SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author JUSTINE DELANEY WILSON about CREATIVE SPACES, MEMORABLE MOMENTS and the DRAMA that surrounded her first book …
Justine Delaney Wilson is the bestselling author of three books; non-fiction title The High Society (2007, Gill & MacMillan), followed by novels The Difference (2016) and Listen for the Weather, newly published. Justine is a highly commendable storyteller, whose candid writing style boasts a luscious, poetic rhythm. These qualities are immediately apparent on discovering her work, almost from the first page.
The High Society, which was also a two-part series on RTÉ, caused quite a stir at the time, to put it mildly. So contentious were its contents, that a heated debate swiftly ensued in Dáil Éireann and the national media. As a certain saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The end result was Justine’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year nomination at the 2008 BGE Irish Book Awards.
The Difference brings us to Beth and Steve Rogers, whose troubled marriage unravels as they come to terms with raising Ismae, their sweet little girl who has Down Syndrome. Drawing from experiences with her own daughter, Justine valiantly tackles a most thorny subject, refusing to sugar-coat uncomfortable issues. Nuala O’Connor called The Difference “a novel about one woman’s quest for an authentic life…A moving, convincing story of courage and burgeoning hope.”
While Justine’s second novel Listen for the Weather follows the characters from The Difference, it remains a stand-alone creation. Here, we reunite with the Rogers family, in Steve’s native New Zealand. Their tranquil new life is settled, harmonious, mistakes atoned for; until a sinister letter comes to rock their world.
Justine studied English at Trinity College Dublin and completed a post-grad in Journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology. For over a decade, she has been a freelance journalist, with an impressive track record in television research and production.
Justine Delaney Wilson lives in Celbridge, Co Kildare with her husband Matthew and their three children Morgan, Reuben and Lily-Rose. She is working on her third novel.
The Difference (€12.99) and Listen For The Weather (€16.99) are published by Hachette Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide.
I live in Celbridge, just over the Dublin border in Kildare. The river Liffey runs parallel with the main street, which is bookended by the 19th century workhouse and the splendour of Castletown House on one side, and the old stone Mill and the Abbey on the other. Rich with history, sometimes on grey days, the village can feel a bit laden down with its past.
The restaurant Canteen is my favourite place to go – cool décor, consistently fab food, and great staff.
I lived at various addresses in Dublin before I moved here – the south Quays, Kilmainham, Mespil Road, Castleknock – but this suits me now. Only minutes one way is the Lyons Estate, the canal, and stud farms, while a few minutes the other way is the N4 to my family home and the city centre.
I’m from Lucan. We moved to Lucan Demesne when I was about thirteen. The Demesne is the area on the banks of the river Liffey, which runs from the Italian Embassy in Lucan village up to the golf course at Leixlip. The house, which was slightly knackered and crying out for attention, was on an acre of land and surrounded by fields. We’d only moved up the road from a different part of Lucan, but it felt like another world. I’d come from a busy cul-de-sac, where there were kids in every house, most of them in and out of ours.
My favourite thing about our “new” place was the huge 70s-style timber staircase, a retro show-piece visible from the front door. Memories from my early years there are of the things that were novel to me – the smell of wild garlic, so strong it seemed to bed down in your hair; a dumb waiter connecting the sitting room and the kitchen; and my odd-shaped bedroom, which had a sloping ceiling, and a cubby around a corner where I’d do my homework. I’m in that house regularly as my parents still live there, but it’s very different now. It’s been much-loved and polished over the years. Extensions have been built, walls have been pulled down, the dumb waiter is long gone, and the timber stairs replaced by a wrought-iron spiral staircase.
My most vivid memory of my childhood in Lucan? It’s from the first house. Lying on my bed in the semi-d, eating Monster Munch, my head on a five-foot-long, velour, green caterpillar. Waiting for the doorbell to ring, knowing it would. Happy out. I was about ten.
I have an office upstairs in my house. My needs are pretty simple – Muji pens and paper as I write everything longhand first; corkboards on the walls for all my scrappy ideas; and a laptop and printer. I also have bookcases where I keep the books I particularly love and don’t want to relegate to shelves downstairs.
A framed print of the original cover of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which is one of my favourite books, is on the wall. And a family of five black velvet owls sits on the windowsill facing me – my mother bought them as a gift. Five sets of beady eyes overseeing my procrastination. My writing desk is a hefty old kitchen table, made from rough timber panels. It belonged to my friend Gail. When she was renovating, the table no longer suited her house, so I took it and I love it. To my left is a second desk – an antidote to the first; a beautifully dainty, visually pleasing, but otherwise useless, antique bureau.
Occasionally, I feel head-meltingly bored sitting in the same room with only myself for company, so I pack up and work elsewhere. I usually go the The Orchard Café a few minutes away, which is a great light-filled glasshouse full of straight-backed chairs and big wooden tables set out in lines. It’s like a grown-up classroom, with amazing desserts. It has lots of power-points and the staff never give me the move on eyeballs, no matter how long I stay.
Oh I have an extremely soft spot for The Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane. I had my launch for this new novel there a couple of weeks ago. And two years previous, I launched The Difference in the same spot. It’s a gorgeous haven in a part of the city that I love. It’s a proper, curated bookshop with staff who read what they sell.
The Winding Stair is also great, with new and second-hand books, and journals. And wine, which helps.
On her “TBR” pile
I’ve just started The Long-Winded Lady, which is a collection of Dubliner Maeve Brennan’s columns for The New Yorker, published between 1954 and 1981. I’m late to this party in that I only discovered her recently, but The Springs of Affection was one of the best things I read last year. I can’t wait to read Kudos by Rachel Cusk. She is among my favourite authors and this is the third book in the trilogy that began with Outline and Transit, both of which I loved. White Houses by Amy Bloom is also glaring at me, waiting for its turn. I did have a peep at the first few pages to get a sense of it and already I expect I’ll devour it. I really enjoyed her collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
Two others near the top of the pile are Problems by Jade Sharma and Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar. And I’m dying to get my hands on David Sedaris’ Calypso.
I don’t have a Kindle. I like to turn and mark and fold the pages of my books. And anything that doesn’t need charging feels like a gift.
I like to get to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig once a year, if I can. It’s the place where I feel that side of myself – the little writer in me – is most at ease in the world. I produce more work in five days in that environment than I could in three long weeks working at home. It’s such a privilege to be there and everyone knows it, so the artists are all hard-working and serious about what they’re doing. It makes for enormously inspiring company, and I’ve made good friends down there.
For pleasure, Wineport Lodge is somewhere close to home where I can quickly relax, and if I’d the option to escape to somewhere further afield, I’d choose Italy. I’d gorge on Rome first, and then sleep it off on the Amalfi coast.
On memorable moments
I was a researcher and question-setter for Who Wants to be a Millionaire, with Gay Byrne. We did a charity special where the celebrity “couple” was Sinéad O’Connor and Daniel O’Donnell. Both were hilarious on screen, and off.
I worked with Gay again as Associate Producer on a show called Class Reunion. It was very much in the mould of This Is Your Life, but with the celebrity’s classmates coming out one at a time to reunite with them and recount memories. In the run-up to the show on Dana, I had tea and scones in her childhood kitchen in Derry with her mother Sheila and Liam Neeson’s mother Kitty. Dana herself ate nothing but stood at the sink singing All Kinds of Everything. Really.
In 2009, I ghost-wrote a book for the medium Margaret Brazil. It was called When Spirits Hold my Hand. I spent some comical afternoons in her house while she smoked and spoke to the dead, and I took notes and wondered what I might say if I was dead.
Listen for the Weather is essentially a book about love – the messes we make of it, the glory, the pain, the joy and the power-plays; the shitty reality of it all. And how we are always creating our own circumstances. With our choices, we make our own weather.
I left Ireland at the beginning of October 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in spring last year. I had three spring-summers in a row; no autumn or winter, no dark evenings for eighteen months. I wrote most of this book while I was there. And then I returned to Dublin, to a familiar place and to similar weather as when I left. But everything felt different – it all just felt off. And it reminded me of the line in the Crowded House song – “Walking ‘round the room singing ‘Stormy Weather.’” And I remembered hearing Neil Finn interviewed about the song, and him speaking about how we are all always making our own environment. The characters in my book project their own feelings into their situations. And they can decide to make good weather, or heavy weather, of their lot. As we all can, myself included.
The craziest time for me professionally was after the publication of my non-fiction book The High Society and the subsequent airing of the two documentaries based on it, on RTÉ. That was back in 2007, and the six months that followed held some of the wildest highs and shocking lows of my life.
The book was raised in the Dáil, the documentaries at an Oireachtas Committee, and I “graced” every newspaper in the country, and indeed other countries. When I was on holiday in New Zealand weeks later, my in-laws in a rural part of the North Island took a call from NZ Radio wanting to interview me.
But then! The High Society was nominated as the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the 2008 Irish Book Awards. Nobody was more surprised than I was.
I have only one photo from that great awards night in the Mansion House, but it speaks volumes; it’s of me and then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and I look absolutely wrecked in it. Debate had been swirling around me for months, and my daughter had been born with Down syndrome five weeks earlier.
Actually Bertie looks pretty shattered in the photo too! He resigned as Taoiseach three days later. (No connection!)
On what’s next
In the latter stages of each book – when I’m on the absolutely final, final draft – I swear NEVER AGAIN. I promise myself I’ll get a “real” job or maybe train as a florist or something. But then the book comes out, and I see it on a shelf, or better still – in someone’s hands, being read – and I forget my promise.
And then I’ll have an idea, which I’ll scrawl on a post-it and stick up on the empty corkboards, just in case.
And the two-year ride begins soon after.
So yes, I do have the initial scratchings of another novel. It’s called An Open Door, and is set in present-day Dublin and 1990s New York. And I am both exhilarated by the magic of its possibilities and furious with myself for even considering them.
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