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'Meet the mum who wrote a bestseller... and is now in with the chance of winning €100k prize'

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Author, Niamh Boyce (lt) pictured for Joanna Kiernan Col.

Author, Niamh Boyce (lt) pictured for Joanna Kiernan Col.

Author, Niamh Boyce (lt) pictured for Joanna Kiernan Col.

Author, Niamh Boyce (lt) pictured for Joanna Kiernan Col.

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Author, Niamh Boyce (lt) pictured for Joanna Kiernan Col.

"I don’t feel the pressure to produce another book quickly at all, but there’s a little pressure, I suppose, when it becomes public and readers read one and then they are waiting on the next,” author Niamh Boyce tells me.

We are sitting in the Pepper Pot Cafe in the Powerscourt Centre, discussing the perceived perils of the book industry, the art versus the scheduling, the creative versus the financial.

However, Niamh is unfazed by such things. After a few minutes it becomes obvious that it is this unique vibe, this quietly confident voice in a veritable ocean of needy, budding novelists which has quite rightly helped Niamh’s work to rise to the top – not to mention the quality of her writing. She is careful and precise when it comes to her craft, which simply adds to the authenticity of her work and her spirit.

“It is great to be nominated, but I don’t hold out any hope,” she says of the recent announcement that her debut novel, The Herbalist, has made the longlist for the 2015 International IMPAC Literary award.

The Herbalist is one of five Irish books to have made the cut, with 142 from around the world longlisted for the €100,000 prize. Niamh is no stranger to such honours, however – The Herbalist won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards last year.

While complimented and delighted with the recognition, Niamh is refreshingly disconnected from much of the literary fuss that goes along with such accolades. Yet she is particularly happy with her IMPAC nod.

“It is based on literary merit so that was important for me,” she says. “I liked that. It’s not based on bestseller, which is great too, but the fact it was on literary merit makes it a bit more satisfying.

“With everything that has happened with that book I have always thought, ‘Well, this is great, even if nothing else happens now’,” Niamh says. “When I wrote it, I never thought about what would happen afterwards, so I didn’t write it with the aim of it being literary or commercial or otherwise. I wrote it for myself and it was the first book I had written.

“It’s very dark and I actually didn’t imagine anyone else even wanting to read it at that stage. That was good because I didn’t censure myself. If I was to think about writing a book about miscarriage and repression and murder, I probably wouldn’t have, but the characters in the story led me along that path.”

Niamh, who’s from Athy, Co Kildare, lives with her partner and three children aged 10, 12 and 21 in Ballylinan, Co Laois. She wrote The Herbalist, which is based in her hometown, when her youngest child was three years old.

“You can really underestimate what you can get done in a short space of time,” she says. “It was harder to juggle it, but it was good. Now that I have had a book published I feel like I don’t have to fight my corner as much any more, not with anyone else, but just with myself. Before, I would feel guilty. You are guilty when you are not writing and guilty when you are writing because you are meant to be doing other things.’”

As well as her writing and the labour of love that is motherhood, Niamh still works part-time in her local library.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s a very sociable job, though sometimes you find yourself thinking, ‘Look at all of these books – the world doesn’t need another one’.”

Niamh came across the central idea for her novel over 20 years before she sat down to write the book, while doing some work in the archives of her local paper, The Leinster Leader.

“When I came across it, I was 19. I didn’t write then, I was in art college, but still I think that even if you are not writing you have that feeling when someone says something, or you hear a story, that there is a coincidence,” Niamh says. “It’s almost like the hair goes up on the back of your neck, but you don’t know why.

“I just came across this very small news article which said ‘Indian herbalist arrested for

offences against girl’, and then later on the headline changed to ‘girls’. First I thought ‘I wonder what happened?’ and ‘what was an Indian herbalist doing in Athy in the 1930s?’. I asked at home a little bit about it and I just went on about my business.”

Over two decades later, Niamh did a short story workshop in the town hall at the centre of Athy, where her tutor John McKenna instructed the students to go out and write.

Niamh found herself sitting in the very market where this Indian herbalist would have sold his lotions and potions and suddenly the character came to her.

“I started writing one story. Then the herbalist almost appeared within it. This man, with a white panama hat, holding up a bottle. It literally came to me as an image,” Niamh says. “It was kind of magic because I felt when I saw him like I knew who he was.”

Soon, Niamh realised that the character would not leave her.

“I like short stories and I would have been happy to be a short story writer,” she says. “A lot of people talk about short stories being practice for writing a novel, but I don’t see that at all. They were what I wanted to do, but what happened was the stories I was writing all seemed to revolve around this man and I started to realise it could be a longer story so I just went out and I bought a big A4 thick notebook and I started.”

Niamh wrote The Herbalist in three months.

“I just started writing. I don’t plan or plot,” she says. “I wrote long-hand and started off writing a thousand words every morning before my children got up, but then it was coming so fast I would end up writing 2,000 words each morning.

“I typed it up then at night. Because I work and I have children, I wanted to get the book done. I knew if I left it I would never finish it, it felt too big. So I gave myself three months at this rate to just produce.”

Niamh followed the example of horror writer Stephen King who advises writers to put their work away for a while once it is finished and come back to it later with fresh eyes. Once finished, Niamh completed a second novel before The Herbalist called to her once again.

“I was about to go back to The Herbalist when I heard about the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair competition in 2011. I thought about it and that’s when I realised that the book that was closest to my heart was the first one,” she says.

The Herbalist went on to become one of the Novel Fair’s 20 winners, the prize for which was the opportunity to spend a day pitching to some of Ireland’s top publishers and literary agents. Penguin Ireland snapped The Herbalist up within days of the event.

“I remember after it was published I got a letter from a woman from Athy, who walks that river every day and she said she could almost see Emily – one of the characters – cycling by her,” Niamh says. “They are the things that made me think, ‘Oh my god, they are real now, they are out there’!”

So what is Niamh’s advice to any budding novelists who hope to make writing one of their New Year’s resolutions?

“No matter how good a writer you are or how good your ideas are, you have to finish the book,” she says immediately. “Write it right to the end of it and try not to worry; try not to get it ‘right’. Get it all out and don’t forget there needs to be an element of privacy about your writing.

“Things grow well in secret. So forget about how it is going to look to a publisher, or to a reader. Write it first for yourself.”


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