Books, Journalism, Writing

Want a six-figure publishing deal? Here’s how Kathleen MacMahon did it…

The name ‘Kathleen MacMahon’ has been on the tips of literary tongues since April 2011, when the award-winning Irish journalist picked up a €684,000 advance and a two-book deal from Little, Brown at the London Book Fair for her début novel, This Is How It Ends.

MacMahon’s love story between an Irish architect and an American searching for his roots soon became a worldwide hit, with sales in 25 countries across the globe. I spoke to her to find out what it was like to write with a famous author for a grandmother, how her day job has influenced her fiction and how she procured one of the top agents in the country.

With the huge success of her first novel, the moment that MacMahon realised she wanted to be a writer has faded into oblivion. “It was so long ago that I can’t even remember,” she reveals, “but it was a long time before my notions of being a writer solidified into a concrete idea for a novel.” Her grandmother, Mary Lavin, was also very familiar with literary success. She was regarded as a distinguished short story writer before her death in 1996. MacMahon is the niece of Caroline Walsh, literary editor of the Irish Times, and in her acknowledgments the former thanks her aunt, among others, for her wise counsel.

Kathleen MacMahon’s grandmother, renowned author Mary Lavin. Picture courtesy of the Irish Times

MacMahon did not necessarily feel huge pressure to follow in her ancestor’s famous footsteps, but declares she was most concerned about what her family would think of her book: “I certainly was aware that anything I did write would have to stand up to scrutiny and that my mother and her sisters, in particular, would know if it was any good.” Whatever she was to create, MacMahon wanted first to escape from her “Grandmother’s shadow” and the idea of “upholding some sense of a family legacy.”

She feels that fiction is a “nice release” for her because she is tied down by facts when she works in the media, although she regards journalism as a great discipline for pursuing a writing career. “There’s nothing like a looming news bulletin to focus the mind and free up any writer’s block you might have when you’re putting together a script. There you are, trying to craft a beautiful sentence, and then you look up at the clock and think, ‘Oh Jesus, is that the time!’”

Kathleen told me that This Is How It Ends was inspired by so many elements in her life, from the Sandymount landscape where she lives, to morning dog walks on the beach, to the drama of Barack Obama’s election as U.S. President, to the speed at which the recession hit Ireland. “[Everything] came together to form the plot,” she declares, “with a bit of Bruce Springsteen thrown into the mix.”

The novel – which Maeve Binchy recently described in the Irish Times as “a very satisfying story of people who are easy to believe in and hard to forget” – took MacMahon just over a year to complete. She sent a draft of the first half to her agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor, who loved it. “[She] gave me great confidence, but she also had a few practical suggestions, which were hugely helpful.” MacMahon believes herself to be “tremendously lucky” for securing an agent such as Gunn-O’Connor, who’d read an earlier unpublished novel of MacMahon’s and took her on immediately based on its strength. “Since then,” the author smiles, “I’ve felt that she has been 1000% behind me. We don’t see each other very often – she lets me do my job and I let her do hers – but I think we make a good team.”

This Is How It Ends

MacMahon writes anywhere she can, not only at her desk and in bed, but also sneaks in some creative time at the traffic lights and in the swimming pool changing rooms. She scribbles stories on everything, from notebooks to stray envelopes to the back of parking tickets, sometimes switching on the radio in the background. There’s usually “a bunch of kids making a racket upstairs” but she tries to grab a few peaceful moments when she can. Though, she laughs, “if I waited for a quiet house, [my writing] might never happen!” Her most vital advice for prospective authors is “just get on with it, [because] nothing that follows can be as bad as the feeling of not doing it.”

She is now working on a new novel to follow This Is How It Ends. “I’m anxious to get it finished,” she says, “because the third one has already started writing itself in my head.” MacMahon is certainly being kept busy, but she clearly thrives on creativity. “I’ll have no rest from this!” she grins.

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