Maria Hoey is set to become one of Ireland’s newest literary stars with the release of her debut novel under an imprint of Poolbeg; Crimson — Fiction with an Edge. I caught up with her to find out what we can expect from the intriguingly titled The Last Lost Girl and to gain an insight into just how she did it.
Having grown up in Swords, Co. Dublin, she now lives in Portmarnock with her husband, Garrett, and their adopted cat. She works at the Law Society of Ireland and has no intention of leaving her position, despite having signed a three-book deal with Poolbeg. It is not surprising that she would maintain a day job given the press coverage this past year about the improbability of earning a living through writing, a fact those of us who aspire to join the ranks of Ireland’s writing community can find disheartening.
Luckily for readers, Maria was not put off by the dire media tales: “The whole time I was writing, I was thinking will I ever get published? But, I realised that my only real responsibility was to finish the book. I had to keep the faith and believe that it would work out,” she says. “Besides, if you love writing then it’s not about money, it’s about getting that story out onto the page, about reaching out and connecting.”
She finished the novel in August of last year at a time when most publishing houses were not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.
“I decided to send the book on its journey. Having had no luck with agents, I sent it directly to the few publishers who were accepting unknown work. Three weeks later, Poolbeg got back to me and they wanted to see the rest of it. Then two weeks later, I received another email to say they were very interested, but they had an issue with the ending.
“I had never intended on revealing the mystery, but I agreed on the basis that they allow me to do so in my own way. I had written the ending quite early on so I had to revisit a few things to make sure it all came together when I decided to go with the change. I sent it off and they came back to me that same day with an offer for the three-book deal.”
Maria’s enthusiasm is infectious, and her story is a welcome one, offering hope to those of us still struggling to get ourselves published. I interrupt to ask, how did you react?
“I was in work but I just screamed when it came through. I had to get the other girls in the office to read it to make sure it was real. I immediately called Garrett, my daughter, Rebecca, and my sister, Caroline, to tell them. They were my very early readers and so supportive, by that stage they were as invested as I was. The whole experience was surreal.”
Shortly after signing with Poolbeg, she received an expression of interest from Transworld Ireland, a fact that only confirms that this is a story worth reading. So, what is The Last Lost Girl about?
In 2010, Maria was shortlisted for the Micheal McLaverty Short Story Competition and it was this piece that became the basis for the novel; “The character stayed with me and I felt her story needed to be told.”
The novel centres on Jacqueline, whose sister goes missing. With chapters alternating between 1976 and the present day, Maria explores the circumstances and aftermath of what it is like when a family member simply vanishes.
“There are so many instances of this happening and I’m always intrigued but more so by how do those left behind cope? How do you go on living? That was the kernel of the idea for the book and it just possessed me.”
Anyone who writes understands the problems of alternating chapters and I wonder which she found the most difficult.
“1976 is a time of life that really stayed with me – the heat of that summer – I remember it quite vividly. In fact, I found it easier to summon the Jacqueline as a child during that time than I did writing her as an adult in the present day. At times, I felt I was living in 1976 as opposed to the present,” she laughs, “The adult Jacqueline is quite complex and flawed; her life had been paralysed by this traumatic event in her childhood. This made her more difficult to write.”
The novel took five years to complete and Maria admits to having been somewhat of an erratic writer.
“There were big gaps where I wasn’t concentrating on it at all. My dad died during this time too, which set me back quite a bit. The father character in the book is quite strong-minded and modelled on my own dad to an extent. When he died, I finally knew what grief was. I discovered that I had to go back and rewrite the grief in the book based on new insight. Because, besides having the element of mystery, the story is also an exploration of loss.”
Maria snatches opportunities to write whenever she can and uses a voice recorder to capture ideas while on the go, a handy tip for aspiring novelists.
“I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking so I always carry my recorder; I must look mad chatting away to myself, but that seems to be when the voices reveal themselves to me. Some of the other characters in the book seemed to just write themselves in and I was thinking, ‘Of course, that’s how that happened!”
Some writers, myself included, find that the editing process can be the most daunting aspect of writing a manuscript, figuring out what works and cutting the rest. I ask Maria how she got through this.
“I was very lucky with that. Gaye Shortland at Poolbeg was on hand throughout and was extremely supportive. It was actually an interesting process and a wonderful education for me. Gaye is an absolute stickler for detail and there were lots of little things, like the geography of the seaside town; it was purely fictional and I hadn’t really thought out some of the specifics. Gaye would say ‘that road can’t be there,’ or ‘the tide couldn’t have come in at that time.’
I then had to go away and think about it. One evening, I found myself in a nearby orchard with a measuring tape to get the distance right so it would make sense. In the end, my long-suffering husband drew a map for me which helped me to gain a sense of the place.”
This is not Maria’s first brush with literary success; she was shortlisted in the 2015 Irish Times Amateur Travel Writer competition for her piece on Inishbofin (I have included the link below; it is as charismatic as the lady herself and I thoroughly recommend reading it). She was runner-up in the Mslexia International Short Story Competition in 2010; shortlisted for the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award; her poems and short stories have appeared in various magazines, including the prestigious Poetry Ireland Review; and in 1997 she achieved first place in the Swords Festival Short Story Competition.
“Credit to the Swords Festival, winning it really spurred me on. That’s when I realised I had to believe in myself. I received a scholarship to the Yeats Summer School and was lucky enough to study poetry there with Seamus Heaney.”
By this stage, I actually wanted to be Maria; so I inquired about her process in the hopes of finding a magical formula to apply to my own writing.
“I have to have tea and chocolate as I write. And I can write with the TV on, which is a bit unusual I suppose. Also for the last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to be awarded a residence in the Tyrone Guthrie centre in Co. Monaghan. In that week last year, I pulled the book together in peace and silence. It’s a wonderful place to write; no distractions, stunning scenery and the food! I eat a lot when I write,” she laughs.
Maria is currently working on her second novel and she admits that her approach is slightly different this time round; “I learned so much from editing the first one, and have a clearer idea of where it’s going. I sketched out the chapters for a start which keeps me on track. I have realised that it’s important to have some sort of scaffolding in place. It makes life easier.”
Given how much the story changed when the ending did, I ask her which is most important; beginnings or endings?
“Oh, that’s a tough choice,” she says, “The opening has to do its job, setting the story, and catch the interest of the reader. But I suppose the ending is what most stays with a reader so I’ll say that.”
By this stage it is high time to release Maria from my newfound hero-worshiping ways so I end with the obvious appeal for her top tips, and she doesn’t disappoint on the sound advice front: “Write it like you expect to get published. Find your own unique voice and forget about the market or what’s popular. Your only job is to write it.”
The Last Lost Girl will be launched on Tuesday 11th July at 6.30pm in The Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin. It goes on sale in all good bookshops from 7th July. If, like me, you can’t wait that long, it’s available to buy now on Poolbeg.com and Amazon.
You can find Maria on Twitter: @MariaHoey