Antonia Logue has advice for aspiring writers

Clare O'Connor tracks down the Derry writer in Chicago

Antonia Logue's debut novel Shadow-Box created quite a sensation in 1999. Hailed as one of the London Observer's ‘21 writers for the 21st Century’.

Did you always want to be a writer and if so why do you think that was?

Yeah, this is all I've ever wanted to do. Growing up my parents were really mad about books and so when I wanted to write it was such a natural and obvious instinct to trust. We were read books and given books and encouraged to write stories. I got very lucky at school - in Park (primary school) I had great teachers. They entered us for a writing competition Radio Foyle were doing. Winning that was really exciting.

What are the practicalities of writing?

There's this Saul Bellow quote, 'You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write', and there's a little bit of truth in that but mostly, I need to sit down and make myself write. I write from six until nine in the morning, and sometimes at night.

So much of what we actually think and feel and want is in our sub-conscious brain, and it takes me ages to get down in there. If I waited for it to just happen - the leaping up in the middle of the night number - it'd just take me decades to write a book.

What feeds your material - observation of life - TV - a good yarn?

So many things give you your material. I keep notebooks that I use to write down stuff that I overhear, think about. It's a miracle how much good stuff is around you all the time that you might forget - there are ideas everywhere.

I'd been having this huge panic in my head one day about this structural thing in the second book and I took a break from it because I was going nowhere. Two hours later I was watching The Sopranos, and this thing just clicked.

But then, that's The Sopranos. You're talking about a pure masterclass in storytelling, characterization, narrative tension, the whole thing. It's genius. Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment and a box set of The Sopranos, that's your start-up kit right there.

How do ideas germinate with you - might an idea incubate for a while before it gets out?

Ideas sit in my head a long time before they come out. The real book isn't the one I can write plot points and what-happens-next prompts for - it's going to come out in the writing itself. I thought you had to sit down and write everything that happens, exactly when and to whom. When all I need are various small stimuli - something somebody wants to say to somebody else is enough to start off, or an image in my head, or a line, an idea or a look on someone's face.

In what way did your locality impact on your artistry/choice of career?

I gave a reading in Chicago recently and Brendan Kerlin, another writer, who's the son of my old Park teacher came up afterwards and we've become really good friends. We tell people in America what Park's like and they think we're making it all up. But you couldn't make Park up. It's quiet and gentle and non-sectarian and just a magical village to grow up in.

My parents have been my biggest source of support and faith. My mother wrote a book a few years ago, but it was a bit different - about European law and monopolies.

Do you feel the country of Ireland is more welcoming of writers nowadays?

I think there's a lot of support - grants, competitions, residencies - Ireland is a good country for a writer in that way. My family moved to Brussels when I was eleven, and I chose to come back at eighteen. In the old days you left, and it was a big decision. You were choosing not to be in Ireland. It's not like that now. We fly the way people used to take buses.

I spend some time in Ireland, some time in America and some time in France. I have an apartment in Dublin and my family has a house in Park, and so Ireland is the centre of things largely.

How does the academic life of a professor suit your mode of writing?

I teach at Columbia College, and the University of Chicago - it's fun, it's rewarding and it's time-consuming. I save a good part of the year just to write. Teaching is very energizing, but I don't really take it home with me. The writing always comes first. But I really love teaching.

Your teaching involves creative writing courses. Can great writing be taught?

All we do is give shelter of sorts, an environment in which to try things out safely, to take risks and for it to be ok to screw it up. So much of my experience has been the not-getting-it-right parts. That process of working through it, of successful failure, is how I learn.

What are you working on at the minute?

I'm getting my second book ready to hand in September 2004. Then I'm writing the libretto for an opera with a composer in New York called Harold Meltzer. After that I'm doing a play for a company in Chicago. And I've half of the third book done so I'm hoping to get that finished in the next eighteen months.

Are there any individuals who've particularly influenced you?

A friend in Chicago, Billy Corgan, has been extremely important to me in the writing of this second book. And John Coetzee has been supportive and kind, and I think he's a quite phenomenal writer. He takes risks and can do just anything. A book that I get all my students to read is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. It's got ambition, beauty and is such a page-turning epic. I love that book.

It seems to be increasingly difficult for young writers or unknown writers to get their work looked at without an agent. What advice do you have for writers in this regard?

Yes, agents are very important, but I got my break from just sending the prologue of my novel to a publisher in London, cold. She rang me to say she would take the book - then I got an agent to take it from there.

Get to know other writers and go to residencies. I go back a lot to Yaddo, an artists' colony in New York - an incredible place.

I don't believe great novels sit rotting in publishers' offices, not really. I think the good stuff does come out. Notching up a few publications is no harm either, and there's a million literary magazines.

Just send your work out - to agents, to publishers, to magazines, to competitions. If it comes back at you, then it's not really your problem if in your heart you know it is good work and the best you can do, you just keep going. Somebody's going to get you at some point. It might be the first person, but maybe it'll be the eightieth. Just as long as you know it's the real deal, then that's the faith to hold onto.

This article originated from Channel Four's Ideas Factory Northern Ireland