Author Spotlight: Monica McInerney
Describe yourself in one word:
What is your background with regard to writing?
I wrote my first book at the age of eight. Mum was a librarian so we had twenty four hour access to the local library and a constant supply of books. The more I read the more I wanted to write. I tried many different careers before I became a full-time writer in 2002, but they all involved writing in some way – children’s TV scriptwriting, copywriting, public relations, arts marketing, book publicity. I began writing fiction seriously at the age of thirty, when I was living in Hobart. After many rejections, I had three stories accepted for publication in Australian women’s magazines. That gave me the confidence to begin writing my first novel. A year later, I entered it in a ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition being run by an Irish publisher. I came runner-up, was offered a three book deal in Ireland and the UK, followed by a similar contract in Australia. That was eleven books ago now.
Tell us a little more about Hello from the Gillespies:
It’s the story of an outback family called the Gillespies, and what happens when a far-too-truthful Christmas letter about all six of them accidentally goes viral. It’s a family comedy-drama, about truth and fantasy, past and present – and what happens when the lines between them get blurred.
For 30 years, Angela Gillespies has sent an annual ‘Hello from the Gillespies’ letter to friends and family filled with charm and cheer which is a rather glossed-over version of what is actually happening within the family. On this particular year, Angela surprises herself by telling the not-so-glimmering truth… What sparked this concept for you?
I’ve been fascinated by Christmas letters since I was a child. My parents used to receive quite a few each year and I always read them in a kind of wonder, comparing the perfect families in the letters to my own more down-to-earth one, amazed that such constantly high-achieving, close-knit, successful families actually existed. One year my family received such an over-the-top boastful letter that my sister and I were compelled to write a parody version, which we called The McInerney Report. It was completely fabricated, filled with tales about all nine members of our family and our exotic travel, selfless charity work and adventurous lifestyles. We had so much fun we wrote an annual one for the next ten years (but definitely never circulated it outside the family.) Several years ago, I wrote a short story about a woman who entertains herself by writing a similarly outlandish Christmas newsletter, but that then got me thinking about the flipside. What would happen if someone wrote the complete truth in one of those letters? And what would happen if it accidentally got sent out, worldwide, to friends and family? I started writing Hello from the Gillespies that same day.
There is an incident whereby Angela is taken from the family unexpectedly and in Gillespie-fashion they rally together to help her through. What was your biggest challenge in writing about the oft-tumultuous reality of family life?
Without giving too much away about the plot, the event you mention brings many changes to the family, not least many changes to Angela herself. I had to do extensive medical research to make sure that plot strand was as accurate as possible, while still allowing the rest of the story to unfold in a lively, entertaining fashion. I was very lucky to have an excellent Dublin-based neurologist advising me – that said, any errors are mine, not hers!
What one character trait will most endear Angela to your readers?
Her honesty, I hope – even if it was unwittingly shared so publicly! She loves her family so much too, her husband and her four children, and is trying to do her best for all of them, even when her life feels so overwhelming at times. I hope many women will be able to relate to that.
It has been said that we often compare our behind-the-scenes with other people’s highlight reels, and certainly Hello from the Gillespies shows that we are conscious of putting our best foot forward in order to perceive ourselves in a better light. Do you agree or disagree? Do you consider this a long-standing or relatively new trend that has been perpetuated by advances in communication (e.g.: email and social media)?
I completely agree. I think it’s important to try to remember that no family is perfect, that each of us goes through ups and downs, good times and bad. That’s part of being human. Sharing the details of our lives is more prevalent now due to social media, but the compulsion to show only our shiny sides isn’t new. It unfortunately can put a lot of pressure on us all, especially when we begin to compare ourselves and become too self-critical. I have a favourite saying, a Chinese proverb, which I used at the start of an earlier book of mine, Those Faraday Girls. I could have used it at the start of Hello from the Gillespies too: ‘No family can hang out the sign, ‘Nothing the matter here.’ It helps to remember that. But I do still love the tradition of Christmas letters, especially the optimism behind them. As long as they are read with a pinch of salt, and the knowledge that there is always more to the story than meets the eye, I think there’s something very endearing and even sweet about people wanting to share their family stories in such a positive, detailed way.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I’d loved to have been a musician. Not a lead singer, or a big pop star, but a backing singer or playing an instrument (any instrument) in a band or orchestra. I think musicians are extraordinary people – from the outside they can look so ordinary yet they can create something wonderful. Unfortunately I can’t sing very well and don’t know how to play any instruments…
What’s next for you?
I’m about to travel home to Australia for a month long publicity tour. I can’t wait, I love the chance to meet as many of my readers as I can, after talking to them via my website and Facebook page all year. I return to Dublin in November for publication here and in the UK and USA. Then I think I might go to bed and do nothing but read and sleep for a week or two. I probably won’t do that, though – I come back from book tours so stimulated by all the conversations I’ve had about books and reading and writing that I usually immediately get started on my next book.
What book is currently on your nightstand?
In Your Dreams by American author Kristan Higgins. She is one of my favourite authors – we met on a book tour in the US in 2008 and have kept in touch since, sending each other our new books as they are published.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Try not to worry so much. I also need to give that advice to my 49-year-old self.
What do you find easiest to write?
Dialogue. I grew up as the middle of seven children, with snip-snap conversation all around me. I love recreating that in my fictional families.
And, the hardest?
Physical descriptions of people, especially if I am writing in first person and they need to catch sight of themselves in a mirror or a shop window to give me a way to describe what they look like.
Favourite travel experience?
A tour-by-pushbike through Paris several years ago was something special. There were about fifteen of us in the group, led by a dare-devil guide who kept urging us to cross where we shouldn’t, to cycle on the footpaths alongside the Seine, to go whizzing across pedestrian squares. He possibly lost his job soon after, but he made Paris so memorable for all of us.
Number one thing to do on your bucket list:
Spend a month catching trains across Europe with my husband. No itinerary, just making it up as we go along.
Milk, dark or white chocolate? Dark.
Red, white, bubbly? All three. There’s a time and a place for everything.
Salty or sweet? Salty, definitely.
Beach or mountains? Mountains. Or the beach at night-time. I don’t like hot sunny weather.
Give or receive? Give.