JULIA KELLY, daughter of the late John Kelly (former Attorney General and Fine Gael TD) published her debut novel with my lazy eye in 2007. Having been named Best Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards,with my lazy eye went on to be short-listed for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award at the Listowel Writers’ Week and was nominated as one of the Irish Book Awards Books of the Decade in 2010. Living in Bray, County Wicklow, Kelly is currently completing her second novel, due to be published later this year. Today she traces her trajectory from unpublished to published writer and talks us through building characters and constructing plots and the best sentences, which come to her in the bath.
Did you always want to be a published writer? How did you go about getting published?
I dreamt of being a published writer from a very young age, but was told again and again how incredibly difficult it would be. I suppose I got lucky. I sent away the first three chapters of my debut novel, With My Lazy Eye – the only ones I’d written – and got my book deal based on these. I then had the mixed blessing of having the pressure of a deadline but also the motivation I needed to get it done.
Have you ever had negative influences towards your writing?
No, not really – I’ve been lucky to have always been encouraged and I try to see critical reviews as not purely negative but as constructive so that I can learn from them (unless I don’t think the criticism is legitimate)!
Do you self critique everything?
Continuously, as I’m writing. Learning to switch easily between your critical and creative sides is a difficult skill to master. I try to write a piece/chapter first as freely and as naturally as possible and then I’ll go back and read through it critically. I also find it hugely helpful to have someone else read over my work once I’ve written a significant amount.
Who reads your work first?
My partner Charlie – he’s an artist but has a brilliant eye and is an avid reader, though mostly of non-fiction, true crime and Viz!
With great trepidation – there’s all the usual procrastination; doing anything, anything whatsoever, other than sit at my desk, then, when I’ve run out of hiding places, I endure the first tortuous minutes of nothingness – not a single original thought — but I scribble away anyway and if I sit there for long enough, I always – without fail – become so absorbed that I don’t notice the hours pass.
Do you start with a whole idea or just a general feeling of what the book is about?
I only ever have the vaguest of ideas of what the book will be about. Mostly I start with descriptive passages or character sketches or short scenes. I only bother with a structural outline towards the end of a book, when it’s almost there.
Is it safe to say that you draw from your own life experiences when creating characters or scenarios?
I think that’s true of all writers to a greater or lesser extent and it is certainly true of me. My first book was loosely based on my own life, so yes, I do identify with Lucy, but all my characters evolve into imaginary people — ghostly other selves — who look and speak and act in my mind very differently to real-life people even if I’ve taken some of their real characteristics.
What is required for a character to be believable?
For them to be flawed, fallible, contradictory, but fundamentally sympathetic so that the reader can empathise with them and so that they care what happens to them. What interests me is most human relationships and it’s their interaction that will determine the plot.
Do character names change as you write or stay fixed?
I often base my characters on a combination of people I’ve met in real life so will sometimes use a real life name and change it just before publication to keep me out of trouble!
How do you go about the researching process? Is it as important as imagination?
I research in a very haphazard way – continuously, as I work, rather than before I begin. Life for a writer before Google was a lot more challenging. Research and squeezing the imagination are the fun parts of writing – both are essential.
It used to be in my little office, beside the kitchen, where I would spend a lot of time avoiding work by ensuring that my working conditions were absolutely right: my desk had to be tidy, lamp-lit with a few carefully arranged photos of people who’ve influenced my writing, a heater at my feet, no background noise or disturbances. Now that I have a child it’s really anywhere I can get five minutes to myself – the kitchen table, in the evenings, by the fire, laptop on my knee and sometimes the best sentences come to me in the bath.
Are you a planner when it comes to writing or do you prefer when it flows more naturally?
I try to plan everything in my life but it never really works, though having had an office job for many years and a strict father who deplored apathy, I try to be at my desk at 9.30am at the latest and will work through till lunchtime and do more research/reading after lunch, while my baby takes her nap.
And finally, what is your biggest tip to all those budding authors out there?
Don’t be too critical of your efforts – just write whatever comes into your head initially, don’t worry about how good it is or about showing it to anyone else, just get the words down, and be brave and committed enough to sit at your desk and fight through those first horrible moments and ideas will soon begin to flow. Read, read, read and keep your eyes and ears open – it’s all out there!
©Julie Murphy for writing.ie