Today I’d like to give a very big welcome to Judith O’Reilly author of “A Year of Doing Good” and the inspiration behind my own Year of Good Deeds. I’ll be honest I’ve hounded the poor lady for this interview, but she’s come up trumps and I am thrilled that she is out guest today.
1) Where is your home town?
Leeds. I go back quite often because my mum and dad are still there – my mum has lived in the same house for 60 years. She says she feels surrounded by love in it. My parents are getting very frail though (mum is 85 and my dad is 80). I’ve been trying for a couple of years to get them to come up and live with me, or at the very least near me, and they finally agreed (hoorrah) only to change their minds at the very last moment (grr). Elderly parents are like having two more children, but children who won’t ever, I mean ever, do what you want them to. Frankly I could go on and on and bleeding on about the “challenges” of having young kids and elderly parents but we’d all be here till next Christmas.
2) Your book follows a year of your life which began in the New Year, What sparked your challenge?
I wanted to be a better person. My own parents were always doing things for other people while I was growing up – working in a hospice, visiting the sick, collecting for charity etc. I was so busy trying to hold everything together, that I didn’t think I made enough time for others. That, and the fact I wanted to provide a good example for my kids so that they’d grow up into decent human beings and believe in things like kindness and respect and patience. (I’m one of the most impatient people you are ever going to meet by the way.) Despite my year of endeavour and the fact I wrote a book about it, my children remained studiously and utterly unimpressed by my efforts.
3) During the year you set up The Jam Jar Army, can you tell us a little of its origins and if it is still going on.
Yes it is still going on which is fantastic. The Northumberland Gazette took it on and it is now on its third charity and about to go into its fourth. We raised more than £13k for the local hospice the first year, then around £12k for the local children’s theatre group, then it moved on to an animal charity – they are aiming at another ten for them. In January, the Gazette will get its readers to nominate and vote for the next charity. There were also other monies raised in other places during that first year so the grand total probably stands around £35k so far and counting.
4) Your book is very inspiring, can you tell us of some small easy to do deeds from your challenge which others can follow.
One of the easiest is to reach out to other people, even in a phone call. If you know someone is having a hard time. If they are poorly, or getting divorced, or if they have suffered a loss, pick up the phone and talk to them. Sometimes we mean well, and we think of someone but we never quite get round to picking up the phone. Allow yourself the time to listen. They will feel better and you will feel good too. (I looked at the science of all this, and its true. Do a good deed and your brain rewards you by releasing chemical messengers which give you a buzz. Try it and you will see what I mean.)
5) In your book you even volunteered to be a lifeboat guard, tell us more about it.
For some reason, nobody but me thought this was a good idea. I can’t swim very well but I didn’t intend falling into the water so I can’t see that would have been much of a problem. I told the local lifeboat chappies and turned up looking very short (5ft 2) and bespectacled (I blame too many books as a kid) and plump (I blame cake). But the spirit was willing enough. Anyway they were nice enough to take me on a training exercise and I was nice enough not to drown on it. I still think I’d have been great but apparently I lived too far away to make the cut – yeah right.
6) You’ve stated that your year long challenge to make you a better person didn’t work, why do you think that?
I thought it would and I was surprised it didn’t. Maybe I didn’t have it in me? Or maybe it takes more than 365 good deeds to make you a good person? It didn’t make me a better person but I did learn to respect the good some people do which I had taken for granted before. There are some outstanding people out there, who may look ordinary on the outside, but who are extraordinary if you look close enough.
7) Since publishing your book, has it opened more doors of opportunity for you?
Perhaps two books makes you seem less of a fly-by-night? My first book didn’t get reviewed whereas my second one did. I’m currently teaching a memoir short course at Newcastle University which I enjoy and I’m going to teach another one. I’ve taught one on blogging before. I enjoy helping people find a voice and the confidence to write.
Life is what you make it, isn’t it? I am currently writing a thriller. That is fiction, whereas my other two books have been non-fiction. I still have to write the whole thing before I sell it though, I can’t sell it as a proposal. Make no mistake writing books is hard bleeding work. No one does it for you. You have to turn up day after day after day – it is the only way to do it. Moreover you are doing it instead of doing something which would you in regular money like a sensible person.
8) I see that in June you were a speaker at BritMumsLive, Does speaking in public come easy to you?
No. I hate it. I never know why I agree to these engagements because I get into such a nervous tizzy over public speaking, that I have to take a valium to calm myself down. I have no idea why it bothers me so much. My mother used to make me recite monologues at parent-teacher cheese and wines, and to any unsuspecting relative who dropped by for a cup of tea and a bun – I can only think it traumatised me.
9) Before “A Year of Doing Good” you published another book “Wife in the North” can you tell us a little about it.
Wife in the North was a big book and I’m probably still better known for that book than for A Year of Doing Good. It was about what it is to be a wife and mother and daughter, hung round my experience of moving from London to Northumberland. It was a memoir and readers really seemed to connect with it. It got to number three, sold into around ten countries, was serialized in The Sunday Times and the Telegraph and was a Radio Four Book of the Week. It got optioned for TV but then the economy tanked so that didn’t work out. I’m holding out for a for a West End musical anyway – we could have a chorus of singing and dancing sheep.
10) Are you writing or planning a book at the moment?
I’m 45,000 words into a thriller and I’m just about to sit down and draw up a proposal for another non-fiction book which I’m really excited by. Nobody has seen the work so far on the thriller. I’ve asked myself why do I want to write a thriller and I think it is because I am very interested in morality, in good and bad. I used to work as a political journalist as well for local newspapers and as a political producer for Chanel 4 News and Newsnight, so some of that is feeding into it. I have no idea whether it will work. It is very daunting. My other two books were sold on their proposals. This is a far lonelier business. I am very aware that I could spend a lot of time writing it and still end up with something not good enough for publication. Then look like a plonker. Still if you aren’t willing to risk yourself, what is the point?