The grass is always greener in the other fella’s lunchbox. At least, that’s what small Irish children are taught when they turn six and a half.
For writers with day jobs, this means dreams of a utopian idyll where they get up to the sound of birds in the morning and slink into mahogany studies in endangered silk dressing gowns with cups of Ethiopian coffee strained through a goat, to find literary genius pouring out of them like slush from a spigot the very moment their arses hit the chair.
For full-time writers, this can mean dreams of popping down to the shop for a tin of beans, inserting one’s bank card into the point-of-sale unit and not chewing one’s fingernails in a blind panic whilst approval is pending. Or of having boring office jobs which don’t follow them home at the end of the day and beat them over the head with self-loathing and inadequacy.
I was struck recently by a post on social media by an author I admire very much, announcing that she was about to jump off the diving board of a salaried, permanent job, into the misty pools of full-time writing. What would make someone do that, I thought? And what’s it like?
I toyed with the idea of making up yet another dubiously researched blog post on the subject, and then hit upon the radical notion of asking the person who actually knew something about it. (I know what you’re thinking. But don’t get too comfortable. I’m not going to make a habit of it.)
What follows is the kindly response from Liz Nugent: newly full-time author of aforementioned social media post, not to mention Unravelling Oliver, Irish Crime Novel of the Year in 2014, and Lying In Wait, coming from Penguin in July.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Unlike me, Liz is a lovely person, so you can actually believe what she says. She also has a habit of writing some of the best first lines around. Look her up, you’ll see what I mean.
- What made you decide to quit your job in order to write full-time?
Every day that I was there felt like a day wasted, like a day when I should be writing. The work I was doing was a little mundane and although I had great colleagues, I really thought I was going to go insane if I stayed. Also, when I handed in my notice, I had applied for three separate bursaries and I thought I had a good chance of getting at least one of them. As it happened, I didn’t get any of them. Whoops.
- Did you find your job prevented or stifled you from full productivity or creativity? How so?
I know it did. I wrote Unravelling Oliver while working full-time but it took me eight years because I was only getting to work on it for a week here and there on my holidays. When I took a two year leave of absence in 2013, I wrote Lying in Wait in eighteen months. That proved to me that I could definitely do it as long as I had the time. You really have to treat writing like a job. Damn it, it is a job.
- Have you written full-time before? If so, how does this time differ from the last?
Yes, during the leave of absence I took before, I wrote Lying in Wait knowing that I had the safety net of a full time job to return to. Now I have taken away the safety net, so it’s sink or swim. Strangely, or maybe stupidly, I have no fear about this. Yet.
- Did your expectations of full-time writing differ from the reality? How so?
I think I thought I’d be more disciplined than I was. I still really have to force myself to sit down at the laptop and get to work. I am the queen of procrastination. My bathroom is sparkling as a result.
- What do you consider to be the worst thing about writing full-time? What’s the best thing?
The worst thing is not having colleagues. But women writers are really very good at keeping in touch and supporting each other, so I am not completely isolated. The best thing is that I no longer have to wake to the tyranny of an alarm clock.
- Did you have certain writing projects in mind before taking the plunge? If so, were any of them contractual or commissioned?
I have to plot my third novel. I wrote the first chapter before Christmas but haven’t touched it since. I have no contract for it yet but my agent expects that I will get an offer. There are several other things that I have been asked to do, a short film, children’s stories etc but none of them are earners so for the time being, I have to say no. I’m really bad at saying no but I have had to become a little more mercenary. I used to do a lot of dramaturgy work for friends for free. But it takes up a lot of time. I can no longer afford to read, evaluate and give detailed analysis on somebody else’s script without a fee.
- Do you go to literary festivals or other promotional appearances? Did these obligations have any influence on your decision to write full-time?
Yes, I have quite a few coming up – an appearance in the Lincoln Centre Library in New York next week, then Dalkey Book Festival, Hay Festival at Kells, West Cork Lit Fest – and I’m curating the lit strand of Skibbereen Arts Fest. Preparation for these is time consuming because I think it is manners to read the books of people you are sharing a panel with and I have to do a lot of research on writers I’ll be interviewing so that was another factor in the decision to resign from the job.
- Are you concerned about how you’ll fare economically without your day job? Does it create pressure on you to earn a certain amount from your writing, or is the money aspect currently not that relevant to your long-term plan?
I wish the money aspect didn’t matter but of course the mortgage must be paid and there needs to be food on the table. I don’t have immediate concerns but I’m hoping a few TV projects will come to fruition in the next year or two. I don’t really expect that I’ll be earning more than I did in my day job, but I’ll be doing what I want to do, on my own clock.
- What do you miss most about a day job when you’re writing full-time?
Work mates. Office gossip. Discussions about last night’s telly drama or the migrant crisis or the best shampoo.
- What is your optimal outcome now as a full-time writer, and how do you feel going full-time will change how you get there?
I want to write more, better faster while maintaining a decent standard of living. Also, somewhere down the line, I really want to write a play. Once the publicity drive for Lying in Wait is over, I’ll be able to see the wood for the trees and see how I can pace myself to do all these things.
Liz Nugent is an award-winning writer of radio and TV drama and has written short stories for children and adults.
In early 2014 her first novel, Unravelling Oliver, was published by Penguin Random House. It went straight to the top of the bestsellers list and has been translated into eight languages. In November 2014, Unravelling Oliver won the Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards.
The television rights to Unravelling Oliver have recently been acquired by ITV Drama. Liz was the winner of the inaugural Jack Harte Bursary from the Irish Writer’s Centre and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Unravelling Oliver was also longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC).
Her second novel, Lying in Wait, will be published by Penguin in July 2016.
Liz is currently doing full-time writery things in New York, so if you have any questions, I will make sure to pass them on when stalking her later. Sorry – did I just say that out loud? Let’s talk about you. Do you have a romantic idea of another kind of writing life? If so, do tell.