A rare trip to Dublin in July was a multi-purpose trip. A chance to enjoy the sunshine, browse some bookshops and meet up with author Jennifer Burke, for a chat about her upcoming release, Levi’s Gift. I was honoured to be asked to do the cover reveal in June and had a few questions about the ‘dreaded second novel’ as well as wanting to know what it was like to win a publishing contract on national television? So we settled down in our outdoor seats, in Starbucks, soaked up the sun and got down to some serious book talk.
I asked Jennifer to start by telling me what it was like the day she found out she was chosen as the winning novelist for the TV3 Write A Bestseller Competition with Poolbeg. She revealed, “It was the best day ever, but mortifying as well. They had rung me a couple of days before to say ‘you have been shortlisted, we are going to come to your office, we are filming all the people shortlisted, then you’ll come to the studio later and we’ll announce the winner.’ She was delighted to be shortlisted but, like most females, was worried about what to wear.
Jennifer had booked a room downstairs in her office “where no one would see “…. TV3 then announced ‘Well actually that was a little lie, we just told you that so that we would know you would be here. There actually is no shortlist. You’ve just won!’ Jennifer was stunned and said “they barged into the office and told everyone. I hadn’t told anybody, as I didn’t want to make a fuss or anything. Everyone was like ‘What’s Happening?’ It was amazing. Then they brought me to the studios and I was introduced to Paula, my publisher from Poolbeg. It was straight onto the set, and then the interview. It was so great.”
This seems slightly surreal so I wanted to know how that felt.
“I always thought, someday, I would get published. That was always the dream. I always thought that would be the best day ever, to have it published. But to have it happen in that way, with all this extra excitement, where all my friends and family saw it on TV, it just made it really special. It was mortifying, but you can’t ask for better.”
Jennifer explained that she has been writing for years and years, and had always hoped to be published, but to have this happen was a complete dream come true. She has had amazing support from family and friends, but this really showed her how supportive people can be.
I love knowing how writers come up with their stories, so I asked where the idea behind The Secret Son came from?
“I was studying Law and had to do this probate course, where they teach you how to write a will and how cases end up in court”. She couldn’t get over how many cases were brought to court to contest the contents of the wills. “I was really taken with this and I didn’t realise there was such an epidemic , as such, in this country.”
She describes how she was sitting in lectures, pretending to write notes but actually day dreaming about a fictional story. “I had loads of ideas, but it was sitting down and writing it. When I actually qualified as a solicitor this was the one that kept coming back to me, I couldn’t get rid of it ”
The excuses that we all use “I’m too busy, I have no time. I have too much to do” were wearing thin and she knew that if she didn’t write it then, she may never do it.
Jennifer explained that she has a few ideas and had started a few different books. However, she decided to focus on the one that kept coming back to her. “It’s a real commitment. It took about eighteen months to write it. I wanted to really get into it. Then a few months later I did get the idea for the second one.”
Most authors I have interviewed say that they started writing as a child and I wondered if Jennifer had some early inklings of her future novelistic talents?
“It is something I have literally always done. I have all these early memories of sitting in the sitting room, beside this little table, on this little chair. I had one of those story books with a tape that you could listen to. I would scribble away, I have been doing that since I could write. Stupid little stories and I could barely write. I used to write poems when I was kid. I always had it. They [her family] could never stop me. Then I went to college, studied The Law, and it was only when I qualified that I realised that what I really wanted to do, all the time, was write. That is when I started entering short stories competitions and went to the Irish Writers Centre and did courses. Life is too short for this, there is something I really, really want to do, and I’m going to do it.”
I told Jennifer that I still have lots of those books and tapes and my kids all loved them too. The fact that she had started on her serious writing journey, at such a young age is impressive, as most female writers tend to wait until their career is settled or finished, the kids have grown up, and there are more available hours in the day. I admire her for making the decision to get down to it while still in her twenties, as it gives so much more time and scope for further novels.
When I write something, my family and friends are always telling me how wonderful it is, but they are completely biased. I wondered if Jennifer had all positive feedback now that she was published?
“It has been really positive. When they made the announcement, it was only then, about two weeks later that the editor got in touch with me, that was when it really kind of hit me that people are going to read this and possibly hate it. Nobody likes every book. Even the best book in the world, there are people who don’t like it.” But after that initial fear, Jennifer started to think that “hopefully someone will like it. And it has been really positive, I haven’t heard a negative thing about it. I do tell people that I don’t mind critique” She says this will help her learn.
A letter even found its way over from America from a woman who was waiting on a kidney transplant and had read The Secret Son. “She wanted to let me know that she thought I had handled the whole situation really well, it was realistic and that’s how people feel”. This was a very special moment for Jennifer as it validated her work. A friend had helped with the research on the medical side, but the emotional parts were where her talent as a writer came in.
A busy solicitor and now a published author, I was curious to see if she ever has time to read other peoples books anymore? With a change in job hours, Jennifer is now free most evenings and weekends to write, or read. “Since getting published I have met a lot of Irish authors and I go to book launches where I pick up their book and have something new to read.”
We had actually bumped into each other at the launches of Maria Duffy’s One Wish and Hazel Gaynor’s The Girl Who Came Home, so these were the two books Jennifer was reading at the time. The great thing about the writing community, in Ireland, is that you get to meet lots of like-minded people and tend to grab more books after meeting an author at an event or hearing people say how much they enjoyed a book. My own To-Be-Read pile is HUGE!
So, the second book has just been released and as I don’t have an advance reading copy, I needed to know what this new book is about and where the idea behind it originated. Jennifer sings with a choir, and back in 2012 they went on a trip to Italy where they sang in a seminary. “The seminary that we went to was up the hills, absolutely gorgeous, so picturesque. It’s just such a different lifestyle to anything I would be used to here.” They stayed and had dinner and the idea came to her that this would be a perfect place to set a book. “An idea came to me, of somebody who visits the seminary and becomes romantically involved with one if the seminarians.” Over time the story changed and adapted so now it’s more of a mother/daughter relationship. Unfortunately, there was not a chance to go back to Italy, under the guise of ‘research’, despite a longing to return.
“This book feels very personal to me, even though I did NOT have this experience in the seminary,” laughs Jennifer. The experience of motherhood is also not something she would have experienced so I asked her how does she get it just right “I like writing about emotions.” She says she is known in her writing group for writing stuff that is very sad and gets teased about it.
When it came to choosing a cover for Levi’s Gift, Jennifer knew she wanted a seminary in there, in some shape or form. The designers worked on a few different images and after some feedback from booksellers, she was delighted with the final image. “I’m really happy with it. It’s a really exciting part of the process, picking the cover!
Lots of authors dread the release of the second book and find it harder to write than the first. I wondered if this applied to Levi’s Gift?
“It wasn’t harder, as I had a second book already written and now I have my third. I guess it was weird writing Levi’s Gift, as it was the first time I had written a book knowing that it was going to be published,” She explained there was a different approach to writing this book as there were three parts, and she had written it in different sections. She wasn’t sure the publishers would like the different style but luckily they loved it.
We finished up having a chat about the importance of having an added feature in the book, designed for book clubs. I am a big supporter of this idea as sometimes book clubs can struggle to discuss the book in any depth and these author interviews and questions can be a great guide. Ward River Press titles feature this in all their books as they are geared towards a more literary style than their Poolbeg titles.
We had a nice relaxed chat over tea, coffee and scones and then headed off to Easons to check the shelves. Well, why not? One can never have too many books, right?
Levi’s Gift is published by Ward River Press and is available in paperback and ebook format.
(c) Margaret Bonass-Madden
About Levi’s Gift
‘Inside those walls was a man, as young as I was, learning how to become a man of God. He owns my heart to this day.’
Levi’s Gift tells the story of Lena and her daughter Mattie who has just given birth to a stillborn son. Following Mattie’s spiral into depression, Lena takes her from their home in America to Italy in an attempt to rescue her and rekindle in her the sense of family and identity she lost after the death of her child. But this requires Lena to reveal what she experienced as a young woman in Italy the love she has secretly treasured all her life. She hopes that by encountering the past together, they can find hope for the future.
Levi’s Gift is in booksops now or pick up your copy online here.
Jennifer has written writing.ie a great series of articles on getting started writing which are well worth checking out, just click the links!