This coming Tuesday, I’m doing a talk and a reading for a local active retirement group. I’ll be telling them where the idea for my novel, The Pink Cage, came from. And I will tell them it all began in a cottage in Co. Clare, Ireland. A white stone cottage, with a hob by the fire.
Where Stories Begin
I arrived there fresh from a Masters in Journalism which hadn’t proved quite the golden career ticket I’d originally imagined. I’d dutifully sent out my CVs and Cormac McConnell, an old-school journalist, was one of the few to reply. He was Head of News at a local radio station and invited me down for a week’s trial. When I asked what accommodation was available, he told me I could stay with himself and his wife, at the aforementioned cottage.
Cormac met me at the bus station, a glorious stereotype of a journalist: white beard, cigarette in hand, coffee at the ready. In true journalistic style, he shot straight from the hip. Within minutes, he told me he couldn’t give me a job, because he needed someone who could see well enough to chase ambulances around the back roads of Co. Clare. But during that week, he taught me how to tell my own story and I still think of that week as one of the greatest in my life.
As a seasoned journalist, Cormac had a keen eye for an angle. Over chats by the roaring fire and cups of ‘sleepy tea,’ we explored the angles my own life offered for stories. It turned out that my poor eyesight, the thing that had prevented me from getting the job, yielded a rich seam of ideas that I could mine. My family’s links with the countryside and country sports could also prove fruitful.
During the day, I went with Cormac to the radio station, which I helped the news team gather stories. Cormac’s style of journalism is folksy, rooted in the countryside and local stories. He had a programme where local people could ring and tell him whatever was in their heads. He was an empathic host, skilled at getting them to open up.
On my last day, a man rang in with some trifling complaint about traffic. In the course of his chat, he let slip that he was a cycling postman. Cormac seized on this gem and tapped into a story about a way of life that’s now almost extinct. The man’s father had been a cycling postman and his grandfather had been a walking postman. The man painted a vivid portrait of men braving all weathers to bring people a link to the outside world. That was when I felt the true power of story: simple, beautiful, eloquent.
The Story Goes On
In the coming years, I panned the mine of ideas Cormac had helped me tap into. I wrote about assistive technology for people with disabilities, skiing trips, the Countryside Alliance, Macra na Feirme and research into eye conditions. But I found that journalism didn’t quite give me the freedom I needed to say the things I wanted to say about what it’s like to be visually impaired. As the bottom began to fall out of feature writing, the novel began to take shape. When it was published, I made sure to send Cormac a copy.