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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A Conversation with Ilsa Evans

Authors are sometimes asked if they’re interested in reading a manuscript and Nefarious-Doings_coverproviding a quote for the cover. This can be a fraught business, you can imagine! But last year I was asked to read Nefarious Doings by Ilsa Evans – the first instalment of her new Nell Forrest Mystery series – and I was sold from the very first page. I have since been telling anyone who would listen how much I enjoyed it.

So I am very excited that Ilsa agreed to join me for a conversation today!

Ilsa, you have managed to seamlessly blend what we love about contemporary women’s fiction – warm, relatable characters, everyday life, a good dash of humour, even a touch of romance – with murder, mystery and intrigue … So I have to ask, what made you veer into this territory?

Evans_IlsaI think that I’ve written across genre a little bit in the past, which may have been to my detriment. One minute I’ll write something quite light and then I’ll lurch into the story of an abused woman, or euthanasia or something like that. And I started thinking how nice it would be to identify – and be identified with – a certain genre. Then one evening I was watching the marvellous Phryne Fisher on the ABC, and had a bit of an epiphany. Murder mystery seemed like a marvellous challenge, plus it was a genre that allowed me to retain characters. I find it terribly difficult to say goodbye to characters at the end of my books. For weeks after I finish writing, I feel like I should be able to pick up the phone and invite them around for a drink. With murder mystery, I get to catch up with them every few months!

What a great answer! This happens to me too, and my readers are always asking for sequels, but my stories don’t really allow for that. Your Nell is such a wonderful character – I know I couldn’t wait to spend more time with her after I read Nefarious Doings, so I was thrilled when Ill-Gotten Gains was released soon after. I realise this could be one of those ‘Where do you get your ideas’ questions that are impossible to answer, but – how did you come up with Nell?

Ill-Gotten-Gains_cover

Most of my main characters are people I would like to know. I’m fine with having unpleasant or annoying or odd types in the background, but the main ones have to be someone I’d enjoy spending time with. Because that’s exactly what I have to do! In Nell’s case, I was busy with another project when I first came up with the murder mystery idea so she had to bide her time for a few months. By the time I finally put pen to paper, she was fully formed – and getting very impatient! I don’t actually recall making any definitive decisions about her personality or family or even her job; they all just seemed right. Incidentally, I recently read your The Right Time and I think Nell would get on very well with Ellen.

I think you’re absolutely right! They’re both that kind of no-nonsense woman, pulled in all directions by kids and work and all the other ephemera of life, and wondering where they fit into the mix. Nell did appear fully formed, I felt like I already knew her from the start – which is a great characteristic to have in your lead. And taking a character like that, and putting her on the scent of a mystery, was a stroke of genius. My dad is always asking me when I’ll write a crime into one of my books, but my head just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately! Did you have to plot out the entire mystery, so you knew where it was going? Or did you start with an idea, and let it unfold? 

It’s funny you should ask that because I’m getting towards the end of the third book in the series and have just realised I’ve tied myself in knots (figuratively speaking). And the knots have a lot of loose ends also, sticking out left, right and centre. It’s like a cross between macrame and writing. Not good. So no, generally I start with an idea and just let it unfold but perhaps I need to start rethinking that approach!

You may well have to! I’ve always been a little dubious about crime writers who claim they don’t know whodunnit until it comes out in the writing. However, it must be both exciting and daunting to stretch your author muscles.

You’ve kind of answered my next question: that you’re working on a third book in the series (Yay!). How many books do you think Nell has in her? Or do you have other plans after this?

The third book is called Forbidden Fruits and I’m just now finishing it off. I’d love for there to be more – and have ideas for at least another three! – but I really have to wait and see how they’re going. The reviews have been great but I’ve just heard that the print editions have been postponed so that’s not good. It’s all rather up in the air unfortunately. Although I do know that next I’ll spend some time on a project I started under contract a few years ago, but then the contract fell through so I shelved it. It’s a light, non-fiction exploration of middle-age for women, called ‘The Invisible Woman and other remarkable phenomena of middle-age.’ I’m actually looking forward to dragging it out and dusting it off!

And as an invisible middle-aged woman myself, I’ll look forward to reading it! If it’s executed with the same warmth and humour as your Nell Forrest series, then it will be a must-read. Thanks so much for the conversation, Ilsa!

And it doesn’t have to stop here! You can keep the conversation going below, I’m sure Ilsa will be happy to answer your questions. Or just say hi. Everyone who comments will go in the draw for one of THREE e-copies of Nefarious Doings. You will need an ereader, but it can be read on any format, including tablets. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough, and I’m certain my readers will enjoy it as much as I did.

 You can find out more about Ilsa here, and about the Nell Forrest series here and here, where you can even read a sample chapter.

 So leave a comment below and be in the running for a copy of Nefarious Doings!

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!

What’s in a name?

Well, plenty, I reckon. I’m stuck for a name for this blog, though. I’m thinking it’s probably going to remain ‘dianneblacklock’ so you’ll still be able to find it. I have at least changed the tagline. Must get around to decorating next week …

Names of blogs aside, I love naming things, namely, the characters in my novels. And that’s what has been occupying me lately in my current novel. I have most of the major characters sorted, though the female protagonist took three goes to get right – hoorah for ‘Find and Replace’ on Word. I had a name in mind as I began, but it jarred as I read back over the first few chapters. I tried another name, but it didn’t feel right either, and finally this one evolved – one I’m sure I wouldn’t have come up with in the first place, but it feels absolutely right now.

In a way, characters name themselves, at least they certainly won’t be shoe-horned into a name that doesn’t suit them. When I was writing Almost Perfect, I could not settle on a name for Liam. I had a very long list but I just couldn’t decide. One day, a scene from later in the novel came to me, and I quickly scribbled it down – by the end he was Liam, and he couldn’t be called anything else after that.

I have an admission, I’ve always been obsessed with names. When I was a girl I wanted to have eighteen children, weird but true, and I think at least part of the reason was that I would get to choose so many names. I made long lists of monikers for those would-be children, giving them second, and sometimes third names. It was updated regularly as my tastes changed. I still have an extensive handwritten list – needless to say most of the names make me cringe now.

I only had four children in the end, and didn’t even give two of them middle names. So I have plenty of names to use up! The names of my characters are very important to me: they have to go with the surnames, they have to fit with the other members of their family, they have to be true to the age of the person. And somehow they have to reflect, as best they can, the personality of that character. It really grates on me if names don’t seem right when I’m reading a novel. One thing (among many!) that really bothered me in The Slap was that the names didn’t feel right. ‘Connie’ was a very odd choice for the seventeen-year-old daughter of hippies. And ‘Anouk’ was a white, thirtysomething, middle-class woman – the only explanation for her name is an offhand comment that her parents were francophiles. But as I remember she has a sister called Tracey. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for giving her such an unusual name, and it irritated me throughout.

Maybe it’s just me? Are names in books important to you? Are there names that grate for you as well? Would the wrong names affect your enjoyment of a book? Or would a rose, regardless of its name, smell just fine to you?

PS: Thanks for all your lovely comments and feedback on my first blog! So encouraging xx