W.H. Smith Interview

Celebrated bestselling author Monica McInerney chats about fictional families and her writing process in the leadup to her newest release, The Trip of a Lifetime.

What inspired you to write The Trip of a Lifetime?

Last year marked a milestone in my life. At the age of 52, I realised I’d lived half my life in Australia, half away, mostly in Ireland with my Irish husband. I found myself wondering, Where is home now? What would happen if we moved back to Australia? Would it feel instantly like home or will I now always be caught between two places? As often happens with my books, I ended up exploring what I was thinking about in real life via a fictional character, in this case Lola Quinlan, an 85-year-old Irishwoman, who emigrated to Australia as a young woman. Lola has appeared in two of my other novels and is great fun to write. She’s kind, flamboyant, wise but also wilful. By tracing her journey as she returned home to Ireland for the first time in 65 years, I found some answers to my own questions about home. (I’ve realised I am lucky – I have two homes, not just one.) I don’t write autobiographical books in any factual sense, but my books are certainly emotionally autobiographical.

 To what extent has your own upbringing influenced the way in which you write about fictional families?

It’s completely to blame. I grew up in a big, lively Irish-Australian family, in the Clare Valley of South Australia, where my dad was the railway stationmaster and my mum worked in the local library. I had a very happy childhood, surrounded by a large cast of people – my own family, but also constant visits from relatives and friends. The soundtrack of my early life was conversations. I used to love lying in bed at night and hearing the murmur of conversations coming from the kitchen, with my parents and their friends talking, debating and laughing. I’m a natural born eavesdropper, I think. To this day, writing dialogue is still my favourite part of writing my books. I love the complications of families, big and small, the ties, tensions, memories, secrets. It’s such rich fodder for storytelling. That said, I’ve never used my own family in my books. Ever. That’s not why I live on the other side of the world from them…

 Why do you think the stories of the Quinlans resonate with readers?

In the three Quinlan novels, The Alphabet Sisters, Lola’s Secret and The Trip of a Lifetime, Lola and her family experience many major events and emotions that are common to us all. I write about their love for each other, the fun they have, the joyous moments, but I also make sure to explore the shadow side of family life, the tensions and rifts between sisters, in-laws and parents. I write as honestly as I can about the shattering effects of grief, heartbreak, betrayal. None of us get through life without experiencing some or all of those. It has meant a lot to me to receive letters and emails from readers telling me that those three novels have resonated deeply with them.

What is your writing process? Is it the same for every book?

I have several different stages for each book. They begin with many months of thinking, followed by many months of writing, followed by many months of editing. Each book overlaps. I usually get the idea for a new one halfway through the writing of a current one. I am very disciplined, setting myself word count goals for each day.  I also write many drafts of each book. I never know at the beginning what will happen in the end. That makes it unnerving at times, but also interesting for me – each new day of writing throws up a surprise or two.

What continues to draw you back to Ireland?

My Irish husband, first and foremost! Also, the liveliness of Irish society, politics and culture, the great people, the beautiful landscape. It’s a fascinating, stimulating place to live. When I first moved here 27 years ago, I found the constant grey weather difficult to get used to. Now I love it. I’ve started calling it ‘silver light’ but perhaps I am just being kind.

What would you consider to be the trip of your lifetime?

I’ve been lucky to travel a lot during my life, around Australia, Asia, Europe, the USA. Each trip has opened my eyes to the world, given me beautiful memories (and great locations for my novels too). But the trip that springs to mind as really having an impact on me is one I took as an 18 year old – an overnight train journey from Adelaide to Melbourne, with a friend. It was my first time to travel as an adult, away from my family, and I can still remember the wonderful mixture of emotions: fear, excitement, delight, the sheer adventure of it. That memory has never left me.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to pursue their passion for writing?

  1. Read, read, read.
  2. Write, write, write.
  3. Edit, edit, edit.