If you know one thing already about Kathleen MacMahon's début This is How it Ends, it's probably that the book secured one of the biggest advance deals of 2011. The news that Little, Brown paid £600,000 in a pre-emptive bid for world English rights (with US publisher Grand Central) made headlines in the national press here in the UK and in the author's native Ireland.
As a journalist for RTÉ (Ireland's national broadcaster), MacMahon is perhaps more used to reporting the news than making it. But her day job played a big part in the genesis of This is How it Ends, which is set in Ireland during the autumn of 2008 as the economy teetered on the brink of collapse: "I'm steeped in news, and that seeps into what I'm writing."
"These extraordinary things were happening, that even months beforehand you would have thought couldn't happen. Huge banks falling off the edge of cliffs and the fear that more might follow," she says, over the telephone from her home in Dublin. "There was a sense that anything could happen—anything bad could happen. At the same time you had the election in the US with this extraordinary optimism, so you had this feeling that anything good could happen as well."
This is How it Ends begins with American Bruno Boylan—who has just lost his job with Lehman Brothers—arriving in Dublin, determined to trace his Irish ancestry. He's anxious about the forthcoming election—if Obama wins, he will return to the US; if the Republicans do, he'll stay in Ireland. Addie Murphy lives on the Dublin coast, where she walks her beloved dog Lola on the beach every day. An architect hit hard by the recession, she's moved in to look after her irascible father Hugo, a doctor who needs care himself after an accident. Addie and Hugo meet at a time in their lives (he's 50, she's nearing 40) when neither has any expectations of finding life-changing love—but, but against the odds, they do.
Rights have now sold in 22 territories to date, so this very commercial, tug-at-the-heartstrings love story has strong international appeal. This is How it Ends is a super-lead title for Sphere and the marketing campaign has already begun with beautifully produced hardback proofs, complete with foiling (their biggest bound proof run of the year). The online consumer-facing campaign starts in March on St Patrick's Day, and will include competitions.
MacMahon describes the novel as a book about love. "It's about life and family and relationships. It's about death and our attitudes to it, and I hope that I've written a cheerful book about some of the difficult things in life . . . [and] about unexpected things happening for the good." It's also a novel about the simple things in life—walking a dog, listening to music, watching a sunset: "It's hard not to make it sound corny when you talk about things like that, but in all of our lives those are the things that bring you joy, and that's what I wanted to write about."
This is How it Ends is the first novel MacMahon has had published, but the second novel she has written. She first started working on a novel back in 2003, when her twins were a year old, and she was working full-time as a news reporter.
MacMahon started her broadcasting career on RTÉ radio, perfect preparation for novel-writing: "The life of this country plays itself out on the radio . . . You're out and about with your little microphone and there's a lovely independence to it. You are hearing people's stories and their wonderful way of telling them. So in terms of my interest in character and in people, there couldn't have been a better job that you would do."
Her busy, varied schedule meant that one week she might find 10 hours to write, and then no time for the next six months. Eventually the completed novel—entitled The Sixth Victim ("it's about a crime, but it's not a crime novel," she says)—was strong enough to secure her the first agent she sent it to, Marianne Gunn O'Connor (who also represents Cecelia Ahearn), although it was never picked up by a publishing house.
But she's now under contract with Little, Brown (the £600,000 advance was for two books), and already hard at work on the second. It has the working title of Learning Backwards, and she explains the book is based on the idea that we live life forwards, but understand it backwards. It features an Irish woman who has lived as an expat for many years, who returns to the west of Ireland after the death of her father. She looks back on her marriage to a foreign correspondent: "She hasn't really got a handle on whether it's a good marriage or a bad marriage, and what she should do."
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