Elizabeth, congratulations on the success of The Book of Learning, it’s really taken off – It’s been chosen as the Dublin UNESCO City of literature’s Citywide Read for Children. Can you tell us about that?
The Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read is an initiative that encourages children to read for pleasure. One title is chosen each year, and my debut The Book of Learning (Mercier Press) is the choice for 2016. There are around 30 events across Dublin between January and March; a mixture of school events in libraries and open events in venues such as Hodges Figgis, the National Library of Ireland, Cabra Library (March 8th) and the Big Day Out (March 20th). The Dublin City Council Libraries stock plenty of books, so they’re available for children to borrow. Focusing on one book is a great way to open a dialogue and get children talking about books. The Big Day is going to be particularly exciting; a house on Merrion Square is being turned into the house in my book, so as well as illustration demonstrations and readings from me, there’ll be a magician, real pet rats, writing and art workshops. You can read more details about the events and campaign here.
The novel has a striking premise, a brilliant main character in Ebony Smart, and a supporting role played by a rat (Winston). Can you tell us where it all came from?
I’ve always been fascinated by death; it’s the one guarantee we have in life and the one thing we try and pretend won’t happen! I’ve always been intrigued by how different societies deal with death; it tells so much about a community. When I first moved in Dublin I was renting a beautiful Georgian apartment, and I saw a ghost on more than one occasion – but the only thing is, I don’t actually believe in ghosts. So I set to thinking about what I could have seen, how belief influences our thinking and how language can constrain it. I already had my character names and a sense of the emotions I wanted to convey in the story, as well as the basic reincarnation premise. As I explored Dublin city, it felt like the cobblestones were whispering stories to me, and everything grew from there. The setting in my book is as important as the plot; it’s almost a character in its own right.
You and I met when you were working as a social media consultant and teacher, and as a blogger for festivals (you’re responsible for this blog). I know you’ve helped many other writers ease across the divide between print and digital media. You had an online profile and network before you were published, which many people say is the new route to publication; but you also put in the hard graft behind the scenes: long, lonely and uncertain hours of working on draft after draft of a book not knowing if it would ever be a book. So you covered both bases – what would you advise aspiring writers in relation to work and balancing writing/blogging/tweeting – where do you stand on all that now?
I love seeing people embrace social media and enjoy it. I believe that having an online presence is important as a writer, because it enables you to make contact with your audience. It also gives you the opportunity to widen your reach and make new friends in the publishing/writing/reading world. Personally, I enjoy the chats and friendships I’ve made through social media – particularly twitter or my blog –I live in rural West Cork, so it’s a great way for me to stay involved with what’s going on. However, building an online profile should be seen as in addition to, not instead of, your writing. You can build a massive audience but without a finished product, a completed manuscript that is worthy of publication, what’s the point? Your book must always take priority.
A publisher may be more inclined to take you and your book on if they know you can market yourself online, but you must have an actual manuscript to be considered at all. Most importantly, your manuscript must be the very best it can be; you only get one chance with a publisher or agent, so spend time on your book. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more! Your social media profile can be built on the side. I wrote two books to publishable standard before signing a book deal – that was five years of daily graft. And although I was building a profile and training in social media, it was always secondary. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that setting up a blog or tweeting is writing. When you are dedicated to working on your manuscript, social media is a wonderful tool. Without the writing, it’s simply procrastination. It’s up to you to find the balance.
Is there anything about the move to becoming a published writer that surprised you (good or bad)?
The main thing I didn’t expect was to feel vulnerable. You’ve done all the work and all the waiting (there’s so much waiting!), and suddenly people are reading your book and you realise they’re forming opinions about it. And that opinion might be negative. This may sound daft, but I didn’t think about the fact that people I know would read my book. My village has been amazingly supportive, but it was really odd at first when people came to tell me how much they loved my book or I saw someone reading it in the café or pub. It was really lovely, but I had no idea how to react or what to say! Now I just say thank you. Even though the feedback has been amazing, it was still nerve wracking – and I’m a very confident person. Which is probably why the vulnerability took me by surprise.
Another thing I didn’t expect was the amount of stuff you’d be asked to do without payment. Let me clarify; I have no problem doing some things for free but I can’t end up in a situation where I can’t eat or pay the bills because I’m trying to be nice and please everyone by doing endless free events. As soon as I was published I was inundated with requests for interviews, talks, school visits, articles for newspaper, books reviews, book recommendations, etc – and when I asked if there was a fee, the response was usually surprise or shock. People seem to think that writers (and musicians and artists) shouldn’t charge for their time and expertise. Yes, you may get some ‘coverage’ (this is the usual bait), but what isn’t taken into consideration is that these things take much more time than the hour or two you’re booked for; there is preparation, practice, and time spent travelling. Sometimes there are also costs involved (e.g. travel, handouts, laminates) but the main issue is time: if I’m working on free events/interviews etc, I can’t freelance – which means I’m not earning. Three days of free events means three days without pay that week. It’s not sustainable.
What has been the biggest change for you?
I think personal validation; that’s been the biggest change. Writing is a difficult beast to measure, and before you get a book deal, it’s hard to know whether you’re improving or getting closer to your goal. You have to rely on your instincts – and as we all know, we’re our own toughest critics. I know that writers write, that that’s the real measure of being a writer, but if you’re ambitious and driven, writing can be incredibly frustrating. Especially in the middle stages when you’ve written and rewritten one or maybe more books to the best of your ability, you’ve attended workshops, you’ve built your profile, and everyone else around you seems to be getting signed. You’re left wondering, what else can I do? I’ve had many such discussions with writers who have now acquired agents and book deals. It’s very common, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. For those of you out there currently feeling this way – the only thing you can do is keep going. If you give up, you have reduced your chances to zero. Keep going, and you’re in the running. If it makes you feel any better, almost every publication-hungry writer I met has now got an agent, one or more books on the shelves, or one on the way. When you’re published, there’ll be other challenges, but as far as I’m concerned, none will be as tricky as trying to keep faith in your writing as the rejections flood in. Since publication, I’m a little kinder to myself.
What has been most helpful?
The community of writers in Ireland has been my rock. It’s a really special and supportive community, and we’re very lucky to have it. I also feel like writers are really respected here, and I always say I wouldn’t have even realised I could be a writer if it hadn’t been for moving to Ireland. Even though I don’t live in Dublin now, I stay in contact with everyone via social media – I even recently joined a children’s writing group in Dublin, attending when I’m in town for events and using Skype when it’s geographically impossible. Writing is so solitary and such a strange beast, you need your writing buddies.
Is there anything you’d advise aspiring authors to avoid?
Rushing. I know it’s really, really difficult, but you only have one shot, so your manuscript must be in the very best possible shape, completely honed and polished. The competition is tough; every writer looking for a book deal wants it badly – so you have to go that one step further. Sending a manuscript out when it’s not ready is like running a sprint backwards. If you know you can do another, better draft, even if it means waiting a couple of months before you tackle it, then wait. Rewrite that manuscript. Because if you know it’s lacking in some way, an editor/agent/publisher certainly will spot it a mile off.
And finally – what are you working on now? What’s next for you?
This is a really exciting year, starting with The Book of Learning being chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read for children, and two more books hitting the shelves. So many amazing things have already happened, such as meeting over 1000 children who have all read my book, a full window display in Hodges Figgis, and getting to read in the National Library of Ireland reading room! And I can’t wait to see the house from my book brought to life in Merrion Square in March! I also have multiple festivals lined up, both as a speaker and an attendee, as I think it’s important for writers to keep learning and supporting other writers. Festivals are great fun and they help to balance out the solitude. Caramel Hearts (Alma Books) is my Young Adult debut and it’s out in May 2016. It’s about a teenage girl with an alcoholic mum and it has real cake recipes throughout – you’ll have to read it to find out why! As for the next book in the Nine Lives Trilogy, The Book of Shadows, I’ve just completed the structural edits and it’ll be published in September 2016, with the final instalment in September 2017.
Thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions, and very best of luck with the book and the rest of the Citywide Read.