothing. So I phoned them one Friday afternoon and was asked to email it to them. They came back to me on the Monday morning and asked me to send more.
Then they told me they wanted to pass me over to Granta Books. It was at this point that I got in touch with Bridget Whelan. She had an agent and I needed representation.
So Bridget introduced me to Jonathan Conway, then with Mulcahy and Viney (now Mulcahy Associates). Jonathan took me on and advised me to add a fourth chapter to the three I’d sent to Granta.
I sat down and wrote about being given the telegram informing me my mother had died by my foster mother, of travelling over to Ireland a week later once social services had sorted me out a travel warrant, of meeting my aunt at the gate of her house, of her telling me that my mother was buried, that I had missed the funeral, that they don’t hang about in Ireland.
Jonathan started sending out my four chapters and synopsis. When he told me he’d had a strong response from John Murray I lost a day’s work with excitement.
John Murray – the publishers of Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Sir Arthur Conan Dotyle, John Betjeman, Paddy Leigh Fermor…
Then one day in 2007 he met me in Soho and we went off to meet publishers who’d expressed an interest in Sectioned: Bloomsbury, Simon and Schuster, and John Murray, all in one afternoon.
Jonathan held an auction for the rights to my memoir and John Murray came out on top. I think the sum in question is referred to as ‘a good five figure advance’.
He arranged for me to receive 50% up front and that summer we went to the South of France. Nothing too swank, but we felt like we’d won the jackpot.
Then came months of hard graft. I added another eleven chapters to the four I’d written and submitted the final manuscript of 85,000 words in late 2008. Sectioned was published in February 2009.
Around the time it came out John Murray held their authors’ party at the old premises in 50 Albemarle Street, off of Picadilly. Jonathan and I stood at either end of the famous fireplace where they burnt Lord Byron’s memoirs, glasses of champagne in hand, lost in a dream.
Over a quarter of a century earlier I had slept out on the Embankment, scrubbed the pots at Le Caprice across the road near The Ritz, been on the soup at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
I thought of those who hadn’t made it, the friends I’d lost along the way, gone under the wheels of the juggernaut, and I raised my glass in silent tribute to them.
It wouldn’t have happened without so many people. But most of all it wouldn’t have happened without Bridget. Here’s to you, macushla.
John’s next book, Fools & Mad, a book-length satirical poem on the Celtic Tiger set in Jonathan Swift’s gift to Ireland – an asylum – will be published by Waterloo Press shortly.