Ber Carroll: Best-selling chick lit author

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image-bercarroll200Ber Carroll is the author of three books, Just Business, Executive Affair and her latest novel High Potential.

All three books are considered chick lit for the working girl and they all focus on aspects of work, balancing work life and falling in/out of love at work.

Ber came to Australia 13 years ago from Ireland and worked as a financial controller in a large IT company.

She lives in Sydney, has two young children and is now a successful, full time author.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.49

 

Executive Affair High Potential Just Business Less Than Perfect The Better Woman

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
So thanks for joining us today, Ber.

Ber:
Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie:
Now tell me, what inspired you to write your first book?

Ber:
It all started with my first job in Sydney, when I found myself amidst a cast of characters and though I was very focused on my job, I couldn’t help but notice what was going on around me. The sexy men in their white shirts and the savvy women, and the relationships and the friendships and the alliances and the corporate politics. My head was literally buzzing with ideas. I enrolled in my local high school for a creative writing class and I began to write my first novel, Executive Affair.

Valerie:
And what was your first job? What were you doing at the time?

Ber:
I was a finance manager at the time. It was my first job where I had a management position and I had a clear view up and down the organisation. And I just found it fascinating, all the personalities, you know, in that whole spectrum.

Valerie:
So being a finance manager’s very different from writing. Had you done writing before?

Ber:
No, but when I was at school I was quite good at English and I do remember being undecided about which way I would go out of school. But I do love numbers and because I worked with numbers for so long it did take me quite a while to learn the art of writing. I knew I wanted to do it but I had a lot of learning to do, which I realise now I when I look back.

Valerie:
And if your work colleagues inspired that, are the characters in your book based on yourself or people you’ve worked with, obviously?

Ber:
Well, I denied that at the time the first book came out. I said, “No, no, no, no. It’s all fiction.” I’m putting my hand up now and saying yes, there was a lot of me in that first book and some of the characters were based on people that I worked with. Although I have to say, I did not have an affair with the Vice President, so I’ve that on record. But it was based on that first job and the environment of the job, and also my first impressions of Sydney and how I saw Sydney and experienced Sydney.

Valerie:
So you did that creative writing course…

Ber:
Yes.

Valerie:
And obviously that was at a fairly preliminary level at the time. When did you realise you could make a career out of it?

Ber:
It was a long way in. I mean, the creative writing course was, I think, nine years ago now and it was only last year when my third book got to number four in the Irish bestseller list that I realised, “Oh, I’m starting to get some momentum,” and then following that, I had a lot more interest from the Australian publishers and also from publishers in other countries. So that was the first time I actually started to take it all quite seriously.

Valerie:
So did you combine your writing with your finance career for a little while and when did that stop?

Ber:
I did, like I combined it with mothering and with a finance career. I stopped working full time a few years ago and even though at the time, I told everyone I was stopping to become a writer, I was actually stopping to become a mother. After that, I did some troubleshooting in finance. I’d go back for a few months and that was quite fun, to get dressed up and go back into the business world. I think it gave me a lot of inspiration. But I was still largely running a household and being mother to two small children, and still writing more as a hobby than as a career. Last year that changed when I signed a four-book deal with Pan. I suddenly had contracts and deadlines, and my children. Now the youngest is going to preschool so I have a little bit more time on my hands to gear up from being a hobby to being a career writer.

Valerie:
So you were born in Ireland. Which writers influenced you growing up over there?

Ber:
Well, two of the first books I remember reading were not from Irish writers, but I must mention them because they had a lasting impact on me. The first one was “Thorn Birds”. I read it at the age of 10 and you can imagine my shock! I learned the facts of life from that book, and it also started my fascination with this country.

Valerie:
Yes.

Ber:
And another one I remember reading at a very young age, was “A Woman of Substance”. I loved the very strong character that Barbara Taylor Bradford had created with Emma Harte and I remember admiring her a lot. And then later on, there came the Maeve Binchy’s and Marian Keyes’ and Cathy Kelly’s, and I would devour those kinds of books. And also I read some of the more literary writers like Roddy Doyle and Joseph O’Connor and more recently, Anne Enright and learned a lot from them in terms of style and dialogue. From the female fiction writers I learned a lot in terms of giving warmth and fulfillment and that good warm feeling that women are looking for from this genre.

Valerie:
Were you always into chick lit or, you know, the equivalent of chick lit at the time?

Ber:
I read a lot and back then I used to read chick lit and female fiction, but I also read a lot of other things. The only thing I don’t read an awful lot of is non-fiction but if the book’s won the Booker Prize I feel, “Oh, I need to read that.” So I read outside my genre quite a bit. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction; that’s the only thing I would say. But I find that now I’m writing in this genre, the amount of chick lit that I’m reading is increasing because I like to know what other writers are writing and trying to keep tabs on what’s happening and what the trends are.

Valerie:
What do you like about it, in terms of writing it? What do you, you know, find appealing about writing chick lit?

Ber:
Even though it’s very difficult to write, the romance part of it is actually, as a reader, the best part to read. I think all of us like romance and are looking for and like a happy ending, and like the idea that you can find your soul mate. Although that is the most difficult part to write, it’s the best part to read. I also think that chick lit and female fiction put a lot of emphasis on relationships and friendships and they are sometimes ignored in other books.

Valerie:
And both Ireland and Sydney feature in your books. Was that a strategic decision to capture, you know, the readerships of two markets or was that something else?

Ber:
No, it was because there is a big part of me in both countries. I’ve been here for 13 years and there’s a big part of me here but there’s also still a part of me back over there and I’m fascinated with the links and the contrasts between the two countries.

And generally, you know, the Irish love the Australians because they’re so different. And the environment here is so different, and vice versa. But the people are quite similar. So I wrote about what I’m interested in and I’m interested in the links and contrasts between the countries. So I didn’t start that off intentionally. But I realised, as a writer, changing scene like that does give me a chance to take a breath and when I come back to where I left off, it gives me renewed vigor and so I like the energy it gives me, you know, to change the scene a bit.

Valerie:
And what type of research did you do for your books, in terms of workplace research? Because Just Business focuses on redundancy, High Potential focuses on law and Executive Affair focuses on controlling finances. What kind of research did you do on these areas?

Ber:
Well, look, I actually researched lots of things and not just business and over the years, I’ve interviewed ex-cons and psychics and hookers and–

Valerie:
Wow.

Ber:
–schizophrenics and so that’s a perk of the job; it’s very interesting. On the business side, obviously with Executive Affair, I had all that information at my fingertips. With Just Business, I don’t work in human resources but I’ve worked closely with them. And I haven’t worked in law, but I’ve worked closely with lawyers. So I knew what questions to ask. But in order to pull it off property, I had to ask a lot of those questions and get a lot of it checked by my sources reading over what I’d written to make sure I’d got it right. It’s really important to me to get it right because I’m placing emphasis on the job and I don’t want to get it wrong. So I spend a lot of time making sure that my facts are correct.

Valerie:
Yes.

Ber:
With each book I change my setting and my characters and my issues. In the following books there’s an investment banker and a recruitment agent, so I had to do quite a lot of research for those too, particularly the investment banking. That took a long time to research.

Valerie:
It’s very important, isn’t it, because it’s those little facts that you could get wrong. Suddenly, you lose credibility for the rest of your book.

Ber:
You do, yeah. Yeah, you do lose credibility. You have to know where to draw the line as well because, unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of working in those industries for a year so I have to learn what I can. But because I’ve worked in business, I do think I know where to start and I know what questions to ask, and that’s a good start, but I certainly don’t want somebody ringing me up and saying, “Well, you’ve got this all wrong.” That would be a nightmare, so I did put a lot of time into the research.

Valerie:
And out of those three books, do you have a favorite?

Ber:
Oh, that’s really hard. I’ve been re-editing Executive Affair and Just Business for the release in this market and I have to say with Executive Affair, reading back over it, the affair is very, very strong in there and quite compelling. And with Just Business, I like the way the strands of the story come together and in High Potential I can see I’m coming of age a bit. High Potential was the first one I wrote with a very firm eye on my market and what they want and what they need. And I feel quite a lot of satisfaction reading back over that, so I have to say, I like them all for different reasons and some of those reasons are because of the journey that I’ve gone through.

Valerie:
And what’s it like re-editing and revisiting it after so long?

Ber:
Oh, really hard, Valerie. Some of the parts of Executive Affair, I wrote 9 years ago, 10 years ago, and I had to be quite practical about what I could do and what I couldn’t do. And obviously, I couldn’t completely scrap it and start from scratch, which part of me wanted to do.

Valerie:
Really?

Ber:
Yeah, yeah. Although having said that, because there was a certain naiveté and a lack of self-consciousness there, you know, the relationship in there worked really well.

Valerie:
Right, right.

Ber:
And because it came truly from instincts and not from the dos and don’ts of writing relationships and writing romance. I think my instincts with it were quite good. So, look, I found that process very, very hard and I’m only finishing it now. I’ve got Just Business in front of me that I’m proofreading for the November release and I’m still changing it. You know, I’m not meant to at this stage.

Valerie:
All your books seem to be work-related. Why is this such a strong theme and is that going to carry through – is that theme going to carry through in your next book?

Ber:
Yes they are all work-related and I suppose it comes back to writing what you know. People who don’t work in business often don’t realise that it’s a very exciting and dynamic place to work. And the women who I used to work with in business were strong, contemporary women, you know, who were juggling a lot of things and who’d worked really hard to get where they were and were a story in themselves. And often it’s the people outside of business who are fascinated with the details of people who work in there. I love to read about nurses and I like to read about doctors and I like to read about things that I don’t do with my career. People who work outside business find it very interesting, the dynamics and the realities of when you bring a group of people together in close proximity, what kinds of things happen.

Valerie:
How far down the track are you in your next book?

Ber:
Well, I’m a few books ahead. I have one that’s going through the editing stage shortly, The Better Woman, which is due to be released next year and after that, there’s a book called The Callgirl’s Sister, which was in my bottom drawer for a while and that’s going to be released as the next major release after The Better Woman, and it’s the book after that that I’m working on. But I’m finding that this year has been a difficult year because I’ve had five books to work on so it’s hard to find time to write something new. I have all the ideas but actually sitting down and actually getting a clear run is proving hard.

Valerie:
Apart from finding the time, how do you compartmentalise and, you know, think, “Oh, I’m working on this book now. I’m editing this and now I’m writing this and now I’m, you know, polishing this one off.” How do you juggle that?

Ber:
Look, I can’t say that it’s that easy and particularly when you’re juggling a household and children. Things get very muddled up.

Valerie:
Yes.

Ber:
And this year in particular has been a hard year. But being an accountant, and now this is where I draw on the other side of my personality, I’m a hard worker and if something needs to be done, I’ll do it… I’ll knuckle down and do it. And I can, you know, be very efficient so those kinds of personality traits help sometimes in the writing world.

Valerie:
So then can you describe to us your typical working day or your typical day–

Ber:
Oh.

Valerie:
–including all you’re running in the household?

Ber:
I write three days a week when my youngest is at preschool. Usually I come home from school and the first thing I realise is, “Oh, I’ve got to do some washing because otherwise, they won’t have a uniform tomorrow.” So I do the washing, hang out the washing and then I sit down and invariably somebody rings me for a chat and I say, “Well, I’m working here.” And they don’t believe I’m working. They think I’m just, you know, lolling around.

Valerie:
Yes.

Ber:
Generally, despite all the interruptions and school drop-offs and pick-ups, on those three days I really do put my head down and try to ignore all the other things that are pulling me in different directions. And then, outside of that time, I do a lot of writing at night when the kids are in bed and sometimes, when it can’t be helped, I write when they’re actually here and then they’re on the back of my chair and playing with the keyboard. So, at this particular stage it is hard, but I have got through a year where I’ve successfully edited four books and I think, considering what I’ve done it around, it’s been a good year. I’m looking forward to next year when I’ll have much longer stretches of time to work on things

Valerie:
And what has been the response to your three books so far? Have you had much feedback from readers?

Ber:
I have because I’ve been published in Ireland for a number of years. I’ve had quite a lot of feedback and I’ve had my finger on the pulse of that feedback. I’ve changed my style a little bit to give my readers more of what they want and I think now I have a very good idea of how far I can push them …

Valerie:
What do your readers want?

Ber:
They want, fundamentally, the warmth and the fulfillment that they’re seeking out of this genre. They want that to be delivered, and I can test them a little bit along the way and I can throw up some difficult issues and go to some dark places, but the bottom line is that they want that warmth and fulfillment and the relationships.

Valerie:
And how does this career, as a writer, compare to your career in finance? Which is more fulfilling? Which is more you?

Ber:
There’s a little bit of me in both. I liked working in that environment and I didn’t move on because I didn’t. I resigned because of the novels and the children, not because I disliked working there. Even as recently as last year I was doing a short-term contract and I really liked going back into the environment again for a few months and experiencing it. I do, fundamentally, like numbers and working with numbers. I think I’m complicated and I’m not saying that again, in a few years time, I won’t feel the need to go back into finance. I might. So whilst I would say I’m maybe 70% a writer and there’s still a little part of me over on the other side of the fence and I think that in terms of my personal satisfaction and achievements, am I always to be dabbling a little bit in both?

Valerie:
Is there, perhaps, a third career in you yet? Like if you cast your self 10 years from now, might you, you know, even be doing something else?

Ber:
I can’t envision that right now. Well, I see being a mother as my third career so–

Valerie:
Yes.

Ber:
–at the moment, anyway, and probably my biggest job. But I’m not afraid to try new things so, who knows? The longer that I’m around and the more experience that I have, I realise life doesn’t stay still at all. And that’s a good thing to know, because you can change things.

Valerie:
When you first started writing, was it a difficult process in that – when did you start believing, you know, “I’m really going to write a novel here?”

Ber:
Always, I didn’t doubt my ability to write a novel. I started that creative writing class and I remember the teacher saying everybody should write a short story or start with short stories. And I thought, “How come? I don’t want to write a short story. I want to write a novel,” and was quite clear about what I wanted to write. Actually a lot of the work that I brought into that class were extracts from Executive Affair as I began to write it. So I was quite focused on what I wanted to write, but I guess learning the craft has taken time.

Valerie:
What did you do after that course finished to keep the momentum going?

Ber:
I kept writing. I remember finishing an early draft and sending it to a manuscript assessment agency. I rang a publisher and was told that they didn’t take unsolicited manuscripts and that I needed to get it assessed and they gave me the name of the assessment agency to which I then sent the manuscript. And they responded with 10 pages of criticisms and, you know, that was just like a light went on in my head. It was absolutely brilliant feedback.

Valerie:
Right.

Ber:
It was a roadmap on what to do and I took that criticism on the chin and I really, really sat down . . . because, you know, when you get feedback from family and friends, that doesn’t count really.

Valerie:
Of course.

Ber:
It was professional editorial feedback and quite brutal, you know, and exactly what I needed and I found it very motivating to sit down with the report and to address all the issues in that report. I sent the manuscript back to the agency, looking for an updated report to see, “Well, have I pulled it off?” And that agency was a literary agent as well, though I didn’t know that, and that’s how I actually got my agent. So that’s how Executive Affair was born, but that was over a number of years; it was over three years.

Valerie:
Sure. Yes, it’s not a quick process, writing a book, is it?

Ber:
Well, not when you’re working full-time. And, I was thinking of it as a hobby; I wasn’t doing it with a burning ambition, and I didn’t know – I didn’t believe – I was going to get published. I wanted to write a novel and, being an accountant, I was going to say, well I’m going to write it and this is what I’m going to do. And the publishing part was a different process.

Valerie:
So what advice, finally, would you give to other people who want to change their careers and become a writer, just like you?

Ber:
Well, the first piece of advice relates to that feedback and the importance of feedback. And feedback doesn’t count if it’s coming from a non-professional. It needs to come from a professional source so if you’re serious about writing, you need to get your manuscript assessed and pay a few hundred dollars to do that because you’ll become a better writer from hearing independent, professional feedback and it’s worth every penny. And still today, when I write a manuscript, I would say 50% of that manuscript is based on feedback and 50% is based on me and the direction things take. Unless you’re an extremely talented writer, you’re not going to get it all right, and if you’re starting out then your access to a professional opinion is probably quite limited. So that’s the first thing I would say. And it’s not to be afraid of it, not to take it negatively because everything can be rewritten at the end of the day.

The second thing I would say was to have realistic expectations. For most people, it’s a long and it’s a tough road and instant success is quite rare. And you need to be resilient and that’s, you know, a very important thing as well.

Valerie:
Wonderful. And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Ber.

Ber:
Thank you, Valerie. It’s been a pleasure.


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