Updated on May 19, 2015
An interview (and giveaway!) with Niamh Boyce
Today I’m joined by new Irish writer Niamh Boyce. She has recently published her debut novel The Herbalist, and the good people at Penguin put us in touch with each other for an interview.
I’m also going to be giving away a copy of The Herbalist to one lucky reader :) Just leave a comment on this blog post and I’ll pick a winner at random to receive this lovely book, provided you live in the UK, Ireland or Canada.
Niamh Boyce only started writing four years ago, she has already written many short stories and poems, and won multiple awards for her work, including the 2012 Hennessey XO New Irish Writer of the Year award. The Herbalist follows the lives and loves of several women living in a rural Irish town in the 1930s. When a mysterious herbalist turns up in the town, rumours and scandal abound, and he starts to make a roaring trade from the townspeople with his curative potions. But some of his female customers are hiding damaging secrets and, when they go to him for help, a darker side to his practice is revealed.
Reading about the attitudes towards births out of wedlock at this time was fascinating. What inspired you to write about this topic, or did the idea for the novel come about more from the characters?
I care deeply about the topic, but the novel actually began with an image that popped up in my writing. I was working on a short story set in the marketplace of my home town, when a very clear image of a man holding up a medicine bottle appeared. The sun reflected on the brown glass, he wore thick gold rings and his eyes creased as he smiled. The scene was an unsummoned mixture of memory and imagination.
Many years before this, (when I was nineteen actually, so decades ago!) I read a newspaper article from 1942 about an Indian Herbalist who set up a stall in an Irish midlands market town and was subsequently arrested and jailed. I didn’t decide there and then to write a novel about this man, but that image was soon followed by the voices of Emily and Aggie, insistent characters who were intent on telling me everything about him. Their voices arose while I was free writing, which I think is a wonderful practice. So it was very much a character driven novel.
Each of the female protagonists have quite distinct voices. Was any one character easier to write than another? And do you have a favourite?
Emily was incredibly easy to write, she never stopped talking. Even now, when I’m working on other things, she insists on butting in! I had to write very fast to keep up with her – she didn’t always tell the exact truth, but it was truth as she saw it. Aggie was also easy to write, her voice flowed strongly and I enjoyed her language, her earthiness and her humour. Actually, all the characters with the exception of Sarah would talk the hind legs off a donkey. Sarah was more withdrawn, more secretive. I relied more often on what I saw, rather than what I heard when it came to writing her scenes. My favourite? I admire Aggie for being a survivor, and a truth teller.
Aggie is the most reviled woman in the village, but she also seems to be (ironically) the most sensible of all of them, or at least more in line with modern attitudes. Do you see her as a ‘voice of reason’ in the novel?
Yes – for me, Aggie’s is the voice of the book. Life has given her a perspective that none of the other main characters have earned. As a so called ‘outsider’ she knows more of what is going on than anyone else in the town. As a river woman, a prostitute and a spiritualist, the dead of the town talk to her, the men of the town talk to her, and the women sneak onto her boat under cover of night to have their fortunes told. Aggie is a carrier of tales and a teller of harsh truths. But though she is brave and says exactly what she pleases to whom she pleases, she isn’t blithely unconflicted about her role in the town. Her’s is a very brutal and vulnerable existence and she knows it.
What does your writing day look like? Do you write every day, and do you work on one project at a time, or several?
Like a lot of writers, I have work and family commitments, so at the moment I write Monday to Thursday from 9.30 to 2.00. I really protect this time – I turn off my phone and don’t answer the door. Actually, I wear industrial ear muffs so I don’t hear the door. I usually work on several things at a time but when I’m writing a first draft of a novel, especially the early stages, I only work on that.
In the last few years you’ve published your debut novel and won several awards. Do you have any advice for other writers wishing to break into traditional publishing?
Here’s what comes to mind today …
I see a lot of ‘first three chapters syndrome’ where, in anticipation of submitting a novel, a writer over-polishes the first chapters early in the writing process. I would say forget about editing those first three chapters until the full draft of the novel is finished. You get to know the story by telling it to yourself first, that’s what the first draft is for. Those (much worked) early chapters may need drastic rewrites (or even to be deleted completely) by the time you have finished your novel and found out (hopefully) how it ends. It’s very hard to decide to cut a chapter if you have spent months reordering and polishing the sentences. I learnt this the hard way – I have an unpublished novel with a word perfect, but completely unnecessary, first two chapters that I still haven’t had the heart to delete.
And, as advice goes its a cliché at this stage, but write the novel you want to read. Pay no heed to trends and fashions; write the story that won’t leave you alone, the one that only you can write.
Rejection is hard, but stick with it. And if you only write what you love to write, it will make sticking with it much easier. Hand on heart I can say I would have written The Herbalist even if I somehow knew it would never be published, I had to write it.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
At the moment I’m perpetually near the end of a (rough) first draft of a novel. I’m in the middle of a short story about an ex-child beauty queen called Wanda who is lusting after her recently redundant neighbour (its not going to end well). I’m getting a short collection of poetry ready for a pamphlet competition. I’ve also got a radio play to finish. This might make me sound very prolific and busy and organised, but I’m not at all. I’m behind on all four projects :)