Today I am thrilled to welcome bestselling Irish novelist Roisin Meaney, acclaimed and much loved author of women’s fiction.
Roisin discovered the power of words when, at the age of 18, she entered a competition she found on the back of a packet of cornflakes. She wrote the winning slogan and won a Ford Fiesta. She then entered every competition she came across that required a slogan and won again and again, from holidays and mountain bikes to air miles and watches. This could in itself have been a career but Roisin was more serious than that, so she became a teacher.
Not finding the fulfillment she wanted in the classroom, Roisin then went on to work in advertising in London, where writing slogans was very much part of her everyday occupation. She found she was good at this, making anything from butter to teabags sexy and appealing. She briefly flirted with writing at this stage and put together a children’s book but after many rejections, gave up on the idea and decided to go back to Ireland and her teaching career.
It was during this time that the urge to try her hand at writing adult fiction became increasingly stronger. When she won a trip to San Francisco (another winning slogan) where her brother lived, she decided to take a year off to write her first novel. This turned out to be The Daisy Picker, which earned her a two book deal and the rest is Roisin’s ongoing history.
Eleven years, eight adult novels and two children’s books later, she is now a full time author. Some of her books have been translated to several languages and two of them have been published in the US. In her owns words, here is her writing life in a nutshell:
I feel I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do. Starting each new book terrifies and thrills me in equal measure – it’s the hardest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. When I write, time loses significance. I miss appointments, skip meals, forget to feed the cat or put out the bins. My sleep is seriously disrupted as I tease out a plot or tweak a story line Because I can’t afford to be less than fully alert when I write I’ve resorted to sleeping pills to get me through the broken nights, and have grown quite fond of warm milk before bedtime. Throughout the process of writing a book I’m extremely focused I get up in the morning and work at the kitchen table till my brain says stop. I always arm myself with a plot before I start: sometimes it’s quite sketchy and I fill in as I go, and other times it veers seriously off-course and ends up miles away from where I was aiming. I become ridiculously attached to my characters as I write and miss them desperately when the book is finished. I’m devastated if someone I’ve grown attached to dies. I often write through floods of tears. But really, it’s all good. I wouldn’t change a thing. I love being a writer. I get beautiful messages from happy readers. Truly, I am one of the lucky ones.
I asked some of her readers what they would like to know about Roisin and her writing and here are the questions:
Q: What’s it like having books published in the States. Has it made a big difference to your career?
A: Not a whole lot, to be honest. I was thrilled to hear a US publisher was interested in publishing one of my books, and since then they’ve taken another, but apart from those two books being on US bookstore shelves, life has continued pretty much as before! Apparently they’ve sold pretty respectably, and my royalty payments have improved a little as a result (and I’ve got some lovely messages on my website from American and Canadian readers) but apart from that, no change.
Q: Have you got a favourite out of all your books?
A: Um, very hard to say, but if I was tortured until I caved, I’d probably say it’s a tie between Half Seven on a Thursday and One Summer. I loved writing both of those, got totally emotionally involved with the characters, and hated letting them go at the end. Mind you, I feel that way about all the books, but I think slightly more with these two, for some reason.
Q: I would like to know how you keep the thread of your stories when you’re writing, they interweave beautifully and you can see when you look back the relationships developing.
A: The answer to this one is: with a lot of difficulty! I’m not sure how it came about, but somehow my last few books featured a huge cast of characters (in fact, my US editor asked that I cut a few out of The Things We Do for Love, which as you can imagine was no mean feat.) So invariably I tear my hair out regularly as I write, trying to keep track of where everyone is, and what they’re up to. It’s great when it eventually comes together, but I can assure you a lot of blood, sweat and tears is involved…..by contrast, my next book, which is due out in the spring, has just two main characters, with everyone else very much in the background – a very pleasant change, and a lot less hair got torn out!
Q: How do you set the story out to write….for example do you map it out roughly with stick it notes, or just rough notes written to refer to occasionally…do you know the complete plot when you start or does it evolve as you goes along? When you are writing, does the line of the story change often from the line you had first intended? How long does it take you to write a full book (excluding editing etc), and what time per day is devoted to just writing? Do you ever suffer a block where you just sit and nothing comes to mind to write? Do you write the whole story first then go back and edit or do you edit as you go along like Ken Follett has said he does?
A: Before I begin a book I plot it loosely. I deliberately keep it broad and general, because I like to flesh it out as I go, but I always have an ending in sight – having said that, the ending can and does change sometimes. I keep track of the progress as I go in the form of an overview document that sits side by side on my computer screen with the narrative, and in this document I list every scene, the pages they occupy and a summary of what happens, as in ‘p45-48: Nell and Tim argue about living in the room beside the salon’. It sounds tedious but it’s so automatic with me now that it doesn’t cost me a thought, and it’s invaluable if I need to check back on something, or have to tweak something to tie in with a later change. A first draft takes on average six months, and from start to finish a book would probably take up the best part of a year. When I’m in the middle of a book I sit down with it as soon as I finish breakfast and work away until my brain begins to scramble, usually between 6 and 8 hours. I don’t take weekends off as such, but if something comes up and I need to be away from it for a day it doesn’t faze me. Similarly, if I find I’m having a slow day, where not much creativity is happening, I’ll leave it and go back the next day. So far I’ve met my deadlines. When I’m in the mood, and it’s going well, I can get a lot written in a relatively short space of time, so it gives me a bit of leeway for the things that get in the way. I edit as I go, in the sense that before I begin a day’s writing I generally reread what I’ve written the day before and tweak it a bit, and when I come to the end of a draft I’ll go back to page one and go through the entire manuscript again, tightening and polishing as I go. I like to have my drafts as good as they can be before sending them off.
Q: How do you challenge yourself and your writing skills with each new book? How would you say your writing has developed since you wrote your very first novel (which won the competition)?
A: I think, and sincerely hope, that with each book I develop a little as a writer – partly going on the ‘practice makes perfect’ principle and partly because with each rewrite of a book (following my editor’s recommendations) I feel I learn a little more about what not to do, or what to try and avoid in the next book. I think my first book was very much a learner book – when I open it now (which I try to avoid doing) I cringe at the overwriting. I said much more than needed to be said. Maybe that’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt – not to tell the reader everything, to let her figure it out for herself. I try to show rather than tell, and to leave a little unsaid.
Q: What would you say is the most challenging and difficult aspect of creating a novel that works?
A: Creating believable characters. If you can do that, I think they’ll help to give you story lines I spend a long time getting to know my characters before I begin a book – I give them faces and backgrounds and personalities and families. I can’t write about people I don’t know. My characters come first, always have.
Q: How do you feel about this special ability you have to touch so many people’s lives?
A: It’s lovely to feel that something I write might brighten someone’s day – I’m humbled and delighted when I get a message in my guestbook from readers who take the time to let me know that they liked one of my books. I feel grateful to have been gifted with the ability to write stories that please, and I live in hope that I can continue to do it for a long time to come.
Many thanks to Roisin for this interesting interview. You can find out more about her and her books on her website