Posted by Daisy
‘Writing is a business for the thick-skinned, peopled by the sensitive. It's wonderful, it's heart-breaking, it's joyful and it's crushing. It's the brief bright lights of publicity slamming into the shade of our self-imposed exile. It's digging to unearth the gems only to have them knocked from our hands by a careless comment. It's our life. It's not easy. But we love it.’
(Martina Reilly, Irish Independent,27/09/12)
MARTINA REILLY is beginning the hard slog again. After two weeks off for Christmas holidays spent with her husband and two children, Reilly must re-start the writing and editing process in the box room of her Kildare home, as well as promoting her new book ‘What If’.
‘I write when my children are in school, and I didn’t write at all over Christmas. Some days I write much more successfully than others. I don’t sacrifice my life for writing and I’ll always go for a coffee when someone rings. At the end of the day, your books aren’t going to keep you warm in your old age,’ she says.
Currently working on her seventeenth book, Reilly has the job she always dreamed of. She has won an International White Raven Award, a Bisto Book merit award, and ‘Something Borrowed’ was longlisted for an Impac Literary Award. She started young – between the ages of 8-13, Reilly wrote a series of books called ‘The Gang’.
‘I loved writing stories, inventing things and escaping into other worlds. ‘The Gang’ were like bad episodes of ‘Neighbours’, and people were always falling and getting concussed in them' says Reilly.
‘There was no encouragement in primary school. I was a really bad speller. I wasn’t told I was good or anything and my stories would be returned to me scored through with red biro, it was all very much about spelling and grammar.'
She remembers her secondary school English teacher, Mr Frank Higgins, who had ‘such a great approach to teaching English’ and who encouraged her love of poetry.
Reilly studied English, History and Mathematics in university, but left after second year to work in the cash office in Dublin County Council, where she met her now husband.
‘I left for the job in the county council because to me it was like getting a fortune. Sometimes it was very busy and sometimes it was quiet. I would get my work done really quickly and just read.’
During this time, Reilly revived 'Livewire', a book she wrote at 15. She re-typed it on an old word processor and sent it off to publishers, where it was picked up by Poolbeg. Published 18 months later, it won an International White Raven Award.
‘It was a dream come true for me. I always wanted to write stories, and create people,’ she says.
Reilly writes chick-lit, but her stories always have some grit embedded in the narrative. ‘Flipside’ deals with cancer, ‘Something Borrowed’ with adoption, and ‘What If’ tells the story of an old lady diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease who is reluctantly moved to a nursing home by her buttoned-up, clenched-arsed 50-something-year-old spinster daughter, Deirdre.
‘I would love to write an airy-fairy book sometime, it’d probably do really well, but the grit in the books just happens. I never know where my books are going to end up when I start,’ she says.
‘I started ‘What If’ with the idea of a diary that helps people to illuminate something in their lives. I didn’t have a clue where the book was going to go. I like to put humour in if it’s getting a bit dark. Life is tragedy and comedy combined and it’s nice to get the balance in a book.’
While writing ‘What If’, Reilly initially planned to give Deirdre a much smaller role in the story.
‘Deirdre was a bit of a surprise. Initially she wasn’t supposed to be a big character. June, the owner of the nursing home, was supposed to be a bigger character, but my editor told me to get rid of her and concentrate on Deirdre. She almost had her own plot, apart from the others. I hear my characters' voices in my head before I even picture them.’
Reilly has embraced the internet to promote her work, tweeting and Facebooking with a large number of followers.
‘It’s changed since I started writing. Back then, TV and newspapers were the only other ways you had to plug your book. The internet is definitely very powerful. It’s a new experience for all us writers.’
Having previously likened her books to ‘her babies’, she recently popped into her local Easons in Maynooth, to take a peek at ‘What If’.
‘I used to always go to the bookshops in the beginning. My mother would go in and take a book from somewhere obscure and place in on top of a Maeve Binchy or something,’ she says.
‘If you ever see a book on its own in [the main section] of a bookshop, you just know some author has placed it there. I thought it was only my mother who did that, but lots of people have since told me their mothers do the same.’
With her books translated to five different languages, Reilly has made a good living from writing, but has been affected by the economic downturn.
‘I was doing really well until the recession. But now things are harder and book sales in general are plummeting,’ says Reilly, who also writes for a number of Irish newspapers, is a qualified drama teacher, and recently wrote and subsequently filmed a sitcom over two days, with the help of some actor and film friends.
Her future plans include writing another sitcom, continuing to promote ‘What If’ and finding a publisher for her next book, which is already finished.
She advises aspiring writers to ‘hang in there and keep writing.’
‘In some ways, it’s easier for a new writer now, because publishers are looking for the next big thing. It’s probably going to be someone new, fresh and different. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice but know who to take advice from, take it from people you trust,’ she says.
Read our review of 'What If' here, if you like.