Paul Corrigan – I wrote a novel without planning or plotting
I was unemployed and on a course, 63, an ex-journalist, an ex-solo parent, ex …
After 14 weeks I tackled Microsoft Access. On Friday, May 17, 2013, I had nothing more on my mind when I set off for ‘school’ than how to sort out an Access problem that had defeated me for three days. How could something be so hard? I felt old. I became aware that for several days a picture had been going around in my head of a girl in school uniform standing on a street corner. I set aside Access and turned the picture into the first sentence. Then there was the next sentence. Then another, and another. Day after day the story just fell piece by piece into my head. All I had to do was race to keep up. After six months the result was Maria Goretti and Me, which I published via Amazon’s CreateSpace and on Kindle in August 2015.
If you had a Catholic upbringing, as I did, you might know the story of St Maria Goretti. In July 1902 she was an Italian 11 year-old peasant girl whose neighbour tried to rape her. He stabbed her 14 times. But as she bled to death she forgave him. The Church canonised her in 1950, but not necessarily for that. I remember being impressed with her courage. How brave, I used to think, that she would prefer death than commit ‘mortal sin’ by submitting to a youth bent on raping her. The Church holds her up as an example for girls to emulate.
I forgot about St Maria Goretti in later years. Yet as I wrote I knew the story would be about a girl who bears Maria Goretti’s name, and Martin, a young journalist she falls in love with. She is 17, her school’s head girl and top scholar. Martin is 23. Her large family are over-achievers of Irish descent. They’re lawyers and doctors and academics. Her brother the priest waits in his confessional to absolve her of her ‘sin’.
At 100,000 words I was wondering how I was going to finish. I woke up one night and the ending was there in my mind. I hadn’t thought of it, but it seemed right. I was 63, a father and grandfather. How did an elderly male get inside the head and heart of a teenage schoolgirl. I said that to someone, and the reply was: ‘How does anyone get inside the head of a teenage girl …?’ Eventually I did what every writer I’m sure feels anxious about finding an agent or publisher. I Googled one in London. I e-mailed them the first 30 pages. Six weeks or so later I got an automated, anonymous reply that said, in effect, ‘thanks but no thanks’.
In the end a friend suggested that I follow his lead and sign up with CreateSpace. In New Zealand the publishing establishment gives the impression of being insular and elitist. You have to have been a graduate of a creative writing course, one in particular, to have your manuscript even glanced at. University-based, of course. When did writing stories become a university-only activity? Why? My only experience of ‘creative writing’ was journalism. I didn’t write Maria Goretti and Me for the approval of the professors and graduates of creative-writing or English lit courses. I wrote it because I had a story to tell. I couldn’t rest until I’d done that.
It might not be Great Writing or The Great New Zealand Novel. But it is mine.
Paul Corrigan lives in Petone, near Wellington. Maria Goretti and Me is his debut published novel. Visit his facebook page here.