SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to Irish author and journalist JOAN BRADY about a life in JOURNALISM, practising meditation and how SELF-HELP keeps her sane …
Joan Brady is an Irish journalist, a broadcast producer and a bestselling author of two delightful works of prose. She made her first splash with The Cinderella Reflex before swiftly embarking on her next journey with Reinventing Susannah, both published in 2017.
Joan’s most recent novel brings us into a merry narrative about how new starts can be found in unlikely places. When a mid-life crisis hits Susannah Stevens’s already empty nest, and her own husband flies the coop for a “grown-up gap year” – all seems lost. That is until Katie Corrigan, a driven young editor, hires her to write a mind, body and spirit column, despite a background in news and current affairs. The result is an engaging depiction of heartache, friendship and second chances, amid the often misunderstood world of self-help. Carmel Harrington has said of Reinventing Susannah – “This heartwarming read is steeped in delicious escapism.”
For Joan, writing has always been on the bucket list. Prior to finally getting published, she started many adventures on paper. However, it was a Finish Your Novel class at the Irish Writers Centre that changed her destiny.
In earlier incarnations, Joan was a features writer and columnist for the Irish Independent and Evening Herald before becoming a researcher, scriptwriter and a producer in RTÉ. She has worked on numerous current affairs and lifestyle programmes, most notably the Gay Byrne Show, Today with Pat Kenny, Liveline, Drivetime and Late Debate.
Joan Brady lives in Portmarnock, Co Dublin, with her husband Dave O’Connor. She is currently writing her third novel.
The Cinderella Reflex (€10.99) and Reinventing Susannah (€14.99) are both published by Poolbeg Press and available from bookshops nationwide.
I live in Portmarnock in Dublin. Portmarnock is famous for the Velvet Strand, that beautiful stretch of beach known to so many Dubliners. When I was a child we would get a bus and then another bus out here, laden down with picnics and buckets and spades. I remember back then there was a place on the beach where you could buy pots of tea. We’d arrive home very late in the evening, our shoes full of sand and the smell of the sea still in our hair.
I’ve lived on the same street in Portmarnock now for over three decades with my husband Dave, and some of my neighbours have become close friends. We reared our families here and are lucky enough to be able to see our grandchildren playing on the road where our children once played. There is something very special about that.
My daughter Jane has just moved into a new house in Portmarnock with her husband Darren and our new grandbaby Maia Rose Kelly.
The walk or drive between Portmarnock and Malahide is so beautiful it still makes me catch my breath at times. Malahide is stuffed with cafés but my current favourite is Seomra Tae because they give me a big pot of tea which makes two cups – I’m a tea addict.
I lived in Cabra in Dublin 7 as a child, with my parents and my ten siblings. There were six girls and five boys and somehow we all found a place to put our head down at night in a two bedroom house. When I tell the children in my family about that today I can see their brains trying to get their heads around it!
What I remember most about Cabra is the question, “will I put the kettle on?” We asked it of each other all day long and the answer was never, not once, a no. The pot of tea was an excuse of course for the banter. Who’d had a good day? Who was in a bit of trouble? Who were you going to vote for? Seriously? Would you say God is real? If there’s after-life isn’t it a bit suspicious that nobody has ever figured out a way to let us know? On and on it would go.
When my brother Alan died I had a dream where he was arguing with the powers-that-be in heaven to just let him come down for a minute, just to explain to us that he was okay. “Look at them, they’re in bits down there,” he was saying.
I have a writing room with a bookcase, a desk, a nice reclining armchair which catches any bit of winter sun that is going and a huge big whiteboard which fills me with a sense of possibility. I bought the whiteboard with the intention of making a vision board or for mind-mapping my ideas but so far all I’ve used it for it has been to stick up reminders and photos of babies. My daughter bought me a dreamcatcher because the first edition of Reinventing Susannah has a dreamcatcher on the cover, so that’s on the whiteboard. I have a small, white speaker on my desk to stream my music and I’ve just bought a microphone for my laptop because I’m experimenting with voice recognition for my writing – I’m a bit of a gadget addict. The room is important to me because I like to have everything to do with my writing in a creative space, but I’m still inclined to migrate around the house with my laptop.
On favourite bookshops
Manor Books in Malahide is a very calming book store and Robert and the staff are very friendly. They sell beautiful cards, candles and artwork as well as books and they have a very nice children’s section.
On her bedside table
The Other Side of the Wall by Andrea Mara. It’s a psychological thriller about a woman who, as a new mother, is often up and about at night when everyone else is asleep. During one of these nights she spots something strange in her next door neighbour’s garden. I like the fact it’s about a woman who is struggling and juggling with going back to work after maternity leave and because she is sleep-deprived it’s easy for her to doubt her own instincts about things. Which as we all know, is never a good idea. The characters feel very authentic and the mystery in the plot is keeping me turning the pages. On my Kindle, (which is stuffed full of self-help books), I am currently reading Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home by Lauren Rosenfeld and Dr. Melva Green. Every year I try to declutter but sometimes it feels like trying to hold back the tide. More stuff invariably accumulates where the old stuff was. This book is about how our emotions can generate clutter and we have to work on this before our decluttering can be a true success. We will have to see if it works!
I have meditated since I was in my twenties and that’s what I do to find peace. I also used to do a visualisation, which I learned from a book called Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. She recommends that you conjure up an inner sanctuary in your head when you want to relax. I invented a deserted beach with white, powdery sand like in the Caribbean and a vivid blue sea. There’s a beach hut, belonging to me of course, painted blue and white with wooden steps I climb up to reach the inside. There’s a small wooden desk, a journal, sketchpad, pens and a place to make tea. Through the window I can see dolphins on the horizon and if I want I can go down and swim with them (even though I can’t swim a stroke in real life, even after spending a fortune on private lessons!). I did that visualisation almost daily during a particularly difficult time in my life and it really worked.
I think self-help gets a bad press sometimes. I remember watching a film where the heroine is hiding her self-help books because she has a new boyfriend coming around and she thinks the books portray her as a ditz who can’t cope with life. I remember feeling quite angry about that. Self-help – books, courses and therapy – have helped me make sense of my life, to figure out what I want and don’t want and also how to stay sane during the darker times of bereavement and illness.
In Reinventing Susannah the heroine starts out with a very cynical viewpoint. Susannah has been an investigative journalist and she thinks self-help is for people with more money than sense. I have met a lot of people like Susannah and they think about this in a very different way to me, which is why I found writing the book so interesting.
Apart from my daily meditation, I journal, do yoga, and practise something called focussing (or body somatics). It involves tuning in to your body to sense how you really feel about someone or something. It’s a way of accessing your intuition and saves a lot of time and effort trying to figure out stuff in your head.
I think we all like to think that we can have a do-over if we need one. The thing is, we can if we can find our way out of the thinking that got us into the situation which is making us unhappy. But sometimes it’s hard to see that on our own and we need someone else to point it out to us. Susannah found her guides in unlikely places and I think that’s true in real life too. But we have to be open to hearing messages that can be uncomfortable for us. Anytime I ask myself in meditation, “what do I need to know about my life?” I am always surprised.
I had such a great and interesting career as a journalist. I reported on terrible things like the orphanages in Romania, interviewed people who had lost children to murder and spoken to victims of childhood sex abuse.
And then there was the glitzy side like meeting Jane Fonda in a fancy hotel in London, escorting Andrea Bocelli to the TV studios in RTÉ and holding Glen Hansard’s Oscar outside the radio centre. I was very blasé about it all at the time. Now I wish I’d been a part of the selfie generation because I’d have a record of it all now.
I also got to work with some of the great broadcasters in Ireland, like Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny. Everybody wanted to be on their shows, so you had much more material than you could use. It trained me to look at every potential story and ask “what’s in this for the listener?” Or reader – if I am writing.
On what’s next
I am working on a third book called The Mentor. It’s about a self-destructive TV journalist on a downward spiral until she is forced to mentor an unusual twelve year old girl and finds she needs to stop wallowing in self-pity and cop herself on.
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