As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK”, Gavin O’Donnell shares what inspired him to write his new book, The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Gavin O’Donnell about his life and career, being inspired to write his new book, The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell, and his research process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m Gavin O’Donnell. I am of Irish descent; I grew up in Ireland for a while but I was born and am living in rural Wales. In May next I’ll have been married to Linda for 40 years. We have a grown son and daughter who live nearby and a 7-year-old grandson named Edward who was born on Christmas day in 2015.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I didn’t, at least not at first. To explain I will have to tell you a little about my past.
In 1985 I married Linda; we had a son later that year and we were blessed with a daughter 18 months after that. In 1990 we went on holiday to Bordeaux and unfortunately were involved in a fire which took our little girl and very badly injured our son, who, as a consequence, was in a coma for three months in a French Hospital. It happened on, of all days, Father’s Day.
Of course, our lives changed irrevocably but in spite of it, we have a good life and in 1994 we had another girl by way of IVF and mostly our lives were centred on the children, particularly our son, who was disabled due to the fire.
By 2003 people had started to notice my behaviour was becoming ‘odd’. I eventually had the good sense to seek help and shortly after was diagnosed with PTSD and Bi Polar Effective Disorder. My employer of 20 years promptly sacked me for being ill.
In 2019 I was going through a little bit of a bad patch, and someone suggested I write about the experience of losing our daughter and how it affected us. Thus, was born my first attempt at writing; it was a memoire entitled ‘Father’s Day’. It was more a cathartic exercise for us both and although self-published it’s never been available for sale. I’m not ready for that, I don’t think.
And that is how I came to write a novel. In writing the memoire I realised just how much I enjoy writing, it’s the only way I can truly let go and make the world what I want it to be. In a way, had it not been for the loss, I would never in a million years have tried writing.
When did you take a step to start writing?
2019; as I say, it was the memoire; Father’s Day. I was 59 so quite old for a first try I suppose. I don’t really count the memoire as my first book though, as I say it was a cathartic exercise more than a literary one.
My first ‘real book’ was my novel; The Execution. Life and Times of Patrick O’Donnell and the first full draft was complete in 2021.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I’d say about 2 years in total. It started with a huge flurry and I honestly had the early first draft in 6 weeks… 100,000 words. Then came the editing, the re-writes and more editing and more re-writing. To me putting the story down was relatively swift. Getting it to publishing standard was a much, much longer process.
It’s like plastering… first just get it on the wall and then smooth it, gauge its thickness and then polish it. Yes, just like plastering, the least skilful part is the first part. For me that is. I guess others will be different.
What made you want to write The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell?
There has in my family always been a belief that we are related to a man named Patrick O’Donnell. I say family but I mean my brother Edward, he was not obsessed with the idea but he often spoke of it to me. As children we were very close. There is some evidence to support this but its patchy and not strong. My own belief is that I probably am not related, unless in a very distant way, it’s not relevant to the story but it is the reason I took an interest in the man.
He is a man in whom I and many others now take a great interest. Statues have been erected to him and songs written about him. He is best known as the man who slayed James Carey, the notorious Phoenix Park Murderer and Informant but there was a lot more to him.
I wanted to explore his life but also, in doing so, the lives of others of the time; people who suffered the famine, who fought in the US civil war and so on. He seemed a good way to personify many experiences, so I have endowed him with some that he may not have had, but others did. That said he actually did experience much of what I have written but make no mistake, this is a novel, not a nonfiction account. Like most historical fiction, it conflates fact with creative ideas.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell?
Writing itself and editing. Ideas are the easy bit, transposing them to text which is readable and easily understood is not so easy.
I was an elective mute until the age of 5 and around that time, when I started to speak, my family and I went to live in Algeria. I was taught there in a convent school in the medium of French and all this combined to adversely affect my speech and therefore, later, my literacy. I was almost 12 before I could read properly and have as a result always been a very slow reader and an impossibly bad speller. The notion therefore of writing anything, let alone a book, was not even a consideration until that chance remark by someone in 2019, when I was 59.
Basically, I had very little confidence when it came to reading or writing and so the lack of self-belief was probably the biggest hurdle. Had it not been for the memoire I would never have attempted to write a novel.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
He was a real person but how I draw him is how I imagine him to have been as he faced his challenges and as he sat in his death cell. Of course, as with most writers I use some of my own experiences, such as loss, mental health issues and so on. I am pleased to have brought these things into the book and I like to think I did it well. That I suppose is for others to say.
He is how I would like him to have been. An ordinary fellow facing extraordinary times, making mistakes and having weakness but also strength.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There are several of those in the book and I base them mostly on unsavoury characters I have known in real life. Not out of spite, I disguise them so no one would know. Of course, their behaviour is exaggerated but what they are is not.
I don’t think anyone truly invents a character, we are all subject to our own experiences and so I guess that is so with me. Flaherty for example is unmistakably Dickensian (though not nearly so well drawn I would say).
What is the inciting incident of The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell?
There are several. In fact, the book is as series of inciting incidents which drive the protagonist ever forward to his final fate: The first I guess is where a young Patrick is evicted from his home in Gweedore and has to travel, on foot, with his family to Co Clare. Then the Famine and a particularly dramatic scene on his way to church Christmas day 1846. The coffin ship, meeting the incredible Hanora (my favorite character), the Civil War and so on.
What is the main conflict of The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell?
It is conflict with himself. He stumbles from one disaster to the next and reacts on instinct. The fact that he is recounting his life in a death cell suggests that the big conflict was what he did to get there, and I suppose it may be… but his life is a series of conflicts from the Famine, to the quarantine sheds of Quebec to the US civil War and the Wiggans Patch Murders.
Did you plot The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A bit of both. I knew Patrick had been in the Famine, I knew he had fought in the US civil war for the Confederates and I knew he murdered Carey. So, I had a structure… a skeleton. Then I did literally sit and write as it came to me. I absolutely love writing that way. Lots of bad spelling and mostly not usable but always there is a nugget in there… and I build from that.
The scene with the dead mother and the aftermath took me 20 minutes and I cried my eyes out… It just snuck up on me and bit me hard! I think it’s one of the best parts of the book… It really brings it home to the reader just what a terrible time people had.
The ending came to me as I was writing it and I love it. It came to me as I wrote it. I can’t say more but trust me… it’s wildly unexpected.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Execution, Life And Times Of Patrick O’Donnell need?
It needed loads of editing. In fact, the original draft is completely different to the final book.
I did most of it but had lots of help from others, including a book club who eagerly pointed out the split infinitives and misspellings, of which there many.
When I first wrote the book it was literally a series of 26 letters. It read well and was entertaining but it lacked something. A very kind literary agent (there are some) gave me some informal advice, she suggested some chapter introductions… and I took her advice. The result I feel is a much more homogenous read, I am very happy with how the introductory sections (epigraphs) not only bind the letters but also give a pause between each, a time to reflect and consider. Several readers have commented upon how helpful they are. Not didactic in the least but informative.
My son and daughter in law, both of whom are big readers, also helped with the editing. My son was very helpful also with the cover design.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Do it, or at least try. Try to remember that you must write for YOU. Don’t think about publishing, think about what you want to say.
And If I can offer a second piece of advice. Don’t be precious about your masterpiece… listen to others, take advice, re-write. As I say, the thing that really rounded off my book was a little bit of advice from an agent who rejected it!
When I was age 10 or so Sister Bernadette used to stand me up in class and make me try to read out loud. It humiliated me and as a result I hated school all my life. There is absolutely no way anyone in that class, including me… especially me… would believe I could write a novel.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m currently working on a novel about mental health. It’s a serious topic but looked at in a humorous way. I can’t say more, other than it is named ‘Brian’.
I’ve also started some research and planning for a novel after that. It’s another historical fiction about a ship wreck in the USA in the 19th century but I’m going to use an extremely unusual approach to it. I am most excited about it but first mush finish renovating my daughter’s house in Bristol!!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
So proud of it. Given my background and the difficulties I have had with reading and writing and with my mental health I am amazed I actually did this. Sometimes I think people are humouring me telling me how good it is but yesterday (Saturday) I took it to a local bookshop, explained the story and gave them a copy and they agreed to stock it. I can’t tell you how proud that makes me… Pride is a sin and I am a sinner I guess!
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
First Stop For Copies Is YPD ( Distributors): https://www.ypdbooks.com/fiction/2190-the-execution-life-and-times-of-patrick-o-donnell-Paperback.html
We strive to keep The Table Read free for both our readers and our contributors. If you have enjoyed our work, please consider donating to help keep The Table Read going!
Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc, or its affiliates.