John MacKenna is the author of 16 books, short-story collections, memoir, biography and poetry. An accomplished playwright, Breathless, Redemption Song, Lucinda Sly, his novels include, The Space Between Us, The Last Fine Summer, Clare, and his latest work, Joseph. He is a winner of the Hennessy, Irish Times and Cecil Day Lewis awards and was nominated for the Irish Fiction Laureate award.
When did you first begin to write, John, and how long before you were first published?
I began writing in secondary school – encouraged by my brilliant and very open English teacher Ray Kearns. I had my first poem published in The Young Citizen magazine when I was 15 and that was such an exciting time….to see my name in print. While in secondary school I had three short plays staged – again with Ray Kearns’ encouragement. My first serious break came after Blackstaff Books had taken individual stories for collections. Then they took my short-story collection The Fallen. That was the breakthrough for me. That book won the Irish Times award and, from not being able to get an agent, I had approaches from four agents.
Speaking of agents, do you have one, and do you think it necessary for a writer to have one?
I do. I didn’t. Then I did. Then I didn’t. Now I do. I think it’s a great help in dealing with British publishers.
What’s your opinion of the current world of publishing?
Tending more and more towards “celebrity” (often ghost written) books and a very small and repetitive pool in Ireland.
Have you, or would you, consider self-publishing?
I did with my first two (non-fiction) books but not now.
Do you also contribute to the marketing and PR of your work, John?
I do….though it’s not something I’m mad about. I like writing and I like reading but the rest isn’t really something I can say I enjoy. I do it but not with any great enjoyment.
And your feelings on social media for authors ?
A necessary evil.
Did anyone [famous or not] inspire you to write?
Ray Kearns and D H Lawrence. The teacher and the writer whose work I loved.
Do you write every day?
When I’m working on a book I do. Normally ten to one and two to four and maybe a reread in the evening.
And your preferred genre?
I suppose it’s literary fiction and what draws me to it is the attempt to write quiet, well-written and short books.
How long does it take you to complete a book?
Probably two years from conception to last edit. Though with Things You Should Know it was ten years and the book I’m currently working on has been in the mix for almost ten years – though I’ve done other books in the meantime
What is your opinion on the importance [or not] of literary awards?
Potential food on the table.
If you’ve ever had any: How to you handle negative reviews?
Badly. In the sense that they stay in my head and make me doubt the value of the work.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write, write, write. Read and then write, write, write. And reread your work aloud and don’t send it out too soon. Oh, and never ask family/friends for opinions unless you value that opinion.
Is there a book by another writer that you wish you had written?
Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle – a short and beautiful novella.
Can you share with us what you are working on now?
A book of memoir about my brother who died ten years ago.
And finally, six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!
My wife, Angela; Raymond Carver; Judy Collins; Leonard Cohen; H E Bates and Robert Frost.
You can find some of John’s works here: http://newisland.ie/product-category/authors/authors-john-mackenna/