PRISON might seem an unlikely environment to inspire a creative career. For Lisdoonvarna’s Bill Bradshaw, however, working in that tense, high-pressure environment did exactly that. The Rathkeale native is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist, and credits a long career as a prison officer with his unique writing style, as well as some of his subject matter.
Bill has just published his third book, Delphine, which draws on influences such as horror writer Stephen King and explores moral taboos and family dynamics. Two more novels are in the pipeline and Bill is actively fundraising to turn Delphine into a six-part Netflix series. He is also part of a Clare-based publishing initiative, backed by the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and bringing together a number of other creative minds.
While his work in the Irish Prison Service is partly responsible for Bill’s approach to his writing, it is a career that has taken a heavy toll.
“There is a raw reality in a prison that you can’t hide,” he explained. “You don’t mask it by being courteous to people and you don’t talk about the weather. You don’t talk about Covid-19. There are immediate threats and immediate pending things. And the reality of that is there every single day and every single week. And that is carried with you.”
Bill became a prison officer after a stint living in the UK in the 1980s. He spent most of his career in Mountjoy before transferring to Limerick Prison. He retired from the service in 2012 and was surprised at the amount of time needed to readjust to life on the outside.
“I never realised how really devastatingly stressful the job was until I left it,” he said. “I often said if they offered me 10 times the money I would never go back inside the gates of a prison, because you become conscious of how exposed you are. When you’re there, you feel safe because you’re ring-fenced by your colleagues.”
The dangers of the job are not limited to the confines of the prison, Bill explained, and the threat can be constant. “Believe it or not, I was followed in Dublin once,” he said. “But I was also followed in County Clare. And they weren’t from there. I knew where they were from. It actually happened a year after I retired. I was gone! I was retired and I wasn’t a prison officer any more. And I pulled up at a petrol station and they saw me and they recognised me and they followed me all the way across Clare.”
Part of the difficulty of readjustment into everyday life came from the requirement to spend long hours away from home and in an often tense environment.
“I never knew how long it was going to take to adjust,” he said. “Because when you’re working in the prison, you’re working huge hours. It was not unusual for me to work 70 hours a week as a standard, you know, and I worked seven days. I’ve worked 29 days, 30 days in-a-row.”
A turning point came for Bill after one of those marathon stints at work. “I can remember an occasion when I came home after working 30 days. I had grown a goatee during that time. I walked into the house and my daughter didn’t know who I was. She was maybe two or three. It was the most devastating moment in my life. It really was an eye-opener. I had to sit on the sofa and she came to the door and she stared at me. I said, ‘Hello’, and she came a little closer. I said, ‘How are you?’. She sat at the edge of the sofa and stared at me. Then she identified who I was. And I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m never doing that again. Never’.
The harsh lessons of life as a prison officer did inspire Bill to write. “That rooting in reality, gave me great licence when I started writing,” he acknowledged. “I never felt ‘I can’t say that’ or ‘I can’t go there’. There’s a really raw element to this book. And it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t discuss certain things.”
Bill’s first book was largely based on his experience as a prison offer. From the Horse’s Mouth – A Jailer’s Tale, published in 2005, is a fictionalised version of real events including a roof-top riot at Mountjoy and a hostage-taking at the prison.
“It was published by a company called Trafford Publishing in Canada,” Bill said. “It did really well it was the biggest selling Irish book that they ever published. It went on sale in China. I went over to do a book signing in Canada. I addressed the Correctional Officers’ Association in Canada. And, it all went from there.”
A 2017 novel, Hello, Welcome, scooped publisher Austin MacAuley’s Book of the Year Award. It details the journey of a lonely widower from a life of isolation into the heart of a revolution in a faraway land. Much of the novel is set in Clare and it draws on Bill’s own experience of loneliness after marital breakdown.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the publication of Delphine and while the subject matter of the novel is very different to that of his previous works, there is a common thread – a reference to a fictional town called Drumasheen. “It’s really inspired by Ennistymon, which isn’t too big or too small and is full of character and just bustling,” he said. “Drumasheen is there in all of the books.”
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bill lapped up popular literature and cinema. “That was a great time for the horror genre,” he noted. “It was really important to me to capture a sense of what you find in works like Frankenstein and The Exorcist, of people who have lived lives.”
Delphine’s central character is one of those people. “Laura Brady is the central character and she is a successful writer,” he explained. “She’s a slightly cynical character. I would say she’s disconnected. She lives in Burlington, Ontario but knows she had spent some of her early years in Ireland. She knows she was given into the care of relatives at the age of three. Her relatives gave her so much but no answers. On the eve of a book launch, she gets a call from St Gabriel’s Nursing Home in Ireland where an elderly lady has named her as her next of kin. That news takes her back to Ireland.”
With admirable energy which is matched by a vibrant imagination, Bill already has plans for this next two books. He is has also produced a screenplay for Delphine, as well as the script for a six-part series. “We have raised a significant amount of money to adapt it,” he said. “It’s for Netflix and getting a Netlix-approved producer would be a game-changer.”
Three Men Dwell is to be his next novel, based on the true story of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared for 15 days in December 1900. Bill has secured huge support from the Scottish Lighthouse Board who have provided him with some previously unseen photos which he will incorporate into the book.
Brothers is the working title of the book that will follow. “It’s set in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and follows two brothers,” he explained. “One is the handsome, popular boy who is the apple of his father’s eye. The other is gay and thrown out of the house after an indiscretion at the age of 15. In his later years, the father sends one son off to find the other in what is very much a changed Ireland.”
Normally, at this time of year, Bill would be travelling to Thailand, where he and his wife have a house. The pandemic has put paid to that plan, for now, and Bill is writing from home. “We both go out to work but we do opposite shifts,” Bill explained. “I write when I come home. I forget to eat. I would gladly do this full-time.”
Bill is also involved in an innovative project to support emerging authors. “Maester Press is supported by the LEO and involves a number of creative people. Their next project is called Hoard and it’s by David Naughton Shires. It’s a book that’s very different and I loved it.”
Maester is also encouraging writers to submit what Bill calls ‘drabbles’. “A drabble is a short story in exactly 100 words,” he explained. “It takes creativity and discipline. It’s actually more difficult writing a book. We’re asking people to send their drabbles to email@example.com. We would love to see what people come up with.”
Bill has just been voted ‘Author of the Month’ by WorldAuthors.org. Delphine is also in contention for the An Post Irish Book of the Year Awards 2020, in two categories. It is available from The Ennis Book Shop, Banner Books (Ennistymon), The Salmon Book Shop and Literary Centre, Ennistymon as well as The Crescent Book Shop (Limerick) and Amazon.