Monday January 20, 2020

Living the Dream

From RTÉ soap story associate to award-winning author, Liz Nugent could be on the cusp of breaking America

Nadine O’Regan

Arts Editor and Columnist

25th September, 2016
Liz Nugent Pic: Maura Hickey

‘I’m chuffed!” Liz Nugent laughs down the phone. As a reaction to the news she has recently received, her comment is understandable, even understated, all things considered.

The Irish author has just discovered that she has won the literary equivalent of the lottery: a six-figure deal to publish her two novels, Lying In Wait and Unravelling Oliver, in the United States. Nugent’s books will be published by Simon & Schuster, the venerable firm which is also bringing the world Bruce Springsteen’s memoir next week.

Nugent, 48, got a call from her Irish agent late in the evening to tell her the news. “I thought she’d had an accident or something,” Nugent says. “But she said she’d just got off the phone from New York.”

The deal had been struck – and Nugent, a former story associate for Fair City – had suddenly been catapulted into the major leagues.

In fairness to Nugent, things had already been going pretty well for her up to now. When we first met, some weeks back, to discuss her new novel, Lying In Wait, which has topped the bestseller lists in Ireland, Nugent had cemented a reputation in Ireland as an author of note.

Her first novel, Unravelling Oliver, had won the Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2014, and the debut had become a breakout hit, with the novel translated into eight languages. The rights to the book have also been optioned for an ITV drama.

Published by Penguin Ireland, the book’s upward trajectory represented a very welcome development for a woman who – by her own admission – had become unhappy in her pensioned and salaried RTÉ job, in which she was still working while writing her debut novel.

Nugent isn’t the type of person to play the martyr about her life – she’s a lively and intelligent presence, whose interests range far and wide. But she doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing her feelings about the stagnancy in her career.

“I stayed in the job too long,” she says. “I was an RTÉ employee for ten years while I was writing Unravelling Oliver. I should have left, but you get complacent. I became very unhappy there. Writing the book was the only way I could see to get out.”

Nugent began work on Unravelling Oliver in 2006, but it would be six years before she finally submitted the novel to various agents.

Of the six agents she applied to, five were interested in taking her on – and she went with Marianne Gunn O’Connor, the renowned agent who has inked major deals on behalf of clients such as Cecelia Ahern, Cathy Kelly and Marian Keyes.

But there were more hurdles to overcome. When O’Connor submitted the novel to Irish publishers, it was rejected by numerous firms.

The editorial departments of the publishing houses liked the manuscript, but couldn’t figure out the genre to which it most truly belonged. Was it a crime novel or a literary novel or something in between?

“The marketing departments didn’t consider it highbrow enough to be literary fiction,” Nugent says. “It was the marketing departments, in most cases, who rejected it, even though editorial departments wanted it.”

Eventually, Patricia Deevy, an editor at Penguin Ireland, took a chance and agreed a one-book deal for the novel. “I worked with her to tighten it up and then, when Unravelling Oliver did well, they offered me a second book deal,” Nugent says.

While her success now seems inevitable – her novels are tightly plotted and absorbing dramas, with fascinating characterisation and little extraneous fat on their bones – you can understand why editors may originally have found her a difficult author to categorise.

In her conversation, Nugent speaks with knowledge and affection about highbrow playwrights and authors including Sebastian Barry, Lisa McInerney and William Boyd, as befits a woman who, before RTÉ, worked as a freelance stage manager, and who has always read widely.

But she also has a noirish side, that seems to inform her crime fiction leanings. “I often have nightmares where I’ve murdered somebody,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t dream about the physical act of murdering somebody. It’s the knowledge that I have murdered somebody, and what am I going to do. It’s frightening.

“As a child, I was quite scared of being murdered,” she says. “I had a terrible sense of unease. Growing up in the 1980s, the Pope had survived an assassination attempt, John Lennon was murdered and there was the case of Malcolm Macarthur, who murdered a nurse in the Phoenix Park.”

Nugent’s background, while affluent in one sense, was far from stable. She and her siblings grew up in a grand house called Avalon on the Stillorgan Road in Dublin. But although her father was a solicitor, they didn’t have the kind of wealth people might have believed they did.

“We were like the Mitfords,” she laughs. “My brothers went to Glenstal Abbey, a huge expense, and we lived in this massive house, but the house was falling apart. We couldn’t turn the heating on, my mum was panicking when a bill came in. It was like, ‘Just put on another jumper’.”

Her parents separated when she was six – a very uncommon move for a Catholic family in the mid-1970s – and Nugent was often sent to west Cork with her younger brother to stay with their granny, while her mother worked as an antiques dealer.

“Granny’s house was safe,” she remarks, in an sentence that seems, strangely, to echo her younger self. “In Skibbereen, granny was always there and there was dinner on the table every day.”

Shortly before Nugent’s parents separated, she had a serious accident. “I went to slide down the bannisters and missed, having been told not to do it. I had a brain haemorrhage and, as a result of that, I have no coordination on my right hand. I don’t think it was related to my parents’ break-up, but my parents’ break-up happened fairly shortly afterwards.

“I was back in school within the year, but physiotherapy went on for years and years, and I had subsequent operations on my right leg. I have Botox injections in my right arm and leg now, to stop the muscles going into spasm. I can only type with one hand.”

Nugent’s condition is called dystonia – where muscles go into spasm or there’s abnormal posture, typically due to a neurological problem. Years later, she suffered a further accident. “In 1988, I fell in the shower and dislocated my kneecap and, because of the earlier brain haemorrhage, it had a catastrophic effect. I have a limp on my right leg.”

Perhaps with another person, these accidents would be the main focus of any article about them. The fact that they are not – and do not need to be – is testament to what anyone can quickly perceive about Nugent: she has an iron will and a determination to live a life that is not dictated to by her earlier accident: she is an award-winning author, not a victim.

When I arrive on time at our meeting place, she is already well settled at a table in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, so you wouldn’t notice a limp. She laughs at the location, which, she says, is a little grand for her.

In fact, the location has been picked largely because it seems to reflect the theme of affluence that runs through Nugent’s new book. Lying In Wait is an absorbing and tightly plotted thriller which tells of an upper-class Dublin couple, two pillars of society, who murder a young woman in the early 1980s and bury her in their back garden.

Lying In Wait is the kind of book you’ll read in a couple of sittings, held by the strong characterisation and the intriguing plot-line. In terms of genre, the narrative has strong echoes of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, but with a slightly more murderous bent, and a matriarchal character, Lydia, who has a fascinatingly unhinged psyche.

“I had decided early on that she was going to be the monster character,” Nugent says. “But I can’t write a psychopath credibly unless there’s some rationale: I prefer not to believe that people are born evil.”

Tightly controlling the lives of her son and husband, Lydia refuses to leave her home, which, in a strange echo, is called Avalon, after Nugent’s old family house. Nugent originally named the house after a friend’s house, but then realised her friend might worry that it was a kind of pointed critique. “My family won’t sue me,” Nugent laughs.

Have they read it? “Some of them have read it, but not all of them. I think they’re okay with it. Nobody has raised any objection to it.”

Despite the difficulties of her early background, Nugent has a strong family network. Her father married again, so Nugent has a circus troupe of siblings: there are a dizzying nine of them in total.

Married to RTÉ sound engineer and musician Richard McCullough, Nugent has just recently returned from a family wedding, where her half-sister got married, and she describes her siblings as being very close. “I wouldn’t call her my half-sister, she’s my sister,” she says.

In a matter of days, Nugent is off on her travels again, heading to Monaco where she will take up a month-long residency to research her new book in the Princess Grace library.

“The book is loosely inspired by Neil Hannon’s song A Woman of a Certain Age,” she says.

Such glamour. It all seems a long way from where she first started, writing in the twilight hours at her kitchen table in Blackrock in Dublin, while still an employee of the national broadcaster, and hoping to dream her way into a brighter future, as a successful author.

“You know when Pinocchio says: ‘I’m a real boy now’?” Nugent smiles. “For publishers to take a punt on me is a real confidence boost. I’m very happy. I’m doing what I want.”

At a glance

Liz Nugent on:

. . . her parents’ separation

There was a shame about it in the 1970s, a stigma, about being separated. I was the only person I knew of who had parents who were separated. It was only when I left school that I found out that other parents had separated as well.

. . . the genre of her fiction

Genre-wise, I don’t care what genre people put me in. Crime is very commercial these days. I’m happy to be published.

. . . her style of writing

I don’t like to waste language. I can only type with one hand so it costs me more to type [she has a condition called dystonia, which affects the coordination of her right hand]. I don’t like to waste words, so my fiction is more economical.

. . . her new book deal in the US

It’s incredibly hard for writers to break America at the moment. I don’t know why. Publishers all over the world are nervous and taking fewer risks. They’re terrified they’re going to pay big money and wind up with a flop on their hands.

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