20 years on…Books Ireland Archives. Kate Cruise O’Brien and Poolbeg Books 1997











From the Books Ireland archives: December 2007,  issue 209, p.323

Since Kate Cruise O’Brien became fiction editor at Poolbeg in 1993, the company’s name has been an almost permanent fixture on the Irish bestsellers list. One of her early discoveries, Marianne Keyes, last year signed a lucrative deal with Reed in the UK, while retaining Poolbeg as her Irish publisher. Another, Lia Mills, remains one of the few commercially successful literary authors to be published by an Irish house.

And more recently Cathy Kelly broke all records by retaining the number one spot on the bestsellers list for eight weeks running. Now, in recognition of her contribution to Poolbeg’s success, Cruise O’Brien has been appointed  editorial director, with over all responsibility for both fiction and non-fiction, adult and children’s books. So what does she have that other Irish fiction editors don’t?

Well to start with, she has Poolbeg, which even before she arrived had broken new ground with the first  Irish-published blockbuster, Patricia Scanlan’s City Girl. By the time Cruise O’Brien’s predecessor Jo O’Donoghue had left the company, Poolbeg had a degree of credibility within the book trade as a mass market publisher, and, amongst those who aspired to write, the Patricia Scanlan success story had become legend. Poolbeg was poised for further growth and needed an editor with an eye for fresh talent.

As Cruise O’Brien herself admits, she was an unlikely candidate for the job. Daughter of Conor and a graduate of Trinity, her first ambition was to teach.

“At that time, in the early seventies, teaching jobs were thin on the ground,” she explains, “especially if, like me, you didn’t have any Irish. I did find some part-time work, but I never had a reply to any of my applications for full-time jobs.”

Having married in 1971, while still at Trinity, she gave birth to her first son, Alexander, in 1974, and her priorities changed.

“He was a much wanted child but his birth left me feeling isolated and incompetent, far too nervous anyway to launch myself on the job market. I was capable of thinking but not capable of convincing anyone else I was capable of thinking. So I went back to writing. I had started to write at college and my first story Henry Died was published in the Irish Press New Writing page and won a Hennessy Award in 1971.”

A collection of her stories, A Gift Horse, was published by Poolbeg in 1978 and won the Rooney Prize, which in turn led to freelance journalism and a long-running column in the Irish Independent. Her first novel, The Homesick Garden, about a troubled adolescence, was published by Poolbeg in 1991.

“When Jo left Poolbeg, Philip McDermott rang, as he’d rung his other authors, to tell me the news and I decided to put myself forward for the job. Philip was under standably nervous about this suggestion, the idea of a Poolbeg author as editor took some getting used to. Also, I would have been perceived as quite literary and the company was firmly focused on mass market at the time. But I had read a great deal of mass market fiction for pleasure, I certainly wasn’t snooty about it, and after about seven interviews  I persuaded him that I could do the job.”

And Cruise O’Brien wasn’t held back by her lack of experience as an editor.

“I think most readers are amateur editors, so I had plenty of practice in that sense. The rest I picked up as I went along. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on the job is that you don’t say ‘This can’t be done’, you find a way to do it. I find new writing irresistable, so if I think a book is good I’ll find a way to publish it.”

Perhaps one of the keys to her success has been her proactive interpretation of the job. Unlike editors, Cruise O’Brien doesn’t sit around waiting for material to land on her desk.

“In this country, you wouldn’t have to wait long, but that’s not how I chose to do things. One of the great bonuses of being a writer was my involvement Council’s Writers in Schools scheme, and my work with writers’ groups and workshops. I wanted to continue that in my role as editor-meeting writers at that level helps sharpen my wits and opens up a whole vista of ideas and possibilities. More recently, I haven’t had time to get out and about as much as I’d like to, but I hope to be able to make some time for that in the future by delegating some of the editing work.”

Meanwhile, her own writing career is very much on the back burner. “When I was writing it was something that I desperately wanted to say. There may be a time in the future when I feel compelled to write again, but not, I think, while I’m doing this job.”

From the Books Ireland archives: December 2007,  issue 209, p.323

By Shirley Kelly



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