Deirdre Sullivan Interview
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer from Galway now living in Dublin and working as a teacher. She has established a reputation for herself as a leading Irish YA author following her trilogy on the teenage years of Primrose Leary, which has been widely acclaimed (Ireland’s much-respected YA critic, Robert Dunbar, says it ‘sparkles with authenticity’); two of the Prim books were shortlisted for the CBI awards; and the final one, Primperfect, was also shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature – the only YA novel to be nominated for this award from any European country.
Deirdre, can you tell us about your latest book, Needlework, and where the idea came from?
Needlework is a book about the aftermath of domestic violence, and how making art (in this case body art) can help a person through a difficult period in their lives. Ces, the protagonist is coping extremely well under difficult circumstances, but it is a struggle. Her head is above water, but she can smell the salt.
How long did it take you to write?
The first draft was written in one month for Nanowrimo 2010. I’ve left it for a year before returning to it, and have been fine-tuning it ever since.
It deals with a difficult subject, how did thinking about the book and living in its world affect you?
I learned a good deal while researching Needlework. About what it means to be a survivor. What shapes reclaiming your life, your body can take. About the scars that are left behind that people can and cannot see. About the early signs of emotional abuse - what to notice, what to look out for. Most of all, I learned how common it is. One in five women who have been in a relationship have experienced abuse by an ex or current partner. Men survive domestic violence too, but it’s largely a woman’s issue, and the world is very good at not listening to women. Fourteen women are turned away from shelters every day because of lack of funding. These are brave people who are trying to extricate themselves from a bad situation, and the support is being denid them because the demand for help is greater than the supply. Organisations like women’s aid are doing their level best, but it seems to be both a huge problem and a low priority for our society. Which is heart-breaking.
How do you organise your writing day? For example, where do you write? And when?
I teach all day, and I’m back at college now part-time, so I find it hard to write during the term. Sometimes I manage a little on the weekends, but it’s mainly during school holidays that I can sit down and start banging out all the things that have been percolating in my head!
I live in quite a small flat, so I normally set myself a word count for a day, and go to a library or a coffee shop and write and write until I hit that number. It’s easier to salvage something than create it!
Do you use a computer or write long hand?
I use long hand for ideas, computer for drafts, and a printed out copy with notes written on for edits. I find it kind of makes you do two edits in one, the reading and jotting edit and the fixing things on the computer one. It works for me.
Do you edit as you go along? Or at the end of the first draft? Do you find rewriting difficult?
It depends. I read it aloud at the end of the day and fix the sentences that bug me. More comprehensive rewrites and structural stuff come after I’ve got a first draft down on paper. Only not paper. Is down on screen a thing that people say? It is not. But it applies occasionally.
What research did you need to undertake before you started writing Needlework? What research tips can you give writers?
Read first-person accounts of lived experience. Talk to people. Basically, drink in anything and everything you can about the topic you’re writing. I did a lot of research into tattooing as well, and learned a lot about it as an art form. There’s a book called Bodies of Subversion by Margot Mifflin that’s absolutely wonderful on tattooing and the female experience and body. It was probably my favourite thing I read about the body art side of Needlework.
Are there any books or websites you would particularly recommend for writers?
Writing.ie is great, and so comprehensive. Your blog has a lot of good tips (Sarah: why thank, you, Deirdre!), and twitter is a good way to get insight into writing, and the many different shapes that the life of a writer life can take.
How did you get your first book published?
Siobhán Parkinson commissioned me to write a book for her. She was starting a publishing imprint, Little Island, and she liked the way I wrote. My experience is atypical. I was very lucky.
Do you have an agent? And if so, how did you find her?
I do. I’m represented by Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson . I queried her, and she liked the way I wrote, and it went from there. Clare is fantastic - very warm and supportive, and her editing skills are amazing - she’s very insightful, particularly with structural stuff.
What type of books do you like to read? What books are on your bedside table at the moment? Do you have a favourite book?
I read EVERYTHING, horror, non-fiction, childrens, young adult, regency romance, journalism, memoir, all of it! Currently reading a biography of Lee Miller by Caroline Bourke, and I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. Before that it was Dave Rudden’s Knights of The Borrowed Dark. I loved them all.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
The bit where you get to make up stories and share them with people.
I think the promotion aspect of it can be a little nerve-wracking, especially when you’re starting out. I’m quite shy, so it’s a blessing that the Irish children's book community is so warm and supportive. I’ve become more confident, because ye’re all so class.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for writers?
READ. READ ALL THE THINGS. Reading books makes you more aware of the difference between good and bad stories, the nuts and bolts of narrative. It builds your taste, and your hunger for story.
Set yourself small, manageable goals.
Carve time for things. Make writing your fifteen minute ab-blast or your ten minute guided meditation or whatever your new years resolution was. If you want to write, carve time for it, and don’t be ashamed or make excuses.
This is your thing. It belongs to you. You don’t need a publisher to draw up a contract or an agent to take you on or any other form of validation. Thought those things are good if you want to do it professionally, all you need is a paper and a pen and an idea. And if you find dreaming up things in your head and putting them down on paper is satisfying and infuriating and something that you need to do, then you are a writer.
Thank you, Deirdre, for sharing your writing life with us.
Find out more about Deirdre here: