Henrietta McKervey is a Dublin based author of four novels, most recently the critically acclaimed A Talented Man. The Irish Times called it ‘an utterly absorbing, atmospheric, beautifully written novel.’
In her interview with Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Henrietta reveals that she was a slow starter when it came to writing – arriving at it in her thirties, when she realised that the first thing she checked when she picked up a new novel, was the age of the author. ‘If they were younger than me, I’d feel irritated,’ she says, ‘and, to be honest, a bit scared that I was letting something slip and I’d regret it.’
She certainly hit the ground running, publishing her first novel, What Becomes of Us, in 2015; followed by The Heart of Everything a year later, and Violet Hill in 2018; all of which were glowingly reviewed.
‘I persist because it makes me happier than if I don’t. That’s the heart of it,’ says Henrietta.
Read the full interview below. (Interview conducted February 2021)
In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
Writing takes up an exact space in my heart and head that I always knew was there, but for a long time didn’t understand what I needed to do to fill it in. I keep going because it makes me happier. Initially though, I was motivated by fear and irritation at my own lack of resolve.
I came to writing from reading. Aside from loving stories, reading was always really important to me as a source of comfort. Even now, there are books I regularly reread despite knowing them inside out. I never pictured what ‘being a writer’ might be like when I was a child. I studied English at university, and while that was really enjoyable, it was a literature degree. But as I got older – mid-20s on – I began to think about writing. I did a few bits of journalism (album or film reviews, that sort of thing) for a magazine. I was working in mainly admin jobs in the creative sector, and occasionally got to do some copywriting which I enjoyed. So I began to think I could make a living as a copywriter. Graphic designers were originally called ‘commercial artists’ and I’ve always thought of copywriting as ‘commercial writing’. I went to a night class in creative writing for radio and hated it, I’m still not sure why (because I love writing both advertising and creative pieces for the radio).
By my mid-30s I was working fulltime in a design and advertising agency. I realised that when I bought a new book I’d check the age of the author – and if they were younger than me, I’d feel irritated and, to be honest, a bit scared that I was letting something slip and I’d regret it. So, slowly, slowly I edged my way to creative writing. I realised that if I didn’t give it a proper go I’d end up not enjoying the rest of life as a reader, which was a horrible thought. When I was on maternity leave with my first child I was sure I’d have time to write, which was ridiculous. It makes me laugh now, that I genuinely believed that would work.
Over the course of about two years I wrote a couple of short stories and starting entering competitions, though I found it almost impossible to work full-time and write. I wish I was that sort of person, but I’m not. When I was on maternity leave with my second child I decided to enter a competition and told myself that if I won I had ‘permission’ to leave my job and give writing a go. I won, so I did. I was still reluctant to tell people what I was doing though, so having two young children and freelance copywriting work was my cover while I wrote a novel.
Then I decided to do the Creative Writing MFA in UCD, which was a real boost. It also was a cover, because I was a student then. I didn’t openly discuss my writing much, or feel comfortable referring to myself as a writer, until I had a book deal. I have published four books now, and am happy to say it. Writing has been very good to me; I’ve made great friends through it, met some fantastic writers, and had experiences there is no chance I would have had otherwise, such as a stay on Fastnet lighthouse – I won the inaugural Maeve Binchy UCD Travel Award with a proposal to explore the Shipping Forecast, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights very kindly brought me to Fastnet for a night.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
Even though I know it’s not true or fair, everything in my life feels like it conflicts with my writing life. However, I’m ten years in at this career now, so I know not to panic. It will all work out, I tell myself, because I have agency over ‘it’. Once I realised that so many aspects of my life would feed into my work once I allowed them to – listening to my children’s perspective on the world, taking exercise, observing human interactions in the supermarket or on the street – it got much easier. Time can still be a conflict, but time can be managed.
Pre-pandemic, my work day was quite structured. My kids leave for school by 8am so I often worked from then until my school pick up at 2pm. Then if possible I’d do another hour or so late afternoon and start again in the evening, for maybe three hours. I used to watch maybe two hours of tv a week – which was fine, I didn’t miss it at all. 2020 was the reverse. My most recent book A Talented Man (a suspense set in 1938 about a forged Bram Stoker manuscript) was published at the start of April 2020. By my usual standards and timetable I’d be almost a full draft into a new book by now (February 2021) but I’m woefully behind.
BEING IN THE WORLD:
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
No matter how much I tell myself that the work itself, the book itself, is the only part that matters, I find I really care about it existing in a public space. I love that my books are published. They exist of themselves, completely outside me. My parents were proud of them too, which made me happy. I enjoy events, and readings. I appreciate that they are jam, and the book itself is the bread and butter – but having jam on your bread is tasty, isn’t it?
There is an expectation that writers will promote themselves, especially on social media. I realise that I probably don’t do as much as I could, and easily miss opportunities to promote my books because it just doesn’t occur to me. That said, if I’m asked to speak at an event, I do.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
I persist because it makes me happier than if I don’t. That’s the heart of it. My husband and my agent are both very supportive and talking things over with either of them often resets my resolve to see an idea through. I remind myself that making the work is the thing that matters; and to persist with that. Success is about applied talent but also about luck I think. I can’t control luck, only how hard I work.
Check out Henrietta’s website: henriettamckervey.com/
Her books are widely available.