CYCLING from London in the UK to Baltimore in Co. Cork, with just two pannier bags on board, might well have given author Catherine Airey material for her first novel, but that’s not what happened.
Scream School was a two-year project that culminated in the stuff dreams are made of when 30-year-old Catherine secured a six-figure sum for her debut novel.
“When my publisher rang me to tell me that Scream School was snapped up for a six-figure sum 24 hours after it was submitted, I had to ask her to repeat the information many times as I couldn’t believe it,” says Catherine.
“My money was running out and I was resigned to finding another job. I had £3,000 leaving London, which wasn’t much; it had run almost out.”
Now Catherine has purchased a car.
“I had no car and I was cycling everywhere,” she says. “The car is two years old. It was my big purchase!”
How did Catherine’s success story begin?
“I grew up in Hertfordshire and lived in London, where I worked for eight years with the Civil Service as a copy writer. I liked it but eventually I felt a bit lost.”
Catherine harboured an ambition.
“I wanted to write a novel,” she says.
I knew that couldn’t happen in London. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to relocate.
So Catherine abandoned ship, jumped on her bike and headed for West Cork, where her grandmother, Margaret O’Donovan, hailed from.
“My grandmother left Dunmanway to go to London in her late twenties,” says Catherine. “I did the exact opposite!
“After eight years working in London, and then Covid happened, I wasn’t consciously thinking of writing a novel: I knew I needed a change,” says Catherine.
“I always wanted to write a novel and when I moved here to Skibbereen, I knew I would do it.”
And she did.
“I cycled from London to West Cork over two weeks with just two pannier bags on the bike as luggage - and some tea bags! I headed to Baltimore, where I signed up for volunteer work. I helped a local couple restore an old boat. I stayed with them for a year.”
Catherine must be super-fit to cycle all that way?
“I’m a swimmer and a cyclist,” she says. “But I’m a runner really and I took part in competitive running in the UK.”
Catherine is inventive.
“I did house-sitting and cat-sitting so that I’d have a place to live. Money was tight. When I got a job child-minding, I was able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Skibbereen.
“I also joined the Lough Hyne Lappers swim club which I love. I swim with the Lappers regularly.”
Her book , Scream School, was crafted in a small bedroom.
“I started the novel in November, 2021, and finished it in January, 2023,” says Catherine. “I wrote it in my small bedroom where I lived when I was doing voluntary work. I wrote whenever I could.”
Catherine didn’t have a gem of an idea for her novel, she just wrote.
“I sat down and made myself write 1,000 words a day and took it from there,” she explains.
I had no idea what the book was going to be about. I wrote what came up in my own head and what I was interested in for the last few years and what I was interested in at the time.
Catherine spins a riveting tale...
In New York, in 2001, 16-year-old Cora Brady finds herself an orphan in the wake of her father’s death as the World Trade Center falls. Then a letter arrives from her mother’s sister, an aunt she didn’t know existed, inviting her to come and stay at Burtonport, Co. Donegal.
The name jogs something in Cora’s mind, a memory she can’t quite place - until she remembers an old cassette game she used to play as a child, in which two sisters try to save the inhabitants of a boarding school before it’s too late. Scream School.
Beginning with an intimate portrait of grief and unravelling across decades, Scream School is a book about motherhood and sisterhood, abortion and adoption, art and creativity -about women who chose to leave everything they know behind, and others who stay.
Most of all, it’s a book about secrets and betrayals - how they reverberate down generations, and how we still feel the aftershocks decades later.
“I finished the book in January,” Catherine says. “I had no money by then. I sent the manuscript to a literary agent, and I heard back pretty quickly - which led to meetings with literary agents in London.
“When I decided on an agent, we worked on edits for a month before submitting the manuscript to a publisher in April. That was Easter Thursday, and I had the offer by the following Tuesday! The publisher had read it over the weekend, and she offered me a six-figure sum.
“It was life-changing news. I couldn’t believe how quickly Isobel Wall at Viking read and responded to Scream School. Her connection to the characters and story proved right away that she was going to handle the book with passion and care. To be published by Viking is a dream come true, and I’m so lucky to have a sharp agent, John Ash, by my side.”
What does the life-changing news of an offer of a six-figure sum mean to Catherine?
“It confirmed that my feeling to write a novel was the right thing to do,” she says.
I would never have earned that amount of money before or again.
Catherine is planning to write another novel after taking a short break.
“I’ll do it in the same way, writing 1,000 words a day and see what happens,” she says. “I am trusting in that process.”
How does she feel now?
“I feel overwhelmed and very excited,” says Catherine.
“It is beyond anything I could ever have hoped for. My family in West Cork and in London are thrilled for me.”
Life begins for Catherine at 30.
“I was 30 on May 18,” she says.
Will she be making any more purchases with the proceeds from her debut novel?
“I like my own company,” says Catherine.
“I’m quite introverted. I like simple pleasures.”
There are advantages to being a nice little earner.
“It’s very nice not to be worried about money!”
Viking will publish Scream School in hard-back, e-book and audio in January, 2025.