How a weekend in France inspired a series of novels

I love to travel and discovered many years ago that each journey I took was a story in itself.

That is why, when I decided to write, it was only natural that the inspiration should come from my travels.

But I needed to hone my craft first so I joined a writing class in the Irish Writers Centre. It was there that I met like-minded people. Four of us started a writers’ group, meeting once a month over a bottle of red wine to discuss each other’s work. It was very motivational as putting pen to paper can be a solitary process. The writing.ie website is another good place to start as it has lots of good advice.

Turning 40 was a major catalyst in the writing of my first published book and an excuse to go away for a weekend with one of my oldest friends from my school days. She was living in the Pyrenees and we decided to meet in Biarritz for two nights to share some quality time together.

We reminisced over our lives and I told her that I wanted to write a book. Over lunch in the beautiful Basque city of Bayonne we hatched a plot that was shocking enough to get noticed by Poolbeg Press. Two Days in Biarritz was my debut novel and my friend suggested that one of the characters in the book had an affair with the other’s father. “Your dad is pretty hot,” she said with a wink. We had a good laugh over a bottle of rosé wine but it did indeed become my first and bestselling novel, reaching number two in the Irish charts two years later.

Before Paula Campbell of Poolbeg sent me the contract I said I was about to take a trip to New York and maybe my next book would be Three Nights in New York. She liked the sound of it and as fate would have it a year later that, too, was published.

While in New York I was fortunate to meet with some locals and one of the group was a really interesting guy who was an artist by profession. He was late for dinner and made apologies for his girlfriend who had fainted with anaemia at the subway earlier that day. She had fallen on to the train tracks and he had jumped down and rescued her seconds before a train came by.

I thought that so exciting I stole it as the prologue for my novel. I discovered while writing my second novel that whenever I hit a wall with my plot, something would happen in real life that would provide the answer for my characters. I needed a reason for one of my characters, who was a single mother, to return to Dublin. Then while teaching a group of students in my other job as an art teacher, a student walked into my class room with his neck in a brace and explained that he had an accident playing rugby. It was like a light switch had gone off and I had my dilemma sorted.

My third novel is entitled One Kiss in Havana and while I was holidaying with my husband in Cuba we made friends with our taxi driver. He kindly drove us off the beaten path to pay homage to Hemingway — I wanted to see the little town of Cojimar where he had written The Old Man and the Sea. While we were there, a wedding party drove by and I thought it created a great ambiance which I used on two occasions in the novel.

Hemingway was an author who put his real life experience and travels into the plots of several of his novels. His time spent in Paris with F Scott Fitzgerald is autobiographically the plot for his novel A Moveable Feast and apparently some of the characters in The Sun Also Rises can also be traced to people in Hemingway’s life. One of my favourite novels is also in this vein — Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I find it fascinating how, years later, the real life plot was more intriguing and shocking than the literary work.

So was my last novel 5 Peppermint Grove autobiographical? In many ways, it reflected the way I was feeling after my dear friend Rachel moved to Australia two years ago. I went to visit her shortly afterwards. Emigration was all over the media in 2011 and I had other friends who left the country — I was able to characterise them and make up my own story to console myself.

I also had a lot of fun with this novel as my mother had recently taken up playing bridge and was becoming so obsessive that she started playing online. So I constructed a character using her friend’s name and they have had great fun ever since teasing each other over it. As a writer I think it is only natural that real life gets mixed up in the fictitious lives of our characters. Maeve Binchy’s advice to aspiring writers was to write about what you know — this is one way to make your characters seem real. But I have never written a story verbatim as it would then be fact and not fiction.

And sometimes fiction is easier to believe.!

* Michelle Jackson’s latest novel, Six Postcards Home, is published on Sept 26. www.michellejackson.ie

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