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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Prim Improper: a Q&A with Deirdre Sullivan

‘Hypothetical boys are the nicest ones of all.’

FINAL primThanks to my time in the writing program at NUI Galway I have a lot of crazy-talented writer friends, one of whom is Galway native Deirdre Sullivan.  Dee has written a fantastic novel for young teens called Prim Improper, which was published by Little Island in September.

After losing her mother in a car accident, thirteen-year-old Primrose Leary has to move in with her father, Fintan, who (so it seems to Prim) cares more for his moustache and his money than he does his only child.  Prim writes in her journal of grieving for her mother, learning to live with a father with whom she has nothing in common, and navigating all the typical trouble with boys, friends, and schoolwork. She’s wicked smart, using witty wordplay (don’t you LOVE the title?) and a vocabulary that puts most grown-ups to shame. Her voice feels entirely authentic, with all those things you’d expect a bright young girl to write in her diary–like when she calls a hot chocolate a ‘gooey cup of yum’ or a classmate she dislikes ‘a rancid scab of a boy.’

Prim’s mother’s death is treated sensitively but not overly sentimentally, and about her relationship with Fintan in particular there are moments of heart-rending insight–even if our young narrator isn’t fully aware of it.  For instance, on wanting her father to come out and tell her if he’s gotten engaged to his girlfriend:

It would make me feel like I was an important part of his life, as opposed to just this thing he had to feed and clothe because her previous owner had passed away and if he didn’t do the right thing people would think badly of him.’  (page 196)

deirdrePrim Improper is one of those books you feel smarter for having read, and goodness knows a pre-teen girl can never have too many of those on her shelf.  The book isn’t widely available in the U.S. (though you can order it on Amazon), so I thought I’d give a few autographed copies away so that some American readers can enjoy this marvelous novel.  But first, a Q&A with my dear friend the author:

Reading a book when you know the author is a peculiar pleasure for those moments of recognition.  The writer puts pieces of herself into her story even when those pieces aren’t overtly autobiographical–Prim’s fondness for wee furry creatures, for instance, although your pets are guinea pigs and hers is a rat.  And like you, she’s witty and articulate, a quick and acerbic observer of human nature.  Just how much does Primrose Leary resemble your thirteen-year-old self?  Did you ever go back and read your old journals?

I felt the same way when I read Petty Magic–it was delightful to see the little pieces of Camille woven into the fabric of the novel!! Primrose is a lot more articulate and confident in her identity that I was when I was thirteen. At the launch, my fifteen year old cousin came up to me and said that I’d really captured the way she had thought when she was thirteen and that of course, two years on, she was a good deal more mature. I smiled and nodded and thought ‘oh dear’–because a lot of Prim is the way I actually think now, not so much the content, but the structure of it and the way of expressing it, if that makes any sense. About halfway through the novel, I read back over some of my old diaries from secondary school, to see what I could find. What I found was pretty cringe inducing. At thirteen, I mainly used my diary to vent and obsess over various boy-bands. And write terrible poetry about being misunderstood and not having a boyfriend.

I met you through your boyfriend, Diarmuid, who is a scriptwriter.  You two may be writing in very different genres, but I still think it’s worth asking if you ever influence one another’s work.  Do you read each other’s early drafts?

This summer was lovely, because we spent it holed up in a bungalow in Cork, writing every day. I’d read mine to him as soon as it’s written and ask his advice about what works and what doesn’t, but I’m not allowed to read his until he thinks they’re ready, which is hardly ever! We both use humor in our writing, but he is far more of a craftsman than I am–he fine-tunes and tweaks his work almost constantly. I bang it out and only start to doctor it when I’m finished the whole thing. Or stuck on a particular bit.

Prim portrays her father, Fintan, as a ‘Celtic Tiger’ fat cat.  Is he based on any real-life fat cat in particular?

No, but my Dad in real life does have a FABULOUS moustache, and he loves the first line of the book because he considers it an homage to his facial hair.

You’re a primary school teacher, so of course your students are quite a bit younger than Prim, but I’m sure they inspire you on a regular basis…?

They do indeed. A boy in my T.P. class gave me a gift of a diary that I wrote the first draft of Prim in. I also stole the names Ella and Syzmon from children I taught. Being a teacher is a strange and lovely thing, you are confronted on a daily basis with a plethora of personalities, all with their own strengths and concerns. And you have to teach them how to spell and do sums and co-exist peacefully from 8.50-14.30. It can exhausting but is also very inspiring and rewarding.

Judging from photos of your launch and reading at the Galway City Library, it looks like you were able to connect with a fair number of younger readers.  Have you had a chance yet to talk about Prim Improper with girls who’ve read it?

Yes, but only briefly–the launch was packed with people, so I didn’t have time to chat to anyone properly!! The girls in sixth class seemed to like it, which is great because while I was writing it I had a sixth class girl in mind as the reader I was kind of going for. (In the first draft, Prim was in her final year of primary school). I’m dying to have a sit-down chat with some girls who have read it, I’d love to discuss how it tallied with their own experiences of being a teenage (or almost) girl.

Tell me about where and how you write.  Do you have any particular rituals (besides, I suspect, copious amounts of tea)?

You’re right about the tea. I read a lot when I’m writing–teen fiction and whatever else takes my fancy when I’m typing away and crime fiction when I’m having trouble plotting. Detective stories are normally so tightly structured and have that whole beginning, middle and end thing that I wish I found easier–beginnings and middles are fine for me but endings are tougher. I’m trying to finish another book at the moment and I’m finding it very hard to let go of the characters. Also, I like to read what I’ve written to Diarmuid at the end of the day–possibly while drinking tea.

You are to spend the rest of your days on an uncharted island in the South Pacific, and can bring
only five books. Which ones, and why?

Can I cheat and bring a few Norton Anthologies? I read a LOT, so that would probably be the way I’d go. But in case I’m not allowed–

1.  The collected Short Stories of Angela Carter–because The Bloody Chamber is my favourite book ever but it’s very small so I’d like all the other ones as well please.
2. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue because reading it makes me want to make up stories.
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy because Dad bought it for me for my twelfth birthday and it is still languishing in my to-read pile.
4.  Either Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson or Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson. They are both charming and escapist reads–like dipping into a big hug.
5. Another Either/or answer!! Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales because they are so beautiful and sad.

I think I’d be happy out with those five.

What’s next?  Are you working on another novel now?

I am indeed–grappling with the ending at the moment, actually. This time it’s about a fifteen year old girl named Ampersand, who is a middle child and isn’t very happy about it.


Thanks a million, Dee!  So like I said, there are three (individually autographed!) copies up for grabs. To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is leave a comment recommending one of your favorite middle grade/young adult novels, and RTs get an extra entry. Entries accepted until the end of the weekend, and in the meantime you can follow Deirdre on Twitter at @propermiss and check out her blog!


Edit, November 7th: Closing the giveaway with five entries. I’m going to pick up two more books while I’m in Ireland next month, so everyone’s a winner! Thank you so much for your interest and enthusiasm, Amanda, Cara, Christie, Kate, and Paré!

12 Comments to Prim Improper: a Q&A with Deirdre Sullivan

  1. November 5, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Great interview, Camille! I’m putting Prim Improper on my TBR list as we speak.
    Of course, I would love to win a copy, so my recommendation is Paper Towns by John Green. It’s sad and beautiful and an excellent example of the amazing John Green.
    Also, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead was one of the best books I read this year and deserves every award it won.

  2. November 5, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed When You Reach Me (on your recommendation!) Paper Towns is now on the list.

  3. dee's Gravatar dee
    November 5, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Paper towns is amazing. Love John Green. An abundance of katherines is my favourite though.

  4. Cara's Gravatar Cara
    November 5, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo. It was cute and engaging. My 3 year old sat and listened. That has to say something! In any event, if I don’t win a signed copy I appreciate the book reference. I’ll probably looking to get a copy on amazon, maybe when I’m done reading it I’ll send it along to my Uncle Mick to keep in The Crane Pub so people can read it and enjoy a pint. 🙂 Cara

  5. Cara's Gravatar Cara
    November 5, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Had to add another that came to mind. Do you remember reading maniac magee in about 6th grade? Pretty sure it was 6th grade with Mrs. Wagner. I liked that one. It gets my vote, even if it might be a dated book.

  6. November 5, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much for the entry and recommendations, Cara! I remember loving Maniac Magee too. Still have a copy on my shelf. Great literature is never dated!

  7. Kate Scherer's Gravatar Kate Scherer
    November 5, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your interview. In grade school I loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye.

  8. Christie's Gravatar Christie
    November 5, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    This doesn’t really count as young adult fiction, but I absolutely loved Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison when I was in high school. The world she creates–as in all of her books, but somehow especially so in that one–is so treacherously emotional and poetic, and I think it’s easy for teens to relate to.
    I will admit that in middle school I loved anything written by Christopher Pike and Louis Duncan, because they wrote murder mysteries, and at the time that’s what I liked to write (cringe).
    Prim Improper sounds delightful! I’d love to get my hands on a copy and will probably order one if the contest doesn’t go my way. Thanks for telling us about it, Camille!

  9. November 6, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    My favorite middle grade author of all time is Mary Downing Hahn. She came to my elementary school when I was in the 5th grade – an experience I’ve never forgotten. I still have my copy of Time of the Witch, autographed on that day. 🙂
    My own daughter will be turning 13 this year and I think we both might enjoy this book! Thank you!

  10. December 27, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I had to come back to say, Prim Improper ROCKED. I don’t say that abt any book, either.

  11. Baron Steawrt's Gravatar Baron Steawrt
    June 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Hello Deirdre,
    Are you the Deirdre Sullivan who used live in California? You were recommended to me by Sarah Victory. You were helping me write my book in 2001.
    Please let me know. Thanks, Baron Stewart.

  12.'s Gravatar
    November 9, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    “it’s about a fifteen year old girl named Ampersand”: brilliant.
    I’m all over a character’s name like Ampersand, and someday let me tell you about my visual/visceral metaphors I use for punctuation (a little occupational preoccupation of mine). They involve waves, stonewalls, boulders, pastures (hence farmers and livestock), swinging gates, friends tugging–holding hands.
    Now, when I met the real life Ampersands, I’ll think of you. Cheers to your character. . .
    Sincerely, slan agat,
    Vermont, US (128 Lower Rathmines, 1984!)

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.