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  • Jacci Gooding

Meet the Author: Gabrielle Mullarkey

Last year novelist and successful woman's magazine writer Gabrielle Mullarkey gave a fascinating talk at the festival. We have asked her back to give us an author interview to tell us a little more about her writing life.

I start off with an idea that migrates from the back of my head to the front of my mind over a few days.

Gabrielle Mullarkey

Hello Gabrielle. Please tell me a little bit about yourself; I read on your website that you have worked as journalist. Would it be fair to say then that you have always been interested in writing?

Like many of us, I’ve loved reading and writing since childhood. After my English degree, I did a variety of jobs, ending up as a PA in Holland. I stared writing articles on my life abroad, selling them to expat magazines and supplements. I also started submitting short stories to magazines and getting them published. When I returned to the UK, I trained as a journalist and worked on women’s magazines mostly, first full-time and then as a freelancer. I worked mostly on the production side in the ‘day’ job but, alongside fiction writing, I also found that I enjoyed contributing travel articles and opinion pieces. 

As a very successful writer for women’s magazines, how did you break into that area?

It certainly helped that I’d started writing for magazines before I ever worked on one. Mostly, I had to put myself out there as I went along. It cuts no ice with one magazine that you write for a competitor – they each had and have individualistic styles and requirements. You need to pitch ideas, just as you would with articles.

Who is your favourite character to write, and why is that personality your favourite?

I enjoy creating vulnerable female characters who are as feisty and inquisitive as they are compassionate and reflective. In particular, I’m fond of two recurring characters who’ve appeared in different serials: a sleuthing vicar who gave up a career as a solicitor and a police detective returning to work after suffering a breakdown.  

They sound like very interesting and ‘real’ characters. What would you say makes a great story?

This is probably different for every writer, but I think it’s rooted in what you enjoy reading, and I love suspense and a twisty plot. When I read, I like to second-guess the next twist or plot outcome and get a real sense of pleasure when I’m correct. This goes back to writing ‘twist in the tale’ stories for one magazine, where I had to write a complete story in under 800 words, with the twist only revealed in the last line. This was fiendishly difficult because the twist had to make sense – quite rightly – in retrospect. It was a really good discipline.

That sounds like a great way to learn to write really good flash. Where or how do you find your inspiration?

Reading and listening. People use wonderful turns of phrase that I might ask to co-opt. Or else I read a fascinating news snippet about someone or an event that’s just begging to be turned into a story. For example, when I read about the history of Georgian ‘thief takers’ in a newspaper article, I wrote a fictional account of their exploits, doing additional research. Ideas also bubble up at odd moments, so I always have a notebook handy. 

As every author should! Would you say it was easy writing womag fiction?

No, but it is as satisfying as it is challenging. If I can use the word ‘challenge’ rather than ‘stumbling block,’ the main one is getting a feel for the magazine and what their readers like. These will all vary, depending on the readership demographic. You must also write to the specified story length to fit the pages. In some cases, you may have to avoid certain themes and/or tropes. 

So, describe your writing process for us.

I start off with an idea that migrates from the back of my head to the front of my mind over a few days. If it doesn’t, the idea probably doesn’t have ‘legs’. Then I write down the bare bones of the plot as quickly as possible, leave it to marinate and return to see what doesn’t make sense/what plot holes are staring at me. I’ve also had three novels published, so I use the same technique to get off the blocks. As writers, we often distinguish between whether we’re plotters or pantsers, but I think the two overlap. George R R Martin, who wrote Game of Thrones, uses the distinction ‘architects’ and ‘gardeners’. He sees the former as careful pre-planners, like an architect designing a house with blueprints showing the plumbing, etc, while the latter dig a hole, drop in a seed and wait to see what grows.

That is an excellent analogy. How do you find time to write?

I try to make time every day, unless I am out. I set aside at least a couple of hours every weekday, if I can, and sometimes at weekends. It can be a difficult balancing act (for anyone), but it used to be far harder when I worked full-time and commuted to London! Then I used to write on the train. 

What is the best time of day for you to write?

I like to get writing first thing after I’ve had a wake-up coffee. I find the afternoon is the best time to read over ‘marinated’ work and do some pruning and editing.  

How do you know what to write?

This goes back to the George R R Martin quote, I think. I mean, at its most basic level, you don’t know what to write until you start doing it. You can normally tell when the idea is gaining momentum because you feel the spur to continue.

And what do you think is the best part of being a writer?

Most writers would probably say that it’s seeing their work published and then getting positive feedback, especially from strangers. As with any creative activity, it’s very satisfying and fulfilling simply to sit down and express yourself; to let your imagination roam.

What do you think is the most difficult part of writing a book?

Keeping all the moving parts in sync without letting the pace flag, especially if the plot is quite involved. You also need stamina. You must like writing about these characters for some time and enjoy it!

Do you edit your own work as you go along?

Yes, at stages. We all know about structural editing, line editing and so on. First, though, you need material to edit, so I come back to the ‘marinating’ idea.

That is very true. How often do you think you have failed with a piece of work, if at all?

I have abandoned stories in the past that simply weren’t working, but I’ve been able to repurpose many of them over time and turn them into something that appeals either to me or to someone prepared to publish it!  

Do you like to share your drafts?

I’ve shared drafts in the past and I think beta readers are a good idea. If different people point out the same flaw or lack of clarity in your story, they’re on to something!

How long does it take you to write a short story, say 3000 words or less?

This will vary. If I’ve got the whole plot simmering in my head, I can lay down the bare bones draft in a day. It won’t be ready for another while, of course. In the meantime, I could be editing something I wrote a few days or weeks earlier.

And how long to write a book?

I wrote the first draft of one book in three months and another took a year. This is usually because life intrudes (moving house, etc). I know a lot of writers will have a steady rhythm as they go along. Because I’m more of a seed dropper, I wait to see what will grow.  

How did you get your publishing deal?

At the time, I sent off my first three chapters to a range of publishers and then waited. Eventually, I was offered a deal for three books. It was a very traditional route, but nowadays, it’s much more complex, with the advent of e-publishing, etc, and you need to wear lots of different hats at once. 

Do you have favourite writer?

My love of Jane Austen’s work inspired me to write a novel in 2017, the bicentenary of her death, depicting her as a sleuth. I had a lot of fun having her ‘meet’ suspects and victims who inspired her famous characters.  

Why them, particularly?

I just think her prose is effortlessly elegant. But I also revere a host of other writers, including contemporary authors such as Laurie Graham. Plus, I love discovering a writer I haven’t read before and thinking, “I must read everything else they wrote!”

What book are you currently reading?

Exciting Times by Irish novelist Naoise Dolan, about a young Irishwoman teaching English in Hong Kong. It’s wryly hilarious and poignant, with beautiful prose.

You also run writing workshops; tell us a bit more about that and why you do it.

I facilitate creative writing workshops for both Oxfordshire and Bucks Adult Learning. I got involved when I was offered the chance to train in this area and I do it because you meet such interesting, talented people; it takes me out of the introspective nature of writing and into the ‘real world’ while still being connected to creativity.

Why did you decide to take an MSc in writing for therapeutic purposes?

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between mental health and the creative process. By chance, I saw details of the MSc online and it struck a chord. It’s not about offering therapy per se, but (bearing in mind it’s a huge topic!) about exploring feelings and emotions though the process of writing.

How has it influenced your writing?

I think a greater degree of self-awareness and self-reflection can make for a more nuanced approach to characterisation and description. I’m not saying I always achieve it, but that’s the goal. You can also use self-starting techniques such as Julia Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’ to get writing without putting pressure on yourself to write 2,000 words of a story that day, for example.

What advice would you give a first-time author?

Enjoy your writing. That’s not always the case if it’s your day job and you’re writing to deadline. Stephen King says you need to read copiously, which is also good advice. Other writers advise writing something daily, even if it’s only 10 words you later discard. And be prepared for rejection. It’s not personal (hopefully!) and it’s part of writing life. 


What would you say are the pitfalls in the writing/publishing world to look out for?

Rejection is the most obvious one. Nothing is constant, really. Sudden changes of personnel at a publication might affect who you work with. As for writing itself, Samuel Johnson’s supposed to have said that if you read a passage of your work ‘you think is particularly fine, strike it out’.  Sayings such as these abound, shared from personal experience. But I tend not to take all these sayings as received wisdom. Some of them contradict each other!

How important are book reviews to you?

Every writer likes to garner as many as possible, especially if positive. They’ve become increasingly important in an online world, where popularity – and ubiquity – influences choice. Chat rooms and online reviews are what ‘the talk of the wash house’ used to be! 

And please add anything else you would like to say about yourself, your writing, your writing journey and your writing intentions.

I’m enjoying entering more writing competitions, having won the Oxfordshire Libraries’ e-book short story competition two years ago and a few others along the way. it’s another way of putting myself out there, scary as it is. I have new magazine serials in the pipeline and I’m becoming increasingly interested in writing longer crime fiction. My favourite metaphor for writing is still the wonderful quote by Seamus Heaney that: “you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up, taking air. You are miming the real thing until one day, the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.”

I think as writers we all love the idea that there is an untapped resource inside each of us – a pool of riches just waiting to fill our buckets. To me, it’s often felt more like being in a mine, tapping away at the rock in the hope of exposing a seam. Both metaphors are all about the hard work, though – the old adage of 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. It’s the joy of the 10% that makes it all worthwhile.

Thank you so much Gabrielle.

Interview by Jacci Gooding



















Interview by Jacci Gooding, Festival Director

Photos: Author's own


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