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Monica McInerney
e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke
(May, 2005)

The Alphabet SistersAustralian-born Monica McInerney is well-known to readers in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Ireland, as well as in her country of birth. McInerney's novels have been translated to German, Dutch and Italian. She lives in Dublin with her Irish husband. Monica's fourth novel, The Alphabet Sisters, has just been released to the American reading audience. Among McInerney's best-selling novels are A Taste for It, Spin the Bottle, and Upside Down, Inside Out.

Q: What led to your decision to write novels?

A: I've always been around books and storytelling in my life in some way. My mum worked in the local library in my hometown, and we treated it like an annexe to our house, popping in whenever we liked to get a few more books. As children, my six brothers and sisters and I also staged our own plays, wrote our own (terrible) musicals and also brought out an annual family magazine called 'The McInerney Report', full of scandalous stories about each other and our parents. I grew up in a cauldron of words.

Before I began writing novels eight years ago, all my jobs involved writing in some way – scripts for children's TV, and advertising copy and media releases for the music, arts, publishing and public relations industries. In my early twenties I started working in book publishing and it was a dream job for me. Talking about books and authors all day, seeing the whole process of how books were put together, I loved it all. I worked with publishers in Australia and Ireland for ten years, promoting authors such as Roald Dahl, Edna O'Brien and Carol Shields. Then in 1996, my husband and I moved to Tasmania and I couldn't find work in publishing. I missed the feeling so much of being around stories and storytelling and one night I sat down to try and write a short story. It was like a dam burst. Over the next few months I wrote more than 50 short stories, which I started sending out to women's magazines in Australia. Most of them got rejected, but three got published and that gave me the confidence to start my first novel, which became A Taste for It.

I've now had five novels published and am working on my sixth. I love the feeling of creating a whole world, populating it with characters, sending each of them on a journey of some kind, physically and emotionally.

Q: Different authors have their own processes of putting together a book. What parts are the most difficult and/or time-consuming for you?

A: I find it a constantly changing process, good times, bad times, ups and downs, sometimes in the same day, sometimes on the same page. Each book takes me about a year to write. The early days are terrific, when I have all the fresh new ideas, the new characters and I am just dying to get them down on the page. About a third of the way in, when I am still finding my way, it sometimes feels difficult, wondering if it will ever all come together, lots of self-doubt. But I've learnt from experience that the moment always arrives when the characters come alive and the plot takes off. Aiming for that point keeps me motivated. There are still bad moments, of course – realising that a whole subplot I have spent months on isn't working or isn't necessary, or even worse, that the time has come to edit out several loved characters. My nerves especially get very bad just before I pass it to my editors for the first time. I thought it might get easier with each book, but in fact I get just as many good and bad times with each novel, so I've accepted it is a natural part of the writing process. I also know that the hard times don't last forever and the moment you get the finished book in your hands makes it all worth it.

Q: Do you build your stories mainly around characters or around the plot?

A: A combination of both. All my books begin with a character finding herself in an awkward position – in The Alphabet Sisters, it was the middle sister Bett on the verge of a reunion with her two sisters, with whom she's been estranged for three years. So the plot is often the starting point and then I flesh out the details of the character's personality, looks, life history, as all of that will determine how he or she will react to the situation and what will happen next. So both ideas run side by side.

Q: Aside from your life as a writer, what other activities do you enjoy?

A: I love reading, travelling, cooking for friends, eating out, hill walking (there are some wonderful walking areas here in Ireland), going to films and theatre. I also love talking on the phone to my mum and brothers and sisters in Australia.

Q: You have a big family (by today's standards) with 3 sisters and 3 brothers. Does this family experience bear on your writing themes?

A: Completely. The more books I write the more I realize that the two common themes in my books are family and travel. I am fascinated by families, my own, other people's and a fictional combination of both. I am intrigued by the layers within families, how information can be hidden, the different ways each of us react to the same situation. A big family is a wonderful way to learn about the world – there are so many different personalities living in one house, not to mention all the joys, happy times and sad times you share.

Q: I found grandmother Lola in The Alphabet Sisters a treasure. Is Lola based on a real person?

A: I loved writing Lola. I found I actually sat differently when I was writing her dialogue – very upright, head up and I always had to be wearing lipstick when I was writing her scenes, too! She's not based on any real person specifically, but elements of her came from stories I'd heard about my own grandmother Maude Canny, who I unfortunately never knew. Maude was tall, dramatic looking, of Irish descent, and famous for her parties and plain-speaking. I love watching my mum with her twelve grandchildren – they have a very sparky, fun relationship and elements of Lola's bonds with Anna, Bett and Carrie came from that. Lola is what I'd love to be like when I am eighty – fearless in every way.

Q: Lola reminisces about 'traditions' such as the 'Collection of Tears' jar. Do such traditions come from your own family background?

A: We didn't have a jar of tears, or the truth stick, but we had some similar traditions –if any of us was crying and feeling too sorry for ourselves, we’d be fed what a family friend dubbed a 'whinging pill'. They were little pink and yellow sweets/candy and they tasted terrible, from memory – so it was best to avoid being offered one.

Q: Do you strive for an engaging, focal cast member like Lola in all of your novels?

A: I hope that all my characters are engaging, but I do love having a wise character like Lola at the heart of my stories – someone with great life experience or a great life attitude, who is keeping an eye on all the goings-on, and is there to offer help or solace or support when it is needed. I have several such wise characters in my own life, and I couldn't do without them, so I love to have them in my stories, too.

Q: Having 4 sisters myself, I appreciated the 'Sisters Talking About Sisters' email conversation in the book. What do your sisters think of the novel?

A: They've been wonderful about it, but I do think they were nervous when they each first read it, wondering if it was based on us, either physically or story-wise. I was very careful with the physical descriptions of the characters, and their life stories though, so they didn't need to worry.

Q: Do any of the experiences and emotions in The Alphabet Sisters come from your own family life?

A: Yes, very much so, but transplanted into different settings. I know first hand what fun, family bonds, late night conversations, teasing, sadness and grief feels like. I hope that comes through with the story, that The Alphabet Sisters feels real and true, because it is coming from my own experience and is written from the heart.

Q: What do you have in the works for future novels?

A: My fifth novel, Family Baggage, is about to be published in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK. It's the story of a family of travel agents called the Turners, with all the dilemmas and dynamics of working in a family business. After focusing on the bonds and rivalry between three sisters with The Alphabet Sisters, I wanted to explore a different kind of family relationship, so a central theme is the impact of a foster child on a family – the arrival of a fully fledged child, rather than a little baby. As is often the case, writing Family Baggage gave me an idea for another novel, so I've just started working on the next one, which will be my sixth.
Find out more about Monica McInerney, her life and her novels at her website,
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