When I was 18 I wrote seven words, and won a car. The words were ‘my father won’t let me drive his’ and they were my ending to a sentence which began ‘I would like to win a Ford Fiesta because….’. After that I entered every competition I saw, and won quite a lot of them. When I wanted a break from my teaching job, a cousin suggested a job in advertising because ‘you’re good with words’. I found work in a London agency and wrote for a living for three years. After that I returned to teaching and stayed there for another few years, until eventually I thought I’d try my hand at a book. I flew to San Francisco on air miles I’d won, and lived with a brother for a year, and wrote The Daisy Picker. It won a two book deal. I was on my way.
I have no proper writing routine. I get up, have breakfast and sit in front of the laptop and hope for the best, with a vague notion that something between a thousand and two thousand words would be nice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Incredibly, I’ve never missed a deadline.
You won a competition which led to a two book publishing deal. Tell us about this?
Winning the two book deal changed everything for me. I got a phone call to the school one day; my class of junior infants had gone home and I was tidying up when the secretary appeared and told me there was a phone call for me. ‘Are you sitting down?’ a voice enquired. I sat down, and she told me I’d won. My first reaction was ‘great!’ My next was ‘crap, I have to write another book’. Somehow I managed it.
After your first book deal, you signed with Hodder Headline Ireland, now Hachette, a renowned publishing house. What changes did this bring?
My first publisher, which had only begun trading shortly before my first book was published, folded after my second book was released. I fervently hope I played no part in their downfall. My agent, whom I had acquired along the way, knocked on other publishers’ doors, and Hodder Headline answered and took me in. It was wonderful to get an offer from such a household name; I felt I’d really arrived. I’ve been with them for ten books now, and I’ve worked with the same editor all along the way. At this stage we can read one another’s thoughts.
How long did it take you to make the decision to give up the day job and become a full time writer? Were there sleepless nights?
The decision to go fulltime was surprisingly easy. I’d been feeling a bit stressed out with the teaching, and all the demands that the new curriculum brought. A few years before I gave it up I’d switched to job-sharing, so when I decided I’d come to the end of the line with teaching, it was almost like giving up half a job instead of a full one. I’m not married, and I have no children: nobody was in danger of starving if I went broke, apart from myself – and even that was a pretty safe bet with my parents living up the road.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
From time to time I struggle with the next scene, or the next plot twist: is that writer’s block? Thankfully it never lasts too long. I’ve decided that some literary angel is looking after me, and whispering inspiration whenever I get stuck.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m writing novel number thirteen, and hoping it’s a lucky one. It’s called The Reunion and it’s centred around the lives of two sisters who left school together, and who are now being invited to their twenty year reunion. I’m about halfway through, and so far so good
Do you find it difficult to come up with a book every year or are you always yearning for the next project?
A book a year is just about do-able. In an ideal world I’d like about three years to produce a book, but I’m not earning a fortune with my contracts, and I’d be in serious danger of starving if I spread them out that far apart.
Where do you find inspiration for your novels? With so many books under your belt – how do you keep things fresh? Are you a note taker, people watcher, need to go on a holiday to breathe type writer?
Yes, absolutely I am a people watcher, and listener. I love when someone tells me their story, or shares a memory with me, or relates a tale about someone they know. Everyone has something to tell. Just today I had a chat with a pal during which she told me of a man whose wife died years ago, when his children were young, and her sister moved in with him to help him out with the children – and never left. They still share a house to this day, even though the children have all grown and moved out. No romance – as far as anyone knows – but they stayed together nonetheless. I thought that was definitely worth remembering….and the book I’m currently writing, The Reunion, was inspired when I attended the twenty-fifth anniversary, earlier this year, of the school where I taught for several years. Basically I’m always on the lookout, and I’m never left waiting for long. I have a file on my computer called ideas for future books, and it’s full of things I’ve heard over the years. Having said that, I still live in terror that one day the ideas won’t come – I think it’s a common writer phobia!
What would you say to writers who are trying to break into publishing?
I don’t envy writers who are trying to break into publishing today. It’s such a crowded market, and your precious manuscript is one of hundreds in any given publishing house on any given day….all I can advise is keep on trying, keep knocking on doors (preferably agent doors) and eventually your persistence might pay off.
How do you find book tours? I saw a picture of you recently standing in a book store beside a tower of your books that was taller than you. This must make you feel fab; like a representation of all the readers you have?
I don’t get to do book tours as such – all I do in bookshops is sign stock copies when a new one comes out. It’s fantastic to see towers of my books waiting to be signed when I walk into a shop; it’s the best validation to know that the shop trusts my work enough to invest so much in it.
Do you receive fan mail? What is your interaction with your readers?
I love getting messages from satisfied readers, through my website or on social media, or even the odd paper letter – it makes all the plod worthwhile. I make a point of responding to every message I get; I’m so grateful when people take the time to let you know they enjoyed a book, and of course doubly delighted when they post a positive review somewhere. I’d never have thought to do it myself until I became a writer.
What do you personally like to read?
I only read novels, never non-fiction. I hunt down books that tell people’s stories – not crime, not fantasy, not sci-fi, just stories about ordinary people and how their lives are affected by their interaction with others. I like stories to be simply told, but with great warmth. I especially love family sagas, which Anne Tyler writes so wonderfully. More favourite authors would include E Annie Proulx, Kent Haruf, William Trevor, Kate Atkinson and Carol Shields.
Where do you write?
I write at my kitchen table, unless I’m in one or other of the writer’s retreats I like to visit occasionally. I live at the bottom of a quiet cul-de-sac. My only distractions are the birds that visit the feeder outside the kitchen window, and now and again a delivery van bringing parcels of books, or online shopping treats. If I was asked to design a perfect writing environment, it would be very close to what I have (but maybe with prettier curtains).
How I write is a weekly blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email email@example.com with How I Write in the subject line.
I’ll be home for Christmas is available on Amazon and in all good bookstores.