‘Dublin,Ireland. 1985. A war is raging between The Government, RTE [the Irish state broadcaster] and the 28 illegal Pirate radio stations, who have taken control of the Nation’s airwaves and the advertising revenue that goes with it’- so reads the description on the cover of Helen Seymour’s debut novel, Beautiful Noise– a story about an unlikely trio of friends who decide to set up a pirate radio station in Dublin in the 1980’s.
‘To anyone who grew up in that time it was your lifeline’, says Seymour, who has attracted much in the way of critical attention, not least down to the fact that her debut novel is now being adapted into a film under the direction of John Moore [Behind Enemy Lines, Max Payne, A Good Day to Die Hard]. The book has been roundly endorsed by the likes of Eoin Colfer, Roddy Doyle and Bono- all of whom attest to its fast-paced and funny voice. Seymour has, however, also courted some controversy over her debut having turned down a five-figure deal from Harper Collins to go it alone and self-publish.
Helen met up with TMO to talk about music, communication, how hard editing can be and to tell us what exactly possessed her to do this.
The way that I approached writing this book was that every single word I wrote had been thought about and considered. That’s naturally the way I am and have been trained
Walking into the Merrion Hotel is a surreal kind of experience- particularly for an interview given that most of the authors I meet are in the slightly dodgier pubs or 70’s inspired (accidentally?) cafes that gather in Dublin. Now, although I enjoy these eclectic interior experiences, I do have to concede that The Merrion is most definitely nicer than these haunts and so I was interested to see what tone the morning would take. I order my tea (it seemed appropriate in the circumstances) which proceeds to arrive with the ceremony and trimmings that could only be described as Japanese as I wait for the woman whose debut novel was launched by Bono no less. I wonder if he will come with her? Probably not I think.
Helen Seymour walks in confident and glamorous. She clearly knows this place and everyone in it- which comes as little surprise given that before writing Beautiful Noise, Seymour worked for 17 years in advertising, during which she handled accounts for 2fm and fm104 to name but a few. Having worked for Satchi &Satchi Advertising, Helen also ran several companies and handled advertising campaigns for the likes of Vodafone and Coca-Cola. She, therefore, does in fact know everyone. She is extremely cool – there is no other way to phrase it really.The intimidation factor quickly wears off, though, as she is immediately warm and friendly and keen to talk to me. We bond over a love of radio, coffee and and an interest in how a skateboarding accident rendered Keith Richards as talented as he is today (we’ll get to that later).
I ask her what on earth possessed her to turn down a five-figure book deal with Harper Collins for Beautiful Noise. “I wanted to do it my way”, she says as she orders her first espresso. “That’s why I did it. When I worked in advertising I worked in it for 17 years. I was a director of my first company at 26 and between 26 and 34 I did three company startups.” I somewhat gulp down my cooling tea and venture to say “god that’s young isn’t it?” “You know what?” she says, “It just happened that way. You do need the energy to do it. When I say I wouldn’t be up for doing it now I have just done it now but you need energy for it. This was easier though. With this it was purely and simply establishing a company to publish a book my way and put it out my way.”
I ask her whether or not she would have gone down the same self-publishing route had she not had this experience to which she responds : “First of all I am a very strong-minded person- very strong-minded and a person who really goes on gut feeling. I had a very strong gut feeling where this book was concerned. Any time I’ve gone against my gut I’ve regretted it. I’m also a 44-year old woman. If I was a 22 year-old girl writing the book and my publisher came along with the deal I probably would have been completely guided but that 17 years of presenting creative work to clients who will often change it- I’m very well-used to having my creative thinking challenged and having someone actually take the control away from me.
I analysed this a lot and reflected on this as it was happening and after it happened. To give you an example, let’s say a client like Vodafone or CocaCola came into the agency and they give you a creative brief for a big campaign. Three creative teams will be put on it and they will all come back with very different responses. The client will ultimately pick one and it’s the clients’ decision. Before you even get a chance to present your work to the client, there is an internal presentation which is like swimming with sharks. Get ready to get eaten ‘cause you will be savaged!! What happens is that over the years you get really good at second-guessing these decisions and thinking things through properly. The way that I approached writing this book was that every single word I wrote had been thought about and considered. That’s naturally the way I am and have been trained.
If you go through that internal process in an agency you can still go to a client and present, let’s say a radio ad and the ad has a big burp at the end of it and that’s the whole point. The client will go ‘’oh I love it! We’ll just take the burp off!’ and you look at them and you just think…but it’s nothing without it- that’s the whole point and you’re looking at them going ‘are you insane?’ I was used to watching creatively brilliant work becoming handicapped. But the clients have to sign off on it and go back to their board. I think when a lot of first-time writers go to a publisher- any publisher – and when the editor comes along and says ‘well this is what we have to change’, I think a lot of writers just go…’ok’. I’m used to having a good creative debate. I’m used to being challenged on my creative thinking and I’m used to challenging back. I think they [publishers] were probably surprised at that.”
“Do you know I talked to another writer and her brother had brought out a book about 2 or 3 years ago and he wrote the book and he got a two book deal and the publisher said to him that he needed to completely change it and make the writing more feminine (this was a man!). He did everything that they told him to do. There were a couple of things that he had reservations on but they kept saying that this is what they need to do to get it into Tescos [supermarket chain] – ‘we have to do it to get it into Tescos’, they said. They didn’t get it into Tescos. They sold 200 copies and they said to him ‘well….it wasn’t really that great a book anyway was it?’ They basically said to him that it was his book’s fault .”
We then move onto trade issues, chief of which concerns her publishing company, Pencil Publishing, which she established not, she assures me to publish other people’s books but simply as the most efficient way to publish her own. Does she plan to publish other people’s books now too? “There is no broader vision”, she says looking directly at me. “If that happens it will be by default as opposed to design. My hope is that my agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor is going to go and sell the translation rights to the book and that we would get a distribution deal for Europe and the States other markets- that’s my hope right? I’m a writer, not a publisher. I did it because I wasn’t happy about edits that were being suggested. I did it because I wanted to put a book out with my name on it that I was happy with. I did it because I’m stubborn. I’m not afraid. I’m really not afraid.”
Now we get on to the crucially important role of Seymour’s literary agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor. “When I was going to the likes of Easons and Argosy and doing my trade deals and negotiations – just to be able to say Marianne Gunn O’Connor was my agent was a huge calling card. That’s a vote of confidence- just with her name behind you – that’s all you need. I wanted her as my agent from the beginning because she’s the biggest and the best- forget about Ireland, she is one of the best in the world.” Marianne has not just been a literary agent for Seymour but also a “bloody good friend.” When worried about what would happen when she went away from Harper Collins in terms of their professional relationship, it was Marianne who encouraged Helen all the way to self-publish. “She was so supportive”, says Helen, “when I said I wanted to self-publish, so I went away and thought about it. I actually thought ‘oh god is she going to drop me as a client?’ Because she had done her job. She put the deal on the table and it was a bloody good deal. But she said ‘look I really believe in your writing and really believe in this book and I’ll give you whatever support I can’. She really showed me her mettle.”
Now, as someone who works in the publishing industry I am so consumed with issues concerning, well, publishers and the trade industry (what possessed you to leave Harper Collins, did you find the editing process difficult etc?) that it occurs to me that we have not spent much time discussing the actual book. I ask her now what has become a central and burning question to me in the course of reading said object: Why did she name her debut novel after a Neil Diamond song? She looks at me almost as if I had asked her a trick question.
“Do you know it wasn’t Neil Diamond. It’s not that I’m not a Neil Diamond fan”, she smiles as she says this.”I do actually like some of Neil Diamond’s music. The book was originally called Studio One, because that’s the name of the radio station and I loved Studio One and Bono really loved it. Some people felt it was a bit cold, it was Harper Collins who said that I needed something warmer, so I came up with a second title which was called AM The FM The PM 2 and that is a slightly twisted version of a Clash lyric but really it was a bit too technical and not everyone would get it. I wanted the title to be either one or two words (White Teeth is one of my all time favourites). Beautiful Noise is actually referenced in the book but I didn’t come up with the name thinking about the song. I thought about it because Pirate to RTE and the Government was just noise – noise that they had to shut down, but to the listener it was beautiful. To anyone who grew up in that time it was your lifeline. I also love positive, negative. I wanted that- there’s an intrigue in that.”
Ok, so no secret fan-based reason for the Neil Diamond segue (might dig into that). I asked her why she chose pirate radio as the subject for her book to which she answered: “When I was growing up I was sent to my room to study like most teenagers. There were no mobiles, no internet so it was just you and the four walls. My mother used to iron in my bedroom because the sun came into that room in the morning. She had a radio up there and it was a really big, old-fashioned radio with a dial. There was no digital radio- there were no push buttons even. You had to wind the dial up and down and I used to just walk around my room trying to get different stations. I found so many pirate radio stations and they were just such incredible worlds inhabited by some really interesting people. Then the super pirate stations like Sunshine and Nova were our source of entertainment. They brought us the music. Ironically (those were my teenage years) on my first day in advertising my boss said to me put on your coat- we’re going to RTE. We’ve just won the 2FM account [RTE’s second radio channel, setup in response to the Pirates]. I never thought I would work in advertising and I never really had a huge fascination with radio but it was a very exciting time in radio then- the licenses had gone through, 2FM was set up and 98FM and FM104 were just launching. I was right there at the hub of it all. It’s funny – we all used to sit around and ask each other what our favourite medium was and they all said ‘TV, TV, TV!’ Radio was always my favourite medium. A radio was company. It’s an intimate relationship. Even though a DJ is broadcasting to millions of people it’s a one on one relationship. There is something very warm about radio.
I always knew it was going to be about people setting up a pirate radio station. I always knew it was going to be at the back of a carpet shop and I also knew that the carpet shop was going to be on Capel St., because I hung out there as a teenager. This again, goes back to my early radio days. When you’re broadcasting, the carpet insulates the sound. RTE had carpet on the doors going into the studio which I for some reason found fascinating! It’s carpet you know?”
Ah yes, the musically formative teenage years. Was this when she developed those complex and dizzying playlists?
“Everyone has a defining band apparently. Did you know that? The Clash are my defining band- you know, bands that sort of spoke to the core of them when they were 14. I got my first job when I was 14 in a riding stable. Horses were my absolute passion growing up and I got paid 8 quid a day to ride horses which was pretty good in 1984! Every Saturday all these guys would come up to the stables I worked in, from Artane, Coolock, Donaghmede (and they are the inspiration behind some of the characters- not all of them but some of them). We had bikers, skinheads, rastafarians, punks, mods and ska-heads and they would all come up in their gangs.”