Neil Hegarty - always working with words

Neil Hegarty.
Neil Hegarty.

Derry writer Neil Hegarty is currently putting the finishing touches to his eagerly-awaited official biography of broadcaster Sir David Frost which is due for publication in the autumn.

The Derry man, originally from Culmore Road, this week took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to the ‘Journal’ about where he’s been, where’s he at and where he’s heading.

It was at the end of last year that the former St Columb’s College pupil was commissioned to write the official Frost biog - a major coup in the literary world.

The book - which has had the full collaboration of the late TV icon’s widow and three sons - will include unpublished writings.

Neil has also had access to the television presenter’s private archive as well as to people who knew him intimately.

However, in an effort to gauge where Neil now finds himself, it’s probably best to rewind a few years to when he was first starting out in the writing game.

Was it by luck or by sheer graft that he managed to secure a foothold in what’s regarded by many as a no-nonsense - indeed, cut-throat - business?

“Both,” he says. “I began by writing for my eyes only - short fiction, mainly - but one day a good friend mentioned my name to an editor who was looking for someone to write a non-fiction book about Dublin.

“The editor approached me - the book was ‘Waking Up In Dublin’ - and, then, he asked me to write ‘Dublin, A View from the Ground’, and it all went from there.”

Neil, who has also penned the acclaimed ‘The Story of Ireland’, says his rise through the ranks of writing has been steady rather than stratospheric.

“It’s been a gradual process,” he says, “which has been the best way for me.

“Everyone needs to learn their trade and improvement comes with experience, in 
writing as in any other profession.”

Bit of a silly question to ask a writer, but is writing something Neil enjoys?

“I do enjoy it. Of course, it’s not without its challenges.

“I think I have the right cast of mind: I can deal with my own company and I can imagine a book from its beginning to its end - both of which definitely help.”

Neil agrees that both high and low points come with the territory.

“Low points include waiting for the phone to ring with a commission; high points include the sound of the phone. Also, good reviews - I’m not going to claim I don’t read reviews and, when readers get in touch with a big thumbs-up, that affirmation is terrific.”

Neil - who co-wrote ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’ to accompany the BBC TV series - reveals that his love of all things writing/reading was fostered during his childhood in Derry.

“When I was growing up, Shantallow Library was housed in a Portakabin on the Racecourse Road and the Central Library in a Portakabin on Asylum Road and visits to the library with my father were much a pattern of childhood.

“Also, good teaching - Mr Colm Fisher, at Pennyburn school, was a sensational teacher and his influence has been crucial.”

Neil acknowledges that he’s got to where he is now in a “roundabout way”.

“Through an English degree and, then, a thesis and, then, a spell working as an editor. Always working with words. And this led up to a point where I was ready to take the plunge fully into writing.”

Turning to the Frost book - which is titled “Frost: That Was The Life That Was” - Neil says it’s been “very, very interesting and absorbing” work.

“His life is full of fascinating stuff,” he says.

“Frost lived his entire adult life in the public eye and, so, one of my tasks was to uncover the private man behind the image.

“And he turned out to be much more private and enigmatic - and, hence, much more interesting to write about - than I could have imagined.”

So, what’s next on the agenda for Neil Hegarty?

“I’d like to stay open to the potential of good work coming my way,” he admits.

“That said, I have a novel sitting in a drawer and another sitting in my head, so I’ll be giving them some attention next.”