Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin speaks to Claire Coughlan about her varied publishing roles as literary scout, author (as Sam Blake) and founder of Ireland's first crime writing festival, Murder One
She has been described as a "force of nature", and it's hardly a stretch of the imagination to see why. Alongside establishing Ireland's leading literary consultancy, the Inkwell Group, at the height of a recession, Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin set up Writing.ie at about the same time, a seemingly inexhaustible online resource for authors, aspiring and established alike. She is the chairperson of Irish PEN, while No Turning Back (Bonnier Zaffre), the latest book in her Dublin-set crime trilogy featuring the kickboxing detective Cat Connolly, is now out in paperback. Fox O'Loughlin is also the co-founder, with Bert Wright, of Murder One, Ireland's answer to Harrogate, which will take place next weekend, 2-4 November, in Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre. When we meet in a busy Dublin hotel, she has just come from a meeting there, as the inaugural festival is drawing close.
As a programmer, Fox O'Loughlin has been involved with various literary festivals in Dublin, but she says that she felt a dedicated crime festival was much-needed. "We've so many amazing festivals here, but they tend to be all quite generalist, they might have a crime panel, but there's nothing very specific. I came up with an idea about 10 years ago for organising a roving crime panel, where we'd get a whole gang of crime writers together, and then if a festival wanted crime writers, they'd contact a central point. It started to materialise but never really took off in a big way. When I got Little Bones published [the first book in the Cat Connolly trilogy], I started to think that maybe it was something we needed to do properly."
International stars and Irish authors
Fox O'Loughlin says she hopes to get a corporate sponsor on board for next year. The festival has big names slated to appear, such as Michael Connelly, Peter James and Lynda La Plante - the aim being to make a "big splash" in year one. It's a matter of balance, however, as she explains. "I wanted to bring in as many Irish authors as I could, so we've got a whole reading section upstairs. There are only so many events you can fit into the main space, and only so many people you can have on a panel. Under those restrictions, there were more people I wanted to include in the festival, so we've got a speakers' corner, which is all free, and authors will be reading from their current work and chatting to people."
Originally from St Alban's in Hertfordshire, Fox O'Loughlin read English and History at Queen Mary University in London, before moving to Ireland in the 1990s with her Irish husband. She says that the impetus that led her to set up Inkwell Writers was fuelled by her own desire to write. An early novel attracted interest from an Irish-based publisher, Treasa Coady of TownHouse, who had published crime writer Julie Parsons. At the time, Fox O'Loughlin worked in marketing, and she was really impressed by how TownHouse was selling Parsons' debut, Mary, Mary. She sent Coady her novel and then she got "that call that every writer wants, a publisher ringing you back and saying 'I really like this book.'" However, there was work to be done on the manuscript; and then the project got shelved when TownHouse was sold to Simon & Schuster, which decided not to publish any more fiction in Ireland.
In the meantime, Fox O'Loughlin was determined to improve and learn as much as she could about technique, so she decided to attend a writing workshop that Julie Parsons was giving in Dingle, Co Kerry. At the time, her children were young, and she didn't know many people in Ireland; she realised that she could not manage an evening class, as her husband was in the Gardaí (police) and worked shifts. So she flew her parents over from the UK to mind her children. The workshop was rewarding, and led her to the realisation that yes, she could write, but also that she needed to learn more.
Coaching and consultancy
"And that's when I decided to set up Inkwell," she says. "I wanted to give workshops by bestselling authors, because they're bestselling for a reason, and I also wanted to do one intensive day on a Saturday, when I knew I could get away." She ran the workshops up to the middle of the recession; and then, she says, "the bottom fell out of the market overnight". By that time, though, she had made many useful contacts, and learned a lot about the book trade. Having begun matching authors to agents and publishers, she decided to develop her consultancy services. Success stories have included authors Hazel Gaynor, Jax Miller and Catherine Ryan Howard. And she met her own agent, Simon Trewin, after scouting for him.
Knowledge of issues from both sides of the fence is "massively useful in understanding the whole process right through, from writing the book to selling it," Fox O'Loughlin says. "There's always something I can do to help, whatever stage a writer is at, because everybody's situation is different and everybody has different ambitions for themselves and for their book. Also, not every book fits into that traditional print bestseller mould. Some books work better in digital; some are Irish books; some are made for the UK. That's when the 360 perspective becomes very useful."