Writer’s Block With Judi Curtin

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author JUDI CURTIN about her INNER CHILD, the support of IRISH WRITERS and winning Children’s Book of the Year in 2017 …

Judi Curtin is one of Ireland’s most valuable children’s authors. For the past thirteen years, her work has brought joy to young readers and their families all over the country. Judi has so far published a staggering twenty-two books for children, including her addictive Alice and Megan and Eva collections. Her already immensely popular Molly and Beth series, which follows a pair of time-travelling best pals, contains two marvellous entries so far – Time After Time (2016) and Stand By Me (2017). She has also written three novels for adults.

Judi was born in London and her Irish family relocated to Cork when she was eight years old. She is a graduate of University College Cork and later St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, where she trained as a teacher. She taught at primary level for many years, but writing was always a dream waiting to come true. The bestselling storyteller eventually got the ball rolling in 1999 and her first adult title Sorry, Walter was published in 2003. Her debut children’s book, Alice Next Door, followed in 2005 and her imagination has worked tirelessly ever since. Her books have sold over a quarter of a million copies to date and have been translated into many languages.

After many nominations over the years, Judi collected her much deserved Children’s Book of the Year (Senior) accolade for Stand By Me, at the Irish Book Awards in 2017.

Judi Curtin lives in Limerick with her husband Dan.

Stand By Me (€12.99) is published by The O’Brien Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home 

I have lived in Limerick city since 1987. My home is a comfortable twenty-five minute walk from the city centre, which has greatly improved over the last number of years – and all for the better! It’s a nice-sized city, and very accessible on foot. There are some great coffee places and restaurants, and lots of independent shops. The Milk Market is a busy and buzzy foodie heaven, which opens at the weekend. I go there to buy daffodils, cheese, and whatever else tempts me on the day. I love to cook and bake, but when I’m feeling lazy I like to eat at Azur or The French Table. When I have to look my best for events, I head for Niall Colgan Hairdressing, where Nataljia always manages to transform me!

On roots

As a child, we moved around a lot. I lived in London until I was eight, and then in a few different parts of Cork City. As a result, many of my childhood memories are a bit jumbled, and not necessarily connected to a particular place. My mum is a great home-maker, and my best memories are associated with coming home from school to a warm house, with something sweet and delicious cooling on the kitchen counter. I still love the Cork accent, and my children tell me mine comes back whenever I spend a day in the city!

On creating

In my dreams I would have a studio in the garden, with beanbags and scented candles, and the sound of a babbling brook in the background. In reality, I write on a desktop computer in a corner of our kitchen/living room. It’s a warm and comfortable space, with lots of plants and family photographs. Our cat, Pablo, lounges on a couch as I work. In springtime it’s where I germinate tomatoes and peppers and chillies, so I can keep one eye on them as I type. I have this space to myself during the daytime, so focusing on my work isn’t hard – as long as I don’t get distracted by the breakfast porridge pots. When I need a break, I play tennis, or potter in the garden or meet a friend for coffee.

On bookshops

We are very fortunate in Limerick as we have the wonderful O’Mahony’s books which has been run by the O’Mahony family since 1902. It’s a huge, multi-level space, with a great children’s section in the basement. The stock is vast, and the knowledgeable staff will source anything within a matter of days. In Cork, I always loved Liam Ruiseal books – another family business which has been going for a little over 100 years. Unfortunately, the family has recently announced that they plan to close the doors later in the year, which will be a huge loss to the city.

On her nightstand

My nightstand is a death trap, with a pile of books that never seems to diminish. At the moment I’m reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I’m not far in, but the opening chapters already have me hooked. Books waiting to be read include Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. That’s there because I loved My Name is Lucy Barton, which has some overlapping characters. I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara ages ago, but it remains with me. It’s tragic and moving and wonderfully written, and will probably stay next to my bed until I read it again – which will definitely happen sooner or later. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel has been next to my bed for years! I often pick it up, but can’t find the will to actually read it – despite glowing recommendations from several friends. Finally, sometimes only a short story will do, and in these cases I will dip into The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, or something by Kevin Barry.

On escapes

In Ireland, I love West Cork and Kerry. As a teenager I often visited Rosscarbery with my family, and it holds many happy memories for me. In Kerry I love Glenbeigh, which is understated and not too overrun with tourists. There are spectacular sea views, and lovely mountain walks, which help to make the most of them. Winter or summer, a walk on Rossbeigh beach will do wonders for my mood. It’s generally very windy, which I find exhilarating.

Last year I visited Portovenere with my husband and daughter. It’s a small little town, near the Cinque Terra. We were lucky enough to have a room with a view, and I could happily have sat there all day, reading a good book, watching the boats pulling into the port and planning which delightful restaurant to go to for dinner.

On the Irish Book Awards

I’d been shortlisted on a number of occasions, and had always taken the attitude that just being there on the night was enough. Last year, as usual, I had no expectation of winning, and no clue how wonderful that would be. When my name was announced, there was great celebration at my table where staff from my publishers, The O’Brien Press, went crazy. There was time for a quick hug from my husband and daughter before taking the long walk. I was shaking as I crossed the room, and later I had no clue what I had said while I was on stage. The scene in the Green Room was great, where I met my friend and fellow winner, Sarah Webb, and many of the other winning authors – much giddiness ensued! Later, the generosity of the other short-listed authors was heart-warming, and I sincerely hope I was half as gracious on the many occasions when I didn’t win.

On support

The Irish writing community is a very warm and welcoming place to be. Children’s writers in particular are very supportive and helpful. As much of my day is spent alone at my computer, any chance to mingle with my fellow writers is very welcome. Festivals can be great places to meet and catch up with the latest news. Sometimes, the festival committee will set up a writers dinner, which is actually a big deal, as we always have so much to talk about. As writers are often introduced by first name only, I have, on a number of occasions, belatedly discovered that my dining companion was a Booker prize nominee, who I’d failed to recognise – and had spent hours discussing child-rearing or gardening with!

On her inner child

For me, the hardest part of writing for children is the struggle to keep my moralistic, adult self off the page. I am fortunate in that I kept a diary from the ages of nine to twenty, and while those ramblings would bore the pants off anyone else, they are a great help to me in my writing. My own children were very useful for a while (sorry kids), but now they are all in their twenties, they have left the world of my books behind. I visit schools a lot though, and the chats I have with young readers help to keep me in the zone.

On what’s next

At the moment I’m working on the third book in the Molly and Beth series, which I think is going to be called You’ve Got A Friend. In this book, Molly and Beth go back to the 1970s, in an attempt to help Molly’s dad, who is struggling in the present. I won’t reveal any more except to say that a cat plays a large part in this book!

My first three published books were for adults, and these were followed by twenty-two for children. A few years ago though, I wrote another book for adults, which is very different to anything else I’ve ever done. I hope to dust that down, and see if it’s fit for publication. Also, I’ve been toying with a few ideas for a picture book – though I am finding this incredibly hard!

@SophieGrenham

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