Joan Brady is a freelance writer and has worked across Irish media in print and radio. Her first novel The Cinderella Reflex is published by Poolbeg.
How important has writing been in your life? When did you start?
I have been writing since I was a child. My older sister Vera, who passed away in January, told me you could get good marks in English by making things up. That sparked my imagination and when I won two writing contests in primary school it cemented a life long love affair with writing. I have been a journalist for a long time, much more recently a novelist. But the writing I do the most is journaling. I journal about my life – if I have a problem more often than not I find the answers to my own questions on my journal pages. They are not always the answers I want to hear either – it’s a bit like having a best friend who points out things you need to know, but in a gentle way.
Tell us about your journalism life. Is it difficult to write and work in news and turn to fiction outside of that?
I’ve worked as a features writer, a columnist and a broadcast journalist in news and current affairs. Throughout all of that I was always starting novels but I never knew how to finish them. I found it difficult to combine a full-time job with creative writing – I lacked the stamina for 5am starts and so it was only when I went back to freelancing that I started back at my dream of finishing a novel.
You used to write a popular blog under a pen name. Tell us about this and why you decided to stop? Do you miss blogging?
I wrote a blog under a pen name Johanna Buchanan, (my mother’s maiden name), for about two years. It was a way of getting myself back into more personal writing after working in radio production for many years. I wrote about self-development, which is a big passion of mine. I loved the writing but I found the technical aspect of blogging challenging. I’m not a technophobe by any means but it wouldn’t be one of my strengths either. In the end I was spending so much time trying to master the technical end of blogging that I found I wasn’t spending enough time writing. So when The Cinderella Reflex was published under my real name I changed my website and I took the opportunity to stop blogging for a while. But yes, I would like to get back to it.
Tell us about your novel The Cinderella Reflex and what inspired it?
The Cinderella Reflex is about a character called Tess who, when we meet her, is a bit of a lost soul. She’s spent her twenties travelling and working in temporary jobs but when she reaches thirty she panics because all her peers are well settled into their careers and/or having weddings and babies.
An old friend gets her a job in a local radio station and her impulsive response is “How hard can it be?” Famous last words – Atlantic 1 FM is gripped by crisis after crisis and her bad boss Helene, and worse presenter, Ollie, make Tess’s life a misery. But by the end of the book, both women have learned a lot about who they are and what is really important.
I think we all do a bit of soul-searching when we come to milestone birthdays – Tess is turning thirty and Helene is nearly forty so they are both questioning the choices they have made in their lives. Like a lot of ostensibly independent women they both also have inner five year-olds who persist in believing that someday their prince will come and rescue them from their problems. Never a good idea!
My aim with The Cinderella Reflex was to write a light-hearted and life-affirming story, one that would make readers smile but think a bit as well – the kind of book you want to read when you’ve had a bad day, week or year. Someone told me they took it into hospital with them and it helped to distract them from their worries – I took that as a huge compliment.
You took a course called Finish Your Book at the Irish Writer’s Centre. How did this help you with the publishing process?
I learned so much there – the importance of adding new words each week instead of endlessly editing the words you’ve already got. The willingness to write a bad first draft. The decision to make your subsequent drafts the best you possibly can. And I also learned a lot about the craft of writing fiction – which as it turned out, was not the same as writing for journalism. Who knew? I also met other aspiring writers who are now good friends. So hats off to Conor Kostick who is still the inspirational facilitator of that course in the Irish Writers Centre.
The Cinderella Reflex is set in a radio station, where you have great working experience. Was it difficult to balance true experiences with fictional – were you worried former colleagues would draw comparisons?
I wanted to write about life in the media because I’ve had such an interesting career in that area and I thought readers would enjoy the behind-the-scenes setting. The characters are totally made-up so I wasn’t concerned about comparisons. But on that point, I did read somewhere that nobody ever believes they’re the bad guy anyway – in life or in art – and I think that is probably true.
Tell us how you found your agent and how you secured your book deal?
When I finished The Cinderella Reflex I realised it needed improvement – I needed to change the structure and make it all flow better – so as an incentive to myself I decided I would self-publish it on Kindle. I had it professionally copy edited by Wexford editor Mary McCauley and she told me about a Date with an Agent event at Focal, Wexford’s annual literary fair. That’s where I met my agent, Tracy Brennan of Trace Literary Agency and she got me a two-book deal with Poolbeg.
What is your writing routine?
I tend to write in fits and starts. I get a lot down and then have a break and allow my subconscious to work out the story while I’m doing something else – practical stuff like housework, or walking or the gym.
I also write at odd times. I spent a long time trying to shoehorn myself into a schedule of x number of hours or x number of words and I just made myself miserable. Now I write in a more holistic way and I try not to sabotage myself by thinking I should be doing it in a different way. However, if I’m editing or have a deadline I’m pretty disciplined – that’s when the journalistic training kicks in. I make my plan and work from that until I’m finished.
Tell us about your second book which you are working on now? How long does it take you to write a book and edit?
My second book is with Poolbeg right now. I’m expecting it back soon with suggested edits. It doesn’t have a title yet but it’s about second chances and finding your way when the plan A doesn’t work out and you don’t have a plan B up your sleeve.
It’s about Susannah Stevens who is struggling with an empty nest since her twin daughters went to live in New York. She’s just coming to terms with the fact that she’ll have to move on to the next phase of her life with her reliable husband Rob when he springs a surprise on her. He’s off on a gap year for grown-ups – one that doesn’t include his wife.
Susannah feels her life is falling apart and she goes back to work as a Mind, Body and Spirit correspondent with a daily newspaper. Her boss is Katie Corrigan, a woman young enough to be her daughter and one who wastes no words in explaining that the world of work has moved on considerably in the last quarter of a century. But Katie finds she has as much to learn from Susannah as the other way around.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I procrastinate about getting in front of the screen far too much but once I start to write I have no problem continuing – in fact sometimes I have trouble stopping. When I was writing The Cinderella Reflex I ended up in a lot of frustrating cul-de-sacs, which seemed to take forever to figure out and that sometimes stopped me writing because I had no clue as to where I was going next.
The second time around I wrote an outline first which showed the three acts of the story and my main scenes, which I found helped me enormously. If I came to a dead end with one part of the story I could skip to another. I also read a book called Writing from the Middle by James Scott Bell, which I found helpful. You write your main character’s pivotal moment, the time when she has to decide if she is going to sink or swim – and then you can write about what brought her to that point and where is she going to go now that she’s reached it. I wrote the second book much faster because of all these tips.
What do you like to read?
I’m a self-help addict so I read an awful lot of self-development books – hence Susannah becoming a Mind, Body and Spirit correspondent! In fiction I read romantic comedy, thrillers, crime, women’s fiction. Anything really except literary or “serious” fiction because I read for entertainment and escapism. My brain is over-active enough without me feeding it complex material about life, death and what’s it all about Alfie. If I did, I would just never sleep again.
Where do you write?
When I had a full-time job there were two things I wanted. A writing office and time to write in cafes. That seemed like the ultimate in glamour for me – sitting in Starbucks with a cappuccino, writing my novel. But when I got the chance I never actually did it! I might make some notes in longhand but mainly I still read the newspapers in coffee shops and then go home to write.
And even though I did convert a box bedroom into an office I write on my laptop so I tend to migrate all over the house – the kitchen, the dining room, and the bedroom. But I do still use the office sometimes. And I really, really wanted it, so I’m glad it’s there because I think it’s important we try to give ourselves the things we want.
The Cinderella Reflex is available in bookshops or on Amazon here.
I met Joan at a book launch and we had a great old chinwag about the media industry, as I have some background in journalism and worked for some years in media relations. We talked in depth about how working a very busy, all consuming job can leave very little time for creative writing – that the mind needs some space to think and the sub conscious to breathe before we can let out our fictions on paper. Both of us had similar experiences, where when the day job let up a little, our novels started to write themselves. I often think that this is what needs to fall into place for a writer – the time and the space. If you get busy again, you’ll have already identified the importance of writing in your life and may be more likely to ensure there is time put aside for it, as much as you can. I think it’s interesting that Joan avoids heavy brow books as she associates reading with enjoyment, and literary books can bring her back to working life. It shows how we all come to reading with our own baggage and why there are so many genres out there for us as writers to fit into. I like that Joan has watched her own writing develop, that she has learned structure and editing and worked out how planning her own novels will help her write faster and better. She’s also a great example of ‘writing what you know’. Having already finished The Cinderella Reflex, I enjoyed the pace and writing in the novel, her talent for words shone true. I’ll be giving away a copy of her book very shortly on the blog.
How I write is a 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.