Last year, I wrote a book that disappeared. I’m not sure why, but it might have had something to do with the culture wars.
If this is the turf on which I find myself, I came to it late. When Lionel Shriver claimed 7 years ago that she had been judged and found wanting for writing a novel about ‘the complications of morbid obesity’ because she ‘didn’t belong to the club’, I remember viewing the spat as a disinterested observer. At that time I considered such chatter a distraction from the real business of life, and was confounded by a situation in which, as Dominic Sandbrook has put it ‘People are more interested in flags than inflation.’ But that was before I discovered Gráinne Ní Mháille.
I was introduced to Gráinne by a friend on Facebook. It was 2016. My friend had posted a photo of her young family climbing over a statue in county Mayo in the West of Ireland, and mentioned an annual pilgrimage to pay respects to the ‘pirate queen’. There was something so uniquely compelling about the two constructions – both physical and linguistic – that I immediately flipped over to Wikipedia. What I found was three or four short paragraphs that left me puzzled.
The bare facts of Gráinne’s biography were astonishing. I discovered she was a contemporary of Elizabeth the 1st and may have sailed up the Thames for a summit with the English Queen; the first female clan chief, a pirate, military commander and folk hero; and her dealings with men suggested she might be considered a proto-feminist. What was almost as surprising was that such a life had such a meagre entry.
Gráinne Ní Mháille, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0
My interest piqued, I set out to discover if the fault was Wiki’s alone, and unrepresentative of a comprehensive body of work on Gráinne’s life. It didn’t appear to be. I found there had been a biography, maybe three novels, a couple of children’s books and that was about it. Oh, except for a musical – The Pirate Queen – that ran on Broadway for a few weeks in 2006. By the time I’d finished reading about what had been written about this extraordinary woman, I was asking why there wasn’t more of it. And deciding I’d help to redress the balance.
Not that it was as simple as that, of course. By 2016 I’d been writing for publication for about 16 years. My first novel was published in 2010 with a second following in 2013; in 2016, I wrote a novella. But although my output had always been led by whims and fancy, I hadn’t once considered writing historical fiction.
Writing in a genre about which I knew nothing was going to be a challenge, yet it was far from the most significant I faced. If up until this point I had been an observer of the culture wars, I was now, inescapably, entering the fray. Every day brought questions, the most pressing of which concerned what might have been construed as my entitlement. The situation was complicated by the periods I would be writing about. Gráinne lived during the Tudor invasion of Ireland. Because I didn’t want to merely fictionalise what little is known about her life, I decided to present her story as an oral history, being retold a hundred or so years later. This meant I would also be writing about Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. But what on earth gave me the right to comment on either event? And why did I imagine anyone would be interested in my take – as an Englishman – on Irish history?
The answer I came up with didn’t do much to address the complexities of the situation, but then I’m not convinced this diminishes it in any way: I’m a writer who believes that as long as you approach a subject with respect and sensitivity, then no subject matter should be off-limits. Give or take the fact that if no-one else was writing about Gráinne then why shouldn’t I?, that was it. Which left the small matter of how to approach the project on the page. As someone with no known Irish heritage, how could I realistically hope to throw my voice into Irish characters, living in Irish environments?
The key was going my research. This element of writing fiction is often an individual endeavour: you sit there at your desk, gathering sources and judging them through the prism of your creative project. I decided to make it a more collaborative process and to work directly with others who were objectively better-placed – through professional engagement and lived experience – to know what they were talking about.
The idea was that by widening my net in this way, I’d reduce the possibility of inadvertently employing the casual racism that results from cultural appropriation. I like to think it helped in this. Yet the approach was not without potential pitfalls. Surely it was a recipe for literary disaster, for producing historical fiction that read like it had been written by committee? By an author glancing nervously over their shoulder?
I can’t say for sure, of course. But the possibility remains that the opposite was true, and that by working with others on my research I got a fuller picture of the times and cultural environments I was writing about. Which meant I could more convincingly inhabit them without feeling self-conscious, without watching my step. Which meant, in turn, I could let my characters take over and shape the novel in the way they should.
Then again, it might have had something to do with luck. Collaboration is all very well but you have to find the right people. And in the case of The Pirate Queen, I was fortunate enough to work with some of the most interesting, expert and supportive around. Before I started the book, I contacted some of Gráinne’s descendants, the Bourkes of County Mayo, who kindly provided me with a family tree. When the novel was barely a chapter long, I began an MA in Creative Writing. After concentrating on what I knew for the first year of the course, I decided to use the novel for my dissertation, not least because this meant I could ask for the bestselling Irish writer Ruth Gilligan as my supervisor.
A few years later, in 2021, I was listening to the radio when Gráinne appeared as the subject on BBC Radio 4’s You’re Dead to Me. One of the participants was Dr Gillian Kenny, who is writing a biography of Gráinne and is a Research Associate at Dublin’s Trinity College; I contacted her and she provided me with some invaluable advice. Later, I took a punt and asked the poet Fran Lock for her take on what I’d done. Fran’s perspective on Irish culture and history is uncompromising and different again. In the final stages of line editing, I got in touch with a Gaelic teacher who identified a few errors in the little Irish I’d included in the book.
I’m a slow writer at the best of times and the various trials associated with The Pirate Queen meant it took me 6 years to finish it. In between coming-up with the idea and seeing my book in print, interest in Gráinne grew (an anecdotal example of this – her Wiki entry is now a more respectful 3000 plus words.) More became known about her and more books about her life appeared. I was obviously delighted about this. It’s why I decided to write my novel in the first place. Equally though, I hoped that when my book came out it might still be considered a worthwhile project, one that hinted at all of the conscientious work and generous contributions that had made it possible.
But here’s the thing. There was no such response to the publication of The Pirate Queen. Because there was no response to the publication of The Pirate Queen at all. There was not a single review, no mention of it anywhere. The book simply disappeared; worse, it might not have been written in the first place.
This was a new experience. I’ve always been lucky with reviews. Although my two previous novels were published by small presses, they were covered by the London Review of Books, the Observer, the Times, the Guardian, the FT and the Morning Star. My memoir was reviewed in Tribune and the Quietus, amongst other places. More pertinently I once had a pamphlet of short stories written-up by the Irish Times. I had a profile, of sorts at least, and a critical hinterland that should have given me some traction. And that’s without the subject of the novel itself: who doesn’t like pirates? Female pirates at that! And Tudors! Everyone loves the Tudors, right? Yet despite contacting the usual suspects in the UK, and a dozen publications in Ireland – several of them more than once – after six months there was still nothing. Nada. Zilch.
There are, of course, a thousand reasons for this echoing critical silence, not least the possibility that the novel might not have been, objectively speaking, any good: review space is tight, and publications don’t like to waste space on stuff they don’t think is worth covering. That was certainly a consideration. And given what I know about the futility of trying to second-guess how my writing will be received, one I was willing to accept.
Then again, there might have been something else behind the disappearance of The Pirate Queen. The possibility remained that the novel’s fate had been decided by the politics of the situation. That I had been judged because I’d failed to heed the warning of Kit de Waal, who’d written in 2018 of the wrongs of ‘writing in somebody else’s blood’. That editors and reviewers on either side of the Irish Sea had taken one look at an Englishman’s fictionalisation of Irish history and decided ‘no thanks.’
Whatever the real reason – or reasons – for what happened to my novel, my reflections on its publication mean I can no longer call myself a disinterested observer of the culture wars. The first conclusion I’ve drawn from my observations is that, as with much contemporary discourse, the conversation about what writers should and shouldn’t write seems to be an absolutist’s game (for example, Kit de Waal’s line came from a piece in the Irish Times that allowed room for constructive disagreement; Lionel Shriver’s more frequent fulminations rarely do).
The second – and again, if this avoids the complexities of the situation, I don’t care – is that I’m sanguine about the whole experience. Partly because I satisfied myself that I approached the writing of The Pirate Queen with respect and sensitivity. And partly because if it disappeared because I’d misjudged the character of a perfectly reasonable consensus, then so be it. I’ve always been a rebel, I mean I understand rebellion, but this is a just historical wind and I can’t moan about getting wet when I’m pissing into it.
And besides. It’s not just about the book. It never is, or shouldn’t be. For all that it sometimes feels as though I’ve wasted 6 years of my life, I’ve learned enough – about Irish history, about the writing process, about contemporary politics – to know that I’d do it all again.