Yes, you read it correctly. Sister Caravaggio, or, if you prefer you can draw up your own subtitles, anything from Sisters Sleuth or Nuns’ on the Run for Mon(ey). The novel, to be launched on September 3 at RHA Dawson Street is all about two sleuthing nuns on the hunt for an art fragment by Caravaggio which has been stolen from their County Kildare convent. One of them – Sister Alice – is a former sassy and street-wise police detective. Along with the convent librarian, the tech-nerd Sister Magdalene, they hit the road to try to recover the artefact on which the nuns’ livelihood depends. The story brings them face on into the world of crime, art and aesthetics during which they encounter sleeze-bags and aesthetes in places high and low before the mystery is resolved.
The idea for the book began way back in 2010 when writers Peter Cunningham, Neil Donnelly and I used to meet in the Orchard Garden Centre near Celbridge Co. Kildare for our monthly meet-up. It was a social habit, a writers getting-away-from-the-laptop thing, until the day that someone – and I can’t remember who – uttered the magic words: “We should have a project!”. From there the idea grew legs, or wings, or wheels as we put our heads together and pulled out ideas on how the plot might work. Then we began to consider who we could invite to join us from a list of authors who might be interested.
We didn’t think very hard about whether it would work but we had our highs and our lows, moments of doubt and moments of certainty. By the time all seven of us were assembled and collaboration became challenging, interesting and very hard work, the doubts fell away completely. Fortitude in numbers, you might say, even though this was straying away from the usual writerly path of utter solitude. Straight away Peter Cunningham had sensed that his friend Maeve Binchy might warm to the idea – which indeed she did with gusto – dashing off her chapter in a couple of weeks and delivering it to Peter (who was to be general editor and overall deviser of the book). The other chapters rolled in gradually over the months and indeed over a two year period. Because each chapter was written in sequence, so author number three, let’s say, couldn’t proceed with their chapter before authors nos one and two had completed theirs. Each writer was given a detailed outline of what should occur in each chapter, but it was understood that this also contained a certain latitude, so inevitably – and often excitingly – small new twists and turns developed out of the template plot.
So here we are now, at the eleventh hour before publication with Liberties Press. And the writers involved? Maeve Binchy, Peter Cunningham, Neil Donnelly, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Cormac Millar, Mary O’Donnell and Peter Sheridan. You could say we’re excited about this venture. It’s not the first collaborative work to come out of Ireland or anyplace else, but for such solitary and mostly individual creatures as writers it is unusual. Previously there’s been the Dermot Bolger edited collection of individually written short stories in the collaboration known as “Finbarr’s Hotel”. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, who has contributed to “Sister Caravaggio” was one of the writers in the Bolger publication.
To say we had moments of fun with the plot would be an understatement. It was intense at times. Some hard decisions about elements to include and what to edit out had to be made by as we worked through the possibilities and options for certain characters, their roles and their importance in the overall scheme. Because the book contains several sub-plots which had also to be resolved. Little did we know during our first meetings in the garden centre restaurant in Celbridge that our conversations would lead to a group of us writing about a fictional enclosed convent in in County Kildare, the site of a crime which would crack open several life-changing secrets for those close to convent life and those within it. The only thing that remains is for readers to read it. As for Sister Alice, our sassy sleuth of a nun? As in the best confessionals, my lips are sealed . . . .