Alison Jameson is the author of three novels, This Man and Me, Under My Skin and most recently, Little Beauty – an unforgettable story about one woman’s struggle to do the best for her child. Alison grew up on a farm in rural Ireland, a remote and beautiful place that continues to inspire her work. This Man and Me was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award and shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature. A graduate of English and History from UCD, she worked in advertising for many years before becoming a full-time writer. She lives in Dublin with her husband and son.
JG Where did you grow up, and how does it inspire your writing?
AJ I grew up in Co. Westmeath on a farm called Glenidan. I was three when we moved there and 14 when we moved again and these were formative years. It was a romantic place, very remote and quaint and even though I have five siblings, I remember spending lots of time on my own. The house itself was practically falling down but I loved it. The same house and farm have ‘appeared’ to a greater or lesser extent in each book that I’ve written. I became very interested in animals, nature and old majestic trees that have been around for hundreds of years. In Glenidan I learned to appreciate the beauty of old age and understood that the nicest things (and people) in life are far from perfect.
JG Who were your biggest influences growing up?
AJ Glenidan itself was a big influence. Because it was very remote and romantic it was a great place to work my imagination. As a child I would stay outside for hours imagining all sorts of things. I observed nature and how everything changed with the seasons – something I call on frequently in my writing even now. My parents were both colourful characters and could tell a good story. My mother is from Sligo and she was a big influence when writing Little Beauty, which is set off the west coast of Ireland. I read a lot as a child too, Enid Blyton at first which I loved. Her writing, while far from perfect, showed me how a writer can create any kind of place, any kind of person using the imagination. I still read The Enchanted Wood to my son and we both love it.
JG You worked in the advertising industry for many years. Did you always have a desire to write?
AJ Yes, it was always there! I started out as a copywriter in advertising and then switched to the client service side. Copywriting is about coming up with ideas quickly and then bringing them to life succinctly…something novelists are not so great at! My writing always veered towards the broader landscape and I love to spend time developing a character. I worked in advertising for 15 years or so until I couldn’t ignore the call any longer. I knew I wanted to write novels more than anything – and realised that it was high time that I started doing it.
JG Is there a particular time of day that’s best for you to write?
AJ If I’m in the right sort of mood I can write anytime and almost anywhere. That said, my brain is sharper in the morning and ideas take on a different hue after a good night’s sleep. Overall if I could choose (and I can’t always because I’m a mother too) it would be after lunch with all the mundane stuff taken care off, the house empty and quiet and the afternoon stretching out in front of me.
JG What is the genesis of Little Beauty?
AJ I’d had an idea about a couple finding a baby that I couldn’t get straight in my head. I’d written a draft and it wasn’t right. Then I had my own son, Arthur, and got a much clearer picture of the emotions surrounding motherhood. In the same year my father died so it was an emotional time. I was thinking a lot about new life beginning and old life ending and when I sat down to re-write I started from scratch and wrote a completely different book. People have said it’s a very emotional read – and I guess that’s why. I also visited Achill Island and was really struck by its beauty and also that feeling of loneliness so in terms of setting that was really inspiring.
AJ I rarely start at the beginning. I’m never fully sure where the story begins until I know my characters fairly well and that takes some writing and time. Also I think the very idea of writing the first line of a new novel is very daunting. It’s much easier to think of it as a giant jigsaw. That said the middle section of Little Beauty flowed from one chapter to the next. I always find the first quarter of a book difficult and then I tend to get into my stride a bit.
JG Describe your writing space.
AJ I work in the attic of our house. It’s small but so far the best writing space I’ve ever had and I love being there. I can close two doors behind me and have complete quiet when I’m at work. I have a big desk with some photos of my favourite people and books by authors I admire – Claire Keegan, Nora Ephron, Alice Munroe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Frost. There are two skylights and I love it when the rain in hammering down and there’s a pot of tea nearby.
JG You’ve written in both your Blog and for The Irish Times about looking after children while giving birth to a book. Can you recollect one of your funniest moments when trying to juggle your baby with writing?
AJ When Arthur was still crawling I would try and snatch some time at my desk early in the morning. I would write and he would take everything down off the shelves – books, CDs, photos until it was all in a big pile on the floor. It bought me about twenty minutes and then I’d have to tidy it all up. Another time I was discussing something important with my publisher and he was going crazy so I handed him a full box of tissues and let him pull every one out of the box. He was delighted with that.
JG This is your first time at Listowel Writers’ Week. What are you most looking forward to?
AJ I’ve heard a lot about the social aspect so I’m excited about meeting other writers and readers – and because I’ll be travelling without my family I can stay out for as long as I like …that said I’m so out of practice I may be found asleep in a corner somewhere.
JG Do you have any tips for our emerging writers here at Listowel Writers’ Week?
AJ A lot of writer’s say ‘Just do it’. I would say…’have a good long think first and then do it’. Writing is much easier – and better I think – when the writer’s thoughts are someway organised – although a lot can improve with second/third/fourth drafts. I hate rewriting so I try to get the story sort of straight before I begin. Otherwise I keep running down blind alleys and that can be really hard to deal with. It is very easy to start writing a book – that isn’t the real book. Sometimes you have to wait and be patient with yourself. Also reading is important and I would say read good literary fiction that’s been around for a while. Writers can learn a lot about how to manage their stories by seeing how other writers do it and go ‘Ah that’s how they did it!” Ultimately though, I think if someone wants to write they will do it and find a way that works for them. It is a compulsion and writers are happiest when they’re putting words on a page.
Alison Jameson will be reading alongside author Michéle Forbes on Saturday 31 May, 2.30pm at St John’s Theatre. For more information and/or to book, please click here