NIAMH BOYCE, the craftswoman behind phenomenal hit novel, THE HERBALIST, on late CREATIVE BLOOMING, escaping to a favourite BOOK-SHOP, that SECOND NOVEL CURSE and PLANS for the future …
An instant success in its genre, Niamh Boyce’s novel, The Herbalist, is regarded as ‘the most entertaining yet substantial historical novel since Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea‘ by the Irish Times. Niamh’s creative buds only began to form a few years ago, but they didn’t take long to blossom.
Dermot Bolger has said, ‘Niamh Boyce’s compelling female characters push against the rigid social parameters of 1930s Ireland, yearning for the light of the outside world, which comes in the shape of a stranger trading in herbs, cures, complications and danger’.
Boyce was the recipient of the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year accolade and picked up Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2013. She was also short-listed for the 2011 Francis McManus Short Story competition, as well as the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award in 2010. Niamh’s fiction is featured in such anthologies as Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back and The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015.
Niamh lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois. She has just completed her second novel.
We moved to Ballylinan from Galway ten years ago. I grew up in nearby Athy, the setting for my novel The Herbalist. Athy is a scenic heritage town, with barge trips, markets and a yearly triathlon centred on the Barrow.
I work mostly from home, writing at a desk in my bedroom. I’d love that ‘room of one’s own,’ but we don’t have the space. If I’d been asked to describe my writing desk six months ago, it would’ve been covered in notes, dusty research books like Coulton’s Medieval Panorama, a glass owl, paper weight, postcards, all under a notice board heaving with maps and sketches of the world of my book (I draw out the rooms, characters, and certain details). Unfortunately, I developed a severe allergy to house dust and had to get rid of all my clutter. So my desk is now clinically bare, with just a laptop and a notebook.
I’m very fond of Charlie Byrnes in Galway, there are books from floor to ceiling and you never know what you’re going to end up reading. It has a great poetry section, and stocks literary magazines that most bookshops don’t. When I step in there, time slows down. I forget everything and move from shelf to shelf in a trance of book lust.
On her nightstand
The books I’m reading at the moment are Stephen King’s Dance Macabre, Medieval Wordbook and Jean O Brien’s poetry collection, Merman. The first is a wonderful, if over long, discussion of all things horror – films, books, writers. I love horror movies, and have started a crime writing group C.S.I. Ballylinan, so I’m doing some enjoyable research. The medieval word book has been my friend throughout the writing of a novel set in 1324, inspired by a witch trail. Merman is a wonderful poetry collection. I read a lot of poetry, especially when I’m writing fiction.
On the second novel
You asked about the ‘Second Novel Curse’ in the wake of the success of The Herbalist – it’s a great phrase and quite apt. It’s very different writing a book when there are expectations around it. The curse probably applies to all novels after the first! My second novel is actually done and dusted. It was written quickly in 2013, but it wasn’t a strong piece of work, so I chose not to send it out. My current novel is more exciting to me as a writer, so I’ve submitted that to an agent. It’s important to be able to judge your own work. ‘Is it alive?’ is the first question I ask myself.
On late blooming
I began writing nine years ago, quite late I guess, as I was thirty seven. I loved books, read obsessively but never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a painter, still do – if a Lotto win comes my way, I’ll be off to Inishowen with a batch of canvases! Saying that, I always made sense of life by writing things out, in journals, notebooks, scraps of paper – being without a pen would make me anxious. I began to write seriously after a workshop with John MacKenna. I discovered how much I loved writing short stories. They’re still my favourite form.
People think being published changes your life, and put themselves under immense pressure to attain that goal. To be honest, it doesn’t change much at all. It’s a lot of work, sometimes years of work – for little financial reward. It’s more important to carve out a place for creativity in your life, and vital to protect that space, and the integrity of your work.
On what’s next
This year, I’d like to collect my short stories and poems into two separate collections. I came across a lot of fascinating detail while researching witch trials, so have several short pieces that might make an interesting linked collection. I’d also like to work on illustrating my own poetry. My medieval witchcraft novel, which is between titles at the moment, is just finished, and hopefully it will be my next published work.
The Herbalist (€11.20) is published by Penguin and available from all good bookshops.
SOPHIE GRENHAM @SophieGrenham
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