Helen Seymour is the author of Beautiful Noise- a novel about a group of friends who embark on the setting up of a pirate radio station in 1970’s Dublin. Not only has her debut novel enjoyed much critical success, but the rights to it have also been snatched up by noted director John Moore. Seymour has attracted a lot of attention for her debut novel for several reasons- the most obvious of which is the way in which Beautiful Noise has been published. Having been offered a five-figure publishing deal from Harper Collins and working with their editorial team for over 8 months, Helen decided to self-publish. ‘I wanted to do it my way. That’s why I did it. When I worked in advertising I worked in it for 17 years. I was a director of my first company at 26 and between 26 and 34 I did three company setups, so I wasn’t afraid’- all of which has produced an exceptionally capable business woman who was not afraid of the process. Speaking to Publishing Ireland, she explained why she made this decision and why being in the driver’s seat was not as frightening to her as it might be to other people.
PI You have also established your own publishing company, Pencil Publishing. Was this part of the plan or a broader vision in terms of a move towards publishing other people’s books as well as your own?
HS You know what? It just happened that way. You do need the energy to do it. When I say I wouldn’t be up for doing it now I have just done it now but you need energy for it. This was easier though. With this it was purely and simply establishing a company to publish a book my way and put it out my way. There is no broader vision. If that happens it will be by default as opposed to design. My hope is that my agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor will go and sell the translation rights to the book and that we will get a distribution deal for Europe and the States other markets- that’s my hope. I’m a writer, not a publisher. I did it because I wasn’t happy about edits that were being suggested. I did it because I wanted to put a book out with my name on it that I was happy with. I did it because I’m stubborn. I’m not afraid. I’m really not afraid.
PI Why is that?
HS 26 jobs to print in a week? Doesn’t scare me. There’s no mystery in printing a book to me. I know the ins and outs of it. I mean, it’s not easy– it’s a pain in the arse in some respects. It’s your typesetting; it’s your proofreading and all of that. I did everything professionally- I paid a sub-editor to read it for semi-colons and all the rest and paid someone else to proofread it another way. I had done a very thorough edit- there were 55,000 words cut from the book.
PI That’s a big cut in terms of editing- how did that happen?
HS It is. When Marianne signed me first she said to me ‘you need to lose 30,000 words’ and so found me an independent editor who worked with me and we lost 30,000 words. Another person in the industry said to me that first time authors’ books are always traditionally too long and I thought ‘well I’ll be different’, but I was no different. I was just like everyone else. I did the same thing- it was way too long and Marianne said (and this is what all good agents do) ‘you need to change your title and lose 30,000 words. I can’t send it out to a publisher unless you do that’.
PI How did you react to that?
HS Do you know what? She is amazing and I’m a person who really has to respect another person’s intelligence and thinking and I can’t tell you how much I respect her. Coming from one person, I might have rejected but from Marianne, I said ‘absolutely, I’ll go do it.’ Even though for me it meant losing material I loved and that I didn’t want to let go but I actually got quite ruthless. I pulled stuff out from the middle and pulled it to the front, I took 30 pages and rewrote them in three, I pulled out whole storylines and wrote new ones in and actually the book was sharper and punchier for it. She saw my mettle and that I wasn’t afraid to do that.
She sent it out to publishers. Harper Collins put a very good deal on the table and we ran with them and got into another edit and lost another 25,000 words. Edits are not all about losing words, they’re about pairing away what’s not needed and letting the real work shine through but they’re also about looking at what’s right for the story and Harper Collins were great actually. I worked with one of their editors for about 8 months and did over 50 percent of their edits, but there were finer points within what they wanted to do that for me would have changed the book. It would have made the book into something that it wasn’t meant to be and I couldn’t have lived with that.
PI When it came to leaving Harper Collins, was there any one edit that broke the camel’s back or was it a cumulative process?
HS No there wasn’t any one thing. I did do over 50 percent of their edits so, say there were ten points- we were probably down to about four points that I couldn’t budge on. They were non-negotiable. They were deal-breakers. I would have been sick for the rest of my life looking at that book on the shelf. I tell you what I did with their edits- it got to a point where I went ‘ok, you’ve got to try everything they’re suggesting’, so I took a month out. A friend of mine was selling her house in Clontarf – all the furniture was gone so I got a portable table and chair and I went into that house everyday for a month and went through their edits with a fine tooth-comb upside down and back to front. There were suggestions in there like ‘take this storyline out’ and my initial reaction was ‘no’! So, I took the storyline out, looked at it and do you know what? they were actually right- everything that they suggested I tried. I looked at it and I thought about it and I reflected on it and I spent a focused month doing that and then I came back and I said ‘ok look- this is the book’. It took me three and a half years to write. None of this was knee-jerk reaction.
PI And so you parted ways?
HS I won’t say reluctantly but sadly, because I really liked their people. They are an incredible bunch of people but they had to be happy to put their name on it you know? Somebody puts their money down on the table- they have a stake in it. If they’re going to invest in it they have to be happy with it.
PI How instrumental Marianne to you on this journey?
HS Oh god hugely. She was so supportive when I said look I think I want to self-publish so I went away and thought about it. I actually thought oh god is she going to drop me as a client? Because she had done her job. She put the deal on the table and it was a bloody good deal. But she said ‘look I really believe in your writing and really believe in this book and I’ll give you whatever support I can’. That was huge because when I was going to the likes of Easons and Argosy and doing my trade deals and negotiations – just to be able to say Marianne Gunn O’Connor is my agent is a huge calling card. That’s a vote of confidence- just with her name behind you – that’s all you need. I wanted her as my agent from the beginning because she’s the biggest and the best- forget about Ireland; she is one of the best in the world. Actually, when the chips were down she was just a bloody good friend. She was rock solid and so supportive and so I really saw her mettle- she’s amazing.
PI Would you say that you are fairly unique in your situation in that your vast experience in print and advertising? Would you have embarked on this route had you not had had that behind you?
HS Probably not. I was in advertising for 17 years and this is where part of it comes from. First of all I am a very strong-minded person- very strong-minded and a person who really goes on gut feeling. I had a very strong gut feeling where this book was concerned. Any time I’ve gone against my gut I’ve regretted it. I’m also a 44-year old woman. If I was a 22 year-old girl writing the book and my publisher came along with the deal I probably would have been completely guided but that 17 years of presenting creative work to clients who will often change it- I’m very well-used to having my creative thinking challenged and having someone actually take the control away from me.
I analysed this a lot and reflected on this as it was happening and after it happened. To give you an example, let’s say a client like Vodafone or Coca-Cola came into the agency and they give you a creative brief for a big campaign. Three creative teams will be put on it and they will all come back with very different responses. The client will ultimately pick one and it’s the clients’ decision. Before you even get a chance to present your work to the client, there is an internal presentation. An internal presentation is like swimming with sharks. Get ready to get eaten ‘cause you will be savaged!! What happens is that over the years you get really good at second-guessing these decisions and thinking things through properly. The way that I approached writing this book was that every single word I wrote had been thought about considered. That’s naturally the way I am and have been trained.
I was also used to watching creatively brilliant work becoming handicapped. But the clients have to sign off on it and go back to their board. I think a lot of first-time writers when they go to a publisher- any publisher, when the editor comes along and says well this is what we have to change- I think a lot of writers just go…ok. I’m used to having a good creative debate. I’m used to being challenged on my creative thinking and I’m used to challenging back. I think they were probably surprised at that.
Do you know I talked to another writer and her brother had brought out a book about 2 or 3 years ago and he wrote the book and he got a two book deal and the publisher said to him you need to completely change it. You need to make the writing more feminine (this was a man!) and he did everything that they told him to do. There were a couple of things that he had reservations on but they kept saying that this is what we need to do to get it into Tesco’s – we have to do it to get it into Tesco’s. They didn’t get it into Tesco’s. They sold 200 copies and they said to him well….it wasn’t really that great a book anyway was it? They basically sad to him that it was ‘your book’s fault’.
PI Did you find the editing process painful?
HS I would hate to be an editor- I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. And yet the good editors are brilliant- some of the points that Harper Collins made to me, now that I’ve done them I think- ‘god they were so right’ and I genuinely thank them for that. Would I have done it differently 20 years ago? Maybe I would have. Those people I worked with ultimately had to report to a board. They know what that board want. They know what the vision for the company is. Let’s say someone on the greater board read it and said ‘ that’s not a Harper Collins book’ and ‘who signed off on this?’ That’s the editor’s job on the line. I totally get that but Helen Seymour also had to sign off on it! I compromised a lot of things in business, but when it came to my first book-my first novel, I wasn’t going to.
PI You have received some extremely positive endorsements from other writers such as Roddy Doyle and Eoin Colfer- both of whom are highly respected and renowned. Would it be fair to say that this positive feedback contributed to your confidence?
HS Of course! I’d given it to Eoin Colfer to read and he came back and said ‘Helen I love it. I absolutely love it- it’s taken me back to my childhood.’ He said that the edit was really tight so when I heard that from a writer who is as credible and established as he is, that was a little thumbs up to say ‘Helen, the edits are actually ok’.
PI You also gave your unpublished manuscript to both Bono, with whom are good friends. Were you nervous giving it to him?
HS I was very nervous because he was my friend and he had been my friend for a long time. But also he’s Bono. He’s an amazing and talented person within his own right. I thought well, yeah we’ll just see and if he doesn’t like it he doesn’t. you know?I did say that giving it to him. I said look be honest with me and if you don’t like it you can tell me. I was by the way equally nervous about giving it to Roddy Doyle who is one of my all time heroes. He said to me ‘you know the deal’ and I did because Stephen King in his book on writing says just remember when you give your book to a writer in the hope that they’re going to give you a quote- if they don’t like it, they’re not going to give you a quote. So when I gave it to him he said ‘unless I can really gush about it I can’t give you the quote.’ I said ‘I totally understand that 110 %. So I was very nervous about giving to him and giving it to Bono but in two very different ways. I couldn’t move until I heard something and when I got the positive feedback I was over the moon and so happy. That in itself was just the biggest vote of confidence.
PI Tell me about your cover and Tesco’s.
HS I’ve so many writer friends and they all say ‘if I hear my publisher say to me again “we have to get it into Tesco’s”’ I don’t want my book in Tesco’s. Part of me does obviously of course- you want the sales, you want the money but not at big a compromise. Conversations like that made me think I don’t want to be sitting here this time next year with a book on the shelf that isn’t my book or that has a cover that has nothing to do with the story. I got the cover I wanted which was very important to me.
PI Congratulations on the film rights having been sold. I hear you have been allowed to write the screenplay. Was this something that you insisted upon in terms of stipulations or was it more of a happy bonus?
HS I had always wanted to write a screenplay. I had done screenwriting courses in New York and London and LA as I was writing the book because they are very good for character development. Most writers don’t want it. Marianne said to me ‘do you know what? None of my writers are really interested in writing the screenplay themselves. They’re novelists and they just want to be novelists.’ I want to write for film, for television and for theatre in the end.
I knew John; I used to make TV commercials with him in the nineties so we already had a relationship. He went to America about 12 years ago and like all Irish people he came home at Christmas and I bumped into him and he said ‘what are you writing?’ As soon as he heard ‘pirate radio’ he was like ‘I want to read that’. I gave it to him and as he was fifty pages in he said ‘I want to option this’. I knew that once production started that I may get shifted to one side but I said to him ‘look, just give me a crack at writing the early drafts’. To my surprise he said ok.
PI You also have the support of the Irish Film Board. Does this provide an extra label of support internationally?
HS It’s a cache. It’s a little badge of endorsement. When he goes to tour it at the film festival at Sundance, Toronto or wherever, he gets to say ‘backed by the Irish Film Board’. He gave them one of the earlier manuscripts (not the version you have in your hand now) and they loved it so they paid me to write the screenplay.
PI So you are back once again in the driver’s seat?
HS Yeah I know I’m a control freak. That was a huge challenge. Writing a novel is like learning how to play the piano and writing a screenplay is like learning how to play the guitar. Just ’cause you love music – it’s not a qualification!
PI Why Pirate Radio in particular? Was it more romantic a subject than another aspect of music?
HS When I was growing up I was sent to my room to study like most teenagers. There were no mobiles, no internet so it was just you and the four walls. My mother used to iron in my bedroom because the sun came into that room in the morning. She had a radio up there and it was a really big, old-fashioned radio with a dial. There was on digital radio- there was no push buttons even. You had to wind the dial up and down and I used to just walk around my room trying to get different stations. I found so many pirate radio stations and they were just such incredible worlds inhabited by some really interesting people. Then the super pirate stations like Sunshine and Nova were our source of entertainment. They brought us the music. Ironically (those were my teenage years) on my first day in advertising my boss said to me put on your coat- we’re going to RTE. We’ve just won the 2FM account. I never thought I would work in advertising and I never really had a huge fascination with radio but it was a very exciting time in radio then- the licenses had gone through, 2FM was set up and 98 and 104 were just launching. I was right there at the hub of it all. It’s funny – we all used to sit around and ask each other what our favourite medium was and they all said ‘TV, TV, TV!’ Radio was always my favourite medium. A radio was company. It’s an intimate relationship. Even though a DJ is broadcasting to millions of people it’s a one on one relationship. There is something very warm about radio.
PI I read somewhere that the real impetus from your writing came from the time that you came second in a Penguin Ireland essay competition- is this true? What was the essay about?
HS Second….NOT first….! It was a very very dark essay about a four-year old girl who gets run over by a car, written from her point of view. She was a little red robot- it was actually called the little red robot. She was pretending to be a robot. And it’s very happy, happy clappy and she’s talking to the flowers and the sun and the trees and bouncing along the road until there comes a big black car screaming towards her. It was dark but I know it was well-written. Life is darkness and light- I don’t want anything that’s sugar-coated. I loved that story – my arm was like it had an electric shock going through it as I wrote it. I never forgot the feeling of writing that story.