Interview: Nicola White, winner of the 2013 Dundee International Book Prize
The author discusses her prize-winning novel, In The Rosary Garden
Tell us a bit about In The Rosary Garden.
It’s a mystery set in Ireland in the 80s – a particularly tough time for young women. It was also the same time I left Ireland, so it’s a time that I remember it best.
It’s about a young girl called Ali Hogan who’s 18 and just at the start of her life when she becomes involved in the finding of a dead newborn in her convent school. This revives memories from a similar incident when she was a young child, something she only half remembers and half understands. The book is an unfurling of those two stories.
What made you want to tell this story?
I didn’t know the full story when I started. I was just interested in this idea of things happening when you’re small that you don’t have all the knowledge to comprehend and it’s only when you grow up that you understand what that thing was. That was the small starting point of the novel.
You said that In The Rosary Garden had been left in a drawer for a couple of years. What made you leave it for so long?
I re-wrote it several times and things were going pretty well. I won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, I had an agent who was excited about the novel and sent it off to publishers. But nobody committed to it.
The thing about getting rejected by publishers is they had a lot of nice things to say but the reasons they turned the book down were so various that you couldn’t actually take personal offence from it. They are more and more adverse to things that are untried and untested and they want sure things, but how can you know if something’s a sure thing? What they tend to look for are things that are like other things. Or that’s what it felt like.
How essential was the New Writers Award to your writing?
The Book Trust has been endlessly supportive. It’s like a lifetime membership scheme because they are great cheerleaders for anyone that’s won the award. They gave me mentoring with an early draft of the book and worked really carefully with it. They give you great exposure and you feel like you’re not alone.
You’ve mentioned that In The Rosary Garden was 'a literary novel with the pace and mysteries of a crime story.' Did you make a conscious effort to try and achieve this hybrid novel?
It wasn’t anything as deliberate as that, and in fact I think it counted against it when it went out. People who specialised in crime said it was a bit literary and those who were literary said, 'Well, we don’t do crime'. But I was really interested in people like Donna Tartt and Sarah Waters, where there were mysteries and crimes but wrapped up in something fuller that was also about character and about creating a world. And that’s what I was interested in: creating a convincing world and taking it where I wanted. I just wrote the book I could write.
Did you find it difficult to write the more grisly parts of the novel, or did you find you could detach yourself from it?
I suppose I didn’t find it that grisly when I wrote it. It is horrible, but horrible things happen. The subject of infanticide was interesting to me because it feels like a thread that runs through Irish culture. Not just real cases such as The Kerry Babies, but also when I was small my mother used to sing me this old playground song about a woman who murders her baby. And it’s horrible, but these were that stories that were around. In an age where there was no access to contraception, there was a lot of illegitimacy and shame, and sadly infanticide sometimes became a solution to desperate situations. I suppose I was interested in that – not in a moralising way, but more in why these things happen.
You’ve had short stories published and broadcasted previous to this. How have you found writing a novel compared to writing short stories?
I was writing the novel all along, so short stories were like a break from it to try out different things and learn how to write. That was my education. But what I feel happy about getting the chance to maybe keep writing is that it just feels infinite in a really good way. Just the possibility that you could really keep going and learn to do more and take risks and work it out through doing it.
Have you got any plans for what you’ll work on next?
I just want to write. It’s one of the great things about the Dundee International Book Prize – not only does the book get to go out into the world but with it comes some money that guarantees some time, some really precious time. I’ve been working on a second book so I’m hoping this will give me the chance to finish that. I’m bad at finishing things so I’m going to try and sit down and finish it.