How Diane Connell became a novelist despite growing up in a house with no books

Author Diane Connell with her novel, The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird.

By Diane Connell.

If you had visited my high school and asked my English teacher to point out the student least likely to end up writing for a living, he would have pointed to me, the irritant sitting at the back of the classroom scribbling what I thought were hilarious ‘pass it on’ notes for my friends. To my teachers, I was a thorn in the side.

I had this energy, you see. I carried inside a nuclear reactor that made me too loud, too fast, too much. Much too much for a classroom. I was spring-loaded for the sports field where I excelled at running but my twitchy body and busy mind meant I found it almost impossible to concentrate on whatever a teacher was trying to teach, especially if that teacher was an English teacher. English was always a struggle.

In my first year at primary school my teacher decided to move me up a level in reading. I was put in a more advanced group and given a new book. What the teacher didn’t realise and what I was too scared to admit was that I couldn’t read. What she’d thought were reading skills was simply a good memory. I’d memorised the first book and until I was able to memorise the new book, I lived in fear of not only losing the honour of being a good reader but more crucially, I was terrified of being exposed as a fraud and a cheat.

I couldn’t read because I’d grown up in a house without books. We had no children’s books at home, indeed no works of fiction. By the time I was a teenager we’d acquired the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a large black hardback that sat untouched and in mint condition on a shelf next to a clock and family photos. No one went near it or understood it. How could we? By this stage, we also had a set of American encyclopaedias that an enterprising salesman had talked my father into buying. So we now had reference books but no story books, nothing to feed the hungry imagination of a curious child.

My parents didn’t give us books or take us to the library out of meanness. Hell no. We had television and the great outdoors. But like many people from modest backgrounds, they didn’t understand the value of reading for pleasure. They didn’t know how a good work of fiction blasts open the imagination, how the gallop of plot and emotional swirl of character and relationship will seize your attention while behind your back the story reveals something urgent about life. A compelling novel will open something up and leave something behind. What those somethings are depends on the book and how receptive you are to its message.

My career path to becoming a novelist was a bumpy one that had me wandering all over the world, looking for my place in it. It took a few years but I finally got there. Being a writer is unusual. Being a published writer is even more unusual. Unusual but not impossible.

My advice to anyone starting out as a writer is more of a warning. Don’t let anyone define who you are or what you can’t do. While I’m at it, don’t compare yourself to others or listen to blabbermouths who tell you how good they are or how many words they crank out per day. In my experience, blabbermouths are all blabber. If you write well, you don’t need to be shrill about it. You simply get on with it.

Keep moving forward. Keep working. Keep learning. Be honest with yourself. That’s what I try to do. I push aside my doubts and the junk of the naysayers, and keep moving forward, sentence into a paragraph, paragraph into chapter, chapter into story. Then refine, refine, refine.

If you are driven to write, you should damn well write.

Artwork for The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird by Diane Connell, with colourful letters and a black cat on a red background.

The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird by Diane Connell

Here’s a synopsis of Diane Connell’s novel The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird:

If you were charmed by The Curious Incident, laughed with Eleanor Oliphant and cried over A Man Called Ove, you will love Ricky Bird.

No one loved making forts more than Ricky. A fort was a place of safety and possibility. It shut out the world and enclosed her and Ollie within any story she wanted to tell …

Ricky Bird loves making up stories for her brother Ollie almost as much as she loves him. The imaginary worlds she creates are wild and whimsical places full of unlimited possibilities.

Real life is another story. Ricky’s father has abandoned them and the family has moved to a bleak new neighbourhood. Worse still, her mother’s new boyfriend, Dan, has come with the furniture.

But Ricky Bird is a force to be reckoned with. As the mastermind of so many outlandish adventures, her imagination is her best weapon. As her father used to say, if you can spin a good yarn you can get on in life.

The trouble is that in the best stories characters sometimes take on a life of their own and no one, not even Ricky, is able to imagine the consequences.

Beautifully written, heartbreakingly funny and deeply moving, this book has already been compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Lost and Found, Shuggie Bain, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and A Monster Calls. But Ricky’s story is all her own – and it will stay with you long after the last page.

“Fierce and wonderful and utterly singular, Ricky embodies the sheer joy and transformative power of storytelling.” Kate Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault and Skylarking

“A wise, tender but unflinching portrait of an ordinary family and the unordinary girl at its heart. Ricky – fragile, tough, endearing and funny – is a fabulous creation. She'll walk around in my world all year, and more.” Kristina Olsson, award-winning author of Shell and Boy, Lost


Author bio

Diane Connell began her writing career in a newspaper office in Tokyo before becoming an advertising copywriter and writing for the international non-profit sector. For many years she lived in Paris where she began writing as a novelist. Diane’s most recent novel is The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird. She now lives in Sydney.

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