Welcome to another Behind the Pen. Today my guest is the delightfully humble yet brilliantly talented Lisa Ireland. Lisa writes both heart-warming rural fiction and thought-provoking women’s fiction. Wait until you get further down into the interview…Lisa has shared some photos of her home office and it’s utterly divine!
What is your favourite character from one of your novels and why?
This is such a hard question to answer. It’s like asking a mother to name her favourite child! If I had to choose I think it would be one of the four women from THE SHAPE OF US. I’m often asked if the women are based on anyone and I usually say that they’re not, but when I really think about it, I guess the case could be made that they all represent different parts of me. Mezz represents all my insecurities, Jewels is me on a good day (a very good day!), Ellie is who I’d like to be one day, and Kat’s story encompasses some of my greatest fears. So I suppose all of the women are pretty close to my heart. Jewels was the most fun to write, so if I can only have one I guess it has to be her!
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
I think it’s fair to say it’s evolved a fair bit from the early days. I have always written – I produced my first publication for sale when I was six years old. My nanna paid me ten cents for it! I wanted to be a writer all through school but my teachers and parents didn’t think it was a realistic career choice. I went on to study law, journalism and finally teaching. I was a primary school teacher for many years – a job that I loved and I have to say is definitely a more stable career than writing.
I first started to write with the serious intent of getting published in 2004. At the time I was home on parental leave and I was also helping to care for my terminally ill father. I needed a creative outlet so I started an online writing course. It didn’t take me long to decide that publication was my ultimate goal. It took me ten years to be published in novel length, although I did have some shorter works published along the way. Initially I was squeezing writing in around my ‘day job’, so it was really more like a hobby or a passion than a career. Back then all I dreamed of was seeing my book on a shelf, but once I achieved that I found I wasn’t satisfied and I reset my goals.
I write full time now, which has always been my dream. I love my job but it is way harder than I ever imagined it would be. I spend a lot more time on administration and marketing than I would like. Approximately half my week is taken up with this type of work. The pressure to keep coming up with ideas and to meet deadlines also weighs heavily on me. I’m never confident in my writing and I always fear that I’ll never come up with another good idea! Job security is really non-existent in this industry so it’s not for the faint hearted. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though this is the job I dreamed of, it is still a job. It’s hard work and some days are better than others! Some days I feel very lucky and other days I wonder what on earth I was thinking when I decided to leave my day job behind.
Your first published novels were all rural fiction, yet your latest release falls into a different genre, women’s fiction. Was this a deliberate shift or will you one day return to rural fiction?
My first three published books were rural romances and I’m now writing contemporary women’s fiction. I love both these genres as a reader so I guess it makes sense to write what I love to read. In the past I haven’t deliberately set out to write in a particular genre – I just wrote the story that was in my heart at the time and thought about the genre later on.
When I sold THE SHAPE OF US to Pan Macmillan it was part of a two book deal and the expectation was that my next book would be a similar length women’s fiction novel, so my 2018 book is another novel about friendship. My work in progress is also women’s fiction – a book about blended families and set against the backdrop of the New York Marathon. I also have a half written rural book that I would love to get around to finishing one day. So, I’m definitely not done with rurals forever, but for the time being women’s fiction is my focus.
What inspired your most recent novel?
THE SHAPE OF US was originally inspired by a relationship I formed online with a woman in the USA. We were both members of an online message board for women who’d suffered a pregnancy loss. Becky and I didn’t really have anything in common on paper but we just clicked somehow and we went on to have a wonderful friendship that continues to this day.
I wanted to explore the intimacy that can develop between strangers online. I chose a weight loss forum as the meeting place for the characters as it’s a setting that I’m familiar with and I thought that many women would be able to relate to the theme of body dissatisfaction. The perpetual cycle of weight loss and gain that many of us seem to be caught up in fascinates me and I wanted to delve into the societal pressures that push us to be constantly at war with our own bodies. Prior to writing the book I was always on some sort of weight loss program, but doing the research for the novel changed the way I think about my body. My greatest hope is that reading the novel might have the same impact on some readers.
What did you do when you finished this novel?
I really don’t remember. I remember once posting on Facebook that I was eating a mango in celebration of finishing a novel. It might have been THE SHAPE OF US, or it might have been HONEY HILL HOUSE, I honestly don’t know! Finishing a novel these days usually involves a glass of champagne at some point. I always plan to take time off at the end of the first draft, but in reality that never happens. There’s always something else to do – promote the previous book, or start the new draft. I’m not a quick writer so I can’t afford to take big chunks of time away from the keyboard.
How would you best describe this novel to a new reader?
I’m terrible at describing my own work! I guess I would like potential readers to know that this is not a book about weight loss. It’s a book about the importance of friendship and how finding your tribe can help you to love the skin you’re in.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters?
Not in my rural books, but definitely in THE SHAPE OF US. I have a close group of friends that I originally met when we all did an online weight loss program years ago. None of the characters are based on these friends, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to claim bits of the characters as their own. They are always disbelieving when I tell them Jewels, Mezz, Kat and Ellie are definitely their own people. Fortunately my friends love the characters so it hasn’t been a problem.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I almost always write the first draft at my desk in my office. This is mainly because I have issues with my back and my shoulder so I need to be careful about posture. I have a very comfy ergonomic office chair that I sit in. Unfortunately even the very expensive chair doesn’t stop me from slouching! I set a timer and try to get up every 45 mins or so to move around to try and offset this. I occasionally will write on the couch using my laptop, but when I do I usually end up sitting in an awkward position, which leads to trouble, so I try not to do this too often. If I find myself really stuck in the story I take myself off to a local café to write. A change of scenery can often work wonders.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
Just one? I was one of those kids who read with a torch under the bedcovers. I devoured books. I remember my mum reading the Pookie stories to me when I was really little and I loved those. Then I moved on to Enid Blyton – The Naughtiest Girl series was my favourite of hers. She made me think boarding school would be fun! Little Women was another book that I loved as a child, but my absolute favourite was Anne of Green Gables, which I often reread even now.
Honestly I could go on and on and on! The pleasure I derived from reading as a child definitely influenced my desire to be a writer. Both my parents were avid readers and books were an important part of my childhood. Writers were my heroes and I desperately wanted to be one, but as a kid growing up in Melbourne’s western suburbs it just didn’t seem to be something that could happen to a girl like me.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
Too many to list. (Seriously!) I’m currently reading The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green and I’m eagerly anticipating The Way Back by Kylie Ladd, which is out later this month. I recently read The Mother’s Promise by Sally Hepworth, which I just loved. My favourite read so far this year is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It’s one of those books that stays with you long after you have finished reading.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
I think you have to be self-motivated, especially in the early days when you may not have a contract deadline to motivate you. No one else is going to write those words for you! I find being organised a definite bonus. I’m a goal setter and a compulsive list maker, which I think helps me to stay on track, and also justifies my addiction to pretty notebooks and journals!
I think writers need to enjoy their own company. Having said that, my writing friends are my saviours. I don’t know what I’d do without their support. I spend a lot of time communicating with my close writing friends each day—online and on the phone—which helps keep me sane.
I run most days to give myself some clear headspace, and also to get myself out of the house. Running is like meditation for me and I feel antsy if I don’t do it for a few days. I also drink a lot of coffee (which is probably why I feel so antsy all the time!) But seriously, my coffee addiction helps keep me connected to my community. I visit the same local coffee shop each day. The owners and staff now know me, as do many of the other regulars. Some days these people are the only ‘in person’ contact I have outside of my family, so they are an important part of my life!
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I really like Brussel Sprouts. I’ve never seen Star Wars or ET. My favourite film is Terms of Endearment and I sob every single time I see it. My last job before becoming a full time writer was as a Professional Organiser. I’m an inappropriate crier. My eyes fill up at the most inopportune times, like when someone praises my kids. (Parent teacher interviews are a nightmare for me!) Conversely, when something really terrible happens I can’t cry.
Now you know all my secrets!
A huge thanks is extended to Lisa for joining in with Behind the Pen and allowing us to get to know her a little better. And how about that home office! No wonder she writes such fabulous novels, creating in a space so lovely and inspiring. To find out more about Lisa and her books, you can check out her website.