When I won my first writing competition I was so excited I ran all the way home. I was about eight years old. The Fun Fair was coming to Tralee – our little town on the West coast of Ireland – and apart from Duffy’s Circus which came every September, this was the highlight of our year. Our English teacher asked us to write an essay about it, and I won the only prize – a book of ten tickets for the fair.
There were eight kids in our family so everyone got a ride on something. Even The Mammy herself had a go on the dodgems.
So writing was in my blood from a very young age. I loved essays and English literature, but we were a very close family – physically as well as emotionally – so there wasn’t much free space in our little house in Railway Terrace for me to sneak off to and indulge in my hobby.
My grand-uncle Moss Scanlon was a harness maker and he had a small shop in Lower William Street, Listowel – a rural town in Kerry that was just a bus ride from Tralee – where we spent some wonderful summer holidays. Down the lane opposite the shop was the River Feale, and Moss did some serious fishing there, standing out in the middle of the river in waders that came up to his neck while us kids swam in the cool brown water or just chilled out on the grass watching him struggle with a pike or a trout.
The shop had a wonderful magic about it – a magnet for all sorts of colourful characters who’d wander in for a chat and a bit of jovial banter. One wonderful storyteller who often popped in was John B Keane, and it was a great thrill to actually meet him. I asked him once where he got his ideas from, and he told me that everyone has a story to tell, so be patient and just listen to them.
And I was there, sitting on the counter in the shop, when John B’s very first story was read out live on Radio Eireann. I can still remember the buzz of excitement and the sheer pride of the people of Listowel. And the seeds of storytelling were sown in my soul.
Another source of raw encouragement was Bryan MacMahon, one of Listowel’s finest writers and a schoolmaster to boot, who was a very easy person to talk to.
Anyway, I left school at fourteen and went to work in hotels in Killarney, and I quickly got caught up in the excitement and colourful buzz of the tourist industry – remember, this was in the 60s when the Beatles were creating a heady revolution and engulfing the youth with hopes and dreams of a wonderful future – so I felt no great urgency to write. I dreamed of being a writer, of course. I wanted to be a writer – but somehow life just got in the way.
When I joined the Royal Navy at eighteen I was sent to the Far East, and I spent the first three years between Singapore and Hong Kong, and again I was having so much fun I didn’t get to write anything, although there were loads of stories bursting to get out.
It was only when I got married and the children came along that I made any serious attempt to put pen to paper, and the result was Dark September, an alternative history thriller set in wartime Britain.
I loved writing it – I always wrote in longhand in a school notebook – but I hated having to type it. After working a ten-hour day, I’d be clattering away into the early hours of the morning on an old Olivetti typewriter and getting on everyone’s nerves. Then I’d scream in frustration when I’d discover that hours of hard work were ruined by some horrendous typo error, and I’d have to start all over again.
Amazingly, I found an agent almost immediately, but she insisted on some major changes so I spent a year re-writing it.
Unfortunately my agent died suddenly and the agency closed. It took ages to find another agent, but he too demanded even more changes. It became too much for Jennifer and the kids, so my manuscript hibernated in the attic for a few years.
Then Jennifer bought me a computer for Christmas – with Spellcheck! This time finding an agent has proved impossibility – they only want to represent people who’re famous for just being famous – so I self-published it with Amazon though I still longed to have it accepted by a mainstream publisher.