Walk the Line with Rachael English: ‘I think of writing as a hobby that got out of control’
RTÉ’s Morning Ireland news presenter and bestselling author talks balancing two professions, career highs and inspiration for her seventh novel set in 1980s Ireland
As a child I read so much that I worried I would exhaust the world’s supply of books. I was always interested in writing, but it never occurred to me that it was something I could pursue as a career.
Even wanting to be a journalist felt impractical. But when I left college, I was fortunate to get a job with the local radio station in Clare. Other opportunities followed. Twenty years passed before I decided that if I didn’t at least try to write a novel, I’d regret it.
In writing Whatever Happened to Birdy Troy?, I wanted to explore a story that would capture the contradictions and tensions of the 1980s, especially for young women. There were some truly terrible episodes like the death of Ann Lovett and the treatment of Joanne Hayes.
At the same time, we did have more freedom than our mothers’ generation. Somewhere along the line, the idea of an all-woman rock band came to me. The Diamonds have endless talent and energy – but, as they find out, sometimes that’s not enough.
Writing a novel and working as a journalist are very different things. Even when you’re working with an editor, writing a novel is a mostly solitary process. It’s just you and all the crazy ideas in your head.
Daily radio programmes are the epitome of teamwork. Also, if you’ve had a bad show, you can try and redeem yourself the next day. If you fall out of love with a book, it lingers around, mocking you.
I think of writing as a hobby that got out of control. Sometimes everything weaves together quite well. At other times it all feels a bit awkward. The problem isn’t so much lack of time as lack of headspace.
At the moment, so much is happening, that it’s impossible to turn away from the news, but when you’re writing that’s what you need to do. Twice last year, I was convinced I wouldn’t write again because I didn’t have the brainpower to combine the two jobs.
I’m inspired to write by everything and anything; from small snippets of news to observing how people behave. I try to write books that I would like to read. When I veer away from that, I find myself in trouble.
I’ve been lucky that in my work as a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many significant events and meet many fascinating people. Often the people who stay in your mind aren’t the ones who are well known. They’re the everyday people who have had to struggle.
In terms of major professional highlights, there are two standouts, albeit for very different reasons. I was at Stormont when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and I was in Washington when Donald Trump won the 2016 US election.
In the grand scheme of things, the obstacles I have faced in life have been fairly low. I started out in journalism when there were still relatively few female reporters, and it was harder for young women to be taken seriously.
Despite that, I was given opportunities at a relatively young age, and over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly conscious that young journalists don’t tend to get those chances now.
I cast a wide net when it comes to reading, so I could easily name 20 authors I enjoy – but here are five of my favourites, chosen for different reasons: Anne Tyler, Dennis Lehane, Curtis Sittenfeld, Patricia Scanlan and Andrew O’Hagan.
Whenever I need to read to really good writing, I return again and again to Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Digging to America are among a sweep of her books I rely on. Even a few pages can be enough to inspire me.
A mantra that I live by? When I’m walking up the stairs to the newsroom, usually at about a quarter past five in the morning, I tell myself that today is the only day that matters, and I should make the most of it.
I don’t tend to sit down and think about what makes me proud. Of my seven books, I’m fondest of this one, perhaps because I feel closest to the characters.
I have written the beginning of a new novel, but 2024 promises to be an exceptional year for news, and I know that’s going to take up a lot of my time. I’m fortunate, however, that I can write pretty much anywhere, so I’ll do my best to chip away at it.
Whatever Happened to Birdy Troy by Rachael English is published in trade paperback by Hachette Ireland, and is available in all bookstores now, €14.99.