When she was 70,000 words into her sixth novel and a few months away from handing it over to her longtime publisher, Caroline O’Donoghue knew the book wasn’t going to work—“really, I knew by around 30,000 that it wasn’t going to work.” It was the spring of 2021 and when she wasn’t writing, Caroline was recording a mini-series for her podcast, Sentimental Garbage, with her friend, the writer Dolly Alderton, that involved both of them rewatching Sex and the City. “I realised,” said Caroline, “that I wanted to be writing something that made me as happy as those podcasts were making me.” She scrapped the material she had already written, started over, and wrote The Rachel Incident, a comedic coming-of-age story about two friends sharing a freezing, ant-infested cottage in Cork. We met at the Horniman Gardens in south London.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your mornings, when you aren’t walking around Victorian gardens
I don’t know, I get up at eight, eight-ish? Is that normal? What time do you get up? You didn’t go to bed last night!
That’s true, I’m still up. My younger son is teething. Are you a breakfast person?
Toast. Toast and marmite. It’s nothing exciting. Toast and tea in the morning, and either I will start working straight away or I’ll take the dog out and get some coffee and banana bread at a café around the corner.
I try to keep the same schedule as Gavin [Caroline’s husband]. I don’t want to be a midnight oil person, and be starting work just as he’s getting home from work. So I get to my desk around nine and I like to do the Pomodoro method.
The Pomodoro method?
You haven’t heard of it? It’s based on those tomato timers—the oven timers that come in the shape of tomatoes. You set it for 25 minutes, and then you take a five minute break. And you have to get up during the break—stretch, get a glass of water—not just look at Twitter. You do four runs of twenty-five—five, and then you get a half hour break.
There are lots of different apps for it. But the one I love is the Bear Focus Timer. It’s called the “BFT.” You can’t do anything on your phone as long as the bear is up. And it plays rain sounds.
Four segments of that is two hours, and I probably do that twice a day. There will be a morning bear focus timer, and then the dog gets a walk, and then there’s an afternoon bear focus timer. And then at around three in the afternoon nothing else is going to happen creatively so it just becomes answering emails. I generally clock off at about five. It’s a pretty decent schedule. I’m aware of how dull this sounds.
It sounds as though you treat writing like a job, which is what it is
I do sometimes think that I’m not doing the literary thing correctly.
You know, a proper writer would live quietly in north London and probably speak at the British Library twice a year. They have a friend who is also a celebrated photographer who took their author photo, and they look moody and beautiful with just a flash of red lipstick. People probably don’t see them that often.
Whereas I want to go to the great parties and wear rented dresses and not pass up opportunities for fun because I’m afraid that I won’t get shortlisted for something. If the choice is, like, be the greatest writer of my generation or be fun at weddings, I want to be fun at weddings.
My friend Dolly [Alderton] said this really smart thing which is that separate from talent or skill, there is also just a certain amount of weather around artists and critical conversations. Maybe at a particular moment, people are just tired of your vibe, or your podcast, or seeing your face. Or maybe you’ve been around forever doing your thing, and suddenly people are like, yes! I see her! The weather was good.
You started writing novels when you were in your mid-twenties. What lead up to that?
Well weirdly, my entire career is down to these chronic UTIs I used to get when I was 25. I had to give up drinking for a while, so it was easy to go to bed early and get up in the morning, and I started writing a novel in the mornings. That book became Promising Young Women.
I felt young, but not crazy young. At that point I had been in London for four years, and I had been taking writing seriously as a career since I was about 18. There was actually a strange sense that I was running out of time, because I had been pursuing this for what felt like a long time. And it also didn’t feel young because my friend Ella [Risbridger] and I were both writing our first books at the same time. We were both very much trying to make it work together.
I was really lucky in that I ended up at Virago, which is a feminist press, and with Sarah Savitt as an editor, who is the nicest woman alive.
But how did you arrive at a place where the thing you were doing with your free time was writing a novel? You left Cork at age—
21. I moved to London for a film writing internship, and the internship was unpaid, which was normal at the time. The two people running it were Tash Hodgson, who currently has a musical on in the West End, and John Underwood, a writer who died of cancer a few years ago. And because there was no money, they were like, okay, what can we give these kids who are only a couple of years younger than we are? We can give them a social life. So it was this amazing thing of landing in London, knowing nobody, but having this rotating set of great people doing the internship every eight weeks and everyone having the same thing in common, which is that they wanted to write. It was like a ready-made artistic clique. I ended up meeting two people there, Tash and Ella, who I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.
So I had friends, but I didn’t have any money, and I was bumming around for a while. I did bar jobs, I worked in recruitment, and I was blogging the whole time. I was very much blogging to be noticed, and trying to turn that into paid commissions.
Getting started in journalism is such a chicken-or-egg thing, isn’t it? You can’t get hired without experience, but you won’t have experience until someone hires you
It was funny, because from my perspective, I had all of this experience in Cork—I’d written for the university magazine, and I’d blogged, and then a local newspaper saw the blog and asked me to review gigs in exchange for free tickets. And I was like, great! I’m in the media! And I got to London and I was like, why doesn’t the editor of Stylist want to meet me?
I couldn’t believe it. I had taken myself and the work that I had done in Cork very seriously. And then in London, that work became funny and parochial. It was quite heartbreaking at the time.
So what did you do?
I picked up blogging again and did the bar job, and eventually I ended up in advertising—which is where I met Gavin, working on the Lemsip account. We had shots of Limoncello at our wedding in honour of Lemsip.
Then The Pool came along—do you remember The Pool?—and the two founders were looking for someone with a lot of experience of social media management and online content, and also someone who could write, and it was like all of that random experience made me perfect for the job. I was employee number five or something. And then I was in a battle of trying to convince them that I wasn’t just a tweet writer, I was a writer-writer.
I started writing a piece for them every day, while also running the social media and doing the marketing stuff, and I developed a following of readers from the site. My agent signed me from there.
After working so hard to get there, what did the publication of your first book feel like?
I felt like I had to work quite hard to get anyone to read it. But I was 28 when Promising Young Women came out, I had zero other responsibilities, and so I could go on the road to Waterstones in Leeds to read for 12 people. Your pride isn’t damaged, because you don’t know anything else. I feel very lucky on reflection to have had a career that slowly ticks upward as opposed to a huge leap all at once, because I didn’t feel bruised after the debut energy wore off. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t change my life that much.
The first book had a middling reception, I’d say, but it’s all relative because my peers were people like Dolly [Alderton] and Ella [Risbridger] who had smashed right out of the gate.
I feel lucky to have been doing this job since I was 26, and to have been able to keep going and build a life. The spikes in my career have been less dramatic, and I don’t feel as though much is going to rock me at this point.
The volume of work that you’ve already published is astonishing to me. You’re 33, and you’re six novels in. Tell me more about how you did that
I just really like it! Honesty, it sounds so silly, but I really like it.
My experience of secondary school was not great. I didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t make academia work for me. I couldn’t take tests; I couldn’t memorise information. I just felt really dumb until I was about eighteen.
And then I went to university for an English degree and the whole methodology of reading a book across several lectures, going away and thinking about it and coming back with a big essay was the perfect way for me to learn and express myself and I just loved it. I remember thinking, Oh, I could do a version of this forever.
So now when a publisher says, okay, you have a year to write a book, it doesn’t matter how it gets done as long as it gets done. I love that. I know a lot of people don’t care for that lack of structure, but it really suits me.
You wrote The Rachel Incident during the pandemic, in a lockdown. What was that experience like compared to your other books?
I’ve never had a writing experience like it. It was great, if I’m honest. Nothing else was happening, because it was the pandemic. I felt like a monk in a tower with my manuscript. I felt like I was able to access a part of myself artistically that is generally very difficult to access, and can only be done through days and days with the Bear Focus Timer. All I could do is sit and process old memories. Nothing new was coming in.
It might be the last time a book feels like that. I don’t know if I’ll be able to repeat it, the kind of joy I had while writing it. I’m writing another book now, and sometimes it’s a slog and sometimes it’s nice, but it’s not euphoric in the way that writing Rachel was.
Something I really loved about that book is how joyful it is. Anyone who has met you or heard your podcast knows what a sharp observer you are, and that you could have written a spikier, more cynical book, but you chose to write something full of delights instead
Yes. That was really important to me. The book that I abandoned writing was a much more cynical book. And I find that kind of writing can be really fun to read, but it is not my destiny to write it.
What are you reading now?
Ann Patchett’s new book, Tom Lake. It is so, so good. It has absolutely grabbed me. I’m actually listening to Meryl Streep read the audiobook. Oh god it’s so good. There’s a reason Meryl Street is Meryl Streep, you know?
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photography by Aloha Shaw.
The Rachel Incident is available now.