Martina Devlin grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone and lived in London before settling in Dublin. She has worked as a journalist and started writing fiction after winning a Hennessy Literary Award for her first short story in 1996. This was followed by four novels – Three Wise Men, Be Careful What You Wish For, Venus Reborn and her latest is Temptation. She has also contributed to a number of short story collections and writes a column for the Sunday World magazine.
Martina, can you tell us about your latest book, Temptation, and how it came about?
Temptation was fun to write and hopefully people will find it entertaining to read. I wasn’t enjoying the job I was doing at the time I was writing it so when I came home from work I’d roll up my sleeves and divert myself with some bold women and their even bolder exploits. It centres on a newspaper columnist called Kitty Kennedy who decides she wants to be a mistress as a post-modern solution (but a well recycled one) to the post-modern problem of the man shortage. Finding a suitable candidate is easier said than done. Kitty has a relatively proper, stable arrangement in mind and you’d be surprised how many men think this is their heaven-sent opportunity for some temporary high jinks on the side. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Anyway Kitty, who’s a little naïve, is dumbfounded. I’m sending up tabloid newspapers in Temptation (and I have worked as a journalist for 100 years or so, well, it feels that long anyhow) but also looking at the role of the mistress and whether it’s a potential goldmine – or a loser’s game.
How long did it take you to write?
About a year – all my novels seem to take that long for some peculiar reason and I can’t work out why, although I suspect it’s to with the tides and Venus in ascendant. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Imagine if my books took five years to finish.
How do you organise your writing day? For example, where do you write? And at what time of the day are you at your writing best?
I’m not a lark and neither am I an owl, which seems a bit unfair. I’ve been palmed off with the afternoon as my ideal creative time and since there isn’t a bird analogy for that, I can only assume it’s regarded as woefully pedestrian in writers’ circles. At least now I’m in a position to write fulltime. When I worked (I was a reporter for the Irish Independent; that wasn’t the job which made me unhappy, they were a great gang) I tapped away in the morning before I’d go into the office and at weekends and on holidays. No social life, I’m afraid – something had to give. When I started resenting my day job for taking me away from my fictional world, I realised it was time to make the break.
Do you use a computer?
I’m always scribbling notes and ideas on scraps of paper or my wrist (forgetting about them and washing them off). But for the real business at hand I use a laptop which I carry into bed with me on cold days while I wait for the central heating to tackle the unequal task of heating my house. Mostly, though, I write facing a window where I look into my back garden and admire the fattest cat I’ve ever seen in my life stroll around my property as though he’s the lord of all he surveys. He has attitude: if I were a lady cat I’d be this pasha’s willing slave.
Do you use the internet for research?
All the time. I can’t believe how I managed before it was available. The only problem is you get sucked in and one thing leads to another and six hours later you know everything possible about the history of the stiletto shoe – and nothing about how much it cost to travel steerage on trans-Atlantic sailing boats 90 odd years ago which was the reason you logged on in the first place.
Are there any books or websites you would particularly recommend for writers?
Colm Toibin’s The Master to understand how the great Henry James functioned – it remains applicable today - and The Artists’ And Writers’ Yearbook for all the nuts and bolts of addresses and phone numbers for harassing people who will probably try to avoid you. They try to avoid me.
Has your life changed since writing your first book, ‘Three Wise Men’? Or since becoming a full time writer?
Three Wise Men’s publication was a revelation to me. I had been through a fairly desperate time in my private life with failed fertility treatment and a subsequent marriage breakdown and my self-esteem was so low its knuckles were dragging on the ground. When Three Wise Men appeared on the book shelves it was one of the first positive developments in my life in the aftermath of meltdown. It made me realise that misfortunes occur in life but so, too, do wonderful strokes of good luck. It was the silver lining in my cloud and set me on the path to this writer’s life which I still pinch myself to believe. Unless those bruises are due to the horse tranquilliser injections I had at the weekend when I turned up in Accident and Emergency with kidney stones… That’s a story for another day.
How did you get your first book published? Was it difficult?
I was really lucky because I won a Hennessy Literary Award for my first short story – I hadn’t tried any fiction before that, it was beginner’s luck. One of the judges, the author Justin Cartwright, suggested I write a novel. So I did. And it never saw the light of day, it was doom and gloom and self-indulgent twaddle, not something anyone should be condemned to read. Fortunately I realised that halfway through and abandoned it for the novel that became Three Wise Men.
Do you have an agent? And if so, how did you find him/her?
My agent is Stephanie Cabot from the William Morris Agency in London. I asked an editor friend from a publisher’s to recommend four agents who’d be suitable for the kind of writing I do and she supplied me with some names. I spoke to them on the phone and liked the sound of Stephanie, who’s a very warm New Englander, so I went across to London to meet her. We gelled and she took me on. You have to really trust your agent because he or she handles all your business but you also want them to understand what you’re about from the writing perspective.
What are you working on at present?
I’m trying to have a crack at an historical novel so I’m immersed in Titanic research at the moment. I don’t intend to set it on board the ship but I will use it as a springboard for my story. I discovered recently that my great grand-uncle went down with the liner and that sparked my interest. My generation of the family hadn’t known about him because he’d eloped and there was a certain amount of bad blood over it. I only came across it by accident and it set me thinking so I started digging around. Then I learned I had three great grand-aunts who emigrated to the US and this was news to me too. That’s the trouble with coming from one of those typically vast Irish families – you can mislay a pile of relatives and nobody misses them.
What books are on your bedside table at the moment?
The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy – his anti-hero Sebastian Dangerfield is so wonderfully self-absorbed; The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith – you can smell Africa from them and I love his lady detective who’s always suspicious of women who are too thin; The Irish Aboard Titanic by Senan Molony which I love dipping into; and Benedict Kiely’s Nothing Happens In Carmincross - I’ve been saving it for a quiet weekend curled up in bed with a box of chocolates. I recently finished Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and it’s an entrancing read, a porthole on another world. I used to live close to Brick Lane in London and I realised I’d barely skimmed the surface of the culture of people who were my neighbours. Such a squandered opportunity, I thought.
Do you read every day?
A book is the first item I pick up in the morning and the last thing I set down at night. I can imagine a world without television, radio, computers, even chocolate (never thought I’d concede that) but never a world without books.
How important are books in your everyday life?
Let me put it this way. If my house was blazing and I could rescue either an armful of books or my granny, there’s a real chance she’d have to find her own way out. If I was restricted to saving only one book from the flames it would have to be Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, a gift from my friend Sarah Webb. She gave it to me after my father died and it really helped me make sense of this mysterious process called death which is an inextricable part of life.
Do you have any advice or tips for budding writers?
Don’t give up hope, our greatest enemy is lack of self-belief. (Of course we all know somebody who’s brimful of self-belief , generally misplaced, but they are the exceptions. Honestly.) Most of us have a mocking voice in our head which tells us we’re not good enough or we’ll never succeed and we have to remember it’s an agent provocateur. If you feel you really, really want to write, then just keep plodding away. Try writing something every day - even if it’s only a few hundred words, or you end up with a single paragraph from pages and pages of work that’s worth keeping. Writing, and the imagination which fuels it, are like muscles - they benefit from being flexed on a daily basis. And remember to congratulate yourself when you do a good job.
Finally I’d like to thank Martina, for sharing some of her writing life with us.
For more information about Martina’s books please see www.martinadevlin.com