How I Write – Justine Delaney Wilson

Justine Delaney Wilson read English at Trinity College Dublin, and then completed a post-grad in Journalism at the DIT in 1997. She has been writing on a freelance basis ever since and also worked in television research and production for over ten years. Her first book The High Society was nominated for the Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2008. The Difference is her first novel and she is currently working on the follow-up to this, which is called Yesterday.

At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
I’ve loved reading since I first learned how to. Perhaps because I was an only child until I was nearly seven, I spent a lot of time with books.  So it wasn’t that big a step from reading stories to writing my own little ones when I was still quite young.  English quickly became my favourite subject at primary school. And then I had a wonderful English teacher – Mrs McHugh – for my entire five years at secondary school in Mount Sackville. She had a huge influence on me.  She was very passionate about the subject; I can still recall her classes on John Donne now. So I’ve always enjoyed reading, which in turn fostered a love of writing.

I’m drawn to write about families and difficult things, emotional turbulence, the battle to maintain one’s identity, the subtle power-plays between us and the people closest to us, the truth about human relationships. Indeed, writing has been something of a refuge for me at several times in my own life; I can be quite solitary and I’ve definitely leaned on writing to untangle things for myself in the past. I’m not sure if I write things down to kick against them or to accept them, but it certainly gives me a medium to work them out. So I think it has always meant something to me. And it’s coming to mean more as I get older. I actually can’t imagine not writing now. Even if none of it ever got published again.

Tell us about your writing background. You studied English at Trinity College and went on to complete a Masters in Journalism. Was being a novelist always the aim, or did you want to be a journalist first?
When I left Mount Sackville, I went on to read English at Trinity, which I absolutely loved – four years reading! Then, after a brief stint teaching English, I did a post-grad in Journalism. Looking back, I think I confused wanting to write for a living with wanting to be a journalist, or perhaps I thought that journalism was the only feasible way to write in the real world, in terms of having actual work that somebody will pay you actual money for.  Which is often the case.

So I worked in RTE for a while and then took a sideways step into TV production, spending a decade or thereabouts working on various series and documentaries, writing up my research and stories for recording and broadcast.

I always wanted to write creatively, whether that was to be novels or short stories, but I didn’t know if it would ever happen, if it would be something I would be good enough to do. I’ve met so many talented writers down through the years – in Trinity, in writing groups, at book launches – that I wouldn’t have dared to presume I could be someone who would have a novel published. I still can’t ever imagine describing myself as a novelist.  What a huge word.

You write everything in longhand first and are distracted by picturesque views! Tell us about this?
I write everything longhand, yes. With black ink pens. It could be argued that this isn’t a very efficient use of time that I don’t have! But I find that it’s during this physical act of writing – with a pen and paper – that my thinking and my focus are at their best. I’m almost re-thinking and editing as I go. And there’s little chance of my mind wandering. Arrows and lines and numbers mark the paragraphs, and the margins are full of notes for me to reference later or come back to. I’m working on my next novel at the moment and, so far, it’s a mess of hand-written paper piles across my desk.

When I eventually open up my laptop and start typing my way through the piles, plenty of it won’t make it onto the screen at all. And the bin at my feet will be overflowing. My first draft is, in this sense, almost a second one. Albeit still very rough.

I’m distracted by a lot of things, including any kind of a view, but particularly beautiful ones! Occasionally, I’ll get an opportunity to go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig for a few days to write, where I’ll be given a wonderful room with a fabulously impressive desk and a view to match. The day I arrive, I take the chair and put it at the opposite side of the desk so my back is to the view – usually of the stunningly reflective lake. It’s scandalous I know, but otherwise an hour or two will pass and I’ll have done little more than consider the lake and the trees! The visual artists and painters are appalled by me, seeing my back to the bay window when they’re walking by.

I also find music very distracting when I’m working, or even when I’m just reading. I wish I didn’t, as few things sound more appealing to me than writing while music plays in the background – but I’d get nothing done. I have to stay in my lane.

That said, I can work just fine amongst the normal, day-to-day, non-specific sounds of a busy house, or my children playing, or the noises in a café, for example. This might be because I’ve had to write in various busy environments and production companies down through the years. But luxuries such as expansive lakes and classical music? Not at all. Give me a bare wall and the rattle of an old kettle any day.

What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I have a room in my house set up solely for my writing now, which is a relatively new situation and still feels like a real treat. It has corkboards on the walls for my novels’ timelines, a hanging rack where I stack the folders for individual chapters, one large book case just for my favourite authors, and a great big desk overlooking the fields behind us. (Naturally I have to keep the blind down!) So I’m home but I’m packed away upstairs. It’s perfect. I don’t have a writing routine as such because I have a busy life, with three children. Generally speaking, I write and work on other projects when they are at school or occupied for a little while downstairs.

You published your first book, a non-fiction title called The High Society in 2007. Tell us about this?
The High Society was published by Gill & Macmillan in September 2007 and was nominated for the non-fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards the following April. It dealt with the issue of white-collar drug use in Ireland. It caused some controversy at the time but I feel it contributed to a public discourse on the topic. I think it has stood the test of time in so far as a lot of things came out in the wash in the months and years that followed its publication. Drug abuse is very deeply hidden within this demographic and the debate was needed.  It’s still needed. The High Society was also made into two one-hour documentaries which ran on RTE 1 television late in 2007.

You have also ghost written – how did you find this experience?
I ghosted a book called When Spirits Hold my Hand in 2009. The woman whose story it is – Margaret Brazil – was hilarious company and had great tales to tell. So it was six months of laughs and really enjoyable recording and writing. It was published by Poolbeg at a time when there was a growing appetite for books about angels and the afterlife. Margaret received emails and messages from all over the world and it sold very well. I believe there’s still a fair bit of interest in it.

Tell us about your book The Difference and its short story origins?
The Difference began life as a short story, which was short-listed for an award at Listowel Writers’ Week. The characters stayed in the back of my mind in the months that followed, where they developed fuller personalities, motivations and back stories, and a whole extended family emerged and became the bones of a novel. This family, these people unravelling within their own lives, are The Difference. I’m always reluctant to tell anybody what I think any book is about, even one I’ve written, but – for me – this novel is about human struggle, that feeling of being outside of things, of having to cope with the ordinary human battles that we all endure in our lives. The initial short story seed that it grew from is the chapter called Clearing Tables in the published novel.

How did you go about seeking a publisher for it; do you have an agent?
I had met Vanessa Fox-O’Loughlin from on a couple of occasions over the years so I decided to email her my manuscript for an opinion on what, if anything, I should do with it. Vanessa actually read it herself and kindly passed it on to Ciara Doorley, Editorial Director at Hachette Ireland. Ciara really liked it and arranged to meet with me for a chat. Things moved pretty quickly then and I signed a two-book deal with Hachette shortly after. The Difference was published last month, as scheduled. I don’t have an agent.

How did you find the editing process?
The editing process was painless and welcome. Ciara and I work well together so we discussed a few areas where we felt slight changes were needed. My writing style is very sparse anyway and I’m inclined to cut anything I’m not sure about – I’m not a hoarder – so there were no long and winding tracts that I felt emotionally invested in that had to go, or anything like that.

Perhaps from the routine of having to keep things short and concise for television, I can often see what isn’t sitting ‘right’ and generally have no difficulty taking it out, rather than trying to smooth it down or shoehorn it in elsewhere. Ciara made some suggestions and I took them on board. Hachette couldn’t have been more respectful of my work throughout and nothing became an issue.

Have you written other manuscripts or drafts before completing The Difference? If so, did this feel book feel different?
No I haven’t. This was my first time to write long fiction. The manuscript that went to Vanessa that first day and the bound book that appears on the shelves now are pretty similar in terms of content and style.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I can’t say that I have. I have lots of ideas and thoughts jotted down here and there that I’d love to develop or take further. What I do suffer from is being time poor. The greatest block to my writing is not enough unchallenged time to do it. So perhaps if I had more time and felt under less pressure to get on with things, I’d have a greater chance of writer’s block! As it stands, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in front of a blank page or screen for too long.  I find inspiration in the ordinary business of living and, unpredictable as it is, there’s always plenty of it.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my next novel which, whilst being a follow-up to The Difference, is a stand-alone book too. It has many of the same characters and some new ones. The story picks up with the family from The Difference after a couple of years have passed. I’m also doing some freelance writing for various publications.

What do you like to read?
I enjoy reading anything by Belinda McKeon, Anne Enright, Nuala Ni Conchuir and Rachel Cusk. Recently, I loved Vertigo by Joanna Walsh and The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest. Julie Hecht’s Do The Windows Open? is fantastic too, although that’s probably 20 years old at this stage.  I’ve just started Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and I’m dipping in and out of a bit of vintage Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook. I love Raymond Carver. His collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my all-time favourites. And I’ve always enjoyed Virginia Woolf; Mrs Dalloway in particular.

justine delaney wilson

Follow Justine on Twitter @justinedelw

the difference

LadyNicci comment: I can identify with Justine in that I also studied journalism seeking some sort of paid writing future. She talks about not quite believing she can call herself a novelist – sometimes it takes many writing years to even dream you could and then more to complete and achieve that dream. Justine describes the formation of the novel so well here – it took time for the nugget of the story to develop, for the characters to nestle in her mind and form. Novels don’t happen over night – and even while writing them, you can be blocked and need to wait until the story line develops by itself – in your head. It’s interesting that Justine has gone straight to publication and shows, if your work is good enough, that you don’t necessarily need an agent to succeed. I love that the book she originally sent is practically the same book going on the shelves – it shows how good her writing was in the first place. I often wonder with my own manuscript – how changed will it be before it is published (in whatever form). Maybe it won’t be changed that much at all. And what validation that would be.

H0w I write

How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on 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 with How I Write in the subject line.

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