Books

Derry entertainment lawyer Niamh Hargan novel pens romantic novel informed by her experience of the Cannes Film Festival

Derry entertainment lawyer Niamh Hargan uses her insider knowledge of the film industry to inform her debut novel, set in the Cannes Film Festival. She speaks to Jenny Lee about her experience of the festival and how she hopes that one day her story will be adapted for the silver screen

Tom Cruise will be in attendance at Cannes this for the screening of Top Gun: Maverick

AMIDST the movie stars, directors and media currently soaking up the glitz and glamour of the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival is Derry lawyer Niamh Hargan.

The entertainment lawyer, whose job involves "reviewing film and television shows prior to broadcast for defamation, copyright infringement and other issues to minimise the risk of legal claims" regularly attends many of the industry's major events and festivals.

"I go to all the festivals - Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca and London," she explains.

"Primarily I am there to meet with our existing clients. A lot of the time we are working remotely. It's nice to have face-to-face time.

"It's also good to meet up-and-coming film-makers and get a sense of what is happening in the industry."

Niamh - who is too discreet to name any names - admits she has rubbed shoulders with a fair few film stars.

"Occasionally you might get an invitation to something that has a red carpet or an event on a boat or rooftop," she says.

"It's very exciting and certainly far from Derry."

The Cannes film festival holds a special place in her heart. And when it was cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, Niamh decided to write about it instead.

Her debut novel, Twelve Days in May, tells the story of Lizzy Munro, who is working at the Cannes Film Festival for the Scottish film board, in a job that involves a lot more admin than red-carpet glamour.

There, Donegal heartthrob and film director Ciaran Flynn is the man everyone is talking about.

Although they haven't spoken in 12 years, when Ciaran's film - all about a student love affair that has uncanny similarities to their own college friendship - finds itself in hot water, Lizzy is the only person who can come to the rescue.

This poses the question: is 12 days enough to save not only Ciaran's film, but also the spark he and Lizzy once shared?

"I'm thrilled that all the time I've spent there over the years, surreptitiously listening in on other people's conversations, could now surely be termed vital literary research," laughs the 32-year-old, who is currently based in Edinburgh.

"Cannes is a unique environment, both exactly like and entirely unlike what I might have once expected, which struck me as an interesting jumping-off point for a story.

"A solid 70 per cent of the whole thing, as I mention in the very first chapter of my novel, does seem to be drinking rosé and talking about the need for strong female characters from morning until night, both of which I've always been pretty good at."

Although a qualified and former practising solicitor in Northern Ireland, Niamh embarked upon further training in America in order to work in the entertainment sector.

"In the context of this job I ended up doing the New York bar and getting admitted as an attorney in the US. So much more content is created there and mostly what I am doing is giving US advice," she explains.

While lockdown didn't stop her 'day job', Niamh - who is used to hybrid working - returned home to Derry and found herself with a lot of free time and the opportunity to fulfil her lifelong dream of writing a book.

"I genuinely used to think that everyone wanted to write a book. I would have considered that a very standard goal, in the same way that you might want to buy a house or visit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York.

"The issue that I always had was that I was waiting for some kind of idea to come to me - a perfect unique singular idea that one day arrives perfectly formed."

Niamh admits boredom propelled her during lockdown to "just write something".

"From the outset I wanted to write something that would have broad appeal. I didn't know much about writing a book, so when I was Googling I came up with this Curtis Brown Creative three-month online course," she explains.

"The deadline to get on the course was the next day and you had to submit a 3,000 word synopsis."

That submission, she says, remained almost exactly like the opening of Twelve Days in May.

"The course was quite costly and I was worried about investing all this money and not having anything to show for it," says Niamh, who landed a two-book deal with leading publisher HarperCollins.

"Obviously with Covid there was no travelling and no socialising and I thought it was a good time to invest in myself.

"The course really gave me structure and helped me learn about the publishing business."

Like Lizzy, Niamh spent a year studying in Bordeaux under the Erasmus programme, but while she got inspiration from her surroundings, she says, "I wouldn't say that anything that has happened in the book happened..."

While a heartwarming story of second chances and miscommunication, the toxicity of social media, press intrusion and misogyny within the industry are all explored in the novel.

"It was Covid and I was in a mindset that I wanted to write something uplifting. Twelve Days in May is light, buoyant and romantic, but also isn't silly or insubstantial.

"I feel the book is for smart women who are knackered," adds Niamh, who in defending the genre of rom-com, quotes the last line of her novel: "To be light, as it turns out, is not necessarily to be flimsy."

As well as currently basking in the sounds and sights of Cannes, she is working on a second novel – this time using her insider knowledge of the American courtroom.

"It's set in New York and about a lawyer and is tonally in the realm of romantic comedy," she teases.

With contacts in the film industry, will we see Twelve Days in May on the big screen one day?

"It's been a really exciting part of the process speaking to production companies and seeing the interest of producers - so watch this space," she beams.

And who would she cast as Lizzie and Ciaran?

"As I was writing the book I didn't have particular actors in mind. With Lizzy, if a film were to retain the idea of her body dysmorphia issue I wouldn't want them to cast a supermodel," says Niamh.

"Equally, with Ciaran, I wouldn't want to hear a bad Irish accent."

What about Jamie Dornan? "Jamie would be ideal," she laughs.

Twelve Days in May is published by HarperCollins and is out now.

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