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Swallow semen, identify penis: Helen Fitzgerald’s Writing Life interview

It will be a long time before anyone thinks of a better way to open their first novel than this: “My best friend Sarah was asleep. Her husband was lying beside her, and I was swallowing his semen.” That’s paragraph two of “Dead Lovely” by Helen Fitzgerald, a fabulous crime novel which manages to amuse, titillate and disturb. Since she published Dead Lovely in 2008, Helen has released three more adult titles and a teen novel. Born in Australia, she lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where she’s married to a Scot of Italian origin. We shared the stage at a German crime fiction festival in Menden, near Dortmund, late this summer, bonding over writing and Tuscany. In person she’s as amusing as her books, and when she talks about writing it’s with a mix of unassuming practicality and deep insight, as you’ll see from this interview.

How long did it take you to get published?

My husband is a screenwriter and he made it look very easy – most of his films seemed to make it to the big or small screen, and the word count for a screenplay was enticingly small (lots of lovely white spaces on the page). So I thought “If he can do this, I can!” I spent five years writing screenplays before realising that it was hard, and that I was a spectacular failure at it. One of my screenplays came very close to being green-lit. I decided that if this wasn’t produced, I’d write a book (which was what I’d always wanted to do, really). It didn’t get made, so I sat down and turned the treatment into my first book, Dead Lovely. It took three months. And another three before Faber and Faber bought it. So, my first answer is that it took me years to get published. My second is that it took three months.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

The only books I’ve ever read on writing are screenwriting books. Initially, I read everything I could get my hands on, but the only one I remember is How to Write Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hague. This book helped a great deal with structure, plot and characterization. It’s probably because of my background in screenwriting, and the lessons I learned from this book, that my novels have three acts and are easy to adapt into screenplays.

What’s a typical writing day?

Mostly I work at home in an office in the attic. I get the kids off to school, answer emails and do admin for a while, then settle down to a few hours writing before they arrive home again. My husband works in the office next door to mine, so we often yell strange things to each other through the walls like “Can you dissolve a body?” If I have a deadline, or if I’m really motivated by an idea, I can work all day and all night. My husband and I are pretty flexible and work well as a team, giving each other time off from domestic duties if one is on a roll. About three days a week, I head into Glasgow City centre, where I’ve rented a desk space in a studio. I missed having colleagues and life around me, and I love being shamed into productivity by other hard working people.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Bloody Women is about a woman who’s about to get married to her Italian fiancé and leave Scotland to live with him in Tuscany. Before leaving her home, she decides to meet up with her ex-boyfriends to tie up loose ends and make sure she’s doing the right thing. Problem is, her exes all wind up dead, and she gets the blame. The book was fun to write and I believe it’s fun to read. It’s also pretty dark, looking at bi-polar disorder and a nasty-pasty serial killer.

How much of what you do is:

a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
My one aim has always been to avoid formula. When my agent suggested I write a sequel to Dead Lovely, I agreed but soon felt restricted by having the same setting and the same characters. I wrote the sequel – My Last Confession – and tried hard to write something very different from the first book, but I haven’t wanted to write another one. All the books I’ve written since – five in all – have been stand alone.

b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?

At the same time, it’s hard to avoid writing in a certain way. I almost always start my books with the last scene. I also vary point of view. Except for my teen book, Amelia O’Donohue is So not a Virgin, which is all in first person, I play around with point of view all the time. I’m not sure if I’ll always do this, but it certainly suits my style.

c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

The biggest complement I’ve ever had is that I’m original. I don’t try to be original, as this can have the opposite effect. But I do like to ignore all the rules I’ve ever learned and just do what feels energetic and different.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas (T S Eliot). Just love the image. It scares me.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

I don’t think of myself as a thorough researcher – I never go out in my car and sit at a certain spot for hours to take it in. But I do talk to relevant people (e.g. a psychiatrist for Bloody Women, a Kidney specialist for The Donor) and use the internet a lot. I worry about some of the things I search for on Google (How to break into a car, how to kill someone in a steam room etc).

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

Catriona in Bloody Women is a mixture of me and of people I know, as are all my female protagonists. The elements of Catriona that are not me include:

She’s Scottish.
She’s a TV presenter.
She’s bipolar.

The parts that are me include:

She’s in love with someone from another country.
She decides to meet her exes before tying the knot (I did this! I took my poor husband-to-be along with me, wee soul. None of my exes was murdered though.)

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

I’m number twelve in a family of thirteen. This gave me a ferocious survival instinct and a competitive nature. The way I coped with the scary crowd was to hide myself away. This, combined with chronic asthma as a little one that sent me to hospital for weeks on end, got me in the habit of living inside my own head for hours and hours every day and I have remained that way ever since. I’m sure all these things set me on the writer’s path.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

Social media marketing like blogging and using facebook and twitter. I’m just starting to get my head around all these things, but they definitely make a difference. Book trailers are also useful. I’ve just had a good one made by Blether Media for my teen book.

What’s your experience with being translated?

My books have been translated into numerous languages. So far, I’ve had little or no contact with the translators, which is a shame, because – next to me – they are the people who are most intimately acquainted with the text. I often wonder what the translations say (could be anything!) but I can see the shape and rhythm of my writing just by glancing at the page.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I’m a full time writer now, but it’s a life lived in constant fear. Each book is your last shot. I had deals for four books before I left my job as a social worker. Even then, it felt like a frivolous thing to do. I hope and pray I can do this forever – it’s the best job in the world.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Met this really weird guy called Matt Rees in Germany. Apart from that, I read the first chapter of Bloody Women at a book festival in a posh suburb of Glasgow recently. The passage involves Catriona identifying the severed penis of one of her ex boyfriends. It was supposed to be funny, but no-one laughed (just wriggled uncomfortably in their seats). Afterwards, no-one bought the book.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I’d love to write a book called Glasgow: Men’s Quarters, where the city has been divided into men and women. I’ll never get it published because I’ll never write it – my radical days having been overshadowed by saxophone lessons and a desire to live in a large farmhouse in Tuscany for six months every year.

6 thoughts on “Swallow semen, identify penis: Helen Fitzgerald’s Writing Life interview

  1. Wow ! You have this unbelievable knack at finding the most unbelievable and improbable (does this word exist in English ? If you speak French, you see what I mean) writers… I can’t wait to read her.
    Again, fantastic blog, thank you.

  2. Improbable is, indeed, an English word and one which I hope applies to everything on my blog ;) Let me know how you like Helen’s books, and you can be in touch with her too on her blog, which is quite improbable in itself!

  3. Matt, I’m currently in Tel Aviv and trying to find your books (in English) and hers. I’ve been extremely busy with translation jobs and if you could recommend a good bookstore, that would be great.
    Thanks,
    Nathalie
    PS you are such a prolific blogger!!! Can’t follow: :)

  4. hi Nathalie, I don’t know of a specific bookstore in Tel Aviv that would have Helen’s books. Steimatzsky seems to stock my most recent book THE FOURTH ASSASSIN and sometimes the earlier books in the series. I’m sure that they’d order Helen’s book, if they don’t have it in stock — it’s usually easy enough for them to get the UK version of a book to you.

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