If Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin had planned her route to becoming a published author specifically as a case study - something that could be taught in a masterclass, an example of the kind of resilience, determination and strategic thinking required to succeed in this industry - she couldn't have done a better job.
First, she was a writer - starting her first novel in 1999, "I had an idea for a book, and the right time came" - but very quickly segued into becoming a facilitator, literary event organiser and all-round industry operator, setting up The Inkwell Group and writing.ie. Then, she took what she had learned, went back to writing, and applied it successfully. "I did everything that I did because I wanted to learn to write," she says when we meet to chat about her latest novel, which is the fifth she has published, and at least the ninth she has written.
The Dark Room is an atmospheric, pacy, psychologically astute crime thriller with overtones of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca - the idea came to Vanessa when she was on holidays near Frenchman's Creek in Cornwall, where du Maurier lived. It's published under the name Sam Blake - but why the pseudonym? "My proper name is Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin which is extremely long - it would be a squish on a cover. But also, in the UK, often people can't get round O'Loughlin. I've been introduced so many times, at festivals and things, and they get as far as 'Vanessa O...' and then they look at me in a panic." And, she adds, "I do so many things - this, it keeps my writing separate to everything else, and that helps me mentally to compartmentalise."
Did she deliberately pick a name that is androgynous? "Yes. There is a theory that men don't buy crime novels written by female authors. I think it could be fact rather than just theory..."
Championing new talent: Vanessa with Nicole Flattery, 2019 Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award winner at the An Post Irish Book Awards. Picture by Patrick Bolger
And why 'Sam Blake' specifically?
"I started thinking I'd use Fox [her maiden name], and then I came up with Sam, but Sam Fox wasn't really going to work… certainly not for people of a certain age," she laughs, "So I kept the Sam and changed the Fox. If you can choose your own name, getting something that's easy to remember, and has a good position on the shelves always helps - 'B' is at eye-level, so that's a bonus!"
And just one example of how her industry know-how has helped her writing career.
Looking at what Vanessa has set in motion, it seems that, if she hadn't happened along, we would have had to invent her: Writing.ie is a one-stop shop of advice, events, examples, reviews and community interaction for all things writing and publishing, while The Inkwell Group operates as a publishing consultancy and literary scout. When Vanessa moved here first from the UK, in 1992, for all that we are a nation obsessed with books and writing, such resources did not exist.
Vanessa was brought up in Hertfordshire where her father was a computer manager, first in Fleet Street, then in 'the rag trade'. She studied history at Queen Mary College London, and met Shane O'Loughlin, a garda (now retired), when he was over in London on a rugby weekend. The couple married and moved to Co Wicklow.
"It seemed a perfectly logical move," she says, "because I was already looking at moving job - I'd been working in PR for a shopping centre - and Shane couldn't move because he was in the guards." Incidentally, Shane has a noble history of supporting writers - he knew Maeve Binchy well, and once organised to have the back of Dalkey Garda Station painted a colour she liked because her office overlooked it. "He took her the Office of Public Works colour chart so she could choose," Vanessa says.
In 1999, Shane set off on an eight-week sailing trip across the Atlantic. "It was November," Vanessa recalls. "I was on my own, at home, in the dark nights, we had no kids then. I'd always wanted to write, and I'd always thought I would but I hadn't had the opportunity. Then, the idea came, the time came, and it seemed the sensible thing to do. I started writing longhand - I was working for an event management company, but I was only learning to use a computer - then I'd bring what I had written into the office and type it up at evenings and weekends."
When Shane came back, he bought her a computer for Christmas - "I think that was probably the last time he saw me in the evenings," she laughs. "I think the bug just bit." What was it that appealed to her? "Getting lost in the story; it's just so wonderful."
She finished that first book - "I was convinced it was going to be a bestseller. I sent it out everywhere, and got rejected everywhere." With the wisdom of hindsight, she says now, "I did everything wrong with that book. I made all the mistakes. Because I read books, I thought 'I can write them'. It's not as easy as that. But I knew I wanted to do it, and I felt I could get better, so I kept writing."
Did she not feel crushed by the rejections? "I just kept going. By the time they began coming in, I'd started the next book. One of the things I've learned is that hope is the important thing. Always having a project out there that could be a yes, is key. So I wasn't too fussed. By that stage, I thought Book Two could be the one."
She finished that second book, and then a third. Around that time - by which stage she and Shane had had their first child - she heard Treasa Coady (who set up TownHouse, one of the most highly regarded of Irish publishing houses) interviewed on radio, "and I was so impressed with her, I really wanted to meet her." Vanessa was then running a series of event lunches at "one of the yacht clubs in Dún Laoghaire. It seemed sensible to invite her down," she says.
"I'm a great person for making your own opportunities." And so she did just that. "Treasa really encouraged me," she recalls. "I sent in Book Three to her, and she really liked it, and sent it out for reader reports."
These reports, Vanessa said, "showed me that yes, I could write. And they showed me what I couldn't do; that there were things I needed to learn - techniques, ways of doing things I didn't know anything about that."
In a sense, that was the real beginning. Vanessa decided to learn everything she didn't know. She did a weekend workshop in Dingle - by then, there were two babies (now aged 16 and 20), and Shane was working shifts, so her parents came over from England to mind them; "I left Post-it notes all over the fridge, it was a major expedition, but I went, and I loved it." From there, she set about organising her own workshops - and has since put on events with writers including Mary Costello, Sinead Moriarty, Carlo Gébler and many more.
"An evening class would have been tricky because of my husband's work. So I decided I would start my own intensive one-day workshops once a month. That's how Inkwell started. I knew I wanted to hear from bestselling authors, so I started putting them on, and it turned out there were lots of other people who wanted to learn too. Everything grew from there. I set it up thinking I want to write, and I kept writing. I was the organiser, and I was also the person sitting in the back of every class, taking notes.
"I never get fed up listening to people talk about how they write - everyone is so different," she says, citing as an example, "I was doing an interview with Joanne Harris [author of Chocolat] recently and it turns out she writes 300 words a day. That's her aim. If she gets 301, it's a great day, and I thought that was amazing. We're always hearing that so-and-so writes 3,000 words a day. And then you feel like a failure…"
At this stage, Vanessa was on her fourth book - "I think I found my voice in Book Four. I felt a switch - 'now I'm telling a story, not worrying about words on the page...' That was a big difference." And her next book became the first of her work to be published, "I was much more confident, I was able to do things I wouldn't have been able to do before."
This was 2014. Having organised so many events - with writers, publishers and agents - Vanessa had a strong network. It was all, she freely admits, "conscious research. At the end of the day, you're always thinking about your own book and what you're going to do with it."
She had begun successfully scouting Irish writing talent for a London agent, something she still does, and one day, over coffee with him in Covent Garden, it all came together. "I had a copy of an Alex Barclay book on the table and I mentioned that she had been very influential on my writing, and he said, 'oh, do you write?' I'd actually forgotten… You know when you do lots of things, you just assume people know? ... I said I've recently written something called Little Bones, about the bones of a baby turning up, sewn into the hem of a wedding dress. And he said 'send it to me, I want to read it'.
"I was terrified! I thought this guy, he's a big agent in London, he wants to see my work, and if it's rubbish, it completely blows my credibility as a scout out of the water!
"I went home and read it and actually it wasn't rubbish. So I sent it off to him and he loved it, so then I had this amazing agent."
Even so, she is quick to add "nothing happened for quite a while. We got lots of really lovely rejections, and then [publishers] Bonnier were setting up a new fiction wing, and my agent had lunch with them on Thursday, and they offered for the book on the Friday. For three books."
So, 15 years and five books later? "Yes, and it was fantastic. Just amazing." Vanessa, as Sam Blake, has now published four bestselling books, with The Dark Room as her fifth, and two more on the way. Publishing, she rightly says, "is not for the faint-hearted. But, I think if it really matters to you, and you can do the work, you'll get there."
But, she says, "It is hard. It's borrowed time, stolen time even, especially before you're published, before you have a contract. You have to find that from somewhere, and it can be hard for people to justify." Because it feels selfish? "Yes. Although, if I don't write, I get really grumpy."
Does she find that she's even grumpier if the writing is going badly? "Actually, I'm a great believer that if it's hard or you're stuck, it's because the subconscious mind has put the brakes on. If it's going badly for me, it's time to stop, and work out why, and give it time. People undervalue the amount of thinking time that goes into writing. Now that I understand that, I don't panic."
If she was starting out now, what would she like to know? "The best advice I was ever given - by [children's author] Sarah Webb - was 'just keep writing'. That's the trick. You have to just keep writing.
"Next, the key is to make the book fantastic. The most important thing is the book. If you've got a lot of social media followers and you've made connections, that's all good because that's all potential sales. But ultimately, the book has to stand on its own.
"Understanding the business helps hugely. If you've been sitting at home with your project for two years, when you send it out, you think everyone is going to drop everything to read it, because it's your baby. But you've no appreciation of the fact that the person receiving it might have another 100 babies in their inbox at the same time, and that reading takes time, and they have their jobs to do as well as looking at your work. Understanding the way the business works, and why it works the way it does, makes a huge difference. It gives you a better clue as to what's going on.
"In terms of knowing where to send your book - it's like applying for a job, and you have to take it seriously. Do your research, same as if you were applying for any job. Find out who the people are, what they do. That's part of it - going to workshops, launches, listening to writers speak. It's all about making your own opportunities. Opportunities won't come to you, you have to go out and find them. The possibilities are out there, but you have to use them wisely. If you want something badly enough, you have to do all the right things - don't sit there in your attic waiting for somebody to come to you. It might happen, but it might not.
So, some industry-angled questions: Does she get exercised by the divisions made between 'literary' fiction and 'commercial' fiction? "I think it's just the way it's going to be. This is the business end - where do you put the books on the shelves? But I think there are a lot of commercial fiction writers whose work is massively undervalued because they are commercial writers. It's a bit irking when you see the lists of great books, and they're all literary fiction when there are great commercial stories out there too, and, when that's what keeps the industry going; it's what people buy."
What about celebrity writers? They are currently dominating the children's book market, and are starting to weigh heavily in the adult fiction market too. Often, the drill goes something like this (there are, of course, notable exceptions): Celebrity writes memoir. Memoir does well. Celebrity, having exhausted their own life but giddy with success, decides to turn to fiction and writes a novel, possibly thinking 'how hard can it be?' Often, the novel is poor, but may do well anyway, such is the power of celebrity.
"It's galling for the rest of us," Vanessa says, "but at the end of the day, if they are able to sell enough books to keep that publisher going, that gives that publisher the opportunity to take a risk on a debut. It's a spread-bet. If there's money in the coffers, publishers can ... look for new talent."
Does she believe that anyone can learn to write? "I do believe that. But I think people need to have a clear definition of their own idea of success - I'm not sure every person can get a book published, but definitely people can write articles, blogs, flash fiction, short stories. And there are so many ways now to connect with readers - which is the goal - that it doesn't have to be through a traditional publisher." But, she cautions, "you have to write because you love it, and not for publication. Publication is the icing on the cake. If you try and write for publication, your heart won't be there, and it won't work."
As for herself, given all the years, all the effort put in, the determined pursuit of a goal, has it been worth it? "Definitely. I love it. I've learned how to write bestsellers and I've helped hundreds of authors on their way, opening doors that have changed their lives."
'The Dark Room', by Sam Blake, is out now, published by Corvus Atlantic.
At the top of their game Irish women crime writers
Dublin-born Yve Williams, who writes as Alex Barclay, is a journalist turned crime writer. Her first novel, Darkhouse, was published in 2005 and she has since written eight crime thrillers, one children’s book and a stand-alone novel.
Born to Irish parents in New Zealand, Parsons returned to Ireland aged 12, after her father, a doctor and war hero, disappeared mysteriously at sea.
She worked as a radio and TV producer before publishing her first novel, Mary, Mary, in 1998. Five more novels followed, the most recent — I Saw You — was Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards.
Queen of the chiller-thriller, Nugent’s first novel, Unravelling Oliver, was published in 2014. It won Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards that year and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literature Prize 2016.
Before that, Nugent worked as a story associate on Fair City. She wrote a children’s animation series called The Resistors and a half-hour drama, The Appointment, both for TG4. She has since published three more novels, the most recent being Our Little Cruelties.
Mara wrote an award-winning blog Office Mum for years, before publishing her first crime novel, The Other Side of the Wall, shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien Award. A second, One Click, was shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year at the 2018, with a third, The Sleeper Lies, appearing last February.