The following is an edited extract of an interview with Monica, conducted in February 2005 by Lucy Smith, 14, a Year 9 student at Monica’s old school Clare High in South Australia.
When did you write your first novel, and how long did it take you?
My first novel was A Taste for It, which was published in Ireland in 2000, Australia and New Zealand in 2001 and in Germany (translated into German) in 2003. I started writing it in 1997, when I was living in Hobart. It took me about two years to write. I was working fulltime in a public relations company back then, so I would write it before work, after work, at lunchtime, on weekends (and sometimes at work if things were slow.) I didn’t have a publishing deal, so was writing it purely for enjoyment, to see if I could write a novel. The morning I finished the first draft I heard about a Write A Bestseller competition an Irish newspaper and publisher were running. Their deadline for entries was about six weeks away, and that really gave me the impetus to do the second draft and finish it in time to send to them. I came runner-up in that competition and was offered a three-book deal. If that competition hadn’t come up, I would probably still be writing A Taste for It now.
How long does it take to write your books?
Each one takes about a year. There’s usually some overlap between the writing of the books. I think about it for about three months before I actually start writing it, getting the idea for the next while I am still finishing the previous one. I write very solidly for about six months, during usual work hours, increasing the hours as I get closer to the deadline to give the manuscript to my publishers. I also rewrite, cross out, start again, move chapters and passages around, drop characters and change storylines. It’s a constant process. I like – and need – tight deadlines. I always meet them, but I find knowing one is coming up keeps me very focused.
Why did you choose to have most of your books based in the Clare Valley?
I love the Clare Valley. I love the look of it, all the hills and the vineyards after the flatness of the surrounding countryside. I love how it changes from season to season, the big blue sky and yellow hills in the summer, all the mists and green in the winter. I love the bend in the road as you come into Auburn, with those big sweeping vineyards. I have very vivid memories of my childhood in Clare, as well as all the visits back over the years since I moved away.
I set The Alphabet Sisters there because so much of the book was about family, what it means and how important it is. At that time, my mother was moving from our family home, the railway stationmaster’s house on the corner of Lennon Street and New Road. My dad had died in 2000 and so many things had changed. It was the end of an era in a way for our family. I was thinking about our lives in Clare so much that it felt very right to set the book there. I was physically sitting in Dublin writing it, but in my mind I was in the Clare Valley, imagining Carrie going to the main street, imagining the sound of the fire siren on Tuesday nights, picturing Bett and Daniel driving along the back roads or visiting Sevenhill Cellars and Martindale Hall. It kept me from getting too homesick or too sad.
Are you very close to your sisters, unlike Anna, Bett and Carrie?
We’re very close. Not physically, Lea is in Hobart, Marie is in Adelaide and Maura is in Clare, but we ring, email and/or text just about daily, and they are my best friends. They are very different to Anna, Bett and Carrie. I was very careful about that.
Which book did you enjoy writing the most?
I’ve enjoyed writing them all for different reasons. I loved writing A Taste for It, because it was my first and I got such a thrill out of actually bringing it together. I loved writing The Alphabet Sisters, because the three sisters became so real to me, and because of Lola. I’ve loved writing Family Baggage too, really getting to know all the members of the Turner family and exploring the dynamics and dilemmas of a family business.
What are the main things you need to write a book?
Time, ideas, determination, patience. The ideas come easy sometimes, but you need to be very determined, to keep believing in yourself, and to keep going even if you are rejected, or get a bad review, or the writing isn’t going well, all of which happens to every writer.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I don’t really have a favourite place. I write in the most practical place – the spare room of our house, a small terrace cottage in a northside innercity suburb of Dublin called Stoneybatter. I wrote Family Baggage and The Alphabet Sisters here in Dublin. I wrote Upside Down Inside Out and Spin the Bottle when we were living on very noisy Holbrooks Road in Underdale, in Adelaide. I wrote A Taste for It when we were living in Hobart. I use a laptop on top of a wooden table, with bookshelves and piles of paper all around me. I also carry a notebook with me most of the time, to catch the ideas when they arrive. I remember sitting watching a soccer match at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide and getting an idea for a plot twist in Upside Down Inside Out. I wrote ideas for a chapter of The Alphabet Sisters on the back of an envelope I found in the glove box of our car one afternoon when we were driving back from a weekend in Galway. The lovely thing about writing is it all comes out of your head so it is a very portable career.
Does writing take up all your time, if not what are your hobbies?
It takes up most of my time, either the writing and editing itself, or the business side that comes along with it, emails to my agents, publishers etc. When I’m not writing, I love cooking and going out to dinner. My husband and I do a lot of walking, in the Dublin mountains and in the Phoenix Park near our house. We really love travelling too. I love that about living in Dublin again – it’s only a quick flight to London or Paris or Italy. We like going to different parts of Ireland too. I also read a great deal, usually about three books a week, though less when I am finishing a book and concentrating only on my own story. I also play netball once a week, in a league made up of Australians, New Zealanders and one or two Irish people here in Dublin. Writing is so sedentary I have to force myself to do physical exercise or I will end up frozen in the shape of my office chair.