Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. 1st November 2008.
I’m interviewing Juliet Bressan in the garden at The Merrion Hotel. But as we start talking about her debut novel, she keeps glancing over my left shoulder. After a while she whispers that the playwright, Harold Pinter is sitting sipping wine two tables away.
That is extraordinary. Because Harold Pinter features in Snow White Turtle Doves; Bressan’s romance set in the world of peace campaigners. Pinter’s presence in Dublin is key to the plot.
We feel compelled to share this with him. Excited, Juliet gives him a signed copy of the book. She invites him to her launch, and though he declines, he does so kindly, and is gracious.
It took Juliet two years to complete Snow White Turtle Doves. She has since completed a second novel, and is ready to start her third. It’s surprising it didn’t take longer, as Juliet is a doctor; a mother of two teenagers, a health columnist and a script advisor for RTE’s The Clinic. Just how did she find the time?
“I’m just knackered,” she says with a laugh. “I write every night until three or four in the morning; or I get up at 5.00 am. I seek time when there are no distractions.”
It is surprising that Juliet didn’t pursue a writing career, since she’s always been better at English than science. Her brother lectures in English at Oxford, but Juliet doesn’t regret her choice.
“It was the 1980’s,” she says. “Back then women were encouraged to do something practical. My parents wanted me to be independent and strong, and to be able, always to support myself. In those days if you were good at school you did medicine.
“And I’m very happy that I did. I like my job. I’m good at it. The patients like me and I have a fun time. Medicine was right for me. It’s well paid, so has given me the freedom to pursue writing.
“If I’d gone into journalism, which is not well paid, I might never have been able to try my hand at fiction. If my writing career takes off I will have to pare down my medical career; but I will not give it up.”
Born in Salford, Greater Manchester to an Italian Father and English mother, Juliet moved to Galway when she was five. She attended NUI Galway, and then she began to train in paediatrics in Dublin. Meanwhile, though, she married her first husband, and had two daughters; Molly and Jessica, now 19 and 16.
“It was a conscious decision,” she says. “Having children early is the best thing to do scientifically. It is the optimum time. You have a better obstetric outcome.”
It didn’t occur to Juliet that going against the grain would be such a bad idea socially.
“All my friends were concentrating on their careers and I was breastfeeding a baby. Bringing the children up was really hard and it did affect my career. I was on call at night, and was often up all night. I ended up crying in the loo when I was meant to be in outpatients.”
Juliet changed tack; did a Masters in Public Health, and fronted the then new drugs services.
“I loved the drama of it, and enjoyed working with the very deprived people nobody else wants to work with. I then trained as a GP in order to further my work with addiction.”
These days Juliet works in the Drugs Aid Services for the HSE for three days a week.
“I took a conscious decision that I wanted to be a writer, so I pared back my medical career. I’m not a shining light in the field of science,” she says. “But I have a small private practise too, in Performance Arts Medicine. That’s really cool.”
Why, though, write at all, when the returns, for most people are pretty poor?
“I can’t not do it,” she says. “Around my 40th birthday I realised that I would never be happy unless I was writing a book.”
Snow White Turtle Doves is set before, and during the Iraq war. It captures that uncertain time remarkably well; a time when the peace movement came to the fore, and captured the imaginations of many.
The story centres on the penniless activist Harry, and the two women who love him. There’s Isabella, his love from school and college days, who is fed up that he puts his cause ahead of their relationship. So she swaps Dublin for Manhattan, and stars in The Playboy of the Western World.
That leaves the door open for Sinead; a doctor who once worked in Iraq, and so joins the cause. Will Harry have the gumption to leave Isabella and create a life with her? Apathy, misunderstanding, and tragedy hit the hapless trio, before finally, a happy resolution is found.
How did Juliet get the idea?
“I went on a lot of peace marches at the time,” she says. “I went to London, and to America, and I talked to people in the anti war movement. It was a very passionate time.
“A lot of my friends who are now professors in Dublin had trained in Iraq. It was a good place to work in the 1980’s and they were all devastated when Bush declared war. A lot of them were active in the anti war movement because they had friends and colleagues out there.
“One night, when the war was about to start I was driving into town from my home off the South Circular Road. The news said that America was going to bomb Iraq tomorrow; then John Kelly played Bob Dylan’s Master’s of War. I burst into tears.”
The writing seems to have come easily. But then, Juliet had always dabbled; she has always written poetry, and her health columns, and stint as Health Writer for the now defunct IQ have all helped.
“I have learned loads from working on The Clinic too,” she says. “Working with real writers; writing drama, I have learned so much. I’ve learned how to create a scene of drama, how to arouse emotion, and how you can waste a lot of time writing, ‘pools of shimmering light.’
Hating literary pretentiousness, Juliet loves reading about romance in war.
“I love Casablanca; I love Mary Wesley, and I simply adore Sebastian Faulkes. He is the most brilliant amazing writer. Take Green Dolphin Street. I just love, love, love it!
“I wanted to tell the story of two women who loved the same man. What would happen if he cheats on her, there’s a baby, and the original partner becomes the devoted godmother to the child? I’ve heard of this happening, and I think it is fascinating; this ability to forgive and to overcome.”
Just then Harold Pinter, leaving the garden, pauses to thank Juliet for the book. When he’s gone, I ask her just why she decided to make the playwright part of her plot.
“He was in the Dublin at that time, but it was that fantastic Nobel lecture that really turned me on to him,” she says. “He spoke of the sudden death of democracy. The way he analysed it was perfect.”
Snow White Turtle Doves by Juliet Bressan in published by Poolbeg at 10.99 euro
© Sue leonard. 2008.