Interviewed By Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner on February 7th 2009.
Colm Liddy has always dreamed of being published. In fact, the farmer’s son from County Clare has done a lot more than just dream about it. Now 38, he’s been writing constantly since he was 24. He cut down his hours in the day job so that he could concentrate his mind on writing.
He had no help. He tried writing groups but left, dispirited, because all the other participants were writing poetry. He had no encouragement either; just a drawer full of rejection slips. Colm is married to Niamh, and there are five children to support; one a teenager. So what was it that kept him writing even though three novels had failed to see the light of day?
“When I started I wanted to be a writer. But somewhere along the line you just keep writing. It was the thrill of taking an idea and turning it into a story and how one does that. And I suppose there is a bit of hopeless optimism that your writing would get somewhere.”
There were moments when he thought of quitting.
“It’s when you have to explain it to your wife. I would say, ‘this is good, but if it doesn’t work out I will stop.’ You say this to yourself and to others, but I kept getting rejected and I kept writing another one. I realised I was never going to give up.”
Colm has always wanted to write. But it was hard to explain that to his family, who expected him, as the eldest of five children, to take over the farm.
“I knew, always that I would not do that,” he says. “It is hard. My first aspiration was to be Tarzan; my second was to be a rock star, but I was always a voracious reader. So writing was a more realistic ambition.”
Going to college in that last recession, though, Colm felt bound to choose a more sensible option.
“Back then you did not contemplate what you wanted to do. It was ‘which course will guarantee you a job.’ If I had studied English Literature or Music, my parents would not have let me go at all!
“I chose pharmacy because it was gilt edged. A job was a guarantee. And it’s been good. It’s reasonably well paid and you can work whatever hours you choose. I worked in Dublin for years; then we built on a site on the farm. Now we live in County Clare in bungalow bliss.”
It’s apt that, with four children under seven, Colm’s luck should change with a story he wrote about contraception.
“A man’s wife wants him to get a vasectomy. In that story the writing went up a gear. There was more blood in it. It was better.
“My book, 40 Fights Between Husbands and Wives, was conceived at that moment,” he says. “It came from my desire to see marriage from every angle. I’d think of every reason to have a row and would set stories through time, through history and in other countries. I would play with the idea in every way.”
The result is a wonderfully diverse collection of stories, vignettes and ideas told with humour, but with enormous insight too.
“It’s based on the idea that marriage is a good thing. That most people aspire to be with someone, but that, despite all the hundreds of things a couple agrees on, there are going to be two, or ten things that are wrong.”
The stories with a twist in the tale are particularly engaging. Stories like The Flatmate who knew too much; and When you’re in love with a pregnant woman, it’s hard. If I’d thrown the baby half a second earlier had resonance for me, too.
“Has it ever happened? Certainly something similar has,” laughs Colm. “You have to be lucky, as parents to get children through childhood at all. There are bound to be times when the terrible could have happened. You have to have been lucky that it didn’t.”
Colm’s favourite story is a poignant one. Our Last Night Alone, lying in bed together tells of a farmer’s wife who is soon to be admitted to a hospice. Her husband is in denial, and she can’t bring herself to ask him for what she craves.
Many of the stories explore jealousy. And focus on how much couples should, or should not tell each other.
“One of the modern delusions is that honesty is an ultimate good,” muses Colm. “But A lot of things are better left unsaid. You would drive yourself mad if you thought about everything that has happened in the past. It’s unbearable. You just can’t dwell on it. You want to be honest, but within reason.”
Colm enjoyed writing the collection; finishing it in 9 months in 2006, despite the interruptions that fatherhood brings.
“There would be weeks that I didn’t write at all,” he says. “Like the two weeks when they shut the crèche.”
He sent a segment of the manuscript to Irish Agents and publishers, but the rejections started to dribble in. After six months an agent, and Penguin Ireland asked for more. And eight months after that Penguin rang asking Colm to go in and see them.
“That was the best moment,” he says. “They gave me a two book deal. The second, which is in the can, is in the same format. The working title is 40 altercations amongst blood relations.”
In the 14 months it took the published to get back to him, Colm hadn’t been idle. He’d written an album; and a hilarious music video to promote his book. (Check it out on his website- www.colmliddy.com)
“And I wrote another novel,” says Colm. “It’s set in a chemist shop that has been modernised. It’s about what happens when an old shop has been transformed. Pharmacies, now, are about spreadsheets, targets and a think called link selling.” It hasn’t, as yet, found a publisher.
Success though, for Colm, is sweet.
“All along the aim has been to get a book with your name on it in a bookshop,” he says. “I have dreamed about it for so long that for 24 hours after I got the news I was destabilised. And Niamh is certainly happy. She has had to wait, patiently while her husband was writing a load of stuff.”
His children, though, are less than impressed.
“My sister said to my daughter, who is 7, ‘isn’t it amazing that your dad has written a book?’ And she said, ‘but when you go into a bookshop there are hundreds of books.’ To her, it just isn’t a big deal.”
Colm isn’t daunted by the publicity. This is his second interview; his second in two hours, and he sits opposite me in the Fitzwilliam Hotel looking perfectly relaxed.
He is now waiting anxiously for some reader reaction.
“I hope they will be entertained by it,” he says. “I hope they will say, ‘it was unflinching in parts but there was enough light heartedness.’ I hope they will say that they laughed.”
40 Fights Between Husbands and Wives by Colm Liddy is published by Penguin Ireland at 12.99 euro. For more information www.colmliddy.com
Copyright. Sue Leonard. 2009. Ends.