My debut novel launches this Tuesday, 1st March.
I have a number of interviews lined up, with various media outlets, and I’ve been preparing. I put together a mock interview, asking myself questions and answering them. It was very useful, and I’m sharing some of it with you today. It will give you a little insight into the book, why I wrote it, and what I hope it does when it goes out into the world. There are no spoilers, I promise.
Tell us a little about The Library of Unfinished Business.
It’s about a sad and disillusioned small-town librarian who dies one Monday morning and finds himself in a very strange afterlife. The story follows his adventures in that afterlife, and at the same time, the complicated path taken by his daughter, who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. And then, at the climax of the book, in the most unexpected of ways and in the most unexpected of places, their paths intersect, and what happens next…I couldn’t possibly say. 😉
There are two libraries in the story, and they’re very important. So is fire, along with everything that it symbolises. There’s also a karaoke machine, a drunken barmaid, a rowing race, naked people, bananas, and dangerous angels. But at the heart, it’s about the relationship between a father and daughter. That’s what made the story worth writing, and that’s why it’s worth reading.
What inspired you to write this book?
My father is a retired Presbyterian Minister. He was an only child, and his best (and only) childhood friends were his books. I grew up in a house filled with books on every subject on Earth. They filled dozens of bookcases, various cupboards, boxes in the garage and even the space under the house. Dad had a particular penchant for the weird and esoteric. Horror, the supernatural, alien encounters, science fiction, witchcraft, bloody murder, deviant medieval practices…his bookshelves made for startling Sunday afternoon browsing. In fact, he used to wrap a number of books in brown paper so his parishioners wouldn’t see the titles when they came round for prayer meetings and Bible discussion groups. So I think most of the inspiration for this book has been right under my nose, from when I was little.
One day around twelve years ago I sat down and wrote, just for fun and without any forethought: “This is the story of my jailbreak from Heaven”. Ooooh, this could be a good short story, I thought. Little did I know it would keep growing and growing. So it started as a low-key writing experiment, then took on a life of its own.
How much of the novel is obliquely autobiographical?
None of it. It’s a novel, which means it’s total fiction. It’s a story. But, as any author knows, your self will sneak into your fiction no matter how loudly the wolves howl in an effort to keep it at bay (and no matter how vociferously you deny it).
There’s a quote about writing I saw somewhere once: “No matter how far you travel, you always end up at your own doorstep.”
A better question might be: How much of “me” is in there?
A lot, is the answer, and some of that I see only in retrospect. My deepest longings, my regrets, my hidden shames, my desire to be a better person, my ache to connect, my complicated relationship with my own parents, my fear of mortality, my fierce love for my daughter, my shaky half-belief in ultimate redemption…it’s all there. How could it not be?
I had no plan as I wrote my first draft; I just sat down every day and started typing and waited to see what would emerge. As it turns out, my heart did. Along with (I hope) a ripping good yarn.
What are the novel’s themes?
I love what Stephen King has to say about theme: it is, quite simply, the reason you wrote the book; the reason it matters. The Library of Unfinished Business matters because it’s about the possibility of forgiveness and repair and redemption and second chances, even when we feel we have failed miserably. It’s about living bravely, and taking risks. I didn’t necessarily set out to write about these things … but ultimately they are the “themes” that emerged as I wrote.
I was always interested in “I died and saw a tunnel and a bright light before coming back to life” stories. That, as you will find, has made its way into my book. But I wanted to re-imagine and play with the trope from surprising perspectives and in unexpected ways.
We are all curious about what happens after death. We are all scared of the unknown. Humans try everything to reassure themselves there is something there. I don’t have the answers: I’m a born-again agnostic. But I think that what matters most is what we do here, while we’re alive. Here and now, with the ones we love. What matters is now. We can be redeemed now. We can start to “rewrite” our stories now. We need to love now. And – crucially – it’s never too late for second chances.
What’s with all the Bible stuff?
First up: This is not a book about God. Or religion. Far from it. I don’t identify as Christian, or as a follower of any other religion. As I mention above, I’m an agnostic (and have been for many years), and I’m content with questioning and wondering.
In my childhood and youth my family attended church and Sunday School religiously (har, har). Then I leapt, with great angst and fervour, into my Pentecostal phase, complete with casting out demons and speaking in tongues and trying to convert anyone who would listen. I leapt back out again a couple of years later, a little burnt, a little wiser. It’s all grist for the mill now. So I know the Bible well, and I have dropped in a number of allusions, references, and in-jokes that may go entirely unnoticed by some readers. That’s OK; you don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of the Bible to enjoy the book. But for those who have some familiarity with it, there’s an extra layer there.
I brought the Biblical characters to life with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and I had enormous fun. I make a few digs – or rather, ask some gentle questions about conventional concepts of God and Heaven and Hell and what it means to be religious. Will that turn some readers off? Let’s not lose sight of the overriding message of the book: that love is all that matters. And if that isn’t the most important spiritual message ever, then I don’t know what is.
I think God would approve. But she had better have a sense of humour, or there goes my afterlife.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I’m an editor/proofreader, and spend much of my day perfecting other people’s manuscripts. But I seem to be able to shift gear when I sit down to write creatively. I give myself permission to get it wrong; to let it all hang out. I seem to be able to tap into an inspired, free-flowing part of myself, which is a blessing. It’s only later that I go back and painstakingly address every comma and semi-colon.
As I mentioned above, I wrote much of the first draft of The Library of Unfinished Business free-flow—no plan, no outline, just the giddy excitement of “Where will this go today?” every time I sat down to write. Then I started getting stuck, losing track of ideas and threads and doddering about in the wilderness that is the mid-point of a messy first draft. So I pulled back, wrote a plot outline and a chapter plan, and with that “road map” to guide me, carried on. The more I wrote, and the more intricate the story became, the more I stepped back to plan my next move.
One of the most useful things I did was write a back story for my main protagonist, Maurice. What was his upbringing like? Did his parents get on? What did he like to do as a child? What did he study at university? What was his earliest memory? By the time I had finished, I held him crystal clear in my mind. I felt like I knew him through and through, and writing him became so much easier. Why? Because I instinctively knew how he would react in any given situation. I knew his peculiarities, his likes and dislikes, his hopes and wishes and habits.
So the best piece of advice I could give to anyone who wants to write a novel is: Know your characters, know your characters, know your characters. The plot flows from your characters – not the other way round.
What did you enjoy the most about writing The Library of Unfinished Business?
I loved piecing together the intricate plot, although it was at times devilishly difficult. I’ve always loved puzzles and word plays and mysteries and lateral thinking games. Spy movies, Whodunnit games, murder mysteries, secret signs, red herrings…they’re all in there, to some extent. They’ll make the reader work (in a good way). I think most readers like trying to figure things out, trying to anticipate what’s going to happen. Hopefully they’ll still be surprised, though.
I also loved the funny bits. Writing humour can be tricky. You never know, you see. What I think is rip-snortingly funny may elicit nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a pursed lip.
If you read some of my published short stories, they’re quite grim, slice of life meditations, suffused with melancholy. My novel is quite different. There is still melancholy, and a bit of a preoccupation with death and longing and sadness, but those things just don’t … sing quite as loudly, because they’ve been joined by all the other voices in the choir: humour, hope, villainy, slapstick, excitement, love, longing, desire. Obviously a novel can run the full gamut of emotion in a way that a five-page story cannot. Add to that the necessity of sustaining a reader’s engagement for 80,000 words. It’s hard to do that when a novel is all darkness (or all light).
I’m Irish (my father is Irish, my mother was Scottish, and I was born and raised for some of my childhood in Northern Ireland). We love to laugh and talk and sing and tell tales. We love the craic … but we also love the melancholy.
What did Yeats say? “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I was captivated by Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book. So much of it resonated. Throughout, Grimshaw reiterates the point that telling your story – your true story, not the carefully curated, editorialised “selfie stories” so common on social media, but your true story, is existentially important: “This is what is existentially important: to be heard and understood, to have a listener affirm it, to know the mind is not alone … The thread that will lead you out of the maze is the thread of narrative.”
I’ve spent some time in psychotherapy, and my therapist once told me that having therapy is like being offered the chance to grow up all over again, and in doing so having the opportunity and freedom to make new choices and decisions, no longer shackled by the hurts and wounds of the past. It’s like rewriting your own life story, in a sense. I have found this to be true, and I think that discovery has found its way into my novel.
Kiwi journalist Jehan Casinader has done some very important work, in the context of mental health, around the themes of retelling your story, refusing to accept that the ending is set in stone, daring to change the narrative, questioning what we tell ourselves and what narratives we are stuck in. You may have read his book This is not how it ends: how rewriting your story can save your life. I hope my book can entertain, and make you laugh and cry, and just be a rollicking good tale – but perhaps also contribute something to that sort of conversation.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m working on my next book, which is a story cycle, AKA a composite novel, in which each story can be read as a stand-alone piece, but they are all linked in some way, and together present an overarching narrative.
It’s not going very well. Perhaps my muse will come back to inspire me after my first-born is out in the world, reminding people that stories are powerful, and that the stories of our lives – imperfect, unfinished, redeemable – are the most powerful of all.