Author’s Bookshelf: Lisa McGeeney on reading, writing, and falling down rabbit holes
Midwife, public health nurse, and author Lisa McGeeney tells us all about her journey to becoming a writer, falling down rabbit holes, and the books she always returns to.
Earlier this week, we shared an extract from Lisa McGeeney’s examination of nursing and midwifery in the nineteenth century, and today we’re catching up with the author to hear all about the making of Nursing and midwifery in the poor-law unions of Borrisokane and Nenagh, 1882–1922.
Did you always want to become an author?
The idea of becoming an author has been an emergent one as I’ve gotten older. I have friends who are writers and I’ve always admired their talent of expressing themselves through their words but I am a procrastinator so it took having a deadline to get me writing in earnest. I didn’t think my first book would be non- fiction but if my Masters in Local History has been the catalyst for me becoming an author then I rejoice in that.
What inspired you to start writing?
My earliest writing of any significance was letter writing. My family moved back to Ireland from Australia when I was a teenager, in the 1980s, and I developed a strong habit of writing long, handwritten missives to my friends. I couldn’t wait for the responses which usually took about two weeks to arrive. One of my dearest friendships was strengthened and solidified through that process and that friend (Kate Rotherham) is now an award winning writer.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
This work has come from my research in local history. I loved discovering first the names of the women who were nurses and midwives in the Nenagh and Borrisokane areas during the time period of my study (1882 – 1922) and then digging deeper to find out more about their lives.
Tell us about your writing process.
It starts with a question followed by lots of research and many sidetracks down fascinating rabbit holes until the point comes where I have enough information to answer that initial question, or another one that shapes itself during the research process. I had planned to tell the story of female philanthropy during the same time period and include the information about nurses and midwives as part of that but I was guided by my supervisor to concentrate on either one story or the other and that was good advice.
What did you learn when writing this book?
I learned so much about women’s history during my research. The information is out there in so many documents such as birth, marriage and death registers, newspaper reports and census records but, for the most part, this information hasn’t been pulled together to tell the stories of the lives of ordinary women. I also learned that once you have an idea, a question and enough information the writing process is very enjoyable.
Do you have any quirky habits when writing?
Perhaps my quirk is that I don’t have a ‘habit’ around my writing. I don’t write at a particular time of day or in a particular place. I write where and when suits best at the time.
The first book you remember reading is…
The first book I read by myself was probably a picture book. I remember loving The Best Nest by P.D.Eastman in the Dr Suess series. The first non-picture book I read was Mr Galliano’s Circus by Enid Blyton, which I received as a gift from a friend for my 8th birthday.
Your favourite Irish author is…
Sebastian Barry. Some books remain with you long after you have read them and continue to have an effect on you, Sebastian Barry’s A long, long way has that power. So does The Secret Scripture.
I also love Dolores Keaveney’s stories for children which include her beautiful paintings.
The book you gift everyone is…
Dependant on their age and stage of life. I often buy Children’s bible stories as a christening present, the Adam’s Cloud books by Benji Bennet for young children, the Narnia books by C.S.Lewis for older children and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran when it seems right.
Three books everyone should read…
Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde (especially The Happy Prince), A Little Princess or The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Naughtiest Girl books by Enid Blyton. I know these are all children’s classics but what better place to start any reading journey. These are beautifully written with heart-warming messages.
You overcome writer’s block by…
Taking a break and doing something that takes my head out of the writing such as reading a book, going for a walk or meeting a friend for coffee. I can usually come back to it after that and get going again.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Most of the time. It provides pleasant company without being a distraction.
The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…
A laptop. I write a lot of research notes by hand but I do most of my writing on my laptop.
The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…
Persuasion by Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, I have read both many times and I’d want some old friends with me on a desert island. The third book would be something by J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, preferably the latest, unpublished book in the Strike series, or an epic tale by Ken Follett.
A quote you love is…
“To change is to grow, to have changed often is to become perfect”. When I left Australia, one of my friends wrote it in my autograph book and I’ve always loved it. I’ve recently discovered that this is a version of a quote attributed to both Cardinal Newman and Winston Churchill.
The book you always return to is…
Anne of Green Gables. My 5th class teacher, Mrs Morgan, read it to us as a treat each afternoon and my friends and I fell in love with Anne Shirley, Marilla and Mathew Cuthbert, Diana Barry, Gilbert Blythe and being read to.
Seeing your book in shops is/will be…
One book you wish you had written is…
The Harry Potter series, because they are fantastic.
How do you use social media as an author?
I haven’t so far.
Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?
Covers can attract you to a book but a book shouldn’t be judged by them. Some of my favourite books have come with plain covers, apart from the title, such as Nevil Shute’s Requiem for a Wren and The Pied Piper. I got them in a box of books at an auction and they were superb. The cover of my book is in the style of the series with a photograph from Cork Street Fever Hospital on the front. I hope it gives the reader a visual reference to the contents.
Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?
Absolutely. I could stay researching forever and never start writing if there weren’t set schedules or deadlines.
The best advice you’ve ever gotten is…
Your work space is…
Mobile. As long as I have some sort of table, a pen, notebook, my notes and laptop I can work.
Your favourite literary character of all time is…
Order your copy of ‘Nursing and midwifery in the poor-law unions of Borrisokane and Nenagh, 1882–1922’ by Lisa McGeeney for €12.95, right here.