Catherine O'Flynn talks to Richard McComb about the experience of writing her first novel, What Was Lost.
For prize-winning Birmingham novelist Catherine O’Flynn, it’s not the writing that is the challenge – it’s the plotting.
“The spontaneous thing doesn’t happen,” says O’Flynn. She gets the “germ of the story” all right, but the planning only gets done through hard work and sheer force of will. So it was with O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2007 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
“I imagined you would have these eureka moments and these ideas would all fall into place and you would wake up one morning with this idea of a novel,” she says. If only.
We are discussing O’Flynn’s experience of writing before she addresses students attending a session of the inaugural Tindal Street Masterclass series. The course has been devised to assist and inspire new writers and O’Flynn, a former postwoman, is refreshingly honest in her “tell it like it was” approach.
She had toyed with the idea for her first book for several years. It was while working at the HMV record store at Merry Hill shopping centre that she noticed the place was casting its weird spell over her. The idea might have remained unrealised had she and husband Peter not had a “premature mid-life crisis” and moved to Spain.
O’Flynn says: “We sold our house here and moved to Barcelona. The idea was to have a year off. I had the luxury of a block of months without a job. I had been working half-heartedly on the idea of a story for a few years. It was guilt that made me write it, thinking that I had this time.”
The story centres on 10-year-old Kate Meaney, an amateur sleuth, whose unexplained disappearance at the new Green Oaks shopping centre sparks a series of dramatic revelations and reflections on loss.
O’Flynn channelled her experiences of “eerie” Merry Hill into the book. “I would lock up at night and wander the service corridors and I had a feeling of being watched,” she says, recalling her spell as a shop assistant.
A security guard told her a story about a girl being mysteriously captured on CCTV cameras at night, only for her to disappear when someone went to look for her. O’Flynn, who was brought up in Nechells and attended King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girl, says: “It really spooked me and I believed it. It resonated with me and I thought this is the sort of place where people go missing. There was a malevolence.”
She subsequently discovered the story of the ghostly girl was an urban myth. “I have heard different versions of the story, even about Merry Hill,” she says, laughing. But the seed had been sown.
Although O’Flynn had started writing What Was Lost as a “way of understanding” the apocryphal story, it was going to Spain that gave her the freedom to get cracking. She says she was “pretty disciplined,” writing for four hours a day, churning out 600-800 words. However, the methodology she adopted was unusual. She penned a list of scenes, like a shooting list for a film, but didn’t write the scenes in order. I tell her she should trademark the system as The O’Flynn Technique. She is flattered, but doesn’t think it is a goer.
“It is a crap way to write,” she says. “At the end, you have a jumbled mass you have to stich together and there are continuity problems. I vowed I wouldn’t do it ever again, but that’s exactly what I did with my second book. I don’t think I can write chronologically.”
By selecting to write the scenes you enjoy, and feel like writing, rather than progressing chronolgically (or at least in narrative order) there is also the tendency to leave all the “tricky scenes” to the end of the project.
O’Flynn, though, thinks the carrot is more effective than the stick. “I think the main thing is to feel you are moving forward each day. Write what you can and don’t force yourself to write something you are struggling with,” she adds.
Once she had completed the book in Spain, O’Flynn recalls buying an outdated copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for 10p and proceeded to send her book to 10 agents who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Money was tight and she thought she was an “idiot” for spending £16 on postage. This appeared to be confirmed when she received a single email saying: No thanks. No one else bothered replying.
O’Flynn thought she was daft to think anyone would want to publish her book and was amazed at herself just for completing it.
In the end, she did get an agent, via a contact, and it was the London-based agent who suggested a significant structural change to What Was Lost. O’Flynn had written the book from the point of view of three characters, the story told in alternate chapters. The agent persuaded her to let the story unfold chronologically.
The manuscript was sent to five publishers, who expressed reservations about how they would market the work. “They didn’t know what genre it would fit into,” says O’Flynn.
However, Tindal Street in Digbeth were “totally receptive” and did not want to pigeon hole What Was Lost. O’Flynn’s faith in the small publishing house was vindicated when the novel was released to widespread critical acclaim.
The success of What Was Lost allowed O’Flynn, reluctantly, to give up her then job, working in the box office at the Midlands Arts Centre. She says she was “super lucky.”
Having overcome “second novel syndrome” with The News Where You Are, O’Flynn is now working on her third novel, an as yet untitled story set in Spain. All she will confirm is that it is not about the Costa del Crime
These days she lives in Kings Heath and has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Edie. She remains self-effacing and is still intimated by writers. She is loathe to name her favourite novelists in case readers think she is comparing herself to them. (Don’t tell anyone, but she adores David Foster Wallace, the hard-boiled crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy, and Kazuo Ishiguro.)
Writers are naturally protective about their creations and O’Flynn’s decision to re-structure What Was Lost shows she is open to creative suggestions. She is prepared to compromise, but she is not prepared to “sell out.” She never went into writing to make a fortune and she has never been motivated by money.
O’Flynn says: “I don’t want to write for the sake of writing. I’d rather be a postwoman than that.”