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Liz Nugent: ‘I don’t know how many rejections I received as a writer’


Author Liz Nugent, who is an ambassador for Irish Book Week. Photo by Caroline Quinn

Author Liz Nugent, who is an ambassador for Irish Book Week. Photo by Caroline Quinn

Author Liz Nugent, who is an ambassador for Irish Book Week. Photo by Caroline Quinn

Liz Nugent can remember the moment when she felt she had arrived as a writer — or at least, she could stop worrying about the uncertainty of a writer’s career for a while.

I was booked to do this thing in New York and a friend of mine got me bumped up to business class, where you [could] make and take calls,” Nugent says. “I got a call from my agent to tell me that I’d closed the deal on the American rights to my first two novels... and then I got another call an hour later saying I’d won a bursary to write for six months in the Grace Kelly library in Monaco. That was a good flight.”

Nugent would be the first to say that the life of a writer is punctuated with triumphs and setbacks. Working in RTÉ on its flagship soap Fair City, largely in an admin role (she has worked in and around film, TV and theatre for decades), Nugent wrote her first book, Unravelling Oliver, on evenings and weekends. It took her seven years to complete, and it was lauded as an astute and elegant psychological thriller on its release in 2013.

“I wasn’t a writer on Fair City, and that was extremely frustrating because I was watching other writers doing the job I wanted to do and was never actually allowed to. It was a bone of contention for a long time,” she says.

Nugent admits that she did learn a thing or two there that would feed into her own work: “I guess what I learned is that your job on a soap opera is to get the viewer to tune in the next day, so when I wrote my books, I tried to end each chapter in a way that would make the reader turn the page.”

It was a handy bit of wisdom that has evidently stood Nugent in great stead when writing her other three crime novels: Lying in Wait, Skin Deep and Our Little Cruelties.

Four books in, Nugent is more than used to acclaim, awards and praise, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

She admits getting published for the first time at a particularly tough point for the industry.

“Sales were very low across the board, and getting published was quite a feat,” she says. “I’d been rejected by... well, I don’t know how many rejections, as I asked my agent to stop telling me after the 19th one. The editors liked the work, but when they took it to their marketing people, it was like, ‘sorry!’. The [marketing executives] have the final say in all book acquisitions. Whatever about the writing, ‘can we sell this?’ is the first and last consideration.

“I think in the end there was a lot of luck involved,” she adds. “I came up around the same time as Girl on a Train and Gone Girl, which didn’t quite fit the cops and robbers crime mould, yet were very well written and accessible to all readers. I kind of just rode on their coat tails.”

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Even after the success of Unravelling Oliver, Nugent was hesitant to let go of her full-time job. “I went back into work with a Tupperware container of Lyon’s teabags — God knows where RTÉ get their tea — and I remember thinking, ‘when the last bag is gone, if things haven’t improved, I’m going to have to walk’,” she says. “I had my last cup of tea and wrote out my resignation.”

After a few false dawns — a TV drama on the desk of Element Pictures came to nothing — Nugent took that fateful transatlantic flight.

Not long after that, Nugent’s books were starting to gain traction beyond Ireland. The aforementioned US book deals materialised; in 2017, she had another huge boost thanks to the Richard & Judy Book Club, who chose Lying in Wait as a key title. A year later, Leonardo Di Caprio’s Appian Way optioned the TV rights to Unravelling Oliver.

“It looks like it’s pretty close to happening but then I’ve said it many times before and nothing’s happened, but if they keep renewing the option, that’s great,” Nugent reveals.

Nugent is speaking as an ambassador for Irish Book Week, created by Bookselling Ireland and Publishing Ireland to celebrate the role of bookshops and championing and supporting Irish authors.

“When I go to a town that doesn’t have a bookshop, it depresses me slightly,” she says. “I think taking a bookshop out of a town is like removing a tooth from the front of your face. [Yet] almost all bookshops will take orders over the phone, so people can always get physical books, and if they want ebooks, they can source them from their library without even having to visit.”

Nugent may be a huge fan of the bricks and mortar bookstore, but also loves that technology is helping bring books to a whole new audience.

“I heard someone recently talking about ‘BookTok’ and how young people are swapping recommendations via TikTok and clapping and cheering about their favourite authors, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Nugent says. “I thought that generation had been lost to us [writers] a bit, but apparently not, which is fantastic.”

Irish Book Week runs until October 23. Follow @BooksellingI on Twitter, @BooksellingIreland on Facebook and #IrishBookWeek for all the latest news. Join in with #IrishBookaDay

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