Writer’s Block With Bairbre Higgins

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author BAIRBRE HIGGINS about her DEBUT NOVEL, her favourite escapes and leaving the WORLD OF FINANCE to write full time …

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

After a successful career in the financial sector, and the gift of a writing course which set the wheels in motion, Cork-born writer Bairbre Higgins recently fulfilled a long-held ambition by publishing her debut novel The Torchbearers. Her current modus operandi is definitely a change of pace; Bairbre was previously an economist for Bank of Ireland Asset Management, an equity research analyst with Pioneer Asset Management, and a portfolio manager. In the latter years, she was a stockbroker with Davy, travelling extensively across the United States to serve her hedge fund clients. Suffice to say that since Bairbre traded numbers for words, she’s been living the dream.

The Torchbearers is a fresh approach to the Western noir, with a sympathetic protagonist in burnt-out fund manager Ariel Mignolet, as he seeks solace in the atmospheric Chihuahuan desert. While certainly aware of the deeply-embedded religious fundamentalism that surrounds his remote New Mexican hideaway, little does Ariel realise what perils await him when his lover – police officer Mike Argyll – meets a horrific end. The Torchbearers is an expertly crafted work of original fiction, with suspense-laden scenes and hair-raising imagery throughout.

Broadcaster Joe Duffy has said of the book, “Two Irish writers, Martin McDonagh and John Connolly have mastered dark American dramas in their writing – without a nod to the homeland. Courageously, Irish writer Bairbre Higgins has taken on the same landscape with gritty American characters – with great success – The Torchbearers is a superbly written and plotted debut – a thriller from beginning to end.”

Bairbre Higgins lives in Clontarf, Dublin with her husband John and their three children. She is currently immersed in two new projects.

The Torchbearers (€16) is published by Minard Press and available now from Amazon.co.uk and selected bookshops nationwide.

On home 

We live on the Clontarf Road, a busy artery hugging Dublin’s north bay. Both “culchies”, we suffered no existentialist angst moving here from Ranelagh in 2002 after falling for the view of the Bull Wall lagoon. Three kids later, our family’s roots have bedded-in.

The coastline is Clontarf’s beating heart. Decent weather, we’ll grab runners to join the Olympic village of joggers and terribly-serious-cyclists. Weekdays, I walk the dogs in St Anne’s park after the school run. It’s a great time to ruminate on new storylines and the majestic cordon of trees lining Lord Ardilaun’s avenue are proven listeners.

Lacking a pedestrian-friendly village centre, Clontarf has alternative hubs like Nolan’s supermarket, a local institution. It has quietly-accepted trolley routes around the aisles and you’ll get funny looks if you go against the grain. If you need to avoid someone, don’t shop in Nolan’s.

My favourite café is a ship’s container near the Wooden Bridge dunes. Why fuss over décor when ferries and skiffs glide by? The Café is called Happy Out – which sums up how I feel about my home. 

On roots

I grew up in a Cork suburb called Bishopstown. It had fields around it when I was little but the city has swallowed them. If you could bottle it, my childhood might smell like cut grass and cheese and onion Tayto. You could label it Freedom, something our kids won’t be able to say about their own upbringing.

Aged nine or ten, I assumed the role of neighbourhood dog-walker and afternoons were spent roaming with pals between the river Lee and the Bandon road viaduct.

A daughter of the seventies, living on a hill, I loved roller-skates. No helmets or knee pads and boy did we fly. Mine had a breaking mechanism shaped like a rubber door-stop which I wore down until it threw out sparks on corners.

“Bonna Night” was big. Neighbourhood kids organised into groups to beg, borrow and steal all manner of combustibles which we guarded against rival pilferers before setting it alight on June 23rd – St John’s eve. Parents brought petrol and sausages to cook. We had never heard of health and safety.

On creating

I write in a home office on the top floor. It was my husband’s but I claimed squatter’s rights. A big white desk, one wall of shelving and an armchair for the dogs (should they choose to join me) fill the space.

My creative side is untidy. Four messy piles of correspondence (the in-trays for my various pursuits) linger hopefully around a recycled red flower pot blooming with officey items. The open-box-shelves bulge with files and orphaned objects like Perspex award plaques, hand-held video cameras and obsolete phone chargers. A family photo and a framed image of Steven Gerrard await hanging. I make daily resolutions to tidy but my credibility is shot.

It would be dullsville but for the bird’s nest window that makes me the luckiest writer alive. Every mid-edit glance rewarded anew. Now a heron stalks glistening shallows; then shouty sea scouts tacking under blue sails. Busy clouds and giddy birds. And every shape of ship – the silent stars of my windscreen – bringing the world to Dublin in an orderly queue. 

On her favourite bookshop

A rubberised welcome mat inside the door of Lahinch Bookshop is there to catch the droplets from holidaymakers’ umbrellas. It rains a lot in Co. Clare and the shop is top of the list for whiling away time when the weather’s bad.

Peek into local caravans and you’ll probably see Crayola Twistables, Irish-pub playing cards, Monopoly and a few dog-geared activity books, all purchased in Lahinch Bookshop.

It’s bright and thoughtfully laid out, so kids turn left while adults can drift right to enjoy a secluded browse (thanks to strategic shelving).

The carefully curated shop window is where I first clapped eyes on A Narrow Road To The Deep North, by Richard Flanagan – one of my all-time favourites.

Lahinch Bookshop is the first shop that agreed to stock my book – The Torchbearers (now more widely available). You’ll see it just to the right as you shake your umbrella.

On her “TBR” pile

I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – a long, lazy river of a book about friendship and suffering.

Upcoming holidays means a deep dive into my bedside book stack. An enduring fascination with American culture, particularly the lurch towards religious fundamentalism, puts Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, at the top of my list.

Robert Harris’s Munich is my poolside-page-turner and the opening line of Liz Nugent’s Lying in Wait – “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it”, suggests it might be in a similar category.

Mark Walsh, book guru at Plunkett PR, recommended Man Booker Shortlisted Elmet, by Fiona Mozley and I simply must find room in the suitcase for What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton. I’m a big Hillary fan.

On escapes

The Co Clare coastline is my sanctuary. I have crouched in every dune and fished every rock pool. Clare people are open and laid back, there’s a great choice of eateries and we’ve made so many friends, it feels like home. The landscape lacks the cinematic grandeur of Connemara but limestone moonscapes, windswept whitethorns and derelict dwellings, rattling with ghosts, have a unique beauty that chimes well with my own sense of Irish-ness.

Our holiday home overlooks lime green fields and the cobalt seas of Liscannor Bay, where my husband and I met. Perched on a lonely headland near the Cliffs of Moher, it’s the perfect antidote to our strictly-by-appointment lives in Dublin.

Summer days unfurl around a simple plan shaped by tides. High seas mean ruffled rock pools – ruling out shrimping with long-handled nets (a firm favourite of the kids). Mid-tide, not rough, we might head to Lahinch to surf or pitch and putt. Sometimes, in fine weather, we drive into the Burren on what my father used to describe as a mystery tour. We could arrive at The Perfumery near Caron or Hazel Mountain Chocolate factory in Bellharbour or, if the kids prevail, the remote ice cream parlour near Heaney’s Flaggy Shore. What’s not to like about those options?

One day last August we trekked with a guide along one of the green roads – Burren byways from Famine times. An hour in, he clambered up a craggy hill to show us the remains of a fifteen hundred year old fort. A wedding gift from a chieftain to his daughter, it was built to take advantage of a breath-taking view – Inland, the bleached Burren quilt; seaward, the Aran Islands and Galway’s twelve pins; “Where is everyone?” enquired a confused looking Japanese tourist (one of only three people we encountered) as we headed back down. “At the Cliffs of Moher,” replied our guide. 

On the high life

For a spell in the noughties, I travelled up to seventy days a year to the US, bringing Irish companies or equity analysts to meet American financial institutions.

Like writing, travel is all about routine – double-check your schedule, pack carefully and clock-up those sleep-hours to avoid snoozing into your soup during client dinners.

Facing into twenty-six meetings per week, I tried, where possible, to fly out on Sundays to pootle around Manhattan. It was the ultimate “me-time” – shopping, Barnes & Noble browsing, then dinner before drifting off to a movie. Years later, with tiny babies, I used to fantasize about those afternoons during four a.m feeds.

With dense scheduling, things go wrong. On the New York leg of a roadshow, a colleague was so supremely attentive to the CEO he was accompanying, he failed to check the window notice on the Limo outside their hotel. They hopped in and started making calls – only discovering it was the wrong car when the Hudson came into view. The panicked driver U-turned too fast to see a jogger’s dog near the curb and farce quickly turned to tragedy. 

On Joe Duffy

Our first contact with neighbour Joe Duffy came with a Christmas card featuring a beautiful snow scene of the old Clontarf Road tram shelter opposite our house. New to the terrace, it took us a few days to notice Joe’s signature on the print. He is a very talented artist.

Liveline might just as easily be called Lively-Mind because, for me, that sums up Joe. At christenings or communions, you’ll eventually spy him in a huddle with someone’s elderly aunt or uncle, chewing on some historical or cultural nugget. His wife tells me he is never, ever without a book and perpetually has a raft of projects “on the go.”

My own efforts to publish and publicise my novel – The Torchbearers – have benefited hugely from Joe’s generosity of spirit and support for creativity. He took the time to read the manuscript and crafted a review that made me blush with pride. Authors climb a wall of worry when their “new baby” takes its first steps, so Joe’s compliments for my writing and story provided a tremendous boost. 

On The Torchbearers

I enjoyed creative writing from a young age but fell out of the habit. With three young children, a globe-trotting career lost its appeal and I was searching for a new focus.

At my 40th birthday party, my husband produced a laptop and a writer’s course voucher from under his flashing Rudolph jumper, along with instructions to write a book or stop talking about writing a book.

Kick-started by the writing retreat, I rediscovered my passion for crafting stories. A light-bulb moment over a cuppa in 2014 in Co Clare, gave me the central plot for The Torchbearers. The main protagonist (burnt-out hedge fund partner, Ariel Mignolet) and the fundamentalist preacher came quickly and once I started writing, I simply couldn’t stop. It took five years to see this novel through to publication but I have learned a huge amount through that investment of time. My mother is an artist, so I’ve always viewed creative endeavour as a perfectly reasonable way to earn a crust. There is no going back now.

On mystery

Good mysteries have no “fat on the bone.” Every scene is there for a reason – edging readers along a particular path. Red herring? Clue? Some important aspect of a character crucial to motive? Foreshadow? Crime readers must stay alert, always look for signs, and that has great appeal.

Crime books are somewhat formulaic, however the genre does offer writers huge scope in terms of setting and the real-life problems providing the backdrop to the mystery. Such variation means readers don’t get bored, even when the investigator they have been following is now featuring in murder mystery number twenty two!

On what’s next

I am co-writing a script for a TV crime series I wrote last year and am four chapters into my second novel – a contemporary urban mystery set in Dublin.

@SophieGrenham

Love THEGLOSS.ie? Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.