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Florence Gillan on morning pages, writing her second novel, and how adulthood cured her writer’s block


By Sarah Gill
20th Sep 2023
Florence Gillan on morning pages, writing her second novel, and how adulthood cured her writer’s block

“For most of my adulthood, I blocked myself from writing.” Here, we hear from author Florence Gillan on her go-to books, favourite authors, and writing habits.

Last week, we shared an extract from Florence Gillan’s newly published second novel, The Forfeit, and today we’re catching up with the author to chat about everything from her desert island reads to her writing process.

When Florence Gillan reached the age of 60, retirement and the death of two siblings spurred her to realise there is no longer plenty of time. It’s finite, and the time is now. There is no do-over with life; this is a now-or-never moment.

Here, we find out what’s on her bookshelf, where she finds inspiration, and how she detangled herself from the grips of writer’s block…

Florence Gillan

Did you always want to be an author?

I loved reading and telling stories since childhood. I practised on my little sister and then started writing my first novel at age nine. It was called Trageties in France. I was undeterred by my inability to spell tragedies or my knowledge of France.

What inspired you to start writing?

I had put it off for many years, but the death of two beloved siblings, my retirement from teaching and the onset of the pandemic made me realise that time wasn’t infinite and that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to go for it and stop wasting time.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

The two main characters came into my mind one night as I was drifting off to sleep, and once I had the characters, the plot soon followed.

Tell us about your writing process.

When I’m writing, I’m very much an office-hours person. I start around 8:30am and finish at 6pm. Then, I mull the day’s work around in my head and try to work out any plot difficulties before I drift off to sleep.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

It depends; I developed a scenario for my first novel, Let Them Lie, and the story and characters grew around it. But in The Forfeit, the characters appeared, and the plot formed around them.

What did you learn when writing this book?

That I can work under pressure. Usually, I’m ready well ahead of time, and this worked to my disadvantage as I lost confidence in my second book’s first draft and binned it. This left me with a tight deadline and forced me to think and work fast. I’m now convinced that a certain level of panic works well for me.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

No. I need to be alone when writing, preferably with nobody in the house. I get very cranky if interrupted, as my poor husband knows.

The first book you remember reading is…

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I remember how dark the stories were and how disturbing.

Your favourite Irish author is…

I love John McGahern, but recently, I’ve read Louise Kennedy’s book Trespasses and Una Mannion’s book Tell Me What I Am. It was great to read such talented, relatively new authors.

The book you gift everyone is…

I love Anthony de Mello’s book Awareness and have often gifted it to friends.

Three books everyone should read:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Emma by Jane Austin, and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

You overcome writer’s block by…

For most of my adulthood, I blocked myself from writing. I credit Julia Cameron’s book The Artist Way with curing me. I found her morning page exercises liberating, and they freed something up in me and killed off the judgemental voice in my head that had paralysed me.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No, I need silence to work and to read.

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

A wireless mouse and keyboard for my laptop.

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

This is a cheat, but I’d bring The Barchester Chronicles by Trollope, as it’s a series of six novels. Emma by Jane Austin and any of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle novels to keep me laughing.

A quote you love is…

‘Just keep swimming,’ Dory from Finding Nemo.

The book you always return to is…

The Grapes of Wrath.

Seeing your book in shops is…

It is the most indescribable high yet also a source of anxiety, as my inner child screams, ‘Please like me.’

One book you wish you had written is…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it is a perfect crime novel with a brilliant twist. Agatha Christie was a plotting genius.

How do you use social media as an author?

I’m a total newbie and haven’t a clue. I have a very kind daughter who helps me out.

Should books be judged by their covers?

I’m not particularly bothered by the cover; the blurb on the back sells the book to me.

How did you pick yours?

For my first book, Let Them Lie, I persuaded my publisher to use an old tin box which inspired that novel. So, the box that once belonged to my parents is on the front cover. For The Forfeit, the publishers took an object from the book – a memorial card and created a suitably sinister cover.

Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?

Once I get going, I’m grand, but sometimes I need to give myself a serious talking to to get started.

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is:

Stop making excuses and get on with it.

Your work space is…

My study in Newry or Sligo, but I can write anywhere that is quiet.

Your favourite literary character of all time is…

Huckleberry Finn or Snowball from Animal Farm.

‘The Forfeit’ by Florence Gillan is out now.