Justine Delaney Wilson: ‘I can’t whitewash the uncomfortable stuff’
‘I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence, damaging power-plays, shitty betrayals’
Justine Delaney Wilson: The family has moved to the end of the world to outrun the damage. But of course, no amount of running will free us from ourselves
I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence – the damaging power-plays in families, the shitty betrayals within partnerships, the lure of desire from the wrong person – difficult, human things. And I have to write without worrying what the neighbours or your father or my granny will think about it.
A reader of an early manuscript said that my new book, Listen for the Weather, felt quite dark in parts. Which I liked, even if that wasn’t her intention. Life is quite dark, in parts. We learn who we are through crisis, and the fact that that sounds corny doesn’t make it any less true. I feel like it’s my job to mine and chronicle what feels tough because that’s what’s most real, and sometimes reality does offend. I can’t whitewash the uncomfortable stuff out because somebody at the school gate mightn’t like it.
I think the difficulty of the human experience is the most common ground between people generally, and so between a writer and a reader. Unearned happiness or bliss is alienating for me when I’m reading; a reward for nothing. I can’t relate to it. Life doesn’t easily work out, so nor should fiction – unless, of course, it’s a dreamy escape you’re after. But if that’s the case, I’m probably not the woman for you.
That said, I do love a triumph! But excitement and triumph feel much greater when there’s been a jagged climb. So there must be a period of threat, a risk. A felt pain that knocks you from your daily stupor, and is followed by an explosive realisation: there is something you will risk everything to have, or to save.
Isn’t that a considerable part of the human condition? Our need to feel a jolt of panic before we can be spurred into action. Very often it’s only the threat of a loss that can motivate us into seeking a win.
In spite of the darkness, or maybe because of it, this new book is about love. I think everything comes down to love, really. Having it, being denied it, growing up without it, learning to hold onto it, messing it up, confusing it with something else, confusing something else for it, cherishing it. All of us – men and women – consumed by the glories and the fuck-ups of love.
And we put so much pressure on it! We expect that love will last forever, and that until the end of our forever, it will also feed us and make us happy, every day. It’s an impossibly tall order. I think if you’re really lucky, your shared love will ebb and flow – come and go. It will keep coming back to you, after the going.
Inspiration for most things comes through the normal business of living. An ordinary 24 hours is full of singular moments and observations, lots of small but vivid joys and frustrations. We all have family of some kind; we all love; we all live domestically in one way or another – these things are the nuts and bolts of life, and so they are where the drama is. Where we are held together or fall apart.
Listen for the Weather is a study in trust. And mistrust. A marriage was dented some years previous, but has managed to get to its feet again. The family has moved to the end of the world to outrun the damage. But of course, no amount of running will free any of us from ourselves.
There are jumping-off points that are echoes of my own life – my husband is from New Zealand, I have a child with additional needs. I can’t detach from the residue of the life I’ve lived, so sometimes the writing comes close to my own experience but a lot of the time, it’s half a world away.
I left Ireland early in the autumn of 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in the spring of last year. I had three spring-summers in a row, and I was more conscious than ever of the changing seasons during that time, because of their lack. No autumn or winter for 18 months, the evenings never closing in. I wrote the bones of this book while I was there. And then I returned to a familiar place and to similar weather as when I’d left. But everything was off.
It reminded me of the Crowded House line: Walking ‘round the room singing stormy weather. I remember hearing Neil Finn interviewed about that song, him speaking about how we create our own weather, how we are always making our own situations. I think my own feelings of dislocation and of having to make my own environment – having to create a new life, new securities for my children – informed my writing of this story and my depiction of the characters during that time. Maybe the distance from the politics of home was freeing in a way. I wasn’t conscious of it then, but thinking about it now, I can credit that.
My books aren’t mapped out when I sit down to begin. I don’t have plot points and gorgeous, sweeping arcs. There can be a lot of plate-spinning in initial drafts; back-story plates and seed-sowing plates and present-action plates, and inevitably a few will smash to the floor. And I’ll have days when I want to throw the remaining ones into the bin and slam the lid down on them.
For me, the characters are everything. When I arrive at the point where I feel I really know my cast, then I can write honestly. Knowing what they’re made of, I can second-guess them through most things. Very little is incomprehensible when you understand what motivates a person. So I need to know them well enough to give me confidence in what I’m doing, to drown out my doubts about writing anything at all.
I don’t have any tips worth sharing. Writing is a pretty solitary, head-melting experience and there’s no way around it, only through it. Having said that, it’s an absolute privilege to spend my time doing it, and I know I’m very lucky.
Justine Delaney Wilson’s first book, The High Society (Gill & Macmillan, 2007) was nominated in the Non-Fiction Book of the Year category at the Irish Book Awards in 2008. She is the author of two novels, The Difference (2016) and the newly-released Listen for the Weather (2018, Hachette Ireland)