Author Justine Delaney Wilson’s desk overlooks the ocean, but when she’s working, she doesn’t draw inspiration from the expanse. In fact, she turns her back to the water; the view is a distraction.
Her writing deals with the gritty subject of human struggle, particularly the turbulence of family life and the challenging business of living. It’s not a theme that takes its inspiration from rainbow skies and blue vistas. Her material comes from observations of people, conversations and conflict. Expressions of human nature would catch her eye sooner than an ocean view. When she’s at work and writing, she becomes fully absorbed in the world her characters inhabit, what supports them and what holds them back.
Born in Dublin, Justine lived in Ireland with her Kiwi husband and children until last year when they made the move to Mt Maunganui. She loves living by the sea and everything the beach lifestyle has to offer.
Her first novel, The Difference, was published last year. It follows the story of Beth, a stay-at-home mum, who lives in a middle-class housing development. She feels she doesn’t fit in. Her marriage is also showing signs of strain, and she is battling to find her own identity. When Beth gives birth to daughter Ismae, who has Down’s Syndrome, her circumstances change. They force her to look at what’s real in her life and what it is that she really values.
“The child becomes a catalyst for living a more honest life,” says Justine. “Beth may have got there in the end anyway. But I think Mae’s birth caused a bomb to go off in her life and brought out the weaknesses in herself and her husband, and also the people around them. Beth was forced to make some decisions and have some tough conversations. Essentially, I think the book is about love, which is actually what I think everything is about really. The ‘difference’ is human struggle, of being outside of things, the sense of feeling at odds with what’s going on around you, your place in the world and in your family.”
The Difference is not a memoir and the events and characters are fictional. However Justine says that many of Beth’s feelings and frustrations are real to her. She believes they are relatable for most people – the kind of feelings you have when you’re forced to act, to deal with whatever unseen things life throws at you.
Beth struggles with her life and her disintegrating marriage. She is confronted by the thoughtlessness of ‘friends’ and family, who, more from ignorance than malice, believe that having a child with a disability is just a terrible thing to have befallen the family.
The doctor who confirms the Down syndrome result tells Beth and Steve that “She’s alert and she’s healthy. Who knows? She might even end up getting a job in a nice café.” An acquaintance who visits after Mae’s birth says “When something like this happens, it really makes you appreciate your normal children.”
“So often people don’t consider that the child with a disability has a valid opinion, a personality, and a will of their own” says Justine. “The child has, of course, its own identity; good and bad, just like the rest of us.”
Mae helps Beth to not only fall in love with her, but to pick up the shattered fragments of her life and reconnect them in a way that works. Beth learns to take control of what she wants. And in doing so, frees herself from the mean whispers, the questioning and the expectations of others.
The Difference began as a short story, which was shortlisted at Ireland’s Listowel Writers Festival in May 2014. The characters stayed with Justine, and developed personalities and motivations of their own, becoming the bones of the now-published novel.
“When I write, I’m feeling what the characters are going through, rather than thinking about it. If I don’t feel involved with them, I’m not going to get it right, because then I’m just making it up. It won’t feel real to me, and it will be flat for the reader. I prefer to think that I know the characters well enough that what I’m doing is accommodating them and their story, rather than trying to invent words for them and imagining what might be a prudent thing to happen next.”
Writing and mothering
Living in New Zealand in a smaller community, with her children at the same school and with less time swallowed up in city driving, Justine finds she has fewer excuses not to write. But, nonetheless is just as caught up with children, after-school activities and life’s busyness as any other mum. She carves space for herself and is disciplined about getting to her desk. Although such structure can sometimes put a damper on creativity.
“I’m quite orderly and organised by nature. But that’s not great when you’re trying to be creative. My mind is in the habit of being regimented. I need time to decompress a little to be more free. It’s good for me to have to shift gears and get into the right frame of mind. I think mothers are generally quite good at juggling the various hats we have to wear though and at just getting on with things.”
Justine wrote two works of non-fiction prior to her novel. High Society is about white collar drug use in Dublin’s middle class. It was made into two television documentaries. And When Spirits Hold my Hand, which recounts the life story of a medium. She has worked in television and freelanced as a journalist and a writer.
Her second book about Beth and her family opens two years after the first book ended. “It still focuses on family, struggle and reality. With age, marriage and older children comes other things and there’s new things to explore in their lives. There really is no shortage of material in the grind of daily life”. The book will be published at the end of 2017.