Thursday 23 March 2017

How pair of writers fell into a whirlwind affair of letters

Over a pint in Neary's, a poet and a novelist became a successful crime writing duo - Karen Perry. One half, poet Paul Perry, recalls their journey

Take two: Karen Gillece and Paul Perry are writing a screenplay of their first novel The Boy That Never Was.
Take two: Karen Gillece and Paul Perry are writing a screenplay of their first novel The Boy That Never Was.

We met at Listowel Writers' Week 14 years ago. I was picking up the poetry prize, Karen was enrolled in a fiction writing class. It was a week when Karen and I talked about books, but not actually about writing them together. We swopped numbers, and kept in touch. Still no mention of a collaboration.

Back in the 1990s, when we were still in our 20s anyway, we published in the Hennessy New Irish Writing page, and were happy to meet again when Ciaran Carty edited a Hennessy Anthology which included our individual work. The following year, in 2003, I published my first collection of poetry, The Drowning of the Saints. A couple of years later, Karen published her first novel, Seven Nights in Zaragoza. We were in our early 30s now, getting married, having kids, writing.

Half a dozen books later, and we are having a pint in Neary's, shooting the breeze, mired in books still. It's late 2010. Out of the blue, I suggest we write a book together. Karen considers the idea. It would, she suggests, be a nice break from the Florence Nightingale novel she is working on, a hiatus from the cholera wards, the darkness. We are both drawn to the notion of writing about parental fear, the differing ways people deal with grief and guilt. As we talk some more, an idea starts to form. We go our separate ways mulling over thoughts for individual characters.

By chance, a week later, I'm in Dublin city centre when I get caught up in an anti-austerity demonstration. Something about the atmosphere that day, it all clicks into place with the idea germinating in my head. I go home and quickly write the first chapter, then send it to Karen. Within days she sends me the second, and so begins a kind of relay-write.

It was an exhilarating process, writing, barely able to wait for the next chapter to arrive from Karen, so that I could see what had happened, and where she had brought the story. As we finished the novel, Karen met our agent, Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown, at a conference in Brussels. She sent him a copy of our book and soon afterwards we signed with him. He sold the book, The Boy That Never Was, to Penguin UK, and within a few weeks we were signing contracts for American, German, French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian publishers.

What had started out as a whimsical notion became the new and unexpected focus of both our careers. Our second novel, Only We Know, was published a year later, and was shortlisted for a Crime Award at the Irish Book Awards. The collaborative nature of our writing necessitates a lot of communication - by phone, email, text, but most importantly, face-to-face. We meet in each other's homes, sometimes in cafes or pubs, although the most regular venue for our meetings is on the UCD campus where I teach Creative Writing. Karen's husband is also a lecturer there. Perhaps it was inevitable that our third novel - Girl Unknown - would be set in UCD. It tells the story of a university lecturer whose life is turned upside down when one of his students announces that she believes he is her father. As the girl becomes ever more tangled in their lives, the family begins to violently break apart.

We are currently working on our fourth novel, and our first screen-play - a film adaptation of The Boy That Never Was. The past six years has been a kind of whirl-wind affair of letters. And to think, if we had not bumped into each other at Listowel, or if we had not met that night in Neary's and stumbled upon the notion of writing together, none of this would have happened. As a character from the above book says: 'Chance came, and I took it.'

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