Liz Nugent has published two novels with Penguin, Unravelling Oliver, winner of the Crime Fiction Award at the 2014 Irish Book Awards, and Lying in Wait, winner of the Ryan Tubridy Listener’s Choice Award at the 2016 Irish Book Awards. She has signed a US publishing deal with Simon & Schuster and we can expect adaptations of her work on our TV screens soon.
Tell us about your writing background, what are your earliest memories of writing?
When I was very small, before I was able to read, I used to copy my older sister’s handwriting, so I guess you could say that I wrote before I could read. As a teenager, I used to keep notebooks but I never wrote stories. Usually, it was terrible poetry or witty aphorisms. I used to write a lot of jokes but I’m not a performer. I wanted to meet a comedian who would pay me to write their jokes. They don’t exist, as it happens. Comedians all write their own jokes or steal each other’s.
You worked as a stage manager, in theatres and as a story associate in RTE. Did you always know you would work in the creative arts? When did you realise that novel writing was what you really wanted to do?
I actually had a few admin jobs before I worked as a stage manager, and my work in RTE was partly administrative too. I was pretty frustrated by how close I was to the creative process without ever being an official part of it. After the first five years in RTE, I was fed up and very bored and could see that my role was becoming less creative and even more administrative, so I began to work on other projects while I was there. I wrote a radio play for RTE Radio1, a TV drama for TG4, and a six part animation series for TG4, all while doing the day job. Then I started to write a few short stories.
How long did it take you to write your first novel Unravelling Oliver?
Unravelling Oliver was developed from a short story that had been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Award. It took me about six years, doing the odd bit on weekends and holidays, but most of the work was done on annual leave in The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig.
Tell us about the submission process? How long did it take you to find an agent and after that a publisher? How did you feel during that process?
I submitted to six agents at the same time and five of them expressed an interest, and then I worked with an editor appointed by my agent to polish up my manuscript before she submitted to publishers. The rejections came flooding in, mostly with the same feedback. My agent asked if I would rewrite the ending and I agreed. Within a week or two of the new version being sent out, I got an offer from Penguin. Strangely, and I know this sounds cocky, I knew I would get a publisher. I just had faith in the work. My agent told me at one stage that perhaps it would get picked up after I’d written my second book. That was a bit of a shocker because I hadn’t considered ever writing a second book!
What is your writing routine? Do you aim for a word count a day?
I’m on my third book now, and my routine is still haywire. I aim for a 1000 words per day, but I’m not sure if that is really working for me at the moment because there is no point in writing 1000 words if they aren’t very good but I have no other way of measuring my progress or self-discipline.
You have acknowledged that you longed to leave your day job to become a full time writer. Do you think the monotony of holding a job can sometimes lead to writers being creative in their own time – an escape as such?
Definitely. If I had been creatively fulfilled in my work, I wouldn’t have needed to write a book. So now I’m really glad that I made the leap. So far, so good. Though I would say to prospective writers that I didn’t actually quit until I had two books written. Financially, it is still a huge risk. And writing is actually the hardest work I’ve ever done. Like with any job, you have good days and bad ones, but I’m the boss now so if I have a bad day, that’s my fault.
Was there a particular moment what clinched the decision to leave your job and become a full time novelist?
A new software programme was introduced into my workplace and I knew that my job was going to be reduced to data entry and I couldn’t bear the thought of it.
What sort of pressure did you feel to produce your second novel – Lying in Wait, considering the success of Unravelling Oliver? Did it affect your writing?
It was certainly much harder, because I now had a deadline, and a genre and the weight of expectation. But I learned a lot from my editor at Penguin about the process when writing Unravelling Oliver, so after the second draft, it was relatively plain sailing (the first draft was totally rejected).
You’ve recently secured an American publishing deal and there are plans for both your books to make it onto screen. How are you feeling about these successes?
I am really excited by the American deal. It’s with an imprint of Simon & Schuster, so they are high profile with a lot of clout. I must manage my expectations though! I think film and TV deals are great but the length of time it takes from getting optioned to going into development is torturous. I just hope they get made before I die of old age.
What projects are you working on at the moment? Is there another novel planned?
Currently working on book three. There’s a dead body in the first chapter. I haven’t decided whose body it is yet.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Some days, I just can’t do it and nothing will work. I have learned that on those days, I must read. Just opening the imagination into somebody else’s world can often trigger my own imagination. I am not as disciplined as I should be.
What do you personally like to read?
I read broadly from all genres except sci-fi, I think. The last five authors I read were Sebastian Barry, Jane Casey, Tammy Cohen, Donal Ryan and Ruth Ware.
Where do you write?
In my local library or at home in my kitchen.
Lying in Wait has just gone on its UK release. You can buy it direct from Amazon or in all good bookshops.
As an Irish writer, I’d heard a lot about Liz Nugent in the past year or so – and I couldn’t help but note the respect for her work and the warmth for her success whenever her name or book titles came up in discussions in book clubs, online forums, among other writers and the publishing industry (that I’ve come to know). I watched her Irish launch online (I was laid up with morning sickness, otherwise I would have loved to attend the launch in Eason’s, Dublin) and the room was packed to the gilly gills. Why the success? Well, having seen Liz in action at the Irish Book Awards, she is charming, funny, clever and humble and mixed with a tangible writing talent and two very good books behind her – she has it. It being the book author x factor. I finally got to read her writing this year and while crime is not my preferred genre usually, I was swept away by her characters, dialogue and literary talent; I flew through the book in just a few days – always a good sign. I think having worked in theatre and only coming to writing a bit later, Liz spent a long time watching people and learning about how they express themselves. This comes across in her writing – you really are inside people’s heads. It’s interesting to hear that it took her some time to give up her day job and shows the risks that writers have to take, even when they are hugely successful, financially. I also like how she used writing as an escape from the day job – something many of us do – using our free time, creatively. I am sure her risk will pay off and look forward to seeing her books on screen as well as the new writing that is coming our way.
How I write is a blog post series published on www.ladynicci.com that aims to explore the craft of writing. If you have any comments please email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.