View From a Debut…

Debut author Maureen White talks about what inspired her to write The Butterfly Shell.

My first novel The Butterfly Shell was recently published by The O’Brien Press and the first time I held the actual book was an exciting and strange experience.

Exciting – because it was actually finished and existed outside of me.

And strange – because I felt like I was holding in my hands a kind of transformation. An idea somewhere had taken hold and that idea evolved into a story and then along the way other people become involved and here it was. And, of course, the beautiful cover by artist Emma Byrne heightened the feeling that this was bigger than just my story.

The experience of writing a novel was a new one for me. Theatre is my background. Theatre I understand. I have written plays, but that always feels like a communal act. The play changes once the actors get a hold of it, then there follows intense, collaborative rehearsals leading up to Opening Night and a real, live audience.

Books are different.

With books the intense writing period is followed by collaboration with the editor and publisher leading up to – Publication Day! But the difference here is the audience is invisible. Writing is an act of faith and while you are writing you make an invisible pact with the future reader – you will give them your all and, in turn, this as-yet-only-imagined reader, will give their all in reading. But you will never know if that is the case or, indeed, if there will be any readers.

I didn’t set out to write a book for young audiences, though right from the start I was interested in telling a young girl’s story. Armed with a germ of a story and a memory of being 12, I started. I have worked for years as a Dramaturg, helping playwrights develop new plays. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you look for in a script?’ I have one answer – one that makes me want to turn the page.

And so I tried to remember that and write something that might make someone want to turn the page. As it turned out with The Butterfly Shell, that someone was a young reader, probably someone who could relate to Marie’s age, if not her experiences. People have asked me where the idea for The Butterfly Shell came from – was it based on my experiences? Was it about my daughter? ‘No’ to the last two questions and to the first all I can say is, ‘I don’t know where ideas come from or what gives them their pull.’ Perhaps the stories we hear as children stay with us. Or maybe unexpected gifts are the key. A few years ago my sister gave me a gift for no reason at all (definitely the best kind of present). It was a butterfly made of abalone and I was fascinated- by the shell, by the shape, by the gift. And when I started writing I was confident that it would find its way in some form into the story.

I am delighted that what I was writing turned out to be for young readers. Kids’ books matter. I thought that long before I wrote one. And it is important we feed our kids a varied diet – adventurous, comic, serious, worthy, not so worthy, long, short and the whole range of books that defy definition. The young reader (and indeed the adult reader as well) needs to be exposed to a variety of experiences and imaginations because literature helps us make sense of the world around us.

As I approach the launch date for The Butterfly Shell I realise I have learned a lot about this book business on the way.

Patience was the biggest lesson – It is so easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of books out there (why on earth did I start this book??) and very intimidating to read articles about how someone or other wrote their debut novel on a bus in one month while she baked bread and raised 9 children and held down 2 jobs. (My advice is if you are a writer never ever read inspirational articles on very successful writers).

The Butterfly Shell took a very long time to write. Many walks on the beach which of course in retrospect I say were a necessary part of the process but in fact probably had more to do with procrastination. Many times I put it away -probably because I didn’t know where it was going but again, in retrospect is no bad thing to do every now and then- you sometimes come back to it with fresh eyes and energy which is all you need to keep going. Once I left it for a year as my house was flooded and we had to move and family events made writing very low on my agenda. I think each story takes whatever time it takes to write. I had to be patient that mine was taking this long but its timing also meant I ran into the right people on the way. People who would make a difference.

I am still amazed at the difference an editor can make. The collaboration with Liz Hudson and its energetic examination of details resulted in the kind of shifts I couldn’t have imagined on my own. And so the book transformed and I am convinced a kind of alchemy oversees the entire process so when I look at The Butterfly Shell I see more than just my story. I see the imprint of everyone who helped and the possibility of everyone who might read.

A debut is exciting. By very definition it can only happen once. But it is that excitement that fuels you on to the next book. I look forward to the lessons I will learn with that one …

Maureen White is a playwright, teacher at the Gaiety School of Acting and dramaturg for Rough Magic Theatre Company. This is her first novel for young adults.