Ruth Gilligan: Writing into the Chaos

It starts with almost nothing. A throwaway anecdote from a friend about the BSE crisis; about the late-nineties when the cows – and the country – were going mad. You store it away, but already the idea is growing. Characters. A plot. Some ancient folktales. A murder, maybe, in the midst of it all.

Next thing you’re researching – libraries and archives, newspapers and tomes – then it’s off to the farms to look at the cattle; to get the real stories from those strange, chaotic times.

Author Ruth Gilligan

Finally, you start writing – one year, two years – dead ends and plot twists that refuse to quite add up. You email your agent, your editor. Rewrite. Rewrite. They email a cover design with a row of butcher’s hooks and it begins to feel a bit real.

Somehow, though, a year later you are still tweaking, still editing, before advance copies are printed and you hold it in your hands. You post them to authors you admire and pray they might utter nice things. You wait. You go a little mad yourself.

Until, at last, it is ready. Finished copies! Book launch plans! Fake leather trousers (how appropriate)! Almost almost and then suddenly the world has a crisis of its own. Chaotic times not on the page, but in real life. Plans cancelled. Invites pulled. Panic in the air. A guilty rush of disappointment.

But then comes the perspective and the reassurance that it still exists, this thing, your creation. A book is not a carton of milk – it won’t go off. A throwaway Tweet that strikes a chord. So, in the midst of it all, you snatch a moment to celebrate and say a quiet prayer that your strange book will find its readers. You count your blessings. You wash your hands. You wait, patiently, for the next almost-nothing to strike.

Ruth Gilligan is an Irish writer and academic now based in the UK where she works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She was the youngest person ever to reach number one on the Irish Bestsellers’ list; her most recent novel, The Butchers, is set around a murder in the Irish borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis. Ruth is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.

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