THE HIGHLY regarded Galway writer Alan McMonagle has just hit literary ‘paydirt’ as Picador has snapped up the rights to his debut novel, Ithaca, as well as its follow-up.
Paul Baggaley, publisher at Picador, enthused: “I am the constantly impressed by the remarkable quality of new writing coming from Ireland and the voice that has excited me most in recent times is that of Alan McMonagle’s Ithaca. Not since Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy have I fallen so in love with such a distinctly unreliable and hilariously imaginative child narrator, and I believe that Alan will become a major figure in the contemporary Irish fiction scene.”
An understandably chuffed McMonagle told me how he heard the news: “My agent Ivan Mulcahy rang me from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Friday morning two weeks ago to put me on standby. He said he wouldn’t usually call his authors but the publishing director at Picador had read the book, and made a strong connection with it, and they were intending to put in an offer, though they hadn’t formally done so at that point. So the weekend went by and then the offer came in on the Monday morning.”
McMonagle has authored two acclaimed collections of short stories, Liar Liar (Wordsonthestreet, 2008 ) and Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House 2013 ). It was a fateful trip to the Dromineer Literary Festival that planted the seeds for his debut novel.
“After Psychotic Episodes came out, I was invited to Dromineer in October 2013," he says. "There I met with Donal Ryan, Paul Lynch, and Julian Gough and they threw down the gauntlet to me. I had just read a short story whereas they all had novels to schlep around. I remember Paul Lynch saying ‘You have the chops Alan, come on! Have a go at the novel!’ So I came home from the festival, and decided I would get stuck in. Unbeknownst to me, Paul had sent a copy of Psychotic Episodes to his agent Ivan Mulcahy. Ivan later contacted me to say he loved the stories and would love to talk to me about writing a novel, which I was already a couple of months into at that stage.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever write a novel until the lads at the festival got their hooks into me. I was still in short story mode when I started. A short story is a very intense burst of writing whereas a novel is a longer accumulation and much slower. I finally sent Ivan a solid draft of the novel in October last year. He sat on it for a couple of months then, this January, after he and one of his editors had looked at it, I got this six-page, single-spaced email saying ‘We know you can write but….’ They gave me a general overview then a blow-by-blow, chapter-by-chapter analysis. I remember thinking 'One more big push should do it’ and I was at it every day during February. I sent Ivan the revised draft and he got back to me with a short and sweet email in June saying ‘I believe you’ve done it!’"
Ithaca unfolds in the summer of 2009 in an un-named Irish midlands town. Eleven-year-old Jason Lowry is preoccupied with thoughts of the Da he has never known. Meantime, his vodka-swilling, swings-from-the-hip mother, Jacinta, is busy entertaining her latest boyfriend and indulging her fondness for joyriding in the nearest available car.
Fed up with her antics, Jason strikes up a friendship with the girl who hangs out at The Swamp. Together, they conjure exotic adventure, heroic lifestyles, and a host of improbable 'mock-ups' of Jason's elusive Da. Fuelling her risk-taking nature, the girl goads, nudges, and prods Jason deeper into unsafe territory, until what began as innocent pretence soon threatens to tailspin into a netherworld of danger and very real harm. Treading a blurry line between helter-skelter comedy and quiet desperation, Ithaca is the darkly comic story of how far a lonely boy will go to secure his mother's love.
With its title deriving from the homeland of Odysseus, the novel has its share of allusions to Greek myth. “It’s probably closer to Jason and The Argonauts to be honest because it is a quest story,” McMonagle notes. “The guy thinks he is on a search for someone but he is very much trapped by his own personality and his surroundings. But he’s riffing off various Greek myths and he’s mixing and mangling them up so the title very much refers to that classical milieu.”
If there is one downside to McMonagle’s exciting news it is that we have to wait until spring 2017 for Ithaca to hit the shelves. “I only found that out myself on Friday,” he says with a laugh. “There are huge lead-in times to book publishing these days, you are just one of many authors on the list!”
One thing we can be sure of, Ithaca will be worth the wait.