Nuala Casey grew up running free in the Yorkshire Dales, but always yearned for the city. Now back in Yorkshire, she has just published her first novel set in the aftermath of the 7/7 London terror attacks. Catherine Scott meets her.
Sitting in the idyllic summer house turned office turned studio in Nuala Casey’s York garden could not be further away from the urban buzz and bright lights of London’s Soho.
But it is the capital where Nuala decided to set her debut novel, Soho 4am, centred around four people in the aftermath of the bombings that brought terror to London on July 7, 2005.
“I just love London,” says Nuala. “I lived in Soho for a while and it fascinated me. I felt I just had to write about the people and the place. But things did change after 7/7.”
Nuala was living and working in London at the time of the terrorist attack on the capital and realises all too well how close she and her husband Nick were to the disaster.
“I was working in an office in Waterloo. Nick normally caught the Piccadilly line. By chance he decided to walk that day instead of getting the Tube. We were told we weren’t allowed to leave the building, but no-one knew why. At first they said it was a power surge and then we realised it was a terrorist attack.
“Nick was working in Leicester Square and I started to worry when I couldn’t get hold of him. It was a very surreal day.”
Just the day before London had been celebrating winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics; jubilation was quickly replaced with fear and panic.
“I read an article about a woman who died in a car crash on 9/11 in New York. On any other day it would have been news, but not on that day. I decided to take four characters who have life-changing incidents in the 24 hours which will be overshadowed by one momentous thing.”
Nuala Casey had always been fascinated by London and couldn’t wait to leave the Yorkshire Dales where she grew up. But the 7/7 attacks diminished its allure, especially when she gave birth to her son Luke.
“When I moved to London I prided myself on knowing the Tube routes without having to look at the map. I knew I had really arrived when that happened. I still adore the city, but after 7/7 something changed for me. I remember feeling very wary. One thing I loved about London was that it was so cosmopolitan, but suddenly you started looking at people differently. Everyone was a suspect. I always thought that I would bring up my son in London, but in the initial few weeks and months after 7/7 things had changed.” And so the couple decided to move back to Yorkshire.
It is somewhat strange that Casey was so drawn to the city in the first place.
The youngest of five children to journalist and Dales Diary presenter Luke Casey, Nuala had an idyllic childhood running wild in the Dales. She was much younger than her siblings. Her youngest brother, Midsomer Murders actor Daniel Casey, is seven years her senior and her closest sibling.
“We had eight acres of land, dogs, cats, horses, all manner of animals. My dad was working for the BBC and commuted to London and came home at weekends. He did that for 15 years and I suppose that was where my fascination for the city started.
“Mum was a bit bohemian and we had a great childhood. Although there were five of us, you’d go to school and come back and still be able to have your own space. When the others left to go to university I was like an only child. There was always space – you could just run down the field.”
But a young Nuala always had a yearning for something other than the rolling green hills of home.
“We used to go visit Dad in London and I just adored it. Then Daniel moved to London. We were very close and I’d go for a night and stay two weeks.”
Despite always being fascinated with writing, Nuala decided to study sociology at Durham University, though she managed to shape the course to include English Literature.
“Writing was seen as such a normal thing when we were growing up. Dad was always writing scripts on his typewriter. Being creative in our family was very normal.”
But in her teenage years it was music that became her passion.
“I am from an Irish family and so we were always singing and dancing. I wanted to be in a band, but it was always writing the lyrics which interested me more.”
It was singing and songwriting that took Nuala to Soho.
“After leaving university I went to London to get into music,” she says. “But the more I saw of the music industry the more I realised it wasn’t for me.” She found, as an attractive young woman, that all the music bosses wanted was for her to wear skimpy clothes. “It didn’t seem to matter if you could sing or write music. It just seemed to matter what you looked like. I found it all very superficial.”
But she adored Soho and it was there she started to get back into writing and worked as a copywriter.
“Journalism had never appealed to me, probably because I had grown up surrounded by it,” she admits. Her sister Siobhan is a journalist based in Doha and her husband works for Al Jazeera. “I wanted free rein over what I wrote so I started writing about the things and people I saw.”
Nuala met her husband, artist Nick, in Soho.“On our first date I told him ‘I’m going to be a writer’.” The couple met in 2005, a year after Nuala had the initial idea for Soho 4am, and they set up a small business – she did the copywriting while Nick did the design. It was something they could have carried on doing, but Nuala was determined to finish her book and get it published.
When Luke was born in 2007 it gave her the opportunity she was looking for.“I realised it was now or never.”
She had heard about a Creative Writing MA at York St John and thought it would be the ideal place to finish her book and get some constructive criticism from other would-be authors and tutors.
“I am bad if I don’t have a deadline and so there was a danger that I might not finish it if I didn’t do the course. It wasn’t about the qualification it was about finishing Soho 4am.”
Having made the decision to move north they then had to find somewhere that would appeal to both their city-loving hearts.
“We knew we needed more space and wanted to be near the countryside, but also wanted all the things that a city can offer, as well as a quick route to London when we needed our fix,” says Nuala.
After trying Harrogate, which was too quiet, they settled on Fulford on the outskirts of York and have not looked back.
“I just fell in love with it. You get the fresh air and countryside and also the city. Luke who’s now six is a real country boy. He just loves going up to my dad’s near Darlington and running around.”
Doing the MA accomplished everything Nuala had hoped for.
“You do workshops where you read extracts from your book and then people give you constructive criticism. I found it very useful, but daunting. The first time I did it, it was like going into school assembly with no clothes on.”
By the time she graduated in November last year Soho 4am was finished. Nuala then had to set about getting an agent.
“It is virtually impossible to get published unless you have an agent and if you are going for an agent you have to be prepared for rejection.”
Nuala was taken on by television, film and literary agent Madeleine Milburn who put the book through a rigorous series of edits and then got her a two-book deal with publishers Quercus.
“It was unbelievable. Every stage you go through you think that will be it, you won’t get any further. You think you won’t finish it, then you won’t get an agent and then you won’t get a publisher. I couldn’t believe it when I eventually got a copy of my book in my hand – but then you worry no-one is going to buy it.”
She has just finished her second novel, Last Day of Summer, a psychological thriller set in post-Olympics London.
“It is still set around Soho, although it travels across Europe. One of the characters is a City banker with OCD. I had to do a lot of research about the money markets.” Last Day of Summer is due to be published next year.
Nuala is hopeful of getting another book deal. “I have six or seven books in my head. The next one is about a female war reporter whose past comes back to haunt her. I’ve always been fascinated by female journalists, particularly female war reporters such as Marie Colvin. If I get the chance to write it there will be a lot of research involved.”
Nuala writes in the converted summer house she shares with Nick. “It works well, but it does get hot.”
She also finds it easy to work with Luke around.
“He’s at the Steiner school round the corner and they only do mornings for the first few years, but I have always written with him around and it doesn’t bother me or him.”
Soho 4am by Nuala Casey is published by Quercus, priced £7.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.