Damhnait Monaghan: New Girl in Little Cove

Damhnait Monaghan was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019 with Up She Rises. Now published as New Girl in Little Cove, Damhnait’s debut is an ideal lockdown antidote, set in Newfoundland and full of warm humour and quirky characters.
Welcome, Damhnait! It's been a very busy and exciting couple of years for you! Can you tell us what happened to your novel after it was shortlisted, and how you found your agent, Hilary McMahon at Westwood Creative Artists? Which part of the process did you enjoy the most, and is there anything that you wish you had done differently?

Making the shortlist for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019 was such a boost. I knew my shortlisted novel needed work - it was still a bit rough around the edges and I had just scraped the 50,000-word limit - but the shortlisting and the feedback from judge Victoria Hobbs gave me the confidence to stick with it. After the shortlisting I spent some time writing - adding both length and depth - then edited and polished until I felt the manuscript was ready to be sent out.
I researched agents carefully and queried a handful in each from Canada (where I’m from and where the novel is set), the UK (where I now live) and the US. After a few personalised rejections, three agents asked to see the full manuscript, including my now agent Hilary McMahon. Hilary’s parents are from Newfoundland & Labrador (the setting of the novel) which is one of the reasons I queried her. When Hilary and I spoke on the phone, it was clear she cared as much about my characters and story as I did. It was an easy decision to accept her offer of representation there and then.

I’m not sure any part of the querying process is enjoyable, except for that offer of representation! I’d been down this road once before in 2017 with a very different version of New Girl in Little Cove – longer, more literary and in retrospect, probably a hot mess – so it was gratifying to see a different reaction this time around. Even the rejections were kind and personalised. As to what I wish I’d done differently, maybe nothing, because my dream has come true!

Your recent - and very personal - book launch on Zoom was a lovely mix of music, dialects and views of Newfoundland life, all of which feature strongly in New Girl in Little Cove. Can you tell us a bit about how you researched your novel, and how much of your own experiences you drew on?

New Girl in Little Cove tells the story of Rachel O’Brien, a brand-new teacher from the mainland who finds herself marooned in the tiny fishing village of Little Cove. To a certain extent it’s inspired by my own experiences as a new teacher. Like Rachel I taught French in outport Newfoundland & Labrador in my early twenties. Unlike her, I was not a new arrival. We moved to St. John’s, the capital city, when I was twelve. I finished high school and attended university there, so I was not really an outsider. But the fish out of water trope (where the protagonist is dropped into unfamiliar territory) makes a far better story. Most of Rachel’s adventures are pure fiction - I experienced very few of them myself. But like any novice teacher, Rachel and I had our difficult moments. And like Rachel, I was asked how to say ‘seal’ in French on my first day. Also, like Rachel, I didn’t know the answer.

The novel is set in the 1980s, which is when I lived and taught on the island of Newfoundland, so much of the research was simply refreshing my memory as to the social and cultural happenings from that period - movies, songs, etc. However, I did research rug hooking, a traditional craft carried out by the Holy Dusters, a group of local women in my novel.
There's a very strong sense of community in your novel, which is hugely appealing in the current lockdown! Did you choose your characters before your plot, and which ones were the most fun to write?

Yes, a few people have mentioned that reading the book during the pandemic felt like going on holiday to a cosy little place.

I knew I wanted to tell the story of a mainlander teacher who experiences culture shock in Newfoundland & Labrador. That seemed to cover both basic plot (a stranger comes to town) and main character (the teacher). Apart from Rachel and a prospective love interest, I knew the community would be populated with a mixture of characters, but the specifics unfolded as I wrote. I had a lot of fun inventing the Holy Dusters, this group of local women who seem to run the show, especially their de facto leader Lucille, who runs the boarding house where Rachel stays. But I also loved writing about Sheila, Rachel’s best friend. I really enjoyed writing the dialogue between her and Rachel.

What other plans are afoot for New Girl in Little Cove, and what are you working on now?

May is a big month for New Girl in Little Cove. It will be released in the US on 11th May with Graydon House Books and will also be available in the UK, Australia and New Zealand on 26th May, with pre-orders possible now. (The e-book is already available in the UK.)

It can also be pre-ordered in other English language markets. So, for example in Germany, the English language paperback can be pre-ordered and, as with the UK, the e-book is already available there. German language rights were also picked up by Suhrkamp/Insel but I’m not sure when that edition will be published.

As to what I’m working on now, I’ve just come off a week-long flash-fiction writing course with the brilliant Kathy Fish. I’m now going to return to my second novel. I have the basic plot outlined (beginning, middle and end) so now comes the fun part of filling in all the empty spaces. It takes place over the course of a summer in mainland Ontario and begins with my main character Maisie at rock bottom. Let’s see if she gets up.

You are a great supporter of writing competitions! What encouragement would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

I’m a great supporter of one novel writing competition in particular! The Caledonia Novel Award shortlisting was a game changer for me. A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion called Can Writing Competitions Bag You A Book Deal?, which was organised by The Diary of a Debut Novelist Facebook group led by Emma Christie. I thought it might be interesting to explore the “Where Are They Now?” of the past few years of Caledonia Novel Award winners and listees – I think these statistics speak for themselves:

2021 Winner + Highly Commended both have agents (and of course it’s still early in 2021!)

2020 Winner + 2 shortlistees have agents; 1 longlistee has an agent, 1 is set to be published independently

2019 Winner + 4 shortlistees have agents (1 is published, 2 have novels on the way this year – one of which is me!)

2018 Winner + 3 shortlistees have agents (all now published); 2 longlistees have agents and both are published

What a track record!

I would advise anyone thinking of entering to give themselves the best possible chance of success by ensuring their entry is polished until it gleams. Read, edit, repeat. Read it out loud for cadence and errors. Change the font size to give you some distance from it so you see it anew. Then take a deep breath and submit!

New Girl in Little Cove was published in March, 2021 by HarperCollins Canada.
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