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Image / Living / Culture

Author’s Bookshelf: Isobel Mahon on the ‘epic journey’ of writing her debut novel, Learning to Fly


By Sarah Gill
03rd Sep 2022
Author’s Bookshelf: Isobel Mahon on the ‘epic journey’ of writing her debut novel, Learning to Fly

An award-winning actress, writer and psychotherapist living in Dublin, Isobel Mahon gives us an insight into the woman behind the words.

Earlier this week, we shared an extract from Isobel Mahon’s debut novel, Learning to Fly which you can read right here if you missed it. Today, we’re sharing a glimpse into the life of the author ranging from her inspirations and motivations to her to-be-read pile and her work space.

Isobel Mahon

Did you always want to be an author?

As a child I loved to write stories and constantly invented scenarios in my head. I always felt that I would write but as it’s turned out I arrived there via acting.

What inspired you to start writing?

My mum was always an avid reader and growing up the house was always full of books. I did my degree in English in Trinity but that mainly taught me literary criticism and that writing is done by other people, never me. In my thirties I did a night course in UCD in writing for radio by Patricia O’Reilly which was a revelation and empowered me to start writing for broadcast and also Aidan Mathews of RTÉ who encouraged and supported me in the early years.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

That’s a good question. I’d always hoped to write a book that expressed the sublime in the ordinary. But honestly, I agree with writer Elizabeth Gilbert, some ideas are themselves and come ready-formed, you just have to be ready to grab them.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

For me, it’s characters.

What did you learn when writing this book?

That writing 100,000 words is a lot but that I was capable of more than I realised. It sounds obvious but the biggest challenge I found was translating exactly what I felt into words!

Three words to describe your writing process:

Get an idea.

Plot the idea in as much detail as you can. Structure is your friend, once you have the story it frees you up to focus on the moment-to-moment tracking of the characters and their world.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

When I was doing the book I got up every morning, ran and did my Buddhist chanting. Oh, and my lovely big mug of filter coffee and chocolate rice cakes. Yum!

Isobel Mahon

The first book you remember reading is…

The Narnia books by CS Lewis. I re-read them until they fell apart.

Your favourite Irish author is…

Claudia Carroll’s books are like having the company of your most fun pal. Sally Rooney is searingly honest.

The book you gift everyone is…

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

Three books everyone should read:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukov, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

You overcome writer’s block by…

Watching comedy videos on You Tube, reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No, actually. It never occurs to me, maybe I should.

The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…

The MA in screenwriting at IADT.

The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…

  1. The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas
  2. The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States because it contains my favourite story, May’s Lion by Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

Isobel Mahon

A quote you love is…

‘Turn your Wounds into Wisdom’ – Oprah Winfrey.

The book you always return to is…

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Seeing your book in shops would be…

A dream…

One book you wish you had written is…

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. because…. It’s the most pure translation of perception into words I’ve ever encountered. I find it incredibly freeing.

How do you use social media as an author?

Not as well as I should. I’m actually quite a private person and I have to push myself to share stuff. I prefer to hide and comment on others.

Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?

Finding my book cover was an epic journey, it’s such a skill. You have to convey what the book is about without imposing on the viewer. The moment I saw Andrew Brown’s design I knew it was perfect.

Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?

I do procrastinate a bit but I think but that’s ok. I let myself watch a few videos to relax, then I start.

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is:

‘Don’t get it right, get it down.’ Re-writing is way easier than facing the blank page.

Your work space is…

Bright, with a view of Howth.

Your favourite literary character of all time is…

Frodo Baggins.