Writing is a way of life for Marian Dillon, author of Looking for Alex and The Lies Between Us. After publishing several stories for children and young adults, she completed an MA in Creative Writing and joined a writer’s group. Her first adult novel Looking for Alex was published in 2013 and uses parallel storytelling as a key narrative device. This allows readers to follow the life and development of the main character through the lens of time. Dillon hones this technique in The Lies Between Us, where two narrators, a mother and daughter, feel the consequences of each other’s actions that in turn are shaped by the societal norms of the time. Talking to Edinburgh Book Review, Dillon explains why she enjoys using this format and what inspires her to write about topics such as romance, family life and loss.
With Looking for Alex you made the move to adult fiction. Could you tell us a bit about how you developed this story and why you used two different timelines?
Marian Dillon: Looking for Alex started life as one of my teenage fiction for slow readers’ titles. I always thought about developing it into an adult novel, and had the idea to use the teenage story as a springboard into the present day, with the narrator, Beth, looking back to the traumatic events of her seventeenth summer in 1977. I really enjoyed writing to this format, so naturally fell into using that structure again for The Lies Between Us. For both these novels I had great fun researching detail from the 1960s and 1970s, making sure my memories were accurate!
Your adult novels have strong female leads and include elements of romance. They also touch on serious topics such as family loss and societal issues. Could you reflect on the genre and audience you are writing for?
Marian Dillon: I work as a counsellor, so find myself naturally drawn to themes of loss, and the different ways we deal with it. I’m also fascinated by the element of chance in our lives, whether that’s the family you’re born into – as in Alex’s case, with an absent father and abusive step-father – or the cultural norms and expectations of the time, which influenced how Kathleen reacted to her early experiences, in The Lies Between Us. I really wanted to explore how the choices she made then impacted on the rest of her life, and on her family. Kathleen’s story was particularly interesting to write, as I did a lot of research on unmarried mother’s homes in the 1960s, and was lucky enough to speak to a social worker who had been involved with them at that time. By choosing to have two narrators – Kathleen and her daughter, Eva – my aim was to reach a wider audience, so that both younger and older readers (I assume the readership to be mainly women, although I do know that men have read and enjoyed my novels) will be able to connect with the characters and themes.
You are part of a writers group. How important is this to you as a writer? Do you experience writing as a solitary pursuit or a social one?
Marian Dillon: It is extremely important to me to be part of a writer’s group. I get so much from sharing my work, then listening to the constructive feedback that helps me to improve my writing skills, and to develop plot and character. I also gain a lot from reading the work of others and the occasional readings we do at festivals and workshops. That side of it is definitely a social activity, as we tend to meet in a local cafe, or our homes, and sometimes repair to the pub afterwards where we spend hours debating each other’s’ narrative dilemmas! However the writing itself is usually a solitary experience, and I love that feeling of having time to really immerse myself in the story and let the characters invade my head, which sometimes leads to surprising plot developments! It is a bit of cliche that the characters take over and start to write the story, but it is true for me that sometimes I don’t know someone is going to do or say something until it happens – it seems to come from a conversation or a thought process on the part of the character.
You completed an MA in Creative Writing, after having published several books for young adults with learning difficulties. Could you share with us your experience of doing such a course? Did it help you in your writing career?
Marian Dillon: Yes, doing the MA helped a lot. It gave me a focus – having to produce something each week, and working towards completing an entire novel. I may have given up without deadlines and the knowledge my work was actually going to be marked! Probably the best thing was meeting regularly with other writers, for reasons mentioned earlier. Also, I did the poetry module alongside the novel, and I found that writing poetry really informed my prose, making me think more about metaphor and the descriptive parts of the text.
So what can we expect next from Dillon? Will it be children or adult fiction, or maybe poetry? Could you tell us a bit about your next work?
Marian Dillon: My next novel is partly set in Sheffield, and again it covers two time frames – the 90s and the present day. In the present story the narrator finds herself back in touch with the man she fell for as a young woman, who she had tried to help through his personal troubles at that time. In the past story their relationship is fragile and intense; it also causes a rift between the narrator and her sister, which they have never confronted since. Twenty years later there is the chance of a reconciliation for all concerned, but only if the past can be put to bed.
I am very near the end of this novel and am hoping this time to publish in paperback – my previous ones have been with Harper Collins but as digital versions only. Watch this space!