Tuesday 20 March 2018

Top Gunn

At the moment she's the name on everyone's lips: Marianne Gunn O'Connor, the literary agent who forged a million-dollar deal for the Taoiseach's daughter. But she knows what it is like to fail: her cutting-edge clothes shop, Otokio, folded. Then a saviour appeared in the shape

At the moment she's the name on everyone's lips: Marianne Gunn O'Connor, the literary agent who forged a million-dollar deal for the Taoiseach's daughter. But she knows what it is like to fail: her cutting-edge clothes shop, Otokio, folded. Then a saviour appeared in the shape of Lainey Keogh. Joe Jackson heard her inspiring life story.

IF YOU want to appreciate fully the success story of literary agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor you have to think of her as a 13-year-old hiding behind the sofa in her sitting room, reading and "escaping" into the world of romantic novels such as Wuthering Heights. Not only that. To add a harder edge to this dream-like scenario you also have to fast-forward roughly 20 years and see O'Connor "brought so low" by the collapse of her Otokio fashion business that it left her "in tears" and sometimes even "getting up in the morning and trying to wash the stigma of failure" off her flesh.

In other words, these are some essential truths about the woman now being stereotypically described as "an overnight success" and "the literary agent with the Midas touch". Largely because of her success with the as-yet-unpublished first novel by Cecelia Ahern, PS I Love You, which has turned the Taoiseach's 21-year-old daughter into a millionaire in a matter of weeks. But Marianne's own story is no less remarkable. And maybe more inspiring. Indeed, before we even begin this interview O'Connor, ever the romantic, says that through this article she'd like to "give hope to people who are having a hard time". My kind ofinterviewee.

But let's kick off by going back to the child who sat behind that sofa. Marianne was born "let's just say I'm the same age as Madonna!" and raised in Monaghan, the oldest in a family that includes one sister and two brothers. She also believes that her dad, "who ran a small business", set her on the path to "what I'm doing now, even at a symbolic level" by giving her the collected works of Shakespeare. Either way, it sure was a great gift for a 13-year-old, wasn't it?

"A daunting gift for a teenager!" she responds. "But I didn't read Shakespeare at 13. The likes of Wuthering Heights really was what I was into. And Jane Eyre. And I always was, totally and utterly, a romantic, carried away to other worlds by books like that. There's a dark side to me too. So I've always loved Emily Dickenson. All that sadness and melancholy. But I definitely was a romantic teenager, reading and listening to classical music because it, too, would transport me to somewhere else. And it was far from the madding crowd, sitting there behind the sofa, reading those books. Nobody could find me. So from early in life books were my first love."

Many of us, as impressionable teenagers, read a black romantic novel like Wuthering Heights and secretly long for the kind of love in which a woman such as Cathy would cry "I am Heathcliff!" Sadly, life often turns such longings into trash. Not so, however, in Marianne's case. When asked if all her "adolescent, romantic dreams" came true she replies, "They're still unfolding." O'Connor is alluding to her husband, Des, an interior designer, who she's known since they actually were teenagers in Monaghan. They have no children, but this, apparently, is not something either regrets.

"Because it makes the love between us more intense, in fact we have a stunning relationship," says Marianne. "And I'm so lucky to have met Des. He's been supportive throughout. But then he is an extraordinary man and a romantic himself, so he's always known I was a dreamer. Though back when I was in UCD and he was still in Monaghan, into fashion, neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to do. I did English and Spanish in college and imagined I'd live in Madrid! But then everything just evolved. Our relationship and the business we were in."

How did their business evolve? Des, was "amazingly successful" selling clothes in his shop in Monaghan and Marianne suggested, "Why don't we do something really special in Dublin?" which led to the opening of Otokio, off Grafton Street, in 1985. But if, like me, you visited that shop I bet you never noticed the DH Lawrence quote "near the door" that gave away Marianne's literary leanings. And deepest yearning.

"Instead of pictures of beautiful women and beautiful clothes I put this line: 'But the woman wants something other than this, some other form of life', from Sons and Lovers," she recalls. "And I always knew I wanted something else in my life. I always was drawn to excellence and beauty. And what was great about those years in Otokio was meeting so many creative people, dealing with Dolce and Gabbana, Donna Karan. I loved the people themselves, the clothes, the romance of it. I also remember staying in the shop some days after it was closed and feeling really happy about it all. But, still, I sensed that there was something I hadn't yet achieved. Even though we had a successful business and I was in love, I still had a yearning, though I wasn't sure what for."

However, "after five good years" things went wrong for Marianne and her husband and they had to close Otokio in 1991. Soon Des "began to accept commissions" and found his way into interior design but Marianne sank deeper into the mire of self-doubt.

"We went back to Monaghan and lived in isolation," she says. "And even though Des found his path before me and I was thrilled for him I still felt responsible for our failure because it was my idea to open that shop in Dublin. And now we were totally broke, and in massive debt. So I was extremely down. And spent most of my days in floods of tears. And in the morning I did try and wash off the stigma of the failure of the whole thing. It was that difficult. But fortunately, apart from Des, I had family and friends around, to support me. And some people were amazing. Marianne Faithfull, who I got to know through the shop, was really encouraging, telling me, 'You'll come through this, babe, don't worry.' And she'd invite me down to her house for lunch. But you need time to recover."

Another friend who helped greatly was designer Lainey Keogh, who asked O'Connor to do international PR for her company.

"Lainey asked would I do that job but, as I say, I felt very fragile in the years after the failure of our business, yet she persisted and was very supportive too," claims O'Connor. "So I went for it and often I'd stand back, looking down and say, 'My God, she's coming on well,' referring to myself! Yet I did do well working for Lainey so that was a really helpful period in my life."

EVEN so, no period in Marianne's life was quite as fulfilling as the time that followed the night Niall Williams gave her what may have been the single greatest literary gift of her life. Yes, even more important than that collected works of Shakespeare! "I'd known Niall since I was at college," she recalls. "Then, at one point, he asked me, 'It's your birthday, can I take you out for dinner?' And at midnight he said, 'I want to give you this, Marianne, and I hope it will change your life.' He handed me a manuscript, saying, 'This is my first novel.' I said, 'What do you want me to do with this?' He said, 'I want you to bring it out into the world, get it published!' So I told him, 'Niall, I've never done anything like this,' and he said, 'When you are fired up with something, you'll find a way. Go for it, girl."'

And "go for it" Marianne did. But not until after "a couple of months" when she was on holidays from working for Lainey Keogh. It was at this point that O'Connor's life really did begin to change.

"One night I couldn't sleep and I took out this manuscript, Four Letters of Love, shy of reading it, hoping I'd like it yet knowing Niall wrote so well," she says. "But when I came to page 50 my heart was beating so fast I did realise I'd been given the gift of a lifetime. And I knew, at that moment, this is what I'm going to do with my life. So I rang Niall in the middle of the night and said, 'I'm reading the best book I've ever read,' and he was ecstatic."

But no more so than Marianne. She began to check similar novels in bookstores, phoned Pat McCabe, "who I barely knew", he "suggested Peter Strauss, an amazing editor", and after one meeting with O'Connor and a plane-flight reading of the manuscript a publishing deal was done. Subsequently, drawing on "all the marketing skills and sales skills" she'd mastered over her years in fashion Marianne did "a stunning movie deal" for Williams.

She also has since become the literary agent for McCabe, author of The Butcher Boy, at his request, and represents the likes of Morag Prunty, Suzanne Power, Anita Notaro and Chris Binchy, as well as India's "leading political broadcaster" Vikram A Chandra. As a result of meeting the latter's publisher in India, O'Connor also has been asked to "represent their authors, outside Asia, whatever books I choose". All of which obviously puts in its proper context PS I Love You, a novel some sceptics, predictably, say was probably only published because Cecelia Ahern is the Taoiseach's daughter. Though one wonders how effective a sales pitch that might be at the Delhi Book Fair!

"Exactly!" Marianne responds, laughing, but admitting she is "somewhat" pissed off at any suggestion that her input didn't help make this book the publishing phenomenon it is. Indeed, as I'm writing up this interview, she phones, characteristically "fired up" and tells me she's "about to finalise" a film deal for Ahern, to cap the publishing deals from Britain, America, Holland, Finland and "soon Japan" that she's already secured. One can only say, f**k the begrudgers.

"My sentiments, exactly! But the world of fashion is far bitchier than the world of publishing so I'm well able to deal with all this," she continues.

"Yet I do think it's incredibly sad that newspapers are trying to put down either the work I'm doing or the work Cecelia Ahern is doing. When Cecelia came to me I was partly excited, partly nervous, thinking, 'What if I have to turn this kid down she is, after all, the daughter of the Taoiseach!' But when I read four chapters of her book I got this rush of adrenaline and thought, 'My God, this girl can really write!' Then I sent it out to three or four readers, with no name, no age, nothing. And every report that came back was glowing and said, 'Whoever this is, sign her up.'

"Then I met Cecelia and was stunned. She is this most incredible, almost angelic person and I then could see why I was drawn to her work. And we got on amazingly, which is really important. So I was as thrilled signing her up as she was being signed up by me. But let me say, once and for all, that being the Taoiseach's daughter did not get her the deals on the table. What got her the deals was the quality of the writing. And it is phenomenal. Last week I took 367 phone calls about this book, many from publishers asking why I hadn't gone with them!"

That said, Marianne admits that although Cecelia Ahern is now a millionaire she herself isn't. Partly because she's still paying off debts from the collapse of Otokio 12 years ago.

"Making money is important to me in that context, obviously," she says. "But if I won the Lotto tomorrow it wouldn't mean anything to me like this. The most important thing is that I did those deals for Cecelia and it affirms to me the fact that I am, finally, on the right path in life. In fact, ever since I became a literary agent things really have happened with such grace, and good fortune, for me.

"It reminds me of that line from The Alchemist, where it says, 'when you enter the right path the universe conspires to help your dreams come true.'

"What's even better is that I am helping other people's dreams come true. That's what I mean about the importance of doing a deal for someone like Cecelia. When I tell an author about their first deal that, to me, really is what it's all about. And I do want to give back hope to people because I now realise I have received so much from life."

All of which, presumably, means that Marianne no longer gets up in the morning and tries to wash away the "stigma" of failure?

"Absolutely not!" she responds, smiling. "Now I can hardly sleep! I'm buzzing with the deals, buzzing with all the good luck. But the importance of those years is that I sometimes feel people can learn more from failure than from success. In many ways being brought down so low by that failure in business formed another, stronger, part of my character and, to a great degree, made me what I am today."

Joe Jackson 2003

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