Interview with Sandra Ireland

Sandra Ireland
This week, I am delighted to welcome back to the blog, the amazing Sandra Ireland. I've known Sandra since we were both 'Spotlighters' at Bloody Scotland in 2016 and since then, Sandra has gone from strength to strength. It is no lie to say that I adore her books and can't wait to read her latest, The Unmaking of Ellie Rook.

The Unmaking of Ellie Rook
A single phone call from halfway across the world is all it takes to bring her home . . . ‘Ellie, something bad has happened.’

Desperate to escape her ‘kid from the scrapyard’ reputation, Ellie Rook has forged a new life for herself abroad, but tragedy strikes when her mother, Imelda, falls from a notorious waterfall. Here, according to local legend, the warrior queen Finella jumped to her death after killing a king. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Ellie is forced to confront some disturbing truths about the family she left behind and the woman she has become. Can a long-dead queen hold the key to Ellie’s survival? And how far will she go to right a wrong?

The Unmaking of Ellie Rook is your third published novel. How has your writing method changed since the first novel? Do you plan more? Do you plan less? What lessons about writing have you learned over the three books?
I think the learning process only starts when you’re faced with the copy edits! It’s a bit like learning to drive a car, the journey really begins once you’ve passed your test and are ‘let loose’ on the open road. Novel-writing is a bit like that - there’s no substitute for practical experience, and you just have to pick things up as you go along. The process definitely gets easier, mainly because you understand what NOT to do! Planning the chronology beforehand is a must - I was forever getting bogged down in difficulties of timing. Be realistic about how long it will take your character to get somewhere, and make note of the time of day. Don’t have someone arriving at a destination in daylight if they only set off at 8pm! I’ve got a lot better at doing suspense, by withholding information and playing up the reactions and emotions of the characters.

Your characters and settings are always so vividly drawn, that I feel as if I’ve just looked in on their lives, and that they were all going along, minding their own business, long before I peeked in, and will carry on after the book has finished. How do you make it all so real? Do you make a lot of notes on each character or place? Or does it all come naturally (in which case, I may just have to hate you a tiny bit!)?
Please don’t hate me! I never make notes on anything. I think I have a really clear idea in my head of the setting. I can imagine the character’s environment down to the last detail, the atmosphere, the smells. I suppose that’s rooted in a deep love for history - most of my settings have been either old properties or, as in the case of Ellie Rook, a piece of ancient woodland and the coast. It’s a bit like playing with dolls - if you set them in a dolls house they automatically look at home. I like to set my characters in a place of my own imagining and see how they interact with it.

Do you have a ‘standard writing day’? Or do you have to grab whatever windows of time you can? And if you could design your perfect writing day, how would it run?
I used to have a routine. I would get up early and write 500 words every morning, but now I don’t do that so much. Weirdly, the more books you publish the less time you have for actual writing! My days seem to be filled with writing for other people. I’ve been asked to write a lot of articles lately, for both Irish and American online writing forums, which is a great way of publicising my work, but also quite time consuming. And then I do quite a few interviews like this one, and then I have to update my own blogs. I have two - my author blog and my Barry Mill Blog, which records my folklore research and interests. This year I’ve been putting together workshops for Lifelong Learning Dundee which will run in the Autumn. Add to that at least an hour a day on social media…the pressure to publicise yourself and your work is enormous. The answer is - I just write when I have a clear day and hope for the best! My ideal writing day would begin in a posh hotel or castle. Someone would bring me breakfast as I float to my mahogany writing desk, and I’d tap away at my keyboard while nibbling on fine chocolate. I have a great imagination!

You’re one of a group who run Chasing Time writing retreats. Tell me more about this? What inspired you to start this?
I run Chasing Time Retreats with my two writing chums, Elizabeth Frattaroli and Dawn Geddes. Elizabeth writes for children and is the co-ordinator for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) South East Scotland. Dawn is a novelist, journalist and book correspondent for the Scots Magazine and other publications. We love to go away for writing breaks and we thought we’d provide the same opportunity in Angus. We run tutored and untutored weekend retreats and day courses at the fabulously Gothic Rosely House Hotel, Arbroath. We’ve been receiving some lovely reviews, so we must be doing something right and it’s a real treat to be on hand to help writers at all stages of their careers.

What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Write about what scares you!

And what’s the worst?
Write about what you know. It’s only when you embark on a novel that you realise how little you know about lots of things!

If you’re having a terrible day, what grounds you? What will always make it better?
I like to go for a walk. That generally bucks me up and reignites my creative flame. The worst days for me are rainy, windy days. The wind makes me dizzy so I end up watching old films when I should actually be writing! (Old films make me feel better!)

What are you working on now? What’s next to come out?
The Unmaking of Ellie Rook will be published by Polygon imminently, and hopefully my first non-fiction book Grist! The Life, Lore and Landscape of the Scottish Watermill will be published by Little Toller Books either this year or early next. My fourth novel has also been acquired by Polygon. It’s the first in a series featuring an older woman called Rita Mulberry- think Miss Marple meets Eleanor Oliphant! That should be out early in 2020.

Thank you so much for answering all my Qs!

You can catch up with Sandra at all of the following places: