Nicola Pierce is a full time writer from Tallaght, County Dublin, but now lives in Drogheda in Ireland. She has worked as a ghost writer on eight books and has published three books in her own name with O’Brien Press. Her first novel for children, ‘Spirit of the Titanic’ recently went into its seventh edition. Her fourth book about the Battle of the Boyne is due out in 2016.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
I was in sixth class, in Presentation Primary School, Terenure, and I had just won a book for my essay; about what, I can’t remember. However, I will never ever forget the utter shock of both winning something for the very first time in my life and being complimented by my teacher on schoolwork.
What is your writing routine? Do you write every day? Has your routine changed over time?
It can take me ages to really ‘get’ into a book. Before I reach that point of properly disappearing into it my house will be ship-shape and I will iron socks and tea towels. At some point, I won’t even realise it happening, something finally opens and I fall right in. My magic number of words is 2,000 a day. I begin by writing the time in my diary, of when I’m about to start, and then I’ll write 2,000 followed by the time I finished. I don’t know why.
I do a lot of events. I constantly visit schools and libraries, north and south of Ireland, which I thoroughly enjoy but it does play havoc with a writing routine. To be honest I probably write a lot less than you’d imagine. My novel about the battle of the Boyne, due out next year, was written over the three soggy months of summer. The weather was pants and I had no events whatsoever. This meant I was free to write six and seven days a week with no distraction, aside from un-ironed socks and tea towels.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Oh yes! When I submitted the manuscript for ‘Spirit of the Titanic’ I was so aghast by my first proper editorial report (that is, pages … and I do mean pages … concerning where I had gone wrong) that I froze and could not write a single word for almost two weeks. It was the classic beginner’s mistake … naively thinking my editor would read my first draft, pronounce it perfect and promptly send it off to the printers!
You started out as a ghost writer, tell us about this?
Maverick House, in Dunshaughlin, asked me to write the memoirs of the last state executioner of Thailand, Chavoret Jaruboon, who shot dead 55 death-row prisoners in Bang Kwang prison. I ignored that fearful voice in my head that was screaming ‘no!’ and said ‘yes’ before getting off the phone as quickly as I could. I had six weeks and the only thing I knew about Thailand was how to spell it. I worked with Pornchai, a Thai researcher, who translated my questions for Mr Jaruboon and then translated his answers back to me.
What are the difficulties faced by ghost writers? Would you recommend it to other writers?
Ghost-writing, I think, is a wonderful experience for someone who is thinking about writing a novel. You learn about fully developing a character and how to structure someone’s life story in a way that will keep the reader turning the page. It is like a writing apprenticeship.
Of course it can be tough depending on the subject. The ghostwriter has two responsibilities; firstly to the publisher to produce a book that will sell and, secondly, to the subject who is going to have to divulge the tiniest, excruciating details of their life. I have worked with quite a few people who, as children, suffered horrific abuse and I can never forget the effort that it takes to provide me with all the information I need. What I mean is that I will have to probe the actual abuse, usually pushing them way beyond what they had expected to be asked.
Did your ghost writing and seeing books that you had written published give you confidence to write under your own name?
Well, it certainly made me hungry to see books with just my name on the cover. Ghostwriting is an odd animal: I’ve written a book but it’s not actually mine and, really, only I can know what I put into it. The reality is you know you have done a bloody good job when the person/subject forgets that you exist … that means you got their voice exactly right. For the successful ghostwriter it can be a somewhat mute and private victory!
Why children’s historical fiction?
Believe me, this was unexpected. I ghostwrote a book for The O’Brien Press and when I submitted it, Michael O’Brien, the director, rang me and suggested that I think about doing a children’s novel. I was flabbergasted. This was something I would never have considered myself. A few weeks later he rang back to ask if I could write something about the Titanic as the 2012 centenary was the following year. While I was on the phone I remembered reading that the very first Titanic death was a fifteen year old catch-boy who fell 23 feet to his death on 20 April 1910. He is the spirit in the title; I use his ghost to tell the story of what happened on the night of 14 April 1912.
From that, a friend suggested I write about the battle of Stalingrad in my second novel. I love writing historical fiction and consider it a fierce privilege to introduce a young reader to complex and serious topics such as the Second World War and the 1688-9 siege of Derry. History never stops being relevant and I strive to extract the personal experience from the fact.
What was your favourite book you’ve worked on and what was the most difficult?
Ooh, that is an impossible question to answer. Each book has provided me with a unique experience. I love all my books for different reasons but I would hope – and pray – that my writing improves with each book.
The most difficult book was my WWII book, City of Fate because my research involved reading the most atrocious material. In fact one of the worst things I have ever read, about what happened in a small Jewish village in Russia, is in my novel. It had little to do with the story I was writing and in no way helped develop any of my characters but I was adamant to include it. I was exercising the little power that I have as a writer of historical fiction, to mention ninety children that are otherwise forgotten.
You support your writing with public speaking, would you recommend this as something writers should look to get into?
These days it is a necessity to get out there and promote your work. Years ago writers could have stayed at their desks and told themselves that their writing would do all the talking. Those days are long gone. If you find yourself lucky enough to be summoned to meet a publisher, treat it like any job interview. Do not attempt to mumble like a tortured artist who is unused to being sociable. The publisher is wondering if you are worth their money and will need you to be able to handle radio and television interviews along with any festivals you are lucky to be invited to.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m waiting to hear back from my editor who is reading through my fourth draft of the battle of the Boyne novel. She felt I had packed too much history into it with not enough action to hold a young reader’s attention. So I had to tear out 10,000 words, cut some chapters in half and re-write every other chapter. It hurt!
What has been your writing highlight in your life so far?
Fortunately I have plenty to choose from but perhaps the number one highlight was helping to unveil the headstone of Samuel Joseph Scott, the fifteen year old catchboy who was the very first Titanic-associated death and a character in my book Spirit of Titanic. He had been lying in an unmarked grave in Belfast City Cemetery until the West Belfast Festival paid for a headstone after media coverage about my book. I got to meet his descendants, including his eighty year old niece who never met him but showed me a photograph of her father who was meant to resemble Samuel. For my book to have had such an impact, to see this family with tears in their eyes – for that, I am very proud.
What do you like to read?
The house is full of books and still I go out and buy more as soon as I have a few quid. I read both fiction and non-fiction. In particular I read a lot of writer auto/biographies. The best book that I read over the last while was Jonathan Bateman’s wonderful biography of the poet Ted Hughes who was also the husband of Sylvia Plath.
Where do you write?
I tend to write mostly in the house. I love going to cafes but it is just about impossible to find one that is not playing music loudly. During the summer I take over the kitchen as the sun (when it shows up) shines through the window for most of the day. I cannot write when I’m cold or hungry. During the winter I work upstairs wearing umpteen layers of old woolen garments within a few feet of the electric heater.
And don’t get me started about Cadbury’s snack bars. When I’m in the middle of the book I don’t want to worry about things like calories so I don’t even try to argue with myself. If I want chocolate or cake I simply give it to myself in order to keep writing.
LadyNicci comment: I saw Nicola speak at a local lecture and was bowled over by her honesty, her engagement and her knowledge about her subject material. She held our attention for the hour and a half she spoke: taking us through her books, through the interviews and research and hard work and process. I had never met a ghost writer before and was fascinated to find out why a writer would pour their soul into writing a book but never take the credit for it. As an historical fiction writer myself, I was interested by her research process which is all encompassing. This is why she can speak so liberally about complicated historical events such as infamous sieges, battles and wars – it’s almost as though she has lived through it herself. Nicola is a keen advocate of teaching and helping children to engage with history and her work takes her to schools and book clubs all over Ireland. If you find out she is speaking near you, she is well worth going to see.
How I write is a weekly blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com a lifestyle, parenting and literary blog.
The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published or unpublished, to help and encourage other writers.
You can find Nicola’s books in all good books shops or visit Amazon.