Interviews

Ber Carroll – The Better Woman

March 5th, 2010 by Anthony CW Morgan

Born in Blarney, Ireland and a middle child of six, Ber Carroll would lend a dozen or so books from a mobile library bus that would park outside her home as a younger person. In 1995, she moved to Sydney, Australia with her then partner and now husband. Gaining a job as a finance manager in the IT industry, Carroll began to climb the corporate ladder. Having signed a three-book contract, she opted to become a fulltime writer prior to the publication of her first book, feeling unable to juggle a finance career and parental responsibilities to two small children, not to mention writing novels to contractual deadlines.

Through Poolbeg Press Ltd., Carroll issued her inaugural book in January 2004, namely Executive Affair. In later years she has admitted the book was semi-autobiographical, but insists she didn’t have an affair with the vice-president of a company as the book’s character did. Poolbeg Press Ltd. would subsequently publish Just Business in January 2005, and High Potential in January 2007. The Better Woman was released in North America in July 2009 via Pan Macmillan, experiencing United Kingdom publication in March 2010 through the same publishing company. To discuss The Better Woman, Ber Carroll was interviewed via email.

Being your fourth novel, could you provide an outline of The Better Woman‘s plot, and what new territory you feel you personally explored on this outing as an author?

The Better Woman is about two women, one Irish and one Australian, whose lives are largely lived on opposite sides of the world but who have more in common than what they will ever realize. The book goes back in time, to the eighties, and it follows Sarah and Jodi through all the milestones of their lives: first love, first heartbreak, first day at university, at fulltime work, all of the highs and lows, the moments of heady success and complete disaster… Sarah and Jodi make their way up in the world completely unaware that their lives are running in parallel. It is only when they both want the same thing – the same job, in fact – that their paths will finally cross.

This book is a departure for me in that it isn’t a plot based book. It’s more of an epic, a story of two lives lived separately until such time as they intersect. As a writer, I found it very fulfilling to be able to write an epic-style book like this, to be able to write through all the major life events that mould a character and to chart the rise of two somewhat lost and vulnerable teenagers to the accomplished, confident women that they eventually become, egging them on every step of the way. In this respect, I was freed from the “baggage” I had with my other novels, the back-stories that needed to be explained. Both the reader and I are with the characters at every significant point of their lives…

In the end, The Better Woman is not just about two women wanting the same job, the job was mainly a mechanism I used to draw the characters to the same place at the end of the book. The book is about two quite remarkable women, survivors in their own way, who they really are behind their work façade, the friends and family close to them, the sacrifices they’ve had to make and those they’ve loved and lost on the journey of life.

The stories of the two main characters, Sarah Ryan and Jodi Tyler, are separate but connect in the sense that they aim for the same job. What challenges did sufficiently telling each of the two character’s background stories, and subsequently segueing the two stories together, present?

The main challenge I had was maintaining sufficient differentiation between the characters. Sarah and Jodi are of the same age and share the same ambitions, and as a result they have many common characteristics. I had to be very mindful that they looked and sounded different and that the reader would not become confused at any stage. The parallels in their lives presented the biggest challenge in terms of differentiation. I had to find similarities that were sufficiently different.

Sarah Ryan, one of two main characters in The Better Woman, was orphaned at a young age. However, you yourself are the middle child of six. With that being said, in what ways did you make sure that you accurately captured how being orphaned shaped Sarah Ryan in later life?

Sarah isn’t just an orphan, she’s an only child. I had to look at my own family and attempt to take away the influence of all the various members in order to imagine what it might be like for her. Parents and siblings provide a balance, a leveling influence. Siblings pull you into line, they can be maddeningly annoying and hateful as well as comforting and deeply loving. They can boost or deplete your confidence, depending on their mood. They have the unique ability to make you laugh as easily as they can make you cry. Parents scold and love, fuss and teach, pamper and mould. In addition to trying to imagine myself without my siblings and parents, I sought people who were only children or who had only one parent (orphans were hard to find). At the end of all my searching, it seemed to me that the characteristic that Sarah would lack the most from her unusual upbringing was confidence. Confidence is like a rite of passage. If you survive the daily dramas of family life, the squabbling and jostling, you should come out the other end with some degree of inner strength. Sarah lacks that basic confidence which is why she is always trying too hard to prove herself.

Contrastingly, the other main character Jodi Tyler comes from a loving family. Of the two main characters, would you say Jodi Tyler is the one you feel you share the most common ground with? Or perhaps there are certain aspects of her family life which starkly contrast with your own?

I had more common ground with Sarah. In fact, Sarah’s early life came from my own experience. I worked in a small shop in a tiny village outside Cork (Ireland). I was very young at the time but extremely competent with numbers and I loved the interaction with the customers, who were amazing characters in themselves. There was a boy across the road who played the piano, a boy from a very well-cut family. Even though I was very young, I knew that I was not in the same league as this boy…

Jodi’s character is not even slightly based on me, but some of the issues with her stepfather, particularly the letters, did happen to someone I know very well.

Jodi Tyler and Sarah Ryan’s common link is that they both set their sights on the same job. Have there been instances where you’ve set your sights on a specific goal, but at the expense of those around you? To perhaps triumph over something from your past?

When I was younger, I did go after my goals, often job promotions, with great zeal but hopefully not at the expense of anyone but my own health and wellbeing.

In fact, the idea for The Better Woman came to me when I was going through the interview process for what I thought was a dream job. After a number of grueling interviews, the recruitment consultant informed me that I was one of two candidates shortlisted. Instead of focusing on the job and what I needed to do to be the chosen one, I began to think about the other candidate. Who was she? Where had she come from and how had she got to this point? We were competing for the same job, did we have anything else in common, any other parallels in our lives?

I did get the job in the end – and I absolutely hated it. I thought about her often: the other candidate. Where was she now? Would she have liked the job more than I did? Would she have been the Better Woman for the job?

I can look back now and see that whilst I wasn’t trying to triumph over anything specific in my past, I was always trying to prove myself, jostling in the workplace in a similar manner to how I jostled for my place within my family.

The biography on your official website mentions as how a young child, you’d borrow a dozen or so books from a mobile library bus that used to pull up outside your family’s house in Blarney. Which books particularly made an impression on you during that time, and possibly influenced your writing style when you took to penning fiction?

I started reading from a young age, stealing my mother’s romance novels, and two of the first adult books I remember reading were The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough and A Woman of Substance (1979) by Barbara Taylor Bradford. I learned a lot from those books – the facts of life for one thing – I was only ten when I read The Thorn Birds and you can only imagine how shocked I was. I don’t know, maybe The Thorn Birds put the notion of migrating to Australia in my head. It certainly had a lasting impression in other ways.

I also read A Woman of Substance when I was very young and impressionable. I loved how Emma Harte rose from lowly, disadvantaged beginnings to head up her own business empire. Perhaps that book whetted my appetite for writing about ambition, which is an underlying theme in all my books.

What prompted you to move to Sydney, Australia in 1995 with your then partner (now husband), and how has life there contrasted with your time living in Ireland?

I must admit that my initial reasons for moving to Australia were very shallow. I wish I could say the move was motivated by career or something substantial like that but it was driven more by a longing for sunshine than anything else. It was with some glee that I handed over my winter woolies to my three sisters and set off Down Under with two suitcases of summer clothes (along with Rob, my partner). But pride comes before a fall and I’ll never forget my first week in Sydney, shivering in my shorts and T-shirt while it rained and rained and rained. Luckily, the sun came out eventually and it turned out to be a great move for us both. The biggest contrast has been the lifestyle. I was a bit of a couch potato in Ireland, would not stick my nose outside the door if it was rainy or cold, which meant I didn’t go outside much at all. Here, I can’t seem to stay inside. The blue sky and sun has made me change my ways.

Given the fact you and your family visit Ireland almost every year on holiday, how would you say the country has changed since you last lived there, and would you consider permanently moving back to Ireland in your later life?

Ireland has changed hugely and as a writer I wish I could have been on the ground witnessing that change. The main change I see is the other cultures and nationalities which have integrated into Irish society while I have been away. The different ways of life, the back-stories of the migrants, the integration issues they’ve had to deal with all provide fascinating material for someone like me who likes to write about relationships and finding one’s foothold in a foreign country.

I can see myself acquiring a holiday home in Ireland (one day) and spending a few months of “summer” there. It’s very important to me to keep up the strong ties to my family and heritage, and to foster those same ties with my children, which at the very least means continuing holidays to Ireland. I can’t see myself moving back permanently, though. Sydney is home now, it’s my niche in the world, I chose it rather than it choosing me. I just wish it was a bit closer to Ireland…

Being your first novel, how much autobiographical elements did Executive Affair contain looking back?

Though I absolutely denied it at the time, there was a lot of me in Executive Affair. It was written on the back of my observations at the job I had then and my own first impressions of Sydney (I usually take this opportunity to put on record that I did not have an affair with the vice-president of the company where I worked at the time, as did the character in the book, though if you saw this particular man you would understand perfectly where I got my inspiration from).

Your subsequent two books, High Potential and Just Business, both feature women with successful careers, women who both experience love related problems, albeit different ones. What would you say the challenges are in trying to juggle a successful career and personal relationships? From your personal experience and what you’ve learnt from writing about the topic, of course?

Some careers are not very relationship friendly, particularly if they involve long hours, travel and social commitments outside your partner and children. As we all know, balance is the aim but achieving it is easier said than done. It can be very difficult to set boundaries in your job, particularly if you’re committed and ambitious to get ahead.

Just as Executive Affair was being accepted for publication, I had a career-personal crisis of my own. I had worked my way up to a very demanding job and I was juggling this job along with a small baby at home. During the working week I was lucky to see my baby for an hour a day. That hour was the dinner-bath-bed hour when neither of us were at our best. That hour was, rather tragically, less time than a lot of my meetings at work. I ended up resigning from my job which was a good option for me at the time (I had just signed a three-book deal) but many women have no option but to continue on and try to do their best.

I believe that ambition and family life are destined to clash, which makes great writing material for me, and how one handles those clashes is a measure of one’s character, experience and inner strength.

In High Potential, Katie Horgan is sent to Ireland as part of her training, whereas you travelled away from Ireland. What situations did placing an Australian in an Irish setting provide you with to explore? Given the possible cultural differences between Australians and Irish people?

In many ways, Australians are quite similar to the Irish. They don’t take themselves too seriously, they have a good work ethic and society here hinges on families as much as it does back there. But whilst the people are similar, the settings are deliciously different. Take Ireland with its castles, village squares, over-supply of pubs and cities drenched with history and line it up next to Australia with the beaches, the sunshine, the outdoor life and everything relatively new and shiny. The contrast is irresistible. The Irish coming to Australia are captivated and the Australians landing in Ireland equally so. And whilst they revel in the different setting, there is comfort in how similar the people are. It’s a win-win.

Putting Katie Horgan in the middle of Dublin was lots of fun, having her grapple with the accents and odd sayings, immersing her in the very enthusiastic social life, subjecting her to the nosiness of the locals and giving her a taste of the history, religion and politics that underpin the Irish way of life was a treat for me. Because I have been away from Ireland for a long time now, I had to think hard to recover those quirky little beats that make Ireland what it is and I enjoyed this aspect of writing High Potential immensely.

In future material, will you continue to explore the lives of career minded women who travel between Ireland and Australia, or is that something you feel you’ve explored enough?

Wellllll… I’m quite far progressed in the next book, which has a working title of Less Than Perfect, and it is about Ireland and Australia, and a career minded woman too, but all I will say is that it is a completely different slant.

After four books, I continue to be fascinated with the strong links and contrasts between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, what spurs people to move from one side to the other, what they are seeking with the move and what they want to leave behind, the new relationships and friendships they build and, by the same token, the family and friends sacrificed by the move, what keeps them there or draws them back, and the notion that distance can solve most problems and heal most wounds, because after writing four books on this subject, I don’t believe it can.

As soon as this fascination runs dry, I know that I will have no hesitation moving in a new direction… I have many ways I can move as my books, despite the common themes in terms of location and career, are distinctly different. My publisher often comments (a little worriedly) that when she picks up a new manuscript from me she really has no idea what to expect.

For more information about Ber Carroll, visit her official website.


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