Lissa Oliver is an award-winning journalist specializing in the field of welfare for the horseracing industry, for both equine and participant health and well-being, her works published by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association and Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, among others. She is also a novelist, her first published novel, Nero – The Last Caesar, based on first century factual biographies of the Roman emperor Nero. She has three horseracing-themed thrillers published by Maverick House, Chantilly Dawns, a No.1 Bestseller on Amazon in March 2019, Sainte Bastien and the Silver Dagger nominee Gala Day. As well as being current Chair of the Irish Writers Union, she is on the Board of Directors of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and on the Board of Directors of the Irish Writers Centre. Lissa is also a tutor in creative writing and transformative community education.
- When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
LO: I was always a writer, but realizing it could be a career came fairly late and fairly slowly. I wrote stories from beyond earliest memories, pre-school, so the need to create characters and worlds and to set them down was always a part of me. When I’d completed my first novel, Chantilly Dawns, in my late teens, I suddenly had the aspiration to get it published. That was a lengthy path of rejection, but I persevered and it was finally published 30 years later in 2012, becoming a No.1 bestseller on Amazon in March 2019! Meanwhile, I continued to write more novels and even a few articles and eventually it all came together. Always a writer, overnight an unexpected professional writer!
- How long does it take to write your book(s)?
LO: I’ve written four novels to date, I’m working on my fifth, and they’ve each taken nine months, although the complexity of plot in the most recently published, Sainte Bastien, edged it to nearer 11 months. Big however, though! It takes me a year or two to live with the characters and see their story form before I actually begin writing, so it could take about three years from conception to completion. Certainly with Nero The Last Caesar the research alone took almost 10 years. I wrote it first as a straight biography, then used that as a framework for the novel.
- What is your work schedule like when writing a book?
LO: I don’t have a schedule, I just write whenever and wherever I can. I write well with distraction, which is just as well! My day job is writing specialist welfare and education articles for the horseracing industry, so that gets priority due to deadlines. The novel will get written on the bus, while cooking dinner, in a racecourse press room or in front of the TV.
- Where do you get your ideas or information for your book?
LO: From life. The character arrives first and then I build a plot around their fears and weaknesses. The three horseracing thrillers just come from 40 years of experience within the racing industry, while Nero The Last Caesar stemmed from an interest in reading first century Roman writers and realizing that Nero was nothing like the figure commonly portrayed by popular history. I wanted to correct the injustices against him.
- When did you write your first book?
LO: Chantilly Dawns started life in the early 1980s, around 1982 I think.
- What do you do when you’re not writing?
LO: I am a concierge for a variety of pets! I love punk, ska and alternative music, so go to a lot of live gigs and music festivals throughout the year.
- What does your family think of your writing?
LO: I think originally it was indulged as any hobby would be, then it probably irritated as it led to serial dinner-burning! Then success took it to a higher level of respect and pride.
- What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your books?
LO: That bestselling authors have day jobs! Authors don’t actually retire to the Bahamas on the publication of their first book!
- How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
LO: Chantilly Dawns, Sainte Bastien, Gala Day, Nero The Last Caesar and a collection of short stories Tales Of The Turf & Other Worlds. It’s the characters that really get under my skin and to choose a favourite would be like naming a favourite child! Sainte Bastien was the most challenging to write and the psychological scarring of loss, in its various guises, inflicted on the two main characters gave me a great empathy with them. I have to confess to a love affair with disgraced jockey, Marcel Dessaint, in Chantilly Dawns, and Pete Allen was terrific fun to be around during the writing of his exploits in Gala Day! Nero The Last Caesar could be the most meaningful, as it corrects so many erroneous myths surrounding the very young and idealistic Nero, hopefully opening modern eyes to the true man – a socialist and humanitarian driven to suicide at the age of 30 by the hostile Senate.
- Any tips/suggestions on getting started?
LO: I’m a professional mentor at the Irish Writers Centre and teach Creative Writing in adult education, so the first step is in forgetting everything your old English teacher taught you! There are no rules, simply write what you want to read. The important thing is to enjoy reading. A passion for good books will help you to write one. Don’t be put off, just sit down and do it. But do have a basic idea of how it will finish, or you will just fumble in the dark and get lost and, sadly, bored. Have a target to aim for when you first start. Put simply, who is the story about, what do they want and how do they achieve it?
- What do you think makes a good story?
LO: A good story comes from anything and anywhere. There has to be drama, the obstacles between what the protagonist wants and how the goal is reached, but it’s the character and how they overcome that drama that really sets a story apart. The reader must engage with the characters and really need to know what happens to them.
- As a child, What did you want to do when you grew up?
LO: Any work involving animals. First, a zoologist. Then I discovered thoroughbred horses and my path was set. I told my careers’ teacher I wanted to be a bloodstock agent (a person who deals in racehorses) and was told I’d need to go to medical school for that! I think the “blood” bit confused her! I had no idea writing was a career option, but now I’m living the dream.
I enjoyed reading this interview!
Happy New Year!