Northern Lights: The Women from Poolbeg

Garbhan Downey meets the northern chick literati

Cynics, intellectuals and other assorted begrudgers can stop reading now. You’re not going to like it. But the sharp fact of the matter is that the north’s three most promising fiction writers – in hard-boiled sales terms – are all 30-something chick lit writers.

Christmas stockings all over Ireland are likely to contain at least one offering from Poolbeg’s new northern army. Romantic comedies from Derry’s Claire Allan, Donaghmore’s Emma Heatherington and Galbally’s Fionnuala McGoldrick (writing as Fiona Cassidy), are making a huge impact on the Irish book charts.

And, given the immediate success of McGoldrick’s recent debut, (Anyone for Seconds? is currently at Number 6 in the Paperback Fiction chart), it is only a matter of time before at least one of these women goes global.

Their achievements are no accident either. They are quality writers, who deliver fine and funny stories. I’ve read both Allan and McGoldrick, fearing the worst, but have finished their books with a big smile on my face and an even bigger pit of jealousy in my stomach. Heatherington, I’m assured, is every bit as good.

And it is, I hasten to add, now okay to describe their work as chick lit. At least according to them, it is. ‘I'm all for reclaiming the title 'chick lit' and taking away the notion that somehow it's an inferior genre,’ says Allan.

‘A lot of modern chick lit deals with very serious issues - the window dressing is just nicer. The genre is popular because it is honest, accessible, funny and uplifting.’

McGoldrick / Cassidy agrees. ‘I don’t mind the term,’ she admits. ‘It’s others who seem to have a problem with it – in some cases seeing it as fluffy story-telling lacking in substance or depth, which is completely untrue!

‘Don’t be fooled, however. Just because chick lit can be described as 'easy reading', don’t dismiss it as being somehow inferior to its literary counterparts. In the words of the hugely successful 19th century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Easy reading is damn hard writing."

Heatherington, who writes both under her own name and as Emma Louise Jordan, prefers the term ‘romantic comedy’, but is equally fine with ‘chick lit’. ‘It's just another marketing term like 'lad lit',’ she stresses. ‘People like the genre because it's nice to have some sense of escapism when reading, and it’s important to add in a giggle or two, and some lively characters with real life issues.’

All three women work in the media – Allan is a reporter and columnist with the Derry Journal, while the Tyrone contingent both work in PR. They also all have young families, which means hitting book deadlines can be quite an accomplishment in itself.

'100,000 plus words, in any genre, requires discipline,’ explains Heatherington. ‘I have two books to write by February and am way behind. But without deadlines we would have no discipline. I believe I can do it.’

McGoldrick, who’s currently working on her second novel about an adopted woman searching for her mother (the writer herself was adopted), believes the trick is to stick to what you know. ‘My particular style of writing is quite comedic and humorous with lots of dialogue and one-liners, which I find quite easy to write,’ she reveals.

‘However, it is important to maintain a balance as in order to give a book authenticity it needs to have a serious and 'real-life' element to it. Although we would love our lives to be one long laugh, unfortunately, they’re not.’

For Claire Allan, the main concern is to keep her writing fresh and innovative. ‘Personally I like to make sure I don't fall into the old chick lit clichés (secretary bonks boss on the office desk and drinks Chardonnay while polishing her Jimmy Choos). Writing good chick lit – about honest issues like depression, domestic abuse, fertility problems – requires a lot of research so that you don't patronise the reader, but it also requires a great sense of empathy. You have to live the lives of your characters, and that can be all-encompassing at times.’

Financially, none of the trio is, as yet, in the Marian Keyes or Cecelia Ahern league. And they all doubt it is possible to make a full-time living from the Irish market alone.

But McGoldrick insists that getting published in Ireland makes for a great start. ‘From what I know of the industry, any Irish writer who is penning novels on a full-time basis is doing so due to a UK and/or worldwide publishing deal, which may have been secured as well as or due to being published in Ireland first. Whether or not getting published in Ireland would lead to the purchase of a speed boat or a second home in Florida (or even Donegal) remains very debatable, especially in the current financial climate.’

Heatherington too is unlikely to give up the day job just yet. ‘I love the way people, in a well meaning way, automatically assume you are a millionaire because you're a published author. I make more money writing scripts, but my dream was always to have a book published. I never dreamed I would have two book deals as I have now, so until I'm published in other countries it will continue to be a labour of love.’

Allan likewise sees money as a bonus and not a goal. ‘You make some. But times are tough, books are discounted in almost every big store, and the market in this wee island is limited. Although that said, we are great nation of readers. But truth is, very few authors can make a full time living out of it. You don't do it for the money anyway.’

The three authors cite a wide variety of writing influences and favourites, from Marian Keyes and Brian McGilloway (Allan); to Jodi Picoult and Roald Dahl (Heatherington); to Sharon Owens, Sinead Moriarty, Lisa Jewell and Roddy Doyle (McGoldrick).

So, given that they’re not allowed to pick one another, what would they each most like in their Santa pile?
‘The new Marian Keyes,’ states Heatherington. ‘And I want to read Ciara Geraghty too. I'm also going to request Mickey Harte's new book - come on Tyrone!’

Allan, however, is more inclined to indulge her taste for vampires over the festive season. ‘I'm tempted to read the Twilight series to see what all the fuss is about - but also on my list of to-reads at the moment are The Seven Secrets of Happiness by Sharon Owens and Please Forgive Me by Melissa Hill.’

Rising star McGoldrick also wants the new Sharon Owens – but will be happy with any book she’s given.
As for finding a few minute’s peace to read it, though? That’s a different matter entirely...

Anyone for Seconds? by Fiona Cassidy , Playing the Field by Emma Heatherington and Jumping in Puddle by Claire Allan are all out now, published by Poolbeg Press.