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Interview: Joanna Butler, author of Emma: Desperately Seeking Baby

There is something wonderful about the moment you finish a debut novel that you really enjoyed, knowing that you have another author to keep an eye out for on the New Releases lists. Cambridge (New Zealand) based Joanna Butler is one such author we can’t wait to see more of and we recently caught up with her about writing, reading, and her first novel, Emma: Desperately Seeking Baby.

How was the experience of writing your first novel?

There were definitely ups and downs – moments when I thought I’d never finish it and second-guessed whether it was even worth finishing, and moments when I’d written a sentence or a paragraph that made me determined to turn it into a reality. As I was juggling a full-time job and pre-schoolers when I started writing this novel, initially it was quite a long drawn out process. It wasn’t until I was halfway through and had given up my job, that I was able to set myself a weekly word-count goal. Once I had a goal, I literally flew through the second half of the book. When I finally finished the very last sentence, I’d really like to say I cried tears of joy, but I think I just sort of went ‘oh, that’s done then,’ poured myself a glass of wine and pondered, ‘what now?’

How long did you consider writing before taking the plunge?

As soon as I could write, I was making up stories and creating my own books. I wrote short stories and poetry throughout my teens (the usual teen-angst type stuff that is excruciatingly embarrassing to read now), and started a number of novels in my twenties that never made it past chapter three. I’ve always wanted to write fulltime, but life has always gotten in the way. It wasn’t until I was well into my dirty thirties that I was actually ready and able to sit down at my laptop and make it happen.

How did you manage the transition from your 9-5 job to becoming an author?

The transition happened in stages, and felt like a natural progression – I went from full-time work, to part-time work, to full-time mum and writer. I do miss working in an office at times (I previously worked in Human Resources), but that’s mostly for the people contact and the morning teas, not the actual work!

Infertility and IVF are tough topics to tackle. Loosely based on your own experience, was this topic a natural choice for your first novel?

Looking back, I can see that’s true – infertility and IVF are indeed extremely tough topics to tackle in a novel. While fertility challenges and treatments are so prevalent these days, it’s still a very emotional and entirely individual experience for the people going through it. It was such an incredibly life-changing journey for me personally that I couldn’t help but write about it. I don’t think I ever stopped to think about the toughness of the subject matter – the story was in my head, the characters were waiting to be written into life, and the timing was right.

How was it to put your own experiences on paper?

I won’t lie – there were times when I got quite emotional whilst writing this novel. I relived some of the most harrowing moments of my own journey by putting my main character, Emma, through the same experiences. I was swept along with the emotions she felt, and there were days when I literally had to chase down and grab my twin girls and just hug them so hard.

I felt a strong connection with your leading lady, Emma. How have responses been to her character and others in the book?

For the most part, I’ve found that readers have really identified with, and felt attached to, Emma. When I asked a number of friends to review my first draft, one friend told me that she didn’t really like Emma, that she found her too self-obsessed. I mulled over this for quite some time, and then I carried on regardless – Emma’s not perfect, in fact she’s probably quite flawed, and I decided in the end that she was exactly how I wanted her to be.

Can we expect a similar tone in your second novel?

I think the tone will be similar in some aspects – though the subject matter is entirely different, and not based on my own personal experience (I have to do a bit more research for novel #2 – as I have no idea how Tinder works!). In a nutshell, I would say that my plan is to write about real (and emotional) subjects in a light-hearted and humorous way. But, as we all know, best laid plans and all that…

Have you found it easier getting started on your second novel?

Absolutely! This time around I have a weekly word-count goal, a vague chapter plan and a bunch of background notes about each of the characters – so when I sit down to write, I actually write. I don’t have to read back over the last couple of chapters to remind myself what’s going on, and I don’t spend hours editing, re-editing and then editing some more (I now realise there’ll be plenty of time devoted to this at the end). Mind you, even though I’ve spent time pre-planning my second novel, I still don’t know whether Jenny, my new main character, is going to have a love interest! I keep changing my mind. Time, and a few more chapters, will tell.

How would you describe your daily writing routine and space?

I have pre-school twins, so my writing routine can be a bit haphazard at times – especially if there are winter bugs floating around. Which is why I like to have a weekly word-count goal. If I can’t write one day, I try to catch up the next. Generally, I write four mornings a week, when my girls are at kindy, plus a couple of evenings. My grandma gave me an old roll-top desk a few years ago, which sits in a corner of my bedroom – this, and the kitchen bench, are my main writing spaces.

Do you ever get struck by writers block? What are your tricks for coping with it?

This question made me laugh – I very rarely get stuck for words when I’m writing or telling a story, but a couple of your questions made me sit and ponder for quite some time! On the odd occasion when I hit a wall, I usually shut my laptop and clean something (this will not be surprising if you read my second book). Then I’m good to go again, and pick up where I left off. In all honesty, it doesn’t happen often. I’ve got so many ideas and sentences and conversations in my head that my precious and limited writing time is barely enough to get it all written down.

How do you balance work and family life?

My first reaction to this question was, ‘but I don’t work!’ as I still find it hard to think of writing as ‘work’. In fact, having the time to write, to create the stories and characters in my head, feels like an absolute privilege. In terms of finding balance between my writing and my family, I prioritise – and, more often than not, this means my family commitments take priority and I snatch moments to write when and if I can.

What are you reading at the moment?

We’re actually getting a new kitten next week (for one of my daughters, but I think I’m more excited than she is!), so at the moment I’ve got no less than 5 library books about caring for your cat! I go through phases with reading – when I’m reading, I’ll easily read a couple of novels a week. But when I’m writing, I might not read a novel for months at a time. Right now I’m in a writing phase! However, the last couple of novels I read were by Sue Townsend, Tamar Cohen, Monica McInerney and Cathy Kelly. I don’t have particularly ‘high literature’ taste in books – I love a good page turner that I simply can’t put down, with plenty of humour (definitely no vampires, zombies or gruesome murders for me), which I think is why I love so many of the female Irish writers!

Hannah Stibbe


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