My Publishing Journey
by Peter Cunningham
I remember clearly distinctly the excitement I felt when I first learned to read. I was four. My parents thought I was a genius as I stammered my way through one of my Noddy books by Enid Blyton. My father had a stepladder made for me on which I could perch and read aloud.
I became a voracious reader. Looking back on it now, I realize that reading novels is the way you learn to write. I have never known a writer who has not, at some stage, been a big reader.
I had an added advantage. Every day at lunchtime I cycled up through the streets of Waterford to my grandmother’s house where she cooked my lunch. Her children numbered thirteen—three girls and ten boys—all of them adults by that stage. Her deceased husband had been a buyer and exporter of pigs; many of his sons still continued in that trade. The men in the family were renowned for their storytelling. They often came home for lunch and, as they sat around, waiting for the women to serve them, they would tell stories about their trips around Ireland, buying and selling pigs, and of the characters they met along the way.
Just from listening to the stories, I learned about pace, about how you keep your audience in suspense, and how you control the flow of information in order to maintain interest in what you’re saying.
When I was about twelve I came across the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. They terrified me, but in a delicious sort of way. I was the eldest of five children and began making up Poe-like ghost stories with which to terrify my siblings. Soon, I began writing ghost stories and submitting them to a Dublin newspaper, The Evening Press, that had a weekly page devoted to this popular genre. To my amazement, one day I received a letter in the post confirming they would use one of my stories and enclosing a cheque for ten shillings (in today’s money nearly $50). I went into overdrive. Using pseudonyms and the addresses of cousins and friends, I submitted a blizzard of ghost stories to the Press. On one occasion, four stories appeared on the page and three of them were mine.
I wrote throughout my teens and into my university years. I wrote for college magazines, local newspapers and religious journals. I wrote reports of local sports events for national newspapers. The thing I learned in those days was that I could write, just as I imagine that someone who plays golf or the piano for a living discovers that they are able to do it. It never occurred to me that not very many people could do what I was doing. In university I won a short story competition with a story I had written when I was sixteen. The prize was five pounds. We partied till dawn.
Then it all seemed to stop. I did not want to work as a journalist, a decision I’m glad I took. But I needed to earn a living and so I began a variety of jobs to keep myself. I worked in New York, Paris, London and Dublin. I studied accountancy which was one way of always getting a job. I met my wife, we got married and had a lovely baby boy.
I kept reading and, occasionally, writing. If I didn’t write something creatively once a week, I missed it terribly. On a long holiday in Portugal, sitting beside the pool for a month with our tiny children, I wrote a short story set in New York, which I eventually sent to The Irish Press where the short story editor was a revered literary figure called David Marcus. He bought my story.
I still could not figure out how to become a published author: the day job kept getting in the way. Then one February, flying to Antigua, I read a thriller. It was called ‘Billionaire’ by Peter James. When I had finished it, I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’
In Antigua, on the first night, our room was burgled and our passports, money and airline tickets stolen. The police arrived next day and during the interview I asked the cop if he thought we’d ever retrieve our possessions. He rolled his eyes and looked out at the Caribbean. ‘I think they came by sea,’ he said.
Within five minutes of him walking out the door, I was at the table, writing in longhand the first words of my first book, a thriller, that would be called ‘Noble Lord’. It involves how a burglary in the Caribbean uncovers clues to an attempted assassination of the Queen.
It took me two years to write the novel. I found an agent in London and within six weeks, he had sold the book to HarperCollins. I couldn’t believe it. I was on my way.
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Genre – Historical Fiction/Historical Romance
Rating – G