A Conversation with Ber Carroll

It’s my very great pleasure to welcome Ber Carroll to my conversation series! 718kmhynikL                   As many of my regular readers will know, Ber and I – along with our third musketeer, Liane Moriarty – write a joint newsletter, BookChat, and speak together at author events. We met through our mutual publisher five years ago after we had both commented to her that we’d really like to network with other authors – particularly other women’s fiction authors. Our publisher put us in touch with each other, then I invited Liane to join us, and we’ve been going strong ever since. We all support one another, listen, share our highs and lows, and I know I can speak for Liane when I say that we were both impatiently waiting for Ber’s new novel, Worlds Apart.

So tell me this, Ber – what took you so long?!

First of all, I want to thank my readers for their patience. Three years is a long time between drinks (especially if you’re Irish, like me!). Some stories just take longer to write, and this one has been percolating for a while, maybe even since I first arrived in Sydney almost twenty years ago. Straight away I felt as though I belonged here, in Sydney, and ever since I have found myself watching others, migrants like me, and wondering if they feel thIMG_4008at same sense of belonging, or if they feel like they belong somewhere else. Many of the characters in Worlds Apart are foreigners, foreign to Sydney, or foreign to Dublin, or foreign in some other less obvious way. It look a while to weave a story around these characters. All the minor characters came first: Fila, Lisha, Kasia. Then followed Erin, Laura, Cathy and Moira, who were more complex to write, and whose individual feelings of being ‘out of place’ have nothing to do with nationality.

That is fascinating. I had a similar experience when I moved up to an inner city suburb of Sydney a couple of years ago. I know that’s a much less dramatic move, but after living in the same town for 24 years, raising my kids, I was a little terrified about such a big move. But I totally relate to the ‘sense of belonging’ that you talk about. It was unexpected and very powerful.

So needless to say, I loved Erin’s storyline. But before we go on to the main characters, I’m interested that you came up with the so-called minor characters first. I say ‘so-called’ because they all have a significant role to play in Worlds Apart, and they each have such interesting back stories. Are any of them based on people you know? How did you come up with them?

Well, I learned after my first novel not to base characters on real people! Having said that, Kasia is loosely based on a Polish girl who used to nanny for a friend of mine. My friend couldn’t warm to her, and I remember wondering (while listening to recounts of everything this poor nanny was supposedly doing wrong) what the nanny actually thought of my friend.  Fila is based on all the young Afghan girls in Australia, who are every day striving to learn our language and our culture. Lisha, similarly, is based on all the Nigerian girls in Ireland, struggling to fit in and make a new life. The reason that letters and emails are used periodically throughout the novel is to give these minor characters a voice.

I loved the letters and emails throughout Worlds Apart – they give such a warm and personal insight into the characters. You’ve admitted to relating quite closely to Erin, so what about her cousin, Laura, the other central character driving the narrative? I actually think a lot of readers will relate to Laura – the stressed, overworked, overtired woman juggling a demanding career with being a wife and mother. But I daresay the reader will also see how Laura’s control freakery is only making things harder for herself. Tell the truth now, Ber – have you ever been found scrubbing your shower recess in the middle of the night?

Actually, my house is such a terrible mess by the time I finish a novel that some midnight scrubbing wouldn’t go astray! Going back to Laura, yes, I hope a lot of women can relate to her – I certainly can. The constant juggling, the persistent feeling that you aren’t doing the right thing by either your family or your work, is something I have experienced firsthand, especially when I worked in the corporate world and had less flexibility with my hours. At certain points in the novel, my writing of Laura’s struggles were a little too heartfelt, and the editor had to ask me to ease off a bit.

That’s interesting, Ber. Well, you still certainly managed to convey Laura’s stress levels extremely well – I felt exhausted reading some of her sections, I just wanted to tell her to slow down and relax! That’s why I enjoyed her scenes with Moira so much. What a lovely character Moira is – you have given us such an empathetic portrayal of a person slipping into dementia. Where did you get the idea for Moira?

Moira is the combination of many stories I have heard over the years from family and friends who have loved ones with similar illnesses. I was struck by how many times these stories were relayed with a smile, and how much tenderness there was beneath the sadness. As an author, I enjoyed writing Moira immensely. She’s warm, funny, very lovable, and a strange mix of wise and child-like. More than anything, she is totally unpredictable . . .

I love writing those unexpected characters too – it’s like having a visit with a lovely friend. And I think that’s how readers will feel about Worlds Apart, Ber – like they’re sitting down for a visit with a range of interesting characters, either in Sydney, or across the world in Ireland!

And let’s not forget the male characters! The three leading men – Jack, Adam and Esteban – were all very appealing in very different ways. What was your inspiration for these characters?

I have to admit, Di, that after six novels I find it quite hard to come up with new male characters. The truth is that Jack, Adam and Esteban came about after lots and lots of contemplation and scratching around for ideas. Jack is Erin’s perfect man, even though he comes with a certain degree of baggage (specifically, two wary daughters). Adam – hyperactive, passionate, quirky – is her friend and boss. As the story progresses, Erin has to make a choice between these two very different men (lucky Erin!). Esteban is Laura’s husband, and yet another foreigner. But Esteban is quite well established: into Dublin, into Laura’s family, and into Irish life. I like how Esteban provides an exotic element to a very Irish family. And I like how he breaks stereotype.

Actually, as I write this I’m realising that I’m very happy with how the male characters turned out. Maybe all that contemplation paid off!  

Indeed!

Thanks so much for giving us this extra insight into Worlds Apart, Ber, and thank you also for providing a signed copy to give away to one lucky reader! All you have to do to win is join in the conversation by leaving a comment below. Ber will pick a winner at random. But be quick – competition closes a week from today.

Worlds Apart is available in hard copy or e-book from Amazon, Book Depository, Booktopia, the Apple iBook store, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and many other online sites. It can be purchased from any country around the world.

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The Best Man

I am very proud to announce that my ninth novel, The Best Man, is officially out! A few bookshops were early stacking it on their shelves, so some of 9781742611945you have already read it; some had it magically appear on their e-readers after pre-ordering earlier; others had it delivered to their door from online booksellers. Books come in a variety of ways these days, but in the end, it’s the story that counts. So I guess I should tell you what this one is about. It opens as Henry and Madeleine are waiting at the airport to meet the best man for their wedding, Henry’s old college friend, Aiden. And then … you see, here’s where I get stuck. Allow me to explain.

This is the first time I have started with the title. For some authors, that’s their preferred method. (Am I right, Jenn McLeod?) But on more than one occasion, my publisher and I have still been scratching around for a title just before the manuscript was due at the typesetter. This is not an ideal situation. So it was very handy to come up with a title first. The Best Man. Three little words that had the potential to mean a whole lot. They did to me, anyway, which is why I was eventually able to write an entire novel around them. I started dropping the title here and there, and it seemed to get the desired response:

‘The Best Man, eh? Who is the best man?’

‘Hmm,’ I would reply, cryptically. ‘Who indeed?’ That is the question.

I wondered if I’d finally attained the holy grail – of fiction and non-fiction writers alike – and managed to create a ‘hook’. A hook is that irresistible idea, or a question you can pose that creates a buzz, has everyone talking, and sucks you straight into the story, dying to find out the answer. My friend and fellow author, Liane Moriarty, is a master of the hook. Every time I hear the idea for her next novel, I want to read it immediately (after wishing I’d had the idea first!). So I was very proud of myself for coming up with a catchy, hopefully intriguing title.

But as I progressed further and further, I realised the rest of the story wasn’t going to be so easy to encapsulate. This seems to be the way it goes with my books. My focus is all on the characters, so the first thing I did after the title popped into my head was create them – their names, backgrounds, what they did for a living. Then I threw them together at a particular, significant point in their lives, and watched what happened next. That may be all well and good, but it does not make for a must-read blurb on the back of the cover! And it also makes it very hard for me to post an interesting blog (Are you still there? Hello? Anyone?).

So what I thought I’d do this time is hand the Comments over to outright spoilers. It’s safe to keep reading the rest of this post, but – ALERT! – don’t scroll down that-a-way if you haven’t read The Best Man first. If you have, and you want to make a comment, or ask a question, start a discussion, whatever – then fire away. The idea occurred to me the other day when someone posted on Facebook, after reading The Best Man, that they couldn’t say much so as not to spoil it for others. That was absolutely the correct thing to do in a public forum, but I would genuinely love to hear your feedback, what you think of the characters, and what they (or I) did right or wrong, good or bad. Please do NOT feel that you have to say something nice, this is not a fishing expedition. The only time I get to have such conversations is when I’m invited to book clubs, where (mostly) the attendees will have read the book. The rest of the time – at events, in interviews – I have to tread carefully and not give away too much. 

So go nuts in the Comments. Speak freely! Here’s a question to start you off, and to help me out at the same time – How would you describe The Best Man, in a nutshell? What would you say it’s about? I might just glean some pithy answers for the next time I’m asked. 🙂

And don’t forget – if you haven’t read The Best Man, SPOILER ALERT ahead!