Prior to the completion of her debut novel, The List That Changed My Life, 26-year-old Olivia Beirne has previously worked in casting. Originally from Buckinghamshire, Beirne lives in Tulse Hill in London and is currently working on her second novel. Read The Muse got to speak with author Olivia Beirne on her debut novel, The List That Changed My Life, her inspiration for becoming a published author, writer’s block, and what readers can expect from her debut novel.
I started to think about what I did know. I knew about being a woman in her twenties, not quite being able to afford rent but desperate not to live with your parents. I knew about the post-university slump, where you realise that life isn’t all parties and glamorous jobs. I knew how easy it was for time to slip by, and to blink and find yourself back at a New Years Eve Party with a flimsy string of tinsel slung around your neck and feeling unsure of what you even did for the last year.
RTM: Tell us about your debut novel – what’s it about? What inspired it?
OB: The List That Changed My Life follows two sisters, Amy and Georgia. Amy is older, proactive and in control of her life whereas Georgia is happy to let the world pass her by while she’s sat on the sofa. Then Amy gets diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and their world is tipped upside down. Amy is desperate to get Georgia to start living her life, and Georgia is desperate to help Amy through an illness she doesn’t understand. So, Amy writes Georgia a list of things to complete before her next birthday. Unsure of what else to do to help her sister, Georgia accepts.
I spent 4 years trying to get signed by a Literary Agent (which, now doesn’t sound like that long, but at the time felt like eternity) and every time I went along to an event aimed at aspiring authors, the same phrase followed me around the room: ‘write what you know’. I found this insufferable, because I didn’t know anything, so what on earth was I supposed to write about? I didn’t think I was interesting enough to apply this expression to my writing. I mean, what did I know? Nothing. Nobody wants to read a book about my weekly experience with the Boots meal deal (even though I could talk about this for days. I mean, it’s bloody fantastic. Right? You can get a cake and a sandwich for lunch.)
Anyway, the more I thought about this, I started to think about what I did know. I knew about being a woman in her twenties, not quite being able to afford rent but desperate not to live with your parents. I knew about the post-university slump, where you realise that life isn’t all parties and glamorous jobs. I knew how easy it was for time to slip by, and to blink and find yourself back at a New Years Eve Party with a flimsy string of tinsel slung around your neck and feeling unsure of what you even did for the last year. So, with that in mind, I started to try and think of a story about a character going through similar things, and what would make someone break out of that cycle and grab life again. This inspired the character of Georgia, and slowly, The List That Changed My Life formed in my mind.
To what extent, if so, is the book based on personal experiences?
A lot of Georgia’s experiences are based on myself. Many of the scrapes she finds herself in are based on my own experiences, and when I was composing the list I literally thought: ‘okay, what would I HATE to do?’. A large part of the book is about Amy and her MS, so although I have no personal experience with MS, this part required a lot of research with the help from The MS Society and conversations with Doctors and Nurses.
Also, I do have a sister, who I adore. A lot of the relationship between Georgia and Amy is based on how me and my sister interact with each other, the good and the bad.
How long did the first draft take you to write?
Three months! I was studying a masters at the time, and freelancing bits and bobs, which meant I usually had at least two clear days that I could sit and write. I get tunnel vision when I get started, so once I had hit 10,000 words I couldn’t stop. I wrote everywhere (including lectures).
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing and finishing the manuscript?
I thought I’d finished the book at 50,000 words, and I was like oh shit. I spent about four days panicking about how I’d finished it so quickly and where I was going to pull another 30,000 words from. It was actually a blessing in disguise, because it forced a part of the story I hadn’t originally thought of, but that was hard.
I, also (for the first time ever), decided to not look at my book for a month when I finished it, in order to give me fresh eyes when I came to edit. This seemed like a sensible, mature thing to do, but in reality it felt like I’d chopped off my left lung and left it locked it in a box on the mantelpiece. It was torture.
I always knew it my gut that writing was the only thing I wanted to do with my life, but I had no idea how I’d ever do it.
How has the editing process been and what has it entailed?
The editing has been such a huge learning curve! I am so lucky that I have an incredible Editor at Headline Review, who is super supportive. I had always pictured editing as being someone telling me that they hated 80% of it and everything being slashed out. It’s not like that at all! I had a lot of conversations with my Editor and Agent about what they liked and thought needed work, and everything was a collaboration. The whole process has been incredibly supportive and I have really enjoyed it. One of the amazing things about my Editor is her eye to pick out things I never would have noticed. For example, apparently I was obsessed with the heart activity of my characters. That took a lot of editing!
Have you always seen yourself as becoming a published author one day? Have you always been writing?
It’s always been a dream of mine, but I had no idea how to do it. When I was little, I used to tell my younger brother stories all the time (lucky him) and I used to force my sister to act out plays I’d written with me (lucky her), but that was as far as it went. I actually hated English at school, and so I forgot about my dream of writing books because almost every time I handed in a creative writing piece, my teacher would tear it apart. I always had ideas fizzing around my brain, but never did anything about it until my third year of university, where I wrote a play for my dissertation. I loved writing it so much, that when I handed it in I opened my laptop and started writing my first book. I knew nothing about being an author, and not a single person who worked in publishing, so I didn’t know the first thing about getting a book published. But I did a lot of reading, scouring the internet and researching authors and trying to work out how they did it. I always knew it my gut that writing was the only thing I wanted to do with my life, but I had no idea how I’d ever do it.
When you’re not writing, what else might you spend your day doing?
I love theatre, so I try and go and see as many shows as I can. Obviously I read a lot, and always try and have at least one book on the go. Apart from that, I’m not sure? All the normal things, friends (in real life and the series), Netflix, caffeine…
I always go through the unavoidable panic of how I can’t think of anything/I’m a fraud/I don’t know any words at all. To be honest, the only way I get over [writer’s block] is to stick that soundtrack on and force myself to write.
Does your writing style or approach take inspiration from any authors in particular?
Yes I think you can tell from my writing that Sophie Kinsella was a massive influence for me growing up. I started reading her books as a teenager and she opened my eyes to a new style of writing. I am constantly inspired by authors, but I think Sophie Kinsella is the main author that I can say particularly influenced my writing.
What sort of environment is your favourite to write in?
I love to write at my desk, although I’m about to do my third move of the year (urgh) so that keeps changing. I always need a huge cup of tea, I need to be wearing trousers that hold no restriction over my stomach and, if I’m really concentrating, I play the Blue Planet soundtrack. I also love writing in coffee shops (cue the cliché).
Do you often experience writers’ block, and how do you overcome it?
Oh god yes. Especially when I am trying to plot out a new idea. I always go through the unavoidable panic of how I can’t think of anything/I’m a fraud/I don’t know any words at all. To be honest, the only way I get over it is to stick that soundtrack on and force myself to write. Whatever I write will be terrible, but somehow if I start writing something then it tends to shift the block. The first 10,000 words of The List That Changed My Life were cut before I submitted it to my Agent. It was dire. But I needed it there in order to get the wheels moving for the rest of the book.
Is there a particular message you aim to express or share in your writing?
I really want to write books with characters that you can relate to. I find, as a woman in my 20s, that there is a lot of pressure to be hitting certain milestones and, in the social media age, to be constantly living your best life. I want to write characters that are real and honest, that reflect what it’s like to be in your 20s today. I want to write characters that you recognise, and I want Georgia to be a character that readers connect with.
Do you have any new writing projects on the cards or already in the works?
Yes! Well, sort of. I’m in the very early stages of my second book, which is also being published by Headline Review (wahoo). It’s a standalone novel, so I have zero details to share sadly. But it will follow the same themes as The List That Changed My Life in being uplifting and (hopefully) humorous*.
*Providing I haven’t used all of my best jokes in The List That Changed My Life.
With the book coming out this autumn, what have the next few months got in store for you?
So, although the e-book and audio come out in November, the paperback isn’t released until February. So I’ll be spending the next few months working on book two and working with Headline to try and promote The List That Changed My Life as best as possible!
Are you excited or nervous about what’s to come?
Yes, both. I am so excited about everything, it literally is a dream come true. But I’m also terrified to have people read my book. I’m constantly torn between wanting everybody to read it, but then manically wanted to shout: ‘no wait, I’m joking, give it BACK!’. In all seriousness, I feel very lucky and am incredibly excited. If I think about it too much, I feel like I might float and get stuck on the ceiling like that man from Mary Poppins.
Where can we stay up to date with your work, e.g social media accounts?