The Boy They Tried to Hide
I have just sent the manuscript of my latest book, The Boy They Tried to Hide, to Hachette, my new publishers. I’m really happy with it. Books take on a character all of their own as you write them – sometimes this can be surprising (how did it turn out like that?) other times the finished product is exactly as you envisioned it would be. Boy has been a bit more of the former. I knew the story I wanted to write, but it did take some unusual turns in the telling, and has grown into something new and special. I’ll let you, dear Reader, decide what you think of it when it hits shelves next February.
The Boy They Tried to Hide is, inherently, about how life is circular, how patterns of behaviour, things we thought were gone and events that happened in the past, can often come back to haunt us. It is also about remaining true to what you believe in, and how no one should ever be given up on.
This is the blurb:
As Shane settles into the rural idyll that is his new life a storm is gathering:
Rex Gifford, a predator Shane faced several years ago, has just been released from prison and mysteriously appears living near Shane’s new home. He seems to be falling back into his old ways, and Shane begins to wonder if he might be seeking revenge on a world he feels has wronged him. As Gifford’s tactics become more frightening, and the police tell him that without evidence (which Gifford is far too clever to ever leave), they cannot help, Shane realises he may need to resort to fighting fire with fire – but is that what his adversary really wants?
Meanwhile Maura Bellamy, a friend of Shane’s, asks him to investigate the death of a former student of hers, Tim Fox, who was sent to one of Ireland’s toughest prisons due to the seemingly frivolous crime of unpaid parking tickets. A gentle young man with an intellectual disability, Maura believes he did not pay the fines due to his illiteracy – he could not read the letters demanding payment, and ultimately summoning him to court. Shane knows some people who work in the prison system, but warns Maura that she may not like what she learns. As he begins to explore the world Tim was plunged into, he discovers that everything is far from what it seems.
And then there is Gregory, a little boy whose imaginary friend, Thomas, whom he tells his single mother lives in the woods around their little house, has started to become terrifyingly real. As Shane befriends the family, he finds that Thomas seems to have sprung from a local ghost story, an old tale of incest and madness. And Thomas wants Gregory to go and play with him at night, out among the trees. Shane starts to wonder if he is in a battle save not just the sanity of this little boy, but possibly his soul as well.
The Boy They Tried to Hide continues Shane Dunphy’s memoirs of his life at the coalface of child protection. It is his ninth book.
Keep an eye out for it, and please do let me know what you think.
Wednesdays Child – How it all began…
Wednesday’s Child was not a planned event in my life. I had been working on a PhD thesis, for which I wrote a series of case studies to back up the points I was making in my sections on theory. The thesis was all about how children experienced their time in care, and was based on experiences I had at various stages of my career – they did not run concurrently at all. My academic supervisor, a lovely man named Dr Arthur Williamson who worked in the University of Belfast, suggested the case studies probably warranted publication in their own right, as he felt they perhaps said more about what I was trying to articulate than my theoretical ramblings. I decided to give this a go, and spent one Sunday afternoon putting them into a more accessible format by weaving them into a single narrative. The work I did that afternoon formed what was to become the first two chapters of Wednesday’s Child. I thought they read well, and sent them to a literary agent in a well-known firm.
Two weeks to the day after I posted them I received a letter from the agency. It was short and to the point, and the gentleman who wrote it stated that he could not imagine anyone ever wanting to read the material I had sent, and asked me to please not contact him again.
I suppose I should have been offended, but I don’t remember being particularly bothered by the experience. I mentally shrugged and got on with writing the thesis.
My birthday rolls around in January, and that year (2006, I think it was) my wife bought me a book called Tales in a Rearview Mirror, by Donal Ruane. It’s a humorous account of his time driving a taxi cab in Dublin. In his acknowledgements, he particularly thanked his publishers, the Irish publishing house Gill and MacMillan, and talked about how supportive they had been and how they had helped him through the difficult stages of getting the book off the ground. This set me thinking again.
Rather than just send the manuscript in on spec this time, I figured I would see if there was any point in wasting their time (and mine), so I picked up the phone and rang Gill and MacMillan’s offices. I was put through to an amazing woman named Alison Walsh, and spent a few minutes talking her through my idea for the book. She suggested I send it on.
Back then, I didn’t even have the internet at home, so the following day I went to an internet cafe in Wexford, where I now live, and emailed my few chapters to Alison, after which (not thinking I would hear back from here for several weeks, if not months) my wife and I did a bit of shopping and went for lunch. Two hours after I sent the email,while we were sitting down in a cafe to eat, I got a call from Alison, asking me if I minded her showing the book to one of the other editors. I said that I would be delighted for her to do so.
A week later Alison called again, saying that Gill would like to make an offer on the book, and could I come to Dublin to meet her for a chat. I did, and they bought Wednesday’s Child there and then. Suddenly I had a publishing contract.
Okay, let me conclude my “how I got published” story with a disclaimer!
Everything I have just described is absolutely the wrong way to go about getting your book in print. I now know that it never happens like that. I just got lucky. Of all the books that get sent to publishers without agency representation, only about 1% ever get picked up – I went looking for a literary agent (I am represented by the redoubtable Jonathan Williams) after I got the deal, which is completely back to front. But there you go, I tend to do things in a topsy-turvy manner. The accepted wisdom for getting published is to send the first three chapters of your work, with an outline of how the rest of it goes, to a reputable literary agent, who will then tout it around to the appropriate publisher for the genre you are writing.
Anyway, back to the story.
Wednesday’s Child is about the everyday graft of working in child protection. It deals with the kinds of cases social care workers experience on a daily basis. The stories I tell are so familiar to those working in the area that I was, in fact, contacted by one social worker who lives in a part of the country I have never even visited – a woman I had never met – who wanted to know why I had stolen her stories! It was easily resolved by my publishers, but it summed up how real and true the stories are.
Wednesday’s Child is my firstborn. It is rough and ready and I hadn’t quite found my style yet. In places it rambles and goes off on tangents. If I were to write it again I would cut some passages completely, as they do not serve the plot at all. Yet it is the book people seem to remember, and I am regularly told it is people’s favourite of all the titles.
And I do love it. It started this crazy whirlwind that is still bringing me to new and interesting places and putting me in touch with amazing people. I would not be writing a blog right now if it hadn’t been for this little book! And God knows, it struck a chord. Within a couple of weeks of publication it went to number one on the Irish non-fiction lists. I was on TV, on national radio, asked to write for the newspapers. In short, it changed my life completely.
Ethics – I get asked about them a lot. Am I not breaching confidentiality with the stories I tell? How fine a line do I walk between reality and fiction? They are fair questions.
In terms of the confidentiality issue, I change details likes names (obviously) family details and locations. Remember, the two or three stories I tell in each book as if they are happening together did not actually occur at the same time, so the narrative I create gives a different aspect to events, making them almost impossible to recognise. Everything I describe did happen, I just hang some window dressing on it to enable me to tell the story while keeping the subjects of that story anonymous.
I also do my best to get permission. I always try to contact those featured in the books, and have gotten their blessing in most cases. Where I haven’t it is because they are no longer living or have been impossible to track down. For Wednesday’s Child, for example, I could not trace Connie, and we considered not putting her story in at all. The lawyers went through it with a fine-toothed comb, and decided it was okay. A month after publication I received an email one day: it was from Connie and contained two lines: Thank you for telling my story. It means a lot that you cared enough to do that. For once, the lawyers were right!
Some critics have said books like this should not be written, as they belittle the children and their families, or appeal only to voyeurs or those wishing to exploit the unhappiness of others. Only recently I was accused by someone of making money from the misery of those less fortunate than myself.
Obviously, I disagree.
My books have, I feel, shone a light on the struggles, victories, challenges and day-to-day tribulations of people who work in child protection and the children and families who are forced to endure its attentions. There are no good guys or bad guys – sometimes the system works, and sometime it doesn’t. There are not always happy endings, and sometimes the children are much worse off for my having gotten involved. I make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, and I try to own up to that as much as I can. I always do my best to show that the efforts of children and families within the system are heroic, and where failure occurs, it is down to an ineffective system not the lack of determination on the part of the people involved. I don’t, and never have, believed my books focus on human failure – they are, if anything, celebrations of the human spirit.
Misery Lit, anyone?
I’ll address this issue now. People call the genre of book I write ‘misery lit’. It’s a title I hate, but it is one I have become resigned to. My friend, the author John Connolly, was in Edinburgh once on a book tour, and he texted me intermittently as he went about the city, letting me know what sections in the bookshops he visited my titles were filed under (he has a dark sense of humour, does John). My books sat under headings like Miserable Childhoods; Hard Lives; Dark Memoirs; Pop Psychology; Alternative Lifestyles (not sure what that one is insinuating) and Misery Biogs. Looking at some of those suggestions, I can live with misery lit. I know some of my books are pretty dark, but I try to inject a bit of humour into the stories as I go along, and I work hard not to dwell on intimate details of abuse, but I can accept that what I do is not for everyone.
Last Ditch House/Crying in the Dark
Okay, for those who don’t know, these are both the same book. Personally, I love the name Last Ditch House (my wife loathed it) but when Penguin picked up the books, they felt it did not adequately describe the contents of the story, and wanted something more… misery lit, I suppose. So my friend Marian Roche suggested Crying in the Dark. Some people, and I apologise if you are one of them, bought both titles, thinking they were ordering different books. That annoyed the hell out of me, because I had been promised by my publishers that it couldn’t happen. But there you go.
For my difficult second publication I wanted to do something very different to the first. There had been a number of cases I had worked that were unusual, strange – out of the ordinary. These formed the basis of LDH (I’m going to use abbreviations for the titles of the books from now on, so beware). I also wanted to move the setting to an urban environment, to show how different social care work in a city milieu.
The main difference for me between writing LDH and writing WC was that my first book was completed at breakneck speed over the summer of 2006 (once that contract was signed, I had the responsibility of actually writing the damn thing, and it had to be done rapidly to meet a deadline). For my second, I had a year to play around with, which meant I had the luxury of being able to rewrite sections until I had them the way I wanted. I worked hard on getting the atmosphere right, in particular. There are passages in LDH that are my favourites in all the books. I love the whole Sylvie section, probably because she was so dear to me. Mina’s story, too, is a highlight. The whole passage near the end of the book in that house of horrors… I loved writing it.
Of all the kids I’ve worked with, a few keep in touch – most don’t. One or two I run into occasionally, primarily because they now work in social care themselves (you’d be amazed how many social carers have been through the system themselves). Sylvie is one of those. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years, now, but we do cross paths from time to time, and she is always a joy to meet. Not bitter or resentful about her past, just delighted to meet every day as it comes.
Of all my titles, LDH has been the slowest burner. It reached number 2 for one week in the Irish bestseller listings, and then dropped away. It got a second lease of life a few years ago and started to sell again for some unknown reason. I’m glad, as the stories deserve to be heard, I think.
Just don’t buy two copies by accident!
Hush Little Baby
After LDH I signed a three book deal with both Gill in Ireland and Penguin in the UK, and planned a trilogy of books, each of which would deal with a separate theme. So Hush Little Baby was about family. I think it has a really strong opening (that Section 12 in the halting site) and I love the story of Katie, which I use most years as a case study with my students.
I received some criticism for continuing the story of Larry and Francey and their Mum and Dad (which began in LDH), but I felt the story wasn’t finished, and I wanted to see how exploring a case over two titles would work. I think it worked well, and I carried the idea to its fullest extent with the story of Lonnie later on, which ran over three books.
HLB has been, I would say, one of my most popular books. It’s certainly one people ask me about a lot. I think it has a nice flow to it, and the story of Patrick and my taking him in (which happened pretty much as I describe) is one a lot of people comment on, as I suppose it’s something everyone asks of those of us who work with children: don’t you ever want to take them home? Well, actually, on one occasion, I did!
Patrick and Katie are kids I keep track of, and both are doing very well. I haven’t spoken to them in a long time, but others who still work in the field tell me they are getting on extremely well – Patrick went on to college and now works in finance, and Katie in catering. That makes me very happy.
The Boy in the Cupboard
I set out to write about Edgar – the theme I wanted to address was the fact that, in social care, you will sometimes come across kids you just don’t gel with. I had a mind to explore how a trained social care worker deals with that and the feelings it brings up. This, though, was one of those books that took on a life of its own and went in ways that totally blind-sided me. It wrote itself (kind of) and I am still amazed how it contains hues and perspectives that I never planned. Melanie Moorehouse (obviously not her real name) was a dear friend of mine – we’re still in touch, though no longer have the relationship we once did – and getting her story told, particularly the bravery she showed in the face of such trauma was something of which I am very proud. At the end of the day, those of us who work in social care are human beings and we have to go in and do what we do despite the fact that we have lives to live and personal challenges to face. I wanted very much to reflect that.
I was delighted when Edgar’s story was serialised in one of the national papers, and a cartoonist did a lovely sketch of him with Oliver Plunkett’s head (if you haven’t read the book this will make no sense to you at all – apologies). It was morbid, but tickled me, nonetheless.
Like I say in the book, years after the fact, I ran into a social care worker who happened to be working with Edgar, and had bonded with him really well. I think she just might have been able to turn him around. I can only say that her skill and dedication must have been really special, because countless others who tried (myself included) failed dismally. Edgar wasn’t a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination – he was just a little boy who had gotten severely hurt along the way. I am really glad someone found out how to break down those walls.
Will Mummy be Coming Back for Me?
Let’s get the name out of the way, first: I hate it. It was actually meant as a joke. A game my daughter and I used to play was to try and come up with the most horrific titles possible for a misery lit book (there have been some awful ones out there, let’s face it). Marnie, my daughter, was particularly talented at dreaming up titles like (and please don’t be offended by these – she is, after all, a teenager) Please Hide the Booze before Mammy Gets Home or I was Daddy’s Favourite Punch Bag, Want to Take a Shot? WMBCBFM was actually one of Marnie’s. I suggested it as a joke when the issue of a name for my next book came up, and to my horror Patricia Deevy at Penguin loved it. In fact, she encouraged me to try and come up with similar titles for later books, but I couldn’t. This one still makes me cringe!
That said, WMBCBFM is, I think, one of the best written of all my books, although it is the one I liked least on completion (I thought it wast the most unrelentingly miserable of all my books so far) and I struggled to complete it. I set out to tell the story of just one child, and to trace his tale from when I worked with him as a very young child, and then when I encountered him again later as a teenager who has gone badly off the rails. The book is about continuity of care, how kids who are in the system over the long term can often be badly failed by having a stream of different workers, none of whom really get to know them.
I sent WMBCBFM in for publication and did not think of it again for a couple of years. I was hugely surprised when it sold well (it went to number 5 on the London Times Non-Fiction list for a week) but I did not revisit it myself until I was looking for a book to use as a reader for a class I was doing on developmental psychology. I took it out, started flicking through it, and discovered something I hadn’t spotted before – WMBCBFM tells its story directly and vividly without wasting one word. Somehow, without knowing it, I found my voice in this book. For that reason, I now love it.
In WMBCBFM I examine the notion of who we should work with in social care. Jason is not nice, not a sympathetic character. Yet he is still a child, albeit a very damaged and abusive one. Does he deserve the time and effort I put into him? You will have to decide.
A very big deal for me with WMBCBFM was that Torey Hayden, my absolute hero and idol, agreed to give a jacket quote for the book, which was a huge thrill. A heart-warming reminder of the endurance of the human spirit she said. That was pretty cool.
Torey is the person I credit time and again with getting me in to social care in the first place when I was a teenager. My mother came across her masterpiece One Child (which was published under the title Lovey at the time) in the library in Wexford, and suggested I give it a go. I could not put it down, and knew then and there that this was the work I wanted to do. It was a watershed moment in my life, and I have never looked back. In fact, if you haven’t read it yourself, stop reading this blog immediately and go and get a copy somewhere, because it is a must-read in the genre – a solid gold classic.
Reading One Child was such a vivid experience. I recall finishing it and going back to the beginning and starting all over again, but this time with a pen and paper – what could I learn, what tricks might I carry forward? I still use a lot of the ideas I did glean from One Child – the Kobold’s Box is one I’ve written about several times (I think I name-tag it in The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile). Thanks Torey.
Little Boy Lost
The shortest of all my books in terms of word count. Lonnie Whitmore makes his first appearance, which makes it important for later titles. LBL deals with the idea of starting over, of rebirth. There is a lot of music in it, there is a lot of humour. It is a colourful book, I think, and Dominic, the central character, is one I love dearly and a person who was very close to my heart. His parents were delighted to give me permission to write the book, and I hope it gave them some comfort to see him immortalised like this. Annie, too, was someone I had wanted to write about for a long time, as was Max, whom I still encounter regularly.
There are some places that leave their mark, and some bosses who manage to show you how management should be done. Tristan Fowler was one of those bosses, and Drumlin one of those places. I still try and run my classes and cases as I imagine he would, and I keep in touch with Drumlin (a lot of the clients I worked with and write about in LBL are still there) as much as I can, which is never enough! Tristan has retired now and is travelling the world. I wish him luck – he was a real mentor for me, and I miss him daily.
The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile
I wanted to write a book in which no one gets raped or abused, and I also wanted to tell the story of my relationship with early years work, and this book is a love story to the people who run creches and pre-schools. If I were ever to go back and do social care full time, I would want to do it in a creche – I just love what that work involves. This book was a great success, and received some very kind comments from people who work with kids – they recognised the truth in it, the way the kids talk, the little victories. TGHCS features stories I had been telling for years when I gave talks or to illustrate a point in class – the giant map, the living crib, the scraggly Christmas Tree, the child in the lake… they all found a home here. And Lonnie is there, as large as life, too. I adored writing the Christmas section of the book – like I say in it, I am an absolute nut when Christmas comes around, and I got to indulge that here. Tammy and Milandra are the main stories, but I got a great kick out of the other kids too, all of whom seemed to jump off the page as I wrote them. And somehow Beatrix Potter became a character in the text – books can sometimes be like that – The Tale of Samuel Whiskers was the first book that ever scared me as a child, the idea that Tom Kitten could be in his house, trapped inside the walls, rolled up in dough and about to be eaten – inches away from his mother, but beyond help! Scary stuff!
The Girl From Yesterday.
I sat down with Andreas, my editor at Constable and Robinson, and talked about what direction we wanted to go in the next book. I had not worked in social care full time for a few years at this stage, but was still involved as a journalist and consultant and we wanted to explore how that worked. We discussed my writing a book that deals with a child protection case from the outside looking in, a case where I do not have the weight of social services behind me, and where I cannot just knock on the door and demand to be allowed access. We also wanted to increase the mystery element – to really weave a plot, go deeper. A review of Wednesday’s Child in one of the national papers had said it was a non-fiction book that read like a thriller, so I thought we might experiment with developing that aspect further. I knew right away which case I would recount, and I knew I wanted to write about Lonnie’s death, too, which had affected me very profoundly.
TGFY is a more complex book because of all that. I try to retain the sparse prose and the shorter chapters I have been developing over the past few titles, but there are layers to this book that had been missing from some of the previous entries in the canon.
I think this is the most emotionally layered of all the books – it is one that I still find hard to read back, as it genuinely causes me to become upset. But of all the books so far, it is my favourite, narrowly beating LDH to first place. That is down to Lonnie, who, despite being dead from the first page, is an important character throughout, and of course little Emma, who was such a live wire.
People often ask which order the books should be read in, and the honest answer is that it doesn’t really matter. You should be able to pluck any of them off the shelf and read and understand them without any reference to the others. I try pretty hard to write each one with enough explanation of time, place and what has gone before so that you can just get stuck in and start reading without any problems.
However, obviously, the ideal is to read from WC right through to The Ghost Boy in order (as laid out in this blog) – they follow a loose chronological pattern, and there are occasional references to the past and previous character arcs, particularly with people like Lonnie, Devereux and even George Taylor that you can appreciate if you read them that way.
If you can’t do that, and I’m aware people tend to discover them out of synch and then try to seek out the others, there is a series of story cycles within the books that run a like this:
Wednesday’s Child and Last Ditch House/Crying in the Dark can be read as a pair – they deal with me experiencing the terrible loss of Gillian at the end of WC, fleeing to the city, getting recruited by the folks at the Dunleavy Trust and coming to terms with that loss by helping Sylvie and Mina. At the end of the book I’m ready to get back into social care and the challenges it entails. Stylistically these two books are very similar, if different in tone.
Hush Little Baby, The Boy in the Cupboard and Will Mummy Be Coming Back for Me deal with my time at Dunleavy Trust and how the work there finally burns me out, and damages my sense of trust and relationship with myself, not to mention my faith in my abilities to make correct decisions and do the work effectively. At the end of WMBCBFM I leave not just my job but the city and decide to make a fresh start in the country, doing something new. As a trilogy these books get progressively darker, ending with WMBCBFM which, as I have already said, is unremittingly dark, although it does roll along at a cracking pace.
Little Boy Lost and The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile deal with my time working with Tristan Fowler first in Drumlin Therapeutic Training Unit with adults with intellectual disabilities and then in Little Scamps Creche, with children with behavioural problems (I think of them as the ‘day-care’ books). They are much lighter in mood than the previous three, a reflection of how much happier personally I was when I was working in those settings, while making part of my living playing music and part teaching college, and living a very simple rural life.
The Girl From Yesterday and The Boy They Tried to Hide deal with my life after Lonnie’s death and my decision to flee my life (again) and leave social care behind. They deal with child protection from the outside and are more mystery/thriller in structure, but deal with the same issues and are very much a part of the series and a progression from what has come before.
Keep on Reading
I have no idea where the books are going – as long as people seem to want to read them, I’ll keep writing. A question I have been asked is will I ever return to full time social care, and thus will the books go back to my being a professional child care worker, as I was in the first few titles. The answer is that I don’t see myself doing so just now, as I am currently teaching and dabbling in politics. However, as I said, I do consult and I am always involved in something of a social care nature, so you never know.
I was also asked if I would consider writing a proper autobiography – and the answer to that, for the moment, anyway, is no. I feel the books give enough of a sense of who I am to keep everyone happy, though it is very flattering to be asked.
So keep on reading, and if you have any questions, comments, feedback or anything else, you know where to find me.