Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Friends

Our Friday Friend today is Michelle Daly from Liverpool in the North West of England, author of Marie’s Voice and I Love Charlotte Bronte.

HWH: Hi, Michelle and thanks for being with us. First of all, tell us something about yourself.
MICHELLE: I was born in Liverpool, the third eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys. My father went to sea and was away for months at a time so our upbringing was left to my mother.
I grew up in a house of women and we’re all very strong and independent.
I didn’t have much of an education and was kicked out of school at the age of fifteen with a reference stating “Michelle thinks life is one big joke”!
At school I was always drawn to the problem children. I sat next to a girl who lived in an abusive foster home. Every evening after school we’d get the bus to the Social Services to complain but they were not very sympathetic and just told her to go back and try again. That was my first introduction into the often sad and lonely life of children ‘in care’

HWH: Marie’s Voice is based on your experiences. Can you tell us how you met Marie?
MICHELLE: When I was almost seventeen I went to work in a convent looking after toddlers. It was there that I met Marie, a little five-year old girl who had severe learning difficulties and cerebral palsy. I think there’s a fine line between abuse and neglect and because the nuns had no special training in child care they would lock Marie up all day in a room on her own. Needless to say I was appalled and two years later I became Marie’s legal guardian and brought her home to live with me.
I later wrote about our life together in Marie’s Voice.
Below is the link to a review by Maeve Binchy.

HWH: Please tell us some of the background for your novel I Love Charlotte Bronte.
MICHELLE: I moved to Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, Ireland in 1990 where I home-schooled my other two children, Patrick and Anna.
I returned to England in 2001 and did agency work at nights in nursing homes whilst my kids went to university. This kind of work can be very sad and yet most of the people I worked with just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. I felt proud to work alongside most of them and decided to write a book about an underpaid undervalued dedicated care worker. Whenever I had a break during the night I would sit at the window with my pencil and notebook and scribble away.
My grandparents came from Ireland and I wanted to pay tribute to them and celebrate the Liverpool/Irish connection, and to incorporate some of my own experiences of living in Ireland.
I am a great admirer of Charlotte Bronte and indeed all the Brontes but everything I read was written by academics. I decided to write about Charlotte Bronte through the eyes of a working class woman. Also Charlotte is half Irish so everything just fell into place.

HWH: What especially do you personally love about Charlotte Bronte?
MICHELLE: Charlotte is almost as famous for her short tragic life as she is for her career. She was also way ahead of her time.
In Jane Eyre she criticises the lack of opportunities for poor but educated women and the idea that women ought to confine themselves to household duties and looking pretty. Jane’s desire for a better life, her need to be loved, her rebellious questioning of convention, are all a reflection of the author.
If we look to the beginning of her publishing venture, Charlotte and her two sisters, Emily and Anne, published a book of poetry under the pseudonyms of Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell, expecting their work to be taken more seriously if submitted as men. The book, which cost £37 to publish was almost a year’s wages in those days but sold only two copies.
Did she/they give up?
Fortunately for millions of readers she went on to her next project with unblinkered determination. It’s difficult not to admire someone who overcame so many difficulties and achieved so much, someone who gave us one of the greatest novels ever written and above all someone who never ever gave up despite feeling a society outcast for most of her life.

HWH: How do you divide your time between looking after Marie and writing?
MICHELLE: I’m actually Marie’s full time carer so in all honesty my days are pretty taken up with those practicalities. Being a carer can be very isolating but I’m quite a strong person and a dangerous optimist so I just roll up my sleeves and get on with it.
When I was writing I Love Charlotte Bronte, Marie and I would usually go up to the attic (office) after breakfast and I would work for most of the day. Her limited understanding together with her autistic spectrums can often present very challenging behaviour but it was as if she sensed how important the project was to me. She would sit beside my desk scribbling away in her exercise book or playing with her blocks. I’d glance at her occasionally and feel so humbled it would make me all the more determined to stick with it. In my mind we wrote the book together because if she hadn’t been so compliant I couldn’t have written it.

HWH: How easy/difficult was it to find a publisher for your books?
MICHELLE: I have been both mainstream published and self published.
My first book, Marie's Voice, began as a rant on my Brother typewriter in 1983. I had just won yet another of many battles with the Social Services and after years of relentless unnecessary obstacles, usually concerning my mentally handicapped daughter and my refusal to be dictated to, I'd had enough! I was burnt out and knew I had to do something.With two children under three and a teenage daughter with learning difficulties and cerebral palsy, my days were already full, but I think it's true, that if we want to do something badly enough we will find a way. I did.I finished the book almost a year later. I then decided to find an agent but gave up after a while and sent it directly to publishers. When Virago sent me a rejection letter, they apologised for keeping my manuscript for so long, saying that all of their staff had wanted to read it. They also said their publishing house was too small for my book and it would simply 'get lost' with them. I decided to put my book away in the drawer. There was no rush to have it published. I was just so happy that I'd written it.It wasn't until I moved to Ireland in 1990 that I dusted my ms down, bought myself a word processor and more or less re-wrote my book. So much had happened since the first draught and on reflection I understood our story hadn't finished and now was the time to bring it up to date and bring some closure to it.It was Christmas Eve that same year when I sent it off to the publishers in Dublin and it took ten long months before they accepted and published it six months later.

I remember that Spring day so clearly. There was a postal strike in Ireland and I was sitting on a bench in the railway station in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, with my children, smiling when I heard the train in the distance knowing it had my freshly printed book on board. I opened the box of books on the platform to see my daughter's beautiful face smiling back at me from the cover. All that hard work had finally been rewarded.

I was far more confident and familiar with the publishing world when I wrote, I Love Charlotte Bronte. I knew exactly what I wanted even down to the cover. But it was also a different publishing world. The market was saturated with too many writers and not enough publishers. Nowadays so many people work from home and there are more opportunities to work on that novel. Publishers no longer had in-house readers and were far more unreachable.
I remember listening to an author being interviewed on the radio. She was saying how thrilled she was with her agent, how he guided her with the storyline and book development. She said her name began with V or something but they’d suggested she change it to something beginning with C so she’d be next to Jackie Collins on the bookshelves.
I knew I would never have agreed to any of those demands. It seemed like the integrity had dropped out of the publishing world and I realised the only way I’d have full control over my work would be to publish it myself. I had to work twice as hard because I was a team of one and had to do everything.
There used to be a lot of snobbery towards self publishing but it’s becoming more acceptable as people prefer to take control over their own work.

HWH: What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard/read for aspiring writers?
MICHELLE: Have faith in yourself and your work. If you don’t, it will show and how can you expect others to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself?
Don’t seek too much approval from friends and family. It’s your work and an indifferent remark from someone can be the end of what might have been a brilliant book.
Competition is fierce. No matter who publishes your work you must be prepared to take an active role in promoting and selling your book.

HWH: Do you get writer’s block and if so, how do you get over it?
MICHELLE: When I decided on the title and wrote it down I couldn’t wait to get started; the story was just waiting to be told.
My office is in the attic so it’s a very peaceful place to write.
I don’t answer the door or phone and I don’t do much reading because when I’m not writing on my computer I’m often writing in my head. Although I have to admit there were days when I dragged myself (and poor Marie) up to the attic whilst thinking of a million excuses not to write that day but sometimes writing is a labour of love and you just have to get on and do it. Besides, the characters are so alive they’re like friends. Some days I tell them what to do and other days I’m astounded at their unpredictability and the fun I have with them. I also have to think about securing Marie’s future and that’s a great motivator. So my reasons for writing are what drive me when times get tough.

HWH: Here in England it doesn’t seem to be as easy to promote our published books. What methods have you used?
MICHELLE: Nowadays press releases don’t seem to carry any weight so you have to keep your eye on the ball and put yourself out there.
I’ve had several radio interviews which led to local book sales. I also do book talks in libraries and to carers groups.
The Central Library was very enthusiastic and purchased almost a dozen books to distribute in libraries across Liverpool.
It’s a very slow process and you have to be prepared to work hard and grab whatever opportunities come along. Just keep reminding yourself of the long hours, the social suicide and emotional battering it took to create that fabulous novel.
I set myself a challenge to achieve at least one promotional opportunity a week.
But for me the icing on the cake was when I saw it for sale in The Bronte Parsonage Museum. I felt so proud. That’s what it’s all about, I thought on the drive home, and one day I hope to see it on the big screen. (Laughs) Well, why reach for the stars when you can have the moon?

HWH: Finally, if you could visit just one place in the world (so that you could use it as a setting for a novel) which place would you choose and why?
MICHELLE: I think I’d choose New Zealand. Some years ago a fortune teller predicted I would immigrate to that beautiful country. Of course it will never happen but I could see a novel in the making and a nice long holiday whilst I researched it.

I LOVE CHARLOTTE BRONTEColette Murphy is a twenty-eight year old care worker who lives at home with her father and brothers. The family are of Irish-Catholic descent and live in a close neighbourhood in the heart of Liverpool.
Colette has a special bond with Maisie, one of the residents in the home where she works and is stunned when the old lady dies and leaves her a cottage in Ireland.
With Maisie’s legacy and the inspiration of a Victorian novelist, Colette decides to up sticks and set up home with her best friend, Marion.
On their first morning in rural Ireland they waken to a herd of cattle congregating at the back fence. Marion is convinced she will be eaten by them and Colette feeds them soda bread because she thinks they look hungry.
The story celebrates the Liverpool/Irish connection and also reminds us about the importance of friendship. The excerpt below starts when Colette and Marion have just boarded the night ferry to Ireland and sneaked their cat on board.

Excerpt:“When the receptionist offered me the keys I quickly took them and followed the arrows up the steps along the carpeted hallway. It was a relief when I flung open the door of cabin 42 and stepped inside. I threw my jacket on the chair, checked there were no dead bodies behind the shower curtain and began to root through my holdall for the chicken butties. I was starving.
Marion sat down on the bunk and peeped into her bag. “He’s still fast asleep, Col!” she proudly announced. “You see, I told you he’d be no trouble.” She took a sandwich from my outstretched hand, looked inside, and then took a bite.
“Mmm, I bet your Tony made these.
“Who else?”
“I wish I had a brother.”
“You can have one of mine!” I offered, clicking open a can of lager. “In fact, you can have them both if you like.”
Marion was thoughtful for a moment. “I wonder what my mam thinks of us going to live in the back of beyond? I mean, she’s only been dead six months, hasn’t she?”
“Oh, God! She’ll be thrilled to bits. Do you think she wanted to see you stuck in the flat with all your sad memories for the rest of your life?” Marion shook her head.
“No way” I continued. “Put that thought right out of your head.”
She looked so sad. Then she began to cry.
“You’re not sorry are you?” I asked, sitting down beside her and putting my arm around her shoulders.
“Course I’m not,” she replied, reaching into her bag for a tissue and wiping her nose. “I can’t wait to get there. I know we’re going to have such a great time. Take no notice of me. I’m like a big kid. I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.”
“That’s OK! It might be my turn to cry tomorrow when we get there. Who knows?” I asked.
“I doubt it.” she smiled.
After we finished eating, Marion lay down and fell asleep.
When the Irish voice came over the loudspeaker announcing the ship’s departure, I sprang to my feet and pulled back the curtain to look at the landing stage. I knew all three of them would be standing out there on the dockside in the bitter cold waiting for the ship to sail.
I put on my woolly hat and gloves and left Marion in the cabin with the cat. She must have been so worried these last few days. No wonder she was sleeping like a baby.
The sea air washed over me when I climbed the iron steps. I could barely contain my excitement when I reached the top and went out onto the open deck, clinging tightly to the rail and peering over the side. My dad and brothers were hidden behind the office buildings but I gave a tearful waive just in case they could see me.
I tried to imagine poor Maisie when she sailed from Ireland all those years ago. Then I had a flashing image of Charlotte Brontë and thought once again how daring and gutsy she had been when at the age of twenty six she had arrived in London, close to midnight, on that cold January evening in 1843. Soon she would be teaching and perfecting her foreign languages in Belgium in preparation for the school she planned to open in Hawarth with her sisters. Her temporary home had been a ferry ride and train journey away, but it must have seemed like a million miles.
So many strangers.
So many uncertainties.
I empathised with her as I thought how frightened she must have felt, alone on a cold night like tonight and took comfort in the fact that my friend was tucked up fast asleep in our cabin with her cat.
A loud shout from across the deck jolted me out of my daydreams.
I watched the dockers loosen the thick ropes that secured the vessel to the bay. Within minutes the ship began to inch away from the dockside and cruise into the loch.
I looked out across the river. I felt proud to come from such a great city.
In my Liverpool home, I hummed as the waves lapped around the ship.
I looked around nostalgically. Nobody could deny its beauty.
The lights shimmered on the Mersey and the ship rose as the dam slowly began to fill. The Liver Buildings looked enchanting: tall and noble, they lit up the Pier Head, giving it an almost fairy-tale atmosphere.
Across the river to Birkenhead, the cranes at Camel Laird’s pointed to the sky like machine guns, and the ferry cruised across the river towards Liverpool.
I can’t believe it, I whispered into the darkness, I’m finally going to Ireland.
The cold had driven the other passengers back downstairs but this was an experience for which I would brave any weather, maybe tell my grandchildren about in years to come. Standing quietly, almost respectfully, I waited for the loch to fill and watched in awe as the gates opened and the ship began to cruise into the Mersey. The vessel swayed as it inched its nose with expertise, sailing through the freezing moonlit water, on and on, passing the New Brighton Lighthouse as it gathered speed and sailed into the night.
When I returned to the cabin, Marion was still fast asleep.
It wasn’t long before I climbed into bed between my crisp white sheets.
With the hum of the engine and the swaying of the ship as it sailed across the Irish Sea, I soon joined Marion and Tiddles and slipped into the land of the unconscious.

HWH: Having recently crossed the Mersey by ferry, I can imagine it all, Michelle! I love Ireland too, so am really looking forward to reading about Colette and Marion’s adventures there!
Please give us details of where your books can be bought/ordered?

MICHELLE: My book can be bought from and and also ordered in any bookshop.
It can be purchased direct from or,
The Bronte Parsonage Museum and on their website.
There’s also a click to buy on

HWH: Thanks for being with us today, Michelle. You truly are an inspiration to us all, first for the wonderful care you have given to Marie, and secondly for all your hard work and sheer determination!
MICHELLE: Thank you so much, Paula. It’s been most enjoyable being interviewed.


  1. What an interesting life, Michelle, and you are such a caring person, which shines thorugh your prose. Best of luck with all your ventures.

  2. Hi Michelle,

    What a wonderful and inspiring story. The world needs more people like you.

    Thanks for visiting with us today!

  3. Thank you for being here today, Michelle, and for sharing your story. Everyone intends to do good in their life, but not everyone accomplishes like you.
    As an American, I always wondered what the old Herman's Hermits' song "Ferry Cross the Mersey" was about. Now I know. Vividly. You are a talented writer.

  4. Thank you, Margaret! Being one of seven children and always having to look out for each other, it was instinctive to take Marie under my wing. She really is a blessing.
    I'm glad you enjoyed my excerpt. People often say my book has a feel good factor and it's a great feeling to think I'm lifting people's spirits...

  5. Hi Debra! Thank you for making me so welcome. Being interviewed by Paula was such a pleasure. Heroines With Hearts is a wonderful opportunity not only to promote our books but also to share ideas and give each other support in this sometimes lonely but very creative journey.

  6. Ana, thank you for having me!
    I think most Liverpudlians have some kind of emotional connection with the docks and the River Mersey. When I was little and my father came home from sea all of my brothers and sister would be invited on board the ship for a meal. A week later my father would be on his way to Egypt or New York and we wouldn't see him for another six months.
    In I Love Charlotte Bronte, the leaving of Liverpool is one of my favourite chapters because I wrote it from the bottom of my heart..

  7. Just as a factual comment, it was Gerry and the Pacemakers who sang 'Ferry cross the Mersey' not Herman's Hermits! Gerry also sang the wonderful 'You'll Never Walk Alone' which of course is now the anthem of the Liverpool Football Club.
    On the actual ferry across the Mersey, the song is played in between the narrator's information about the different sights seen on the crossing.
    And 'Leaving of Liverpool' is a beautiful song which has been recorded by many Irish bands.

  8. A truly wonderful interview of a woman of such compassion and courage! Truly enjoyed it!