FORMER teacher turned best-selling writer, Jean Grainger, is taking what she calls a ‘gap year’ in Australia with her husband and their two children.
Jean is hugely excited about the road trip through the vast country, starting at the end of August after a stopover in Singapore and a sojourn in Sydney for a week.
She said she and her second family (she has two older children from her first marriage) “will drive into the wide blue yonder” in a four-wheel drive with a caravan attached to it, which they will pick up in Queensland.
It will be a great adventure with 11- year-old Eadaoin and eight-year-old Siobhán being schooled on the road by their father, Diarmaid, a primary school teacher who is taking a year’s leave from his job. He is also a musician with Natural Gas and has just published a book about the War of Independence in Cork.
Cloughduv-based Jean, who taught English and history at De La Salle College in Macroom, went part-time a couple of years ago and finally gave up her secure job a year ago. She now earns “all of mine and my family’s income through royalties”.
But Jean, who is self-published through Amazon, works very much below the radar. She sells mainly ebooks as well as some hard copy books in America. Between page reads and ebook sales, her books have been downloaded about 750,000 times. This USA Today bestselling author is not a famous writer in her own country. And she’s cool about that.
She has friends who are writers that publish with established publishing houses. While there is kudos attached to that, they don’t make any money, says Jean, who earns “a lot more from writing than I ever did teaching”.
For ten years, before she became a teacher, Jean worked as a tour guide, hired by American companies, to relate the history and lore of Ireland to tourists from the US visiting here. While she loved the job, being away from home a lot of the time wasn’t ideal with children to look after.
“So I decided I’d go teaching. I went to college as a mature student, got my degree and went teaching. I thought I’d stay in the civil service for the rest of my days. But I wrote a book in 2012. It came about because I was still doing a few tours and people would say to me that I should write a book about the stories of the people on the tours. So I did and I called the book The Tour.”
But Jean couldn’t get an agent or a publisher.
“I hadn’t a clue really. But my husband told me not to throw the book in the back of a drawer. Fortunately, I saw an ad for a workshop in Dublin on self-publishing. I went to it and it was really good. It was given by Vanessa O’Loughlin and Catherine Ryan-Howard.”
The upshot was that Jean decided to self-publish and found an editor online who was willing to take her on. Helen Falconer, who lives in Co Mayo, “is amazing. She’s still my editor to this day. She’s my secret weapon really. My sixteenth book is out next month.”
While it’s free to self-publish, Jean spends a lot of money advertising on Facebook and Amazon. Editing is also expensive. Her books pertain to Ireland and America and the connections between the two countries.
“A lot of my books have an American character. From the years as a tour guide, I kind of know what Americans like. It’s not maybe what people think they like. They don’t really like patronising paddy-whackery.”
Jean also writes some historical fiction. She keeps in touch with her readers and has a mailing list of 20,000 people. She runs Book Bub deals. Book Bub “is the world’s biggest online book club. It’s a whole world that nobody knows about. And it works.”
After finishing college, Jean decided to do a doctorate on Irish women involved in World War II. “But a while into it, I realised that the academic life wasn’t really for me.”
However, she met fascinating women in the course of her research. She and Diarmaid drove around the country interviewing the various women who had served in some capacity in the war.
“I thought the material would be really interesting in a novel. So my second book was called So Much Owed, the title coming from Winston Churchill’s speech about the Battle of Britain.
“That did really well in America even though there was no American element in it. It’s set in West Cork, London and France. My books are a mixture of contemporary Irish (sometimes Irish American) and historical.”
Jean is an incredibly fast writer, completing a book in just six weeks.
“In the independent publishing world and the Amazon world, you kind of have to produce content fairly quickly to maintain your market. The people who read my books are voracious readers and they’re very excited to get a new book.”
With a word count target of 5,000 words a day, she is no slouch.
“I write two drafts before it goes to Helen, my structural editor. I go up to Mayo and the two of us spend six or seven hours tearing it apart and putting it back together again. Then I rewrite it. After that, it goes to my copy-editor who is in New York. She takes three to four weeks copy-editing it. I have a team of advance readers who read the book and pick up any typos that might be there. They’re amazing. They’re not paid; they’re fans. They are from all walks of life.”
The advance readers are sort of fact- checkers who, for example, will point out to Jean that a plant mentioned in her narrative wouldn’t actually bloom in winter. They come up with an alternative suggestion.
Jean went to Washington recently to present a cheque with another writer from the proceeds of an anthology about resistance movements during World War II. The money was donated to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Jean’s contribution to the anthology, The Darkest Hour, is a novella about a young Irish woman who became involved in the French Resistance. The money will go to the museum’s outreach education programme.
“It’s all a bit mad,” says Jean, who says there is a lot of snobbery around self-publishing.
“I have since been approached by several publishers in America who want to publish me. But I wouldn’t have any interest in doing that now because I’m running my own show and doing very well. I’m just letting the market decide. I’m not saying all self-published books are good or awful. But if they’re awful, they won’t sell.”
Jean says she was never particularly good at English at school. But she has always been a keen reader.
“Very flatteringly, people have described my books as being like Maeve Binchy’s books. That is humbling. I’m a huge Maeve Binchy fan. She’s a huge loss to Irish literature. My books are different to hers but it’s nice if people say they’re a little like hers. I also like the writing of Sebastian Barry. I think Deirdre Purcell is an amazing writer.”
Jean also likes to read American fiction as well as material about World War II, for research: “There’s a huge interest in that at the moment.”
A long overdue ‘gap year’ awaits. She feels she deserves it, having been a mother for nearly 30 years. Her eldest child, Conor, will mind the house while they are away. She will continue to write while travelling. It is, after all, a skill that has liberated her.