Doing the write thing


Writing a book about a woman trying to find the right life balance can, well,  upset the life balance, Denise Deegan tells Anne Dempsey

When Kim Waters - 33, husband, Ian, in banking, two young children, period redbrick in Dalkey, Co Dublin - realises her public- relations business has made her miss the children's bedtime once too often, she quits to stay home, become an earth mother and write "the novel".

Kim's creator is Denise Deegan - 36, husband, Joe, in financial services, two young children, modern redbrick in Monkstown, Co Dublin - who closed her PR business to spend more time with her children and write a novel. Coincidence or what?

"Her situation at the beginning of the book was the same as mine at that stage, but our paths diverge after that," says Deegan. "Putting her in PR allowed me write about the familiar, which gave a level of comfort when starting something so new. I spent a lot of time wondering about giving up work to write and had loads of chats with poor Joe. Career-wise, it made no sense; it probably meant no money, as so few books get published. In the book I have Kim agonising for chapters as well, but they cut out a lot of that, so most of the autobiographical stuff didn't survive."

Deegan trained and worked as a nurse, then studied marketing and went into pharmaceutical sales. She later took a diploma in PR and was employed in the medical division of a PR agency before leaving to open her own business. She continued working full time after the children were born, employing a childminder outside Montessori-school hours.

"Then home and work priorities began to change," she says. "I wanted to spend more time with the kids, so started working part time. I did a master's in PR, which led to my writing a book, published by the British Institute of Public Relations, about how business should respond to activism groups. I was like a bear doing the book but learnt I could do it and thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to write a novel? I began it but hadn't enough time for it, so it just hung over me. In April 2001, I wound up the business to give the novel a proper shot."

While Kim's literary efforts founder quite quickly, her alter ego had no such problems. "I knew immediately I'd made the right decision," Deegan says. "I worked in the morning when the kids were at summer camp and spent the rest of the day with them. I entered completely into the world of my characters, loved the power to do what I wanted with them and would have tears streaming down my face, really upset about what they were going through!"

Her 100,000-word draft was finished by the autumn. It was called Turning Turtle, a reference to the nautical term that describes what happens when a boat capsizes and its crew find themselves in deep water. Similarly, Kim's decision to leave work sends shockwaves through her relationship, leading to stormy weather. Deegan writes with a wry and witty ear for dialogue and captures well the manners of a middle-class marriage.

Once the book was completed, she targeted eight agents and publishers and got eight rejections, but with sufficient encouragement from four of them to make her carry on trying. "I got great help from the profession, some of it hard to hear, because it told me everything that was wrong with the book. I spent three months editing, resubmitted, attracted some interest, found an agent - which led to a lot more editing before final acceptance."

The book is an engaging page-turner, which has you caring whether Kim and Ian work out their problems. As popular fiction it also catches a contemporary mood. Life balance is in vogue as an issue, as working parents struggle with careers, commuting and family. Women realise that having it all can mean doing it all. Many would like the option of staying at home or working part time when children are small but find, as Kim does, that employers are still relatively unsympathetic to family-friendly work policies.

A significant issue explored in the book is what happens in a marriage when one spouse gives up paid employment for full-time parenting.

Ian "begins to resent her because he feels she has choices that he doesn't have", says Deegan. "It leads to a lot of misunderstandings. She feels he isn't interested in the kids, but in fact he doesn't want to hear about all the fun because he feels excluded. She, equally, resents that he can go out each morning, even though staying at home was her choice. Each begins to feel jealous of the other. Talking about their feelings would have solved some of this, but by now they are communicating very poorly."

Having only one wage earner can bring out the worst in both parties. "Couples need to be aware in advance that the power balance is going to change," Deegan says. "As a woman you may need to fight your corner from the word go and be comfortable about what you have contributed to the marriage to date. Both of you have created the children, so deciding how they will be parented is something you do together.

"It's easy to lose your confidence. But if you begin projecting differently, he may see you differently, react accordingly, which you pick up. So it's a vicious circle.

"We were lucky that I could afford to give up my business, and not bringing in money was not an issue. We made the decision together and took the long-term view. If it didn't work out, I could always do something else.

"Women have more choices these days, and if working full time is causing problems, there may be other options - though the tyranny of choice can lead to guilt and doubt, with women these days constantly asking themselves: 'Am I doing the right thing?' "

Turning Turtle by Denise Deegan is published tomorrow by Tivoli, €9.99; it will be reviewed in the book pages on Saturday

Having it all? How to avoid some common problems

Liz Sherry, a training consultant in work-life balance, reduced her workload when her twin sons went from primary school into first year and has pulled back again as they prepare to sit their Leaving Certs, in June. "If a woman is thinking of giving up work to be with children at a particular life stage, it needs to be a discussion, not a decision. It must be agreed between both parties and should be seen as another job, a different job, no less than the job she is leaving," she says. "As a couple, they need to put an agreed monetary value on what she is doing . . . They also need to be clear on who is responsible for what jobs. Some men assume that because a woman is at home full time she should do everything, including gardening and all odd jobs. Detailed discussions in advance are very important.

"Some men see their wife differently if she is no longer earning, and \ can use money as a means of exerting power and control. If someone is married to a dominant man, she needs to make sure she can withstand the shift in the balance of power should she no longer have a wage . . .

"Some of the younger dads I meet in business talk about their turn to put the child to bed and want to be involved with their children, though organisations are not necessarily supportive of this. The whole subject arouses a lot of jealousy and envy.

"Single career women may be unconsciously envious of mothers. Working mothers are envious of stay-at-home mothers who are seen as ladies who lunch. Employers can still pay lip-service to family-friendly policies. It all points to an insufficient appreciation of the value and importance of parenting."