Gillian Binchy's debut novel, Ruby’s Tuesday, was recently published in Ireland by Poolbeg Press – A Ward River Imprint. Today, Gillian has popped over to answer a few questions about the heartbreaking inspiration behind her book, her famous relative and much more.
I wrote Ruby’s Tuesday in less than three months. I put pen to paper during the summer of 2013. The novel was motivated and inspired by the loss of our daughter Zeldine. I began it in late May and finished the second draft the day before I returned to work in mid-September. I wrote from early morning until late at night. I was obsessed with my daily word count, 3,000 words a day was my target. I wrote like a possessed woman! Every day with the allocation of words complete, I would then edit the content that I had written the day before. Never deleting content I had written. In the early stages of a novel you are not sure what will and won’t work so I found it best to shy away from the delete button until the first draft was fully complete.
I took breaks from the desk and ran the East and West piers in Dun Laoghaire; I spent hours sea swimming around Dublin bay with my husband. I walked with friends but mostly I just wrote – I sat at the desk with the view of a ruby-coloured tree and of Dublin Bay and banged out Ruby’s Tuesday. Very often the view from my desk of the seascapes greatly influenced and inspired me. I have just started my second novel, this week in fact. I signed a three book deal with Poolbeg Press as part of the Ward River Press Imprint; I am still working the day job three days a week. On my writing days, I write from early in the morning until late at night, taking breaks to walk and swim. I try to get up early and write before I go to work –but that does not always happen. Writing the second novel is less intense, not as urgent and more enjoyable. I still remain very disciplined, but I am less harsh on myself this time around. My daily word count is a mere 2,000 words on a writing day!
When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
I think that the writing bug is in the blood. My dad Dan Binchy is a published author as is my cousin Chris Binchy – and, well, Maeve Binchy is also family. She, in particular has been a great source of inspirational for me. Maeve sold over 40 million books and was published in 37 different languages. That is some achievement. When I sit down at the desk, Maeve writing tips rattle around inside my head. I write a demon, obsessed. The writing she would say is no better when you write slowly – so I furiously bang words onto an empty page. I know from her that there will be no light bulb moments – you have to create your own inspiration – as she would say! Another author that is truly inspirational is Roddy Doyle – he writes as he talks – his dialogue is real, it flows – it is utterly hilarious, He can create the most incredible scenes around the simplest of actions – like taking out the bins. He writes for the ordinary person and is capable of shocking you, making you laugh and cry all at the same time. He is a true gem. Neither Maeve nor Roddy were affected by their huge success, they continued to live very ordinary and private lives. They entertained millions of people, taking them, if only for a few hours, away for the hum drum of ordinary living. They both are truly inspirational story tellers.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I am not sure I have just one favourite, but two that have stayed with me are Lionel Shiver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and also Emma Donohue’s Room. Both these books I found incredibly powerful. I felt as if I was present in the many scenes in both novels. These stories are very real and deal with contemporary’s issues that any mother might face – a school massacre and a kidnapping. The pacing, plot, the structure and the characterization of both novels entice the reader into their story. Once inside you are trapped. Addicted to the pages and you can’t read fast enough. Though these women’s enthralling stories are raw, chilling and very intense, their compelling tales make you both terrified and excited to turn the next page. That, in my opinion, is real story telling. The reader feels as though there are not only included but intruding in mother’s heartache, confusion and frustration. Though intense and disturbing these stories are beautifully crafted, paced and above all are convincing. I can clearly visualize both mothers and sons in my head, I feel I might recognize these characters if they passed me on the street. These novels take you on a journey – one that you really may not want to on be – but one that you can’t bear to get off. That is story telling at it best.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
I begin by writing a pretty detailed synopsis of the plot, about 2,000 words. Then I draft the structure and work out an approximate word count for the beginning, middle and end of the book. When I have the logistics of the plot worked out and the word count calculated, then I have a deadline. A deadline to me is a life line. I plot what is going into each section of the novel. I draw up a detailed profile of each character so that I can imagine them clearly and perfectly in my mind. That way I can get to know them intimately – then I can tell my readers about them. All my characters are based on elements of people I know, whether it be friends, work colleagues, or stories people tell me about their families and friends. I don’t always write in chronological order, but mostly I do. As the plot changes and evolves I update the synopsis. I try to go for a long walk first thing in the morning, by the sea, just to crystallize what I am going to write that day. I talk myself through the plot, out loud – I am used to people looking at me strangely, I give them a half smile as I power walk on past. I find the sea a powerful influence in my writing. Then I do a two or three week edit and then one final detailed edit before sending it to the editor. That's when the real slog of writing really starts when the first draft comes back from the editor. While I found writing my first novel Ruby’s Tuesday a great challenge, it was also a very cathartic. The novel tells the story of early child loss. In a strange way it meant that I was able to express some of the pain. Writing the novel was beneficial. It was definitely part of the healing process. It was an outlet; it allowed me express my sadness and disappointment. It took four drafts to get it complete – two were my own edits and two more very detailed ones were with my fantastically patient editor Gayle Shortland.
What was your journey to being a published author?
The journey to being published was a long one – it took me the bones of 20 years to really get started! After college I spent six months in the Australian outback – up in the Northern Territory outside Fitzroy Crossing, mustering cattle and working as a cow girl and cook during the mustering season. I wrote a lot up there. Every evening, after sitting around the campfire and chatting, there little else to do, so I wrote describing the screaming sunsets, the locals and their traditions, wrote about mustering. I sent those letters home and at the same time kept a very detailed journal – so yes, I have always dreamt about writing in some way. In 2007, I wrote half a novel – it was set in a skiing resort in Austria – boy meets girl. Then I had an early mid-life crisis, gave up my job and headed off travelling around South America on my own. I came back, changed jobs, fell in love, got married and tucked the novel away safely in the hope that one day I might come back to it. Last May I thought it was time to finish it. So I dusted it down and restarted it. I thought it was good – yes, I was happy with it – but it did not flow – maybe because I felt that I was not in the correct mind-frame to bang out a happy-go-lucky romantic tale on the snow, so I shelved it once again. Then, one beautiful day about two weeks after Zeldine had come home, on the way out, Gary and I bumped into a delivery guy trying to find a house near where we lived. The conversation was very similar to the passage included in the book. I asked him was he Michael, the Michael who had brought Zeldine to our door two weeks before, and he said yes – he sympathized with us both and said how sorry he was. Gary and I then went swimming and on the way back from the Forty Foot I told Gary I was going to write about Zeldine for the summer. We put the desk into our bedroom at the window with the view over Dublin Bay, overlooking Howth Lighthouse, and down over the cherry tree and I began to write. So Ruby’s Tuesday was actually inspired by the incident of meeting the Swift Delivery man.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That you would have to be amazingly creative to succeed as an author. You, of course, have to be creative, but it is as much about dedication and hard work as creativity. Maybe 50% is creativity and the other 50 is just the hard old slog – like you might get in any job. That dedication involves staying at your desk and putting in those long days to get a well-rounded story onto the page. When I was younger, I wanted to write, but I didn’t have that total devotion and discipline. I was busy having the fantastic life of a young, free and single woman. My discipline back then was not as good as it is now. Now I have a system going – my writing routine is occasionally artistic, quite committed and one of perseverance. Writing is not filled with glamour or endless hours of blissful inspiration where the words magically appear on the page or novels miraculously arrive on book shelves. You need to roll up your sleeves and put in the hours. There is plenty of arduous and demanding work to be done if you are going to succeed as a writer! So the question is when you edit out the glamour and add in the hard work are you still interested in being a writer?
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Put a time frame on writing that novel, that play or that short story without a deadline you will struggle to finish it. Find a system that works for you and then stick with it. Stay at the desk, write through those imaginary blocks, which personally I don’t believe exist. Believe in yourself; convince yourself that you are good enough to be published. If you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. Move on from the self-doubt. Forget about the bad days when the words don’t flow, concentrate on the good ones. In any career you will have some bad days and writing is no different but don’t dwell on those days. Try to have a structured time to write, if you are just sitting there waiting to be inspired you will be in for a very long wait! You need to motivate your mind and then artistic stimulation will follow. People’s minds are stirred by different triggers, for some of us it might be reading a book, for me it is walking by the coast or swimming in the sea. For others it may be the simple exercise of relaxing in a bath. Try to discover early on what makes those creative juices flow and then combine your findings with a daily routine – you'll be half way there. Learn to accept rejection early on and don’t let you put it off because if there is one thing for sure you will get more than your fair share of it in the literary world! Learn from the polite ‘no thank you’ letters – don’t take them personally and above all keep writing.
What are you working on at the moment?
My second novel. I have signed a three book deal with an Irish publishing house, Poolbeg Press as part of the Ward River Press Imprint. The first draft of my next novel is due in October this year. I have just finished the synopsis, structure and the characterization so now it is time to sit at the desk and bang it out. I tend to write about what I know and I write as I speak. Some chapters are set in the Outback in Australia, on a cattle ranch in Western Australia and more of the novel is set in Dublin Bay. I still work three days a week in my day job, which pays the bills, so it is busy. I am also in the middle of trying to secure a foreign rights deal for Ruby’s Tuesday plus I am working with a film agent who has a client interested in possibly acquiring the movie rights. That is terribly exciting, though I am desperately trying not to let it distract me from my daily word count. The summer has come so our evenings will now be spent swimming in Dublin Bay! Sometimes, I have to pinch myself – it was this week last year that I started Ruby’s Tuesday and in less than the space of a year, I have lost a little girl, written a novel, secured a three book publishing deal and made it onto the bestsellers list in Ireland. With most of the publicity now done for Ruby’s Tuesday I am happy to be back at the desk again obsessed with the word count!