From an editing career in Harper Collins to best-selling debut author, mother of three Alison Walsh tells Sue Leonard that the path to success in writing can be a long road working from the bottom up.
All That I Leave Behind
Hachette Books Ireland, €17.99; ebook, €6.37
WHEN Alison Walsh’s elder son saw the cover of her debut novel, he was a little alarmed. Underneath the title, All That I Leave Behind, was the sentence, What makes a mother abandon her children?’ Looking at her, carefully, he said, “Mum, is that a plan?” The mum of three roars with laughter at the memory.
“I said, ‘no dear!’” Alison swears that her book, based on a dysfunctional family who think their lives are perfectly fine, is not at all based on her experience.
“I come from a smallish Irish family,” she says. “I have just one sister and one brother, and I’ve been happily married for 25 years. But I always wanted to write about a larger Irish family.
“I love reading that kind of thing; books like Gone with the Wind, Jane Smilie’s One Thousand Acres, and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake.”
Alison started writing as a child. She was constantly entering short story competitions, and writing reams about gymnastics, but she hadn’t the confidence to try writing as a career. And it didn’t help that her great-grandfather, Maurice Walsh, was still a well known writer back then.
“With that legacy, I would not have the nerve to be writing.” For all that, the world of books appealed. And, after college and a spell in France, Alison made her way to London where she joined the publishers, Harper Collins, initially in sales and marketing.
“I quickly moved into editorial and became an assistant editor in science-fiction, before transferring into women’s fiction, which suited me better.
“In publishing you start at the bottom and gradually work your way up. I answered the phone to Sidney Sheldon, or Barbara Taylor Bradford, then I was let loose on light copy-editing. I built up and became a desk editor, dealing with all aspects of the book from copy editing to writing the blurb and liaising with the art work. It was a wonderful training.”
After six years, wanting to work in literary fiction Alison went to work at Orion, but discovered that the genre didn’t suit her as well. She was there for two years, but then, married and expecting her first baby, came back to Ireland.
“I missed my mother,” she says. “My husband Colm had a book contract with Picador so the timing seemed good. We lived in Dun Laoghaire for two years then moved to our cottage in Harold’s Cross. We’re city people through and through.” The couple’s three children, Eoin 17, Niamh, 14 and Cian, 11, never had to go into a crèche.
“Colm and I decided that there would always be one of us at home. It was Colm for a while, then it was me. He now works full time in advertising and I’m the one at home. As a freelance editor and writer I find that quite manageable.”
In the early days Alison did a lot of editing work for the publishers Gill and Macmillan. And when, in the early noughties they decided to start an imprint for fiction, they signed her up as the editor. That lasted until 2005, when Alison left to have her third child.
“I needed a break and I wanted to concentrate on home. I took two years off, as after a baby I go into brain melt. Then I began freelancing again.”
Meanwhile, Alison had been writing a weekly column for the Irish Independent supplement Life and Living.
“It was a humorous look at family life. Afterwards I wanted to write an extension of the column, going into the subject with a bit more depth. I mentioned it to Georgina Morley the non-fiction editor at MacMillan, and she said, ‘send something in’.
Thinking about her grandmother who was involved in the Irish Countrywoman’s Association, Alison came up with the idea of writing about three generations of women — and of how life for mothers had changed. Called, In My Mother’s Shoes, the book shot to number one, and the editor suggested that Alison should next try fiction.
She had already written bits and pieces of fiction, but was still trying to find her voice.
“So much of writing is about confidence,”
says Alison. “I wrote something, and my agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor sent it around to publishers, but I had to let my voice develop.”
Trying again, Alison had two characters in her mind; a mother and a daughter, but that novel wasn’t working out either and she couldn’t understand why.
“One Saturday I woke up, and four characters arrived in my head. They were siblings, getting on with their lives, but something wasn’t quite right with them. The reader gradually understands why.”
A large family saga, the novel centres on middle aged Mary-Pat, an irritating woman with a need to stay in control; her twin siblings, the spoilt radio presenter’s wife June, and Pius, who lives alone growing increasingly eccentric.
When their younger sister Rosie breezes in from the States, with an American fiancée in tow, the siblings are less than thrilled to see her. Then their father, a rogue who is now deteriorating with Alzheimer’s, lets out a long held secret.
It’s a great read. The characters act in unexpected ways as they confront the hurts of the past.
“It’s all about the mother’s absence, and how people construct normality when terrible things have happened. They try and follow their lives, thinking, ‘I’m doing a brilliant job here,’ when in fact they are carrying all of this stuff.
“I wanted to look at how everyone in a family has a label. Mary Pat is seen as the coper. She’s very brittle and aggressive, but she’s carrying a lot of anger. All this responsibility landed on her shoulders, and the residual anger spills over to the dad and her siblings. She’s not likeable but I hope she’s sympathetic.” The author doesn’t plan much.
“I find things out as I go along. It’s a gradual process of clarity. Writing the first draft I begin to understand what I’m getting at.
“Some characters are easier to write to others,” she says. “Mary Pat and Pius were the easiest because they came fully formed. June needed work, because she’s a certain Dublin woman and I found myself commenting on her — I had to pull back, and Rosie was the hardest because she doesn’t know who she is. She’s a work in progress.” The story hinges on the mother, Michelle, who abandoned her children almost 30 years earlier, but it was a long time before Alison could bring herself to write sections in her voice.
“I avoided writing her like the plague because part of me was annoyed with her. As women we are programmed to stay with our children and defend them with our last breath. It’s an instinctive thing and part of that was missing for Michelle. Life was so difficult for her. She saw it in stark terms of ‘I have no choice’.”
The book flows effortlessly. Is that because Alison is an editor? That, surely, makes it much easier as a writer.
“I love being edited,” she says. “I have a respect and understanding of what the process can give you provided you trust your editor. But you absolutely can’t self edit. There’s no distance between yourself and your work. There’s always a voice in my head saying, ‘that is not good enough’. It’s hard to let go of that.”
“So does being an editor make the job of writer easier? No. My editorial brain has no role in my writing at all.
“It would be as useful to be a bus driver!”
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