Friday 23 March 2018

'I thought I'd write a book and it'd be done in a year, but it doesn't happen like that' - author Ann O'Loughlin

Best-selling author Ann O'Loughlin tells our reporter about the long road to publication and how an Indian adventure inspired her new novel

Finding her groove: Author Ann O’Loughlin has written her second novel Photo: Mark Condren
Finding her groove: Author Ann O’Loughlin has written her second novel Photo: Mark Condren
Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

Ann O'Loughlin believes in love at first sight. Her friends won't be surprised to hear that. After all, the novelist did decide to marry her husband just four days after she met him.

It was 1988, and she was in Moscow, a stop on her journey from London to Hong Kong, when she first encountered John, an artist. As soon as they saw each other, they were smitten. By the time they reached Siberia, less than a week later, her life had completely changed.

At that stage, Ann was working as the security correspondent for the Irish Independent. She had been covering the trial of the 'Border Fox', Dessie O'Hare, for the brutal kidnap of dentist John O'Grady.

"It was non-stop, relentless over five weeks," she says. "I had built up a lot of leave and I wanted to go somewhere completely different."

She says that her friends and family were shocked by news of her swift engagement. "But all these years later we're still going strong."

She and her husband love to travel, and when an opportunity arose in 1993 to live and work in India, they jumped at the chance.

She accompanied then President Mary Robinson on a State visit to the subcontinent, and afterwards was able to take a sabbatical for a year from the Independent and work on a local newspaper in Delhi, an experience she loved.

Then they moved to Bangalore in the south.

"The minute I put my foot on Indian soil, I felt I was at home," she says. "My friends there always said to me that in a previous life, I must have been Indian because I loved wearing the sari.

"I just loved everything about the country. I know it's got bad press in recent years, but it's a vast and amazing country and it just takes over your soul. It's my favourite place in the whole world."

Ann has used her love of the subcontinent to great effect in her second novel, 'The Judge's Wife', a saga set in Dublin and India, moving between the 1950s and 80s. Grace, a judge's wife, falls in love with an Indian doctor and becomes pregnant.

After she gives birth to a baby girl, she is committed to an asylum by her husband and her aunt. Heartbroken, her lover Vikram leaves Dublin after being told Grace died during childbirth. Years later, her daughter Emma unravels the mystery of the mother she never knew. Meanwhile Vikram is coming back to Ireland with his niece Rosa who knows all about her uncle's lost love.

Ann has used Grace and Vikram's ill-fated relationship to shine a light on a shameful episode in Ireland's past - the incarceration in asylums of those who were not mentally ill, but were locked away for what the novelist has described as familial, societal and political reasons.

Her debut 'The Ballroom Café' addressed the consequences of the illegal adoption of about 2,000 children from Irish orphanages by families in America. It was the first work of fiction to be based on this issue. But Ann insists that her books aren't issue-driven, that the story comes first. 'The Judge's Wife' is at its heart a love story, she says, and one that was inspired by a visit to India's Taj Mahal, that most romantic of monuments.

She had been awed by its magnificence when she first visited it alongside President Robinson and went to see it again. By noon that day, it was extremely hot, and she took refuge in one of the rest-houses beside the monument.

"I was in the shade and I was watching the workers on the bamboo scaffolding," she says. "They were replacing bits of marble and they were cleaning. One man walked over to me. He had something in the palm of his hand. When he uncurled it, he revealed two pieces of marble. He gave me the smaller piece and told me 'it's from the Taj Mahal, may it bring you luck'.

"I still have it. It's tiny, but to me it's everything. I had always wanted to bring India alive in a book, and this piece of marble kept coming back to me. In 'The Judge's Wife', Grace is given a little piece of marble by Vikram and it sustains her."

Ann's experience in India was a life-changing one. "We were very lucky. The Noronha family in Bangalore as good as took us in, and we took part in Indian life with them.

"It meant that our experience was more than just a touristic one. We lived there with them; they are still our best friends.

"When you make friends with any Indian family, you get to know the whole extended family. We felt very much at home in Bangalore."

She says that readers have told her that they want to go to India after reading her book.

A journalist for over 30 years, she achieved something so many of her peers yearn for when her debut novel was published last year.

She had worked in the Irish Independent for 22 years before leaving in 2008 to spend time with her two young children.

"That's when I started to write. I thought I'd sit down, write a book, find an agent and a publisher and it'd all be done in a year. But it just doesn't happen like that. It's a really long road to publication. First of all, you have to find the style of writing that suits you."

Her journalistic background as a security correspondent suggested that crime writing would be a natural fit, but she didn't like it. "Then I found my voice. I really enjoy writing now. I think it's because I found what suits me. And then, of course, the long road to finding an agent began."

It took Ann until the end of 2011 to find her agent and 'The Ballroom Cafe' was published in June 2015.

According to an Amazon poll, it was in the top 20 best-selling ebooks last year. To date, it has sold 300,000 copies and is being published in the US in October.

Ann thinks its success stems from its blend of light and dark themes, a technique used again in her second novel.

"You are going to cry in 'The Judge's Wife', but you're going to laugh too and I think it's important to have that balance. What's wrong with wrapping a serious issue in women's fiction as long as it's authentic and as long as you have the research done?"

Her experience of writing a second book was very different to her debut. She is now a legal affairs journalist with the 'Irish Examiner' and she gets up at 5am in order to find the time to write. "A lie-in for me is six o'clock."

She delights in the difference between the two writing disciplines, at the joy of having the freedom to carefully choose her words, to linger over them, compared to the pressure of having 20 minutes to write 500 words in a fast-paced newsroom.

"To have the time to find the language that best depicts what you want to depict, it's a great feeling."

Ann considers herself very lucky. Perhaps that little piece of Taj Mahal marble really was magical, after all.

'The Judge's Wife' by Ann O'Loughlin is out now

Irish Independent

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