The three Rs: Gayle O’Brien

April 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

To celebrate the launch of my friend Gayle O’Brien’s new novel, Underground, I thought I would kick off my occasional series of author interviews by asking her about the three Rs. Underground is available in the UK and the US right now, and soon in Canada. It looks fascinating:

On the run from a killer, Annie and her mother flee to a remote farmhouse. When Annie finds an unsent letter from a debutante in the Civil War, she is drawn to the story of a Southern girl immersed in a love that cannot see light in the American South. Determined to find out what happened to her, Annie risks bringing the killer to her own door.

Underground chronicles two remarkable journeys – one across modern-day America and another through a country on the brink of its greatest historical change.


When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I was first inspired by The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had this vision of a log cabin and spending my days writing, even though Laura wrote her books on a farm much later in life. But I think I was drawn into the romanticism of that kind of living from an early age.

I was also a complete bookworm as a kid and even though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, there was a side of me that really wanted to be a part of the process of stories being made.

When I was in fifth grade my English teacher picked five of us in the class to be in a weekly writers group that met every Thursday morning. I wrote my first ‘book’ then and enjoyed it more than anything else at school. I wish I could say it’s been downhill from there, but it was several years before I tried to write another book.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

When my children were very little, I used to put them into the nursery at my gym every morning – instead of working out I’d go to the café with my laptop. At least half of Underground was written that way.

Now that both of my children are in school, I’m fairly disciplined about dropping them off, heading straight home, making a very strong cappuccino and settling down to a 2–3 hour session.

Most days I could keep going beyond that, but duty (i.e. laundry, dishes, making dinner) always calls. After I eat lunch I try and get some exercise, although sometimes it doesn’t always fit – in fact, there’s a heck of a lot that just doesn’t get done. Most days, everyone is fed, laundered and cuddled, but often that’s about all that happens. I try to treat writing like a job, so I end up saying no to lots of other things like coffee mornings and meeting up with friends.

When my boys are on school vacation it’s a lot harder to fit writing in. The only time I have then is after they go to bed, but I’ll be lucky to manage a full hour before I’m too tired. Sometimes I try and view their school vacations as my own imposed holiday – I know it’s good to get some space and reboot, even though I wouldn’t always choose to. Having the time while they’re at school is a luxury, I know, and I’m very lucky.

What do you read while you’re writing?

While I’m writing I try and seek out books that are somehow relevant to what I’m working on. For example, while writing Underground, which takes place in part on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War in the States, I sought out books about slavery and antebellum history. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, to name a few.

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While I’m editing I find it really hard to read. Once I’m going through a finished draft and trying to hone it down, I find other voices very distracting. Since editing always takes me much longer than the actual writing, I can go months without reading anything.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I recently made my way through all of Carol Shields’ novels. In every multi-layered sentence she manages to say something new, and say it beautifully.

Great House by Nicole Krauss. Only Nicole Krauss could write such a moving and heartbreaking novel about a desk.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I could not put this down. The story is so suspenseful, and its ruminations on women and fertility struck a chord.

What are your all-time favourites?

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. So many people point to The Poisonwood Bible as their favorite, but Prodigal Summer is mine. I’ve always admired the way Kingsolver weaves her biology background and political and environmental views into her fiction, but in such a way that never feels like preaching.

History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It’s a perfect novel. The three different narratives are so original and distinct, and I still cry when I think about the ending.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read this novel at least a dozen times and each time I hone in on a different character, depending on what stage of my life I’m at. It’s down to Tolstoy’s ability to present universal aspects of the human character and therefore always has something for a reader to relate to.

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl by Fannie Flagg. I love Fannie Flagg. Underground was partly inspired by Fried Green Tomatoes, in its use of double narrative and newspaper clippings. Welcome to the World, Baby Girl has a twist that no one I know who’s read it could see coming.

History Of LoveAnna Karenina

You wake up in a nightmare world where you can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Write, definitely. There’s a Sylvia Plath quote that goes something like, ‘I write because there is a voice in me that will not be still.’ I definitely find that to be true. I’d go mad if I couldn’t at least keep a journal, someplace where I could organize my thoughts and put my world to rights.

What’s your third R?  

My third R is my children. Before I got pregnant, I worried that having children would mean I’d never write again. This was definitely true in the early days when they were very little, but having them made me prioritize writing and find a way to make it fit. Now that they’re a bit older and I’m able to have more time to write, my time with them is essential for getting out of my head and putting real life into perspective. I’d be insufferable without them.

Thank you, Gayle, for being the first interviewee here.


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