When your new novel is described by Dara Ó Briain as "funny, sweet, charming and just a little bit heart-breaking", it might not guarantee bestseller status, but it certainly can't hurt. And when she spoke to author Damien Owens, Claire Byrne told him she went to bed early to read his book, describing it as being like "a hug between the covers". The novel in question is Duffy and Son and it’s set in Monaghan, where the titular characters – both bachelors – live together:
"Eugene and Jim are father and son living in Monaghan. Eugene had a little hardware shop in the town, from which he has now retired and Jim has taken over, so there’s a sort of continuation there. They’ve had a complicated family history."
Eugene – the father – is increasingly worried about how his son’s life seems to be turning out: Jim is about to turn 40 and has never had a girlfriend. But he doesn’t know how to outline his concerns to his son. As Damien puts it:
"I’d imagine it would be very difficult to broach because there’s no good way to say, 'How come you’re still single?’ without it sounding offensive. So that’s what he’s struggling with at the start."
Damien lost his own father when he was 18, an age which meant, as he puts it, that he was a typical teenager, something he wishes he had got over before his dad died:
"It did kind of affect me that that was the last that he saw of me or knew of me. You know, all he ever knew of me was child, then awful teenager, so we never got to that stage that I’m kind of jealous of, you know, in friends of mine when I see how they have, you know, come back to relative normality as adults and have become kind of buddies with their Dad."
Damien experienced what all budding authors hope for: immediate success. His first novel was the subject of a bidding war and he quit his job as a result, believing that he would be a full-time writer from then on. Things didn’t exactly go to plan:
"I was very naive. I thought publishing way, you know, there was a red velvet rope and somebody just lifted it and ushered you in and that was it, you were in. And then, eh, quickly found out that was not the case."
The next two books Damien wrote weren’t published at all. People kept telling him that if he insisted on writing the sort of books that he was writing, about men and their feelings, it wasn’t going to work out because men don’t buy those kinds of books. Then it was suggested that he write one of ‘those sorts of books’, but with a female protagonist.
"I thought, ‘No problem. I can do that.’ And did that. But then, the publisher at the time said, ‘Ok, now we’ve got a new problem, which is that women won’t buy a book about a woman if it’s by a man.’ Which, at the time, to me sounded completely insane."
Insane or not, the publisher came up with a plan which involved Damien using a gender-neutral pen name that might be male or female. And that’s how the novels of Alex Coleman were born:
"They got very, you know, that terrible phrase chick litty covers and my problem with it is that I was desperately afraid that somebody would think that I had, you know, had a go at chick lit, but didn’t want to put my name on it, which was absolutely, completely wrong. I really wanted my name on them."
Happily, Damien has his name on this one and if Claire loves it and Dara Ó Briain loves it, it has to be worth a read, right? You can hear Claire’s full conversation with Damien by going here.
Duffy and Son by Damien Owens is published by Harper Collins.