martina devlin
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Irish writer Martina Devlin started writing after winning a Hennessey Literary Award, but feels like a fraud in the contemporary fiction stakes because she does not have a shoe fixation and can drum up only a very moderate interest in shopping. Here she talks about midnight feasts, reading books while her friend sizzles at her new boyfriend and trying to trick the slob part of her nature into switching on the computer.

What inspires you to write?
I write because it’s what I love to do best – simple as that. I really like eating chocolate, spending all day in my pyjamas, watching old black and white films (All About Eve with Bette Davis is a favourite), having midnight feasts with madly over-excited nieces and nephews, walking by the sea with an ice-cream from Teddy’s, drinking coffee and gossiping with friends. But I’m happiest of all when I’m writing, I suppose it’s the storytelling bug. As for inspiration – well, you’d be amazed how much can be gleaned from midnight feasts, drinking coffee, walking by the sea…

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it?
I potter about in the morning in my ancient green dressing gown drinking coffee, reading newspapers, wishing the post was more interesting, wondering who I can ring and basically doing anything to avoid switching on the computer. Finally guilt, an emotion I have never been able to overcome, spurs me into action and I change into a deeply unflattering pair of jogging bottoms and venture into the study. And then I always wonder what the fuss was about because once I start I’m grand. It’s just that initial impetus to face the computer screen I find problematic. I keep trying to trick myself into it – just sign on and then you can make a lovely pot of coffee without even writing a word – but the fiendishly cunning slob part of me never falls for it.

How do you cure writer's block?
Tough love - I punish myself into it. Basically I force myself to sit at the computer screen and eventually boredom overcomes the writer’s block and something trickles out in the way of words. I suppose all those years of working as a journalist help because you know there’s no point in waiting for the muse to strike or newspapers would be full of yawning empty spaces where a scintillating 1,000-word article on why pet-owners feed their animals more wholesome food than they eat themselves should be.

What are you reading at the moment?
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse which I borrowed from a friend. I started reading it when I was at her house for dinner so I could meet her new boyfriend. There were only the three of us and I felt I had to do something to occupy myself or I’d be scorched by all the sizzling glances ricocheting between the pair of them. They’re at that early stage when everyone else feels like a voyeur beside them. I may have to buy the book anyway because – forget about that over-hyped shoe fetish - a girl can never have too many books. Martina Devlin’s top tip: pile them high and they save you redecorating to hide damp patches on t he wall.

What's the biggest myth about being a writer?
That it makes you wealthy. I know more writers starving in garrets than lounging in palatial splendour. Well, not exactly starving, but a bit on the skinny side. Most of them would be happy to make a decent living from their craft, never mind hit the jackpot, but many authors have to juggle writing in their spare time with holding down a day job. I’ve done that and, trust me, it’s exhausting. This isn’t what you want to hear, is it? You want me to tell you about the enormous advances you’ll receive with which you’ll buy you sports cars and holiday homes in St Lucia. Well, go for it - it happens for the odd writer.

Has your life changed since you became a novelist?
I get recognised by eight-year-old girls in my home town of Omagh now, ever since I was invited back to my old primary school, Loreto Convent, to give a talk to a couple of classes about writing. They asked masses of questions – mostly variations on how much I earned. None of them read my books, of course, but I’m hoping they’ll browbeat their mothers into buying them. Whenever I’m back in Omagh (I live in Dublin) I’m always being waved at by small girls in Angelina Ballerina T-shirts. It’s quite exciting really, and makes me wish I were a children’s author. I keep thinking I should invent a boy wizard who goes to wizard school and… really? Drat. Children are so cheerful at that age, they beam at you and say hello and sometimes they’ll even give you their hands to autograph as a ploy to avoid washing. Whoops, no, that’s the eight-year-old boys.

How long does it take you to write a novel?
About a year. It always seems to take this length of time, whether I‘m working full-time on a particular novel or engaged in other activities as well, such as holding down a job. Frankly, I’m mystified by this. However I’ve concluded it’s been ordained that all my books should take a year to finish and some peculiar loop of time sees to it that they do.

What advice would you give budding authors?
If you really want to write, then sit down and get on with it. A lot of people talk the talk but that’s all they ever do, they never get round to writing. Here’s an amazing secret I’ve discovered: if you plod away, week after week, eventually your book will be finished – that’s a promise. Now, a few basics, once it’s done – or sooner if you feel confident enough - choose three agents who handle the type of book you’ve written. Send off an SAE, a brief synopsis and the first three chapters. Don't be disheartened by rejections – we’ve all been rejected. It isn’t exactly good for the soul but it isn’t the end of the world either. Just think to yourself: ‘That mean, horrible person is going to be so sorry when I’m number one in the bestsellers.’ I also recommend giving a nasty character their name. Then try somebody else. Or have a lash at writing another novel. Or both. Also, pay no attention to that malarkey about literature versus commercial fiction because there’s only good and bad writing. So my most important advice of all, and I’ve saved it to last, is to write from the heart.

Who is your all-time favourite author?
Would you go away out of that, as we say in Omagh (best repeated in an Omagh accent). Sure I couldn’t choose just one. And since I don’t want to make any enemies of living authors who’ve been overlooked, I’ll sneakily just name some dead ones. Virginia Woolf, even if she was a desperate snob, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy – although you have to be in the whole of your health before you can tackle him – James Joyce, WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, because he used such fabulous words. Like gaudy, for example.

What can readers expect from you in the future?
I’m currently working on my next novel – that’s the stock answer all writers give – but I am actually due to hand in the manuscript of my fourth novel imminently so I’d better get cracking on it or I’m in trouble. Not to mention breach of contract. At the moment it’s called Morality Bites, although that may change by the time it hits the shelves – I like it, what do you think? – and it’s due out in spring 2004. I intend to carry on writing novels as long as people are prepared to read them and I hope that means I’ll be tapping away on my computer for d
ecades to come. Failing that, maybe my brothers will give me a job as a waitress in their café. I fancy being one of those world-weary but with a heart of gold waitresses you see in old black and white films.

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