I grew up in various cities in Australia and Asia, mostly Hong Kong. My love of reading and writing probably came from being taught at home by my English teacher mother for the first few months of every move. She didn’t know long division, so I skipped that entirely, and didn’t learn my times tables till I was about 17. I loved reading and writing so much that sometimes I would add ‘she said,’ when I was talking aloud.
I went to university in Sydney, where indecision led me to a triple major Bachelor of Arts in English, History and Theatre, followed by a Journalism course.
I moved to London when I was 22 with not much more than £400 and the address of a hostel in Bayswater. I started working as a copywriter, writing for one of Microsoft’s agencies, where I would hide in the toilets and cry because I couldn’t understand the technical stuff I was writing. Over time, I moved to better and more exciting agencies, until I finally had the experience to become a freelancer and - more importantly - the confidence to write my own stuff.
This, of course, wasn’t the point of my 20s: the point was to have as much fun as possible without going over my overdraft. I also had my heart broken more times than is worth reporting, and more bad dates than I care to admit. Finally, at 3am in a bad nightclub in Chelsea, I met a tall, loud Irish guy who I’m marrying in April next year. He makes me laugh so much that I’m in constant danger of incontinence. Which just shows that any club that will play S Club 7 without irony isn’t all bad.
Hobbies, interests and pastimes?
Is dating a hobby? I love talking and drinking and eating, preferably all at once. I enjoy meeting and making friends with new people more than is probably healthy. And I love reading and writing more than just about anything else in the world. I’ve been trying to learn tennis in homage to Anna Wintour. I’ve only had four lessons but I suppose that counts as a hobby.
What was the inspiration for your novel? When did you start writing and how long did it take you? What was your writing schedule?
I wanted to write my own stuff for years, but was stymied by a general hatred for everything I ever committed to paper that someone else hadn’t briefed me on. It became a bit depressing. However, I am very good at ignoring things I don’t want to think about.
Then I read a quote that’s one of those deceptively obvious statements. “Writers write.” And I though, Goddamnit, I feel like a writer. Why aren’t I writing? That was about a month before I started The Dating Detox.
When I finally started, life was a bit different to how it’d been for years beforehand. I was very happy with life in general, I wasn’t broke, and I was laid up in bed with a paralysed back for weeks. (Very boring and very painful.) Boredom made me uncharacteristically introspective, and at one point I was reflecting on the previous six or seven years, and the advice I’d give to lost 25-year-old me now that I was happy 30-year-old me. And then I thought, there aren’t enough genuinely funny novels about funny women who are confident and happy, who aren’t necessarily self-loathing, binge-eating spendaholics but who are, nonetheless, as useless at the whole love thing as anyone else, who are going through crisis after crisis and questioning where they belong in it all. (Perhaps there are loads of novels like that and I just never found them. I’m not sure.)
I think my friends and I were - on the whole - witty, smart, sorted young women in our 20s - but my God, we made some massive and hilarious mistakes. Sometimes several times over. So it sort of came from that.
And because I was happy, paralysed and not worried about money, it was easy to concentrate on making myself laugh.
I gave the first three chapters to my sister, she told me she laughed so much she started to choke, and that was it. (Anything for an appreciative audience.)
How long did it take?
It didn’t take long. I got a lot out in a big rush when I was in bed with my back, then taptapped away here and there on weekends for a few months, eventually got about half done, and decided I’d try to get an agent and see what happened. That took about two months, during which time I couldn’t write a word. (Self-doubt makes me mute.) Once I got an agent, I wrote like the wind. (You know the wind. Oh, how it loves to write.)
I continued to work as a freelancing copywriter the whole time. During busy deadline periods, I woke up at 5am or 6am most days and wrote before work, then wrote when I got home and all weekend.
My boyfriend calls me ‘Rain Man’ when I’m in the middle of writing as I gaze into space quite a lot and find it hard to respond to questions. For the most recent re-edit, I gave up drinking for six weeks. Which was tediously and irritatingly effective.
Now that I’ve started my second book, I’m finding it much faster and easier because I’ve planned it in more detail. This has made me infinitely less Rain Man-like.
Is writing an enjoyable experience for you?
I love writing! Truly, I do. I like words and sentences. I like stories and characters. I like typing. I like researching.
I’m a copywriter anyway, so it’s not a hugely different occupation. Copywriting is a silly, fun job that I’ve always loved. What I hate is commuting to work. I always think they don’t pay me to write, they paid me to commute on filthy tubes and sit in stinking noisy offices.
I’ve never had writer’s block. And now that I’ve said that I won’t be able to write a word.
About Gemma Burgess