Debra Daley


Debra Daley is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. Her latest novel, Turning the Stones (Heron Books, April 2014), is a gripping mystery set in Georgian England.

Debra shared with us her advice to budding writers, and explained the importance of the ‘golden hour’…


Q: What is your typical day as an author like?

A: My first thoughts before I have left my bed are usually of the book I am writing. I’ve learned that my subconscious will often do a useful amount of work for me, while I’m asleep, so often I will go straight to my desk to do some urgent rewriting while it is fresh in my mind. There is a golden hour at the beginning of the day in which my creative channels are really open, so I try to sit down and begin work as soon as possible.

If an idea is really pressing I will not stop to shower or dress or eat until I have got some words down on paper. All that dredging of the psyche is such an intense, interior, sedentary occupation that at the end of a writing session some sort of pressure has built up inside me that needs to be vented by physical exercise. I practise ashtanga yoga, and I walk and run. Most days I practise meditation, too. It calms the emotions that writing agitates.

I always end the day by reading. I became a writer because of my love of reading. The wonder of entering a world that an author has created is one of the principal pleasures of my life.


Q: How did you first get published?

A: I bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which contains an indispensable guide to literary agencies. As an unknown writer I figured I had more chance of getting an agent if I approached small, recently established agencies. I sent chapters from the novel that I was writing to about half a dozen agents, and followed up with phone calls, which, as an introverted person, I found nerve-wracking in the extreme. But if you really want to be published you will do anything this side of legal to make it happen, and that has to include overriding your fears.

From that process I was accepted by the fantastic Clare Conville at Conville & Walsh. The big contemporary novel I was working on at the time did not find a publisher, but the feedback I got gave me perspective on my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Suddenly a light bulb switched on in my head and I thought, hey, I love history and I love storytelling. I could put those two things together. I could write a historical novel. By that point I had also learned a lot more about the fiction market and the importance of projecting the personal into the past.  


Q: What is the secret to good writing?

A: The secret starts by reading other writers for inspiration. When I read something brilliant it has a galvanising effect, I find. It makes me want to up my game.

You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself if you want to write well. You have to be prepared to confront your bad writing in order to improve it. To me, good writing should seem effortless and true; it should compensate readers for their attention by delivering some kind of insight that clicks with them.

I think the key to that kind of clarity lies in editing. I’m a big fan of deletion. I write in a frenzy, not caring about the state of the prose, just trying to express the thing that wants to come out. Then I edit like the devil, trying to achieve the kind of economy of expression that I admire; the kind that gets to the essence of things. I love books that are like icebergs, with most of their substance under the surface.   


Q: What advice would you give people trying to get published?

A: You need an agent. Send the agent something short to read (30 pages or less) with an accompanying blurb that is ferociously focused on who your book is meant to appeal to. When you are starting out, people want to be able to pigeonhole you.

Try and follow up with a phone call. Don’t email; agents are deluged in emails. They won’t want to take your call, but persist. You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Know that it could take years. Ask yourself if you are in this writing game for the long haul, even in the face of multiple rejections. If the answer is yes, then you are probably going to get published somewhere down the line, because the fact is, as agents and publishers have told me, most would-be authors give up after about five years of not finding a publisher. But know that you are tougher than that.       


Q: Which writers do you most admire and why?

A: I specialised in 18th-century literature at university, so it goes without saying that Sterne, Richardson and Swift are on my default list of all-time greats. But in general I am promiscuous when it comes to reading crushes. I’m drawn to stylists as much as I am to plotters.

I admire anyone who can just straight out write the chicken off the bone like Anne Enright. I love the spare, wrenching, lyrical The Gathering as much as her lush historical novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch. I read an interview with her where she said, “When you’re telling a story, you’re telling it into someone’s ear.” That struck a chord with me, because it’s always my aim to try and achieve an intimate dimension to writing.

Gore Vidal’s Julian, which tells the story of Rome’s decline and fall, and his Narratives of Empire series about America’s slide from the ideals of the republic to the posturing of empire, made me love the form of the historical novel when I encountered them in my twenties. The past is fully inhabited in these novels, but they resonate with present-day politics.

John Banville’s roman à clef about Anthony Blunt, The Untouchable, is also a stand-out for me for its picture of wartime Britain and London in the 1950s. I am equally attracted to the quiet sturm-und-drang of the domestic setting that Alice Munro writes about. I have been influenced by her subtle manipulations of time and the way her stories are structured around epiphanies. I identify with the restrictions her characters face and how they are always searching for transcendence.

I am deeply attracted to outsiders and characters under threat. I’ve always admired Patricia Highsmith for the psychological dimension of her thrillers and her world of doubles, despair and annihilation. I greatly admire the American writer Barry Gifford for doing outsider-dom so well. He has an incredible ear for dialogue and a fantastic energy to his writing. My favourite is his juicy novella Perdita Durango, part of the Lula and Sailor saga of which Wild At Heart is probably the most well known. He is inspirational about writing. He says, “Even if there were only one reader out there, I would still be writing for him or her.”


To find out more about Debra Daley, visit


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