U.S-based Cork woman Susan O’Brien, whose debut novel has just been published under her nom de plume, Catherine Mangan, has followed the advice that a person should write about what she knows.
She set her novel in an idyllic Italian village, based on Comogli on the Ligurian coast, about 20 minutes from swanky Portofino.
Not only has Susan, originally from the airport area of Cork, studied Italian at UCC, but when she read about Comogli in a travel magazine, she was so impressed that she vowed to visit the fishing village. She was to go on and spend several holidays there. And just like the main character in her book, who decides to live in Italy, Susan, with a friend, tried to make a life for herself in that country.
But unlike the fictional Niamh Kelly in The Italian Escape (billed as a feelgood beach read), Susan wasn’t running away from problems. She had graduated in Italian and French at UCC and, with her friend, flew optimistically to Rome with a large suitcase that included a frying pan and a pot. They rented a small pensione “with a shared bathroom down the corridor,” says Susan, on a call from Florida.
“We thought it was fantastic. We were loving life. But we had fierce trouble finding work. We had only just graduated and didn’t have fluent Italian. Long story short, we had a wonderful two months in Rome but ran out of money and ended up having to get the bus home to Cork. This was before Ryanair. We couldn’t afford the plane home. Ultimately, it was an epic failure.”
But it crystallised Susan’s lifelong love affair with Italy.
For the character of Niamh, life hasn’t turned out quite as she had expected it would. She’s 33, still living at home and has been dumped — by her boss.
When her sister invites her to tag along on a work trip to the sun-drenched Italian coast, Niamh jumps at the chance.
She is eager to escape into a world of sparkling prosecco, aperol spritzs, delicious food and beautiful beaches. Upon arrival, Niamh falls in love with the scenic Italian town they’re staying in and realises she never wants to leave. She decides to open a coffee shop, even though she has no idea what she is doing.
When a family tragedy and a tricky tourist season threaten her new business, she isn’t sure she can stick it out. Meanwhile, there’s a possibility of romance for Niamh. Can she make a success of her new life?
Susan is no stranger to packing her bags and carving out a life for herself abroad. She spent two decades globe-trotting that saw her teaching English, working in sales, marketing and business development in countries including Spain, the UK, Portugal, the U.S and her beloved Italy. She was recruited to run sales and marketing for Irish businessman Denis O’Brien’s property, Quinta do Lago in Portugal. She spent a year there and says it gave her the impetus to start her own business in New York.
But she is more grounded than her fictional character.
“I’ve lived and worked in six different countries so I know first-hand the illusion, the magic and excitement of starting somewhere new. Starting from scratch, there’s adrenaline. But then reality sets in and you’re trying to get the day-to-day stuff together and figure out the workings of a new place.
“It’s difficult, especially when it’s in a different language. The enthusiasm can wane very quickly. You wonder what you’ve done. So I’ve been able to tap into that experience for The Italian Escape.”
In the Big Apple, Susan’s business was the creation of a mobile phone app that was a survival tool for travellers in need of communication skills.
“You don’t need to learn 100 verbs when you just want to order a coffee or a glass of wine. That was the idea behind the app. It ran for years and then the world of apps changed. The greater public was reluctant to pay for an app. Ultimately, I wound down the business. It was seven years in the making. It was fun and I learned a lot and built a network.”
While Susan says that New York is a tough city to crack, the Irish network there is absolutely marvellous.
“We’re far nicer to each other abroad than at home. There’s so much support and positivity because the Irish in New York realise how hard it is and go out of their way to help the next Irish person coming up behind them.”
Susan says that her writing career really started when she became a contributing writer to Forbes. At the time, she was working on her app.
“I got involved with some business communities in New York. I would speak at events for young women entrepreneurs. I was doing that with 50 people in a room.”
It struck Susan that she would have a bigger audience if she were to write about her business advice. She successfully pitched an idea to Forbes on how to set up a business when you’re not funded and don’t have a network.
But how did the novel come about? Susan married her American husband, Tom Butta, about three years ago. Around that time, the couple relocated from New York to Palo Alto, a city in California, so that Susan’s husband could take up a job in Silicon Valley.
Soon after the move, Susan’s green card application was submitted. But the U.S government went into shutdown and her application was stuck in the system.
“Once you’ve submitted your application, you can’t change your status, you can’t work and you can’t leave the country. It was an absolute nightmare. I had left New York where all my friends and networks were. My husband was on the 7.23am train every day, gone for 12 hours. I knew one person. I had all this time. I couldn’t get on a plane and go home. I was losing my mind. I like to be busy. There was no end in sight to the government shutdown.
“It was almost like a trial run for lockdown. I decided to be philosophical about it and see it as a gift of time.”
Susan had always harboured an ambition to write a book and decided that should use her quiet time to write a novel. “So I hammered out the book. Then I set about finding an agent.”
Using a “business mentality”, Susan went about the process of getting her novel published through a project that involved an excel spreadsheet. She was under no illusions as to how difficult it is to get published but knew she didn’t want to spend four years trying. She identified agents in the UK, the U.S and Ireland. She went through hyperlinks to read interviews that the agents had given about the kind of books they like.
“I tailored my pitches to each agent. Some publishers take direct submissions so I fired the book off to them. Then I sat back and waited. In about ten days, the rejections started coming in. So I’d go to my spreadsheet and highlight agents/publishers in red as they were dead to me. Then I’d move up the next one and colour it orange. When the next rejection came in, I’d colour it red.
“Finally, I had three people interested. I coloured them green. One is now my agent in London. Hannah helped me tailor and tighten up the book. Then I had to go back into edit mode.
“When Hannah was happy with it, she emailed me and said I was to celebrate that night. I was officially ‘on submission’. It could take a while but it was a great achievement in itself. Then, two weeks later, I had a two-book deal from Little, Brown. I just couldn’t believe that a big name publisher was giving me a book deal.”
Susan got an advance but doesn’t want to say how much it was.
In an odd way, she had the precious time to write her novel because of Donald Trump. The government shutdown stemmed from an impasse over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in federal funds for a U.S-Mexico border wall.
Susan doesn’t talk about politics in America. She has friends that support Republicans and friends who support Democrats. “Opinions are so polarised that neither side is changing their mind. So I avoid it. It’s like talking about religion in Ireland.”
She is now working on edits for her second novel. She has clearly cracked the writing game while creating a whole new exciting career.