To say I was looking forward to interviewing Virginia Gilbert about her debut novel Travelling Companion is somewhat of an understatement. Apart from her being a BAFTA-nominated, award-winning writer and director in film, television, radio and fiction, I had already managed to get myself halfway through her wonderful novel. It is right up my street, described as a “taut psychological thriller”, and one which had me turning the pages in that delightful way that all good books can, finding myself looking forward to getting back to it every time I had to put it down.
I’d arranged to meet Virginia in the Strong Room of the Irish Writers’ Centre on Parnell Square, and we got straight down to business, talking about why novel writing, and why now? “I have written since I was 4,” she says, “so writing has always been part of my life, and I have always had the ambition to write a novel. Also, I felt this particular story was better suited to this form.”
Virginia was drawn in by the psychology and the relationships of the story, explaining how in all her storytelling, including film, she is fascinated by the beat by beat subtle changes that happen when people interact with each other, especially the disconnect between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. “The fascination is that there is always a core mystery no matter how much you think you know somebody. You’re never fully aware of the baggage people are bringing to each interaction – especially someone you might meet on holidays!”
Set on a sunny, sleepy Greek island, Travelling Companion is a study of how ordinary people commit appalling acts, and how horrific actions can grow from the most trivial of misunderstandings. Surprisingly, Virginia says, she doesn’t plot her work, whether it’s a short story, film or in this case, a novel, “to me,” she says, “it’s a very instinctive thing, and I’m often asked where I get my ideas from. There is always a trigger, and at the end of the completed work, I’m both surprised and not surprised based on the initial instinct. Not being a plotter, my characters do surprise me, and therefore there is something organic about the way the story plays out.” Virginia says she is interested in the extremes of human behaviour, alongside making them plausible and real. Across the board, she acknowledges, “for me, the stories have always come from the characters.”
It was the National Write a Novel in a Month project (NaNoWriMo), which first caught Virginia’s attention and the appeal of setting a word count every day that you had to absolutely hit. She has always been good at juggling; it suits her temperament, admitting that she is a bit of a workaholic. The best time for her to work is early morning. “When you’re rewriting, including film work, you can have a more structured day as you are using a slightly different part of your brain.”
Her feature film as writer-director, A Long Way from Home, starring Brenda Fricker and James Fox, will be released shortly, and it was Brenda Flicker who launched Travelling Companion for Virginia in Dubray Books in Grafton Street. Talking about the writing process, Virginia says, “I guess you have to take the terror with the joy, and the terror can be that you can get halfway through something and discover that you don’t have a story that you want to tell.” When she thinks about writing Traveling Companion, she says, “It was kind of hazy to me, because I was sort of in the tunnel of it all.”
If you’re like me, and you enjoy a character that will keep you on the edge of your seat, in Travelling Companion, look no further than Michael – a shy, introverted man, stranded alone at the same hotel as Rob and Georgie. They look on their two week break with sun, sea, and sand, as a chance to reconnect and spend much needed time together, but Michael has other ideas. Perhaps I have an unhealthy interest in the bad guy, but he was one humdinger of a character for me.
The character of Georgie, says Virginia, “came in part from my own real life crisis of turning thirty, but now that I’m past thirty,” she laughs, “it’s fine.” She had spent a package holiday away with her parents in a similar location as the novel is set. It struck her that by setting characters abroad and on holidays, it gave a very specific context for the psychology. “You have time on your hands,” she says, “and you ask the bigger questions about your life.”
Talking about her early formative years, Virginia says she was blessed with a literary and cultural upbringing. “My dad was a film maker; my mother worked in radio and then went on to be a teacher. I read every day, I was immersed in it. My key writers would have been, D H Lawrence, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, and in later years, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shiver, Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing.”
Virginia also says that she was always a starer, even as a little girl. “My mom,” she laughs, “used to get very embarrassed by me on trains, staring at people. I still catch myself doing it now. I’m a terrible eavesdropper, and I ALWAYS have a notebook with me.”
An advocate of workshops, a piece of advice she gives to writers is that the hard part is not the starting, but the 2/3 mark. This is the point when you need to push through and finish it. “I have always found that when you’re coming towards the end of something, you really have to shout down the voice in your head that is telling you that you are crap.” Fluency is everything, and when you’re writing every day, it certainly helps. “Writers write. There is no trick to it, there is no magic. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you do it, it doesn’t matter what your routines are around it – writers write, so if you consider yourself a writer, you should be writing.”
There is another piece of wisdom that Virginia has discovered in her writing life, that of knowing your own temperament, being patient with yourself and allowing the process to happen, “You will get stuck, you will come up against insurmountable obstacles and doubts, but as long as you can identify that this is part of the process, that the doubting voice is not the truth, and you can find strategies to deal with it, you will be fine.”
This BAFTA-nominated writer is currently preparing a new TV series for Irish television to be broadcast in 2014 and writing an original drama for BBC Radio 4, scheduled to broadcast late 2013.
Travelling Companion is her first novel, but she says, “it won’t be my last.”
Published by Liberties Press Travelling Companion and is available in all good bookshops and online here.
(c) Louise Phillips
Born in Dublin, Louise Phillips is the crime writing mastermind behind writing.ie’s Crime Scene blog. She began writing in 2006 when her youngest son turned thirteen. Since then, Louise has won the Jonathan Swift Award with her story Last Kiss. She was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, short-listed for the Molly Keane Memorial Award, Bridport UK, and long-listed twice for RTE Guide/Penguin short story competition. Louise has been published as part of many anthologies, including County Lines from New Island, and various literary journals. In May this year she was awarded an Arts Bursary for Literature from South Dublin Arts Council.
Hachette Books Ireland bought Irish and UK Commonwealth rights for Louise’s debut psychological crime novel Red Ribbons, which was shortlisted in the 2012 Irish Book Awards for Best Crime Novel of the Year 2012. Louise’s second novel The Doll’s House was published in 2013.