Lahinch author Ruairí McKiernan writes about the challenges of writing his first book, overcoming initial rejection from publishers, and then launching what became a No.1 bestseller at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was never my dream to write a book, but it seemed life had other plans. The first call to write came when I was 23 and living in Canada. A publisher approached me after hearing me on the radio discussing globalisation. I was no expert on the subject, but I decided to give it a go. A third of the way through the first draft I gave up. Too hard, too time-consuming; the writing life not for me. “Never again,” I said.
Fast forward a decade. I’m hitchhiking around Ireland on what I called a listening tour; seeking out hope for myself and my country. At that time I was burnt out, feeling lost and depressed, and so too was post-boom Ireland. I began meditating, bringing awareness to my life, tuning in to an inner voice telling me it was time for a change.
After leaving the non-profit organisation I founded and everything I built up over the previous decade, I dived head-first into the recession. The Celtic Tiger economy was crumbling, unemployment and emigration rates rising, a sense of anger and despair in the air. The prospect of emigration loomed, it was tempting; a chance for a fresh start, hope to be found in new lands.
The inner voice whispered again. A new sense of intuition. A call to hit the road, shake off the shackles on a pilgrimage to reconnect with myself, and with Ireland. And so, I hit the road.
Hitchhiking around our island brought me face to face with people’s anger, a sense of betrayal, their vision and values, hopes and fears. It also showed me their kindness, courage and vast resilience. It revealed an ancient sense of community spirit in this land – fierce, unshakable, sacred, a spirit that gives me hope.
The journey struck a chord with people and suggestions that I write a book kept coming my way. I felt ill at the thought, the last experience not such a good one. All those hours wasted, the taste of past failure still lingering.
In due course, I relented. It seemed the voyage wasn’t over. This, after all, was no longer just my story. It belonged to those I had met on the road, the people who gave me lifts, opened their homes and hearts to me. It was a chance to honour them and an Ireland that deserves celebrating.
Six long years it took. Six years of ascending the slope and falling back down. Climbing to a ridge to admire the view only to realise I had hiked in the wrong direction. Like a novice house builder, I ended up with walls in the wrong places and leaks in the roof. Easily distracted and life challenges to contend with while contemplating critics both inner and outer, the prospect of giving up again became all too real.
In the end, and after a major rewrite, perseverance paid off. Or so it seemed. Until the time came to find a publisher. Rejections came flying in, not topical enough, not edgy or controversial – all sorts of reasons. One publisher was interested but only if I changed direction. But I had travelled too far now and there was no going back.
I was preparing to self-publish Hitching for Hope when a last-minute, out-of-the-blue intervention signalled a change of plan. The founder of a major American publishing house had stumbled upon my podcast and wanted to learn more about my book.
March 2020 arrives. I’m about to begin an eight-venue hitchhiking launch tour. All those moments standing in bookshops visualising the book about to become a reality. A time to celebrate, UK and US tours to follow.
Enter Covid. The first lockdown started the week of my launch. Bookshops closed, festival appearances cancelled, media opportunities gone. I’ll never forget that sinking feeling as I peered at my book through the rain-soaked windows of Lahinch bookshop during that period.
Perspective mattered though. Public health was far more important than any book. This wasn’t about me, or any of us, but rather all of us together. Yet I learned we’re allowed our moments, to feel the frustrations, the disappointments, to have the odd moan.
On the other hand, the book had gifted me greater resilience, taught me patience, and helped me to surrender and allow it to take me on to the next stage of this curious adventure.
It was time to roll up my sleeves again. I went online, figured out live streaming, and Zooming, and the power of asking for help. The book became a bestseller. It hit the number 1 spot for paperback non-fiction titles the week after its release – in large part because of what the book seeks to celebrate – community spirit. People got behind it, bought it online, ordered it in their local bookshops. “A strange time for it but perhaps the perfect time,” a friend remarked. A book about hope when the world was collapsing. A tale of travel when no travel was possible. A book about human connection when we need it more than ever.
After more than 20 online events involving thousands of individuals in over a dozen countries, I now find myself touring the world on an almost daily basis. South Africa, the Netherlands, Hungary, the US, Australia, the UK and beyond. From my fireside on the western edge of Europe, I’m sharing stories and laughs, creating conversational spaces about hope and humanity for the diaspora and others. Culture Ireland has just come on board and momentum is building. Every day a new adventure, getting as much in return as I offer out, the wheel of reciprocity and interdependence ever turning.
I’ve also started writing again. This time with more joy and confidence following a bumpy apprenticeship. Another book has arrived out of nowhere, the writing helping me navigate the emotional, spiritual, and political rapids of these extraordinary times. The last book – a tough six-year mission whereas this one took just six weeks. Another plot twist in the story.
In the end, I got there but I realised that there is no there. New chapters are always unfolding – challenges, opportunities and unforeseen possibilities around every corner. I am grateful for the journey, the highs, and for the lows in particular for they have provided the most potent learning. Life doesn’t always take us on straight roads. The windy road, however, with all its twists and turns, the scenic views and shared stories can be all the richer, made better by an occasional stop for a dance at the crossroads, even if it is a virtual one.
Hitching for Hope: A Journey into the Heart and Soul of Ireland by Ruairí McKiernan is available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook from bookshops and various online retailers. More information at hitchingforhope.com. This article first appeared on the Irish Times website.