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If you were charmed by The Curious Incident, laughed with Eleanor Oliphant and cried over A Man Called Ove, you will love Ricky Bird. Discover more about Diane Connell’s lead character, the power of imagination and more on writing The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird

Ricky Bird is a wonderful character that we know readers will love – can you tell us a little about her?

DC: Ricky is a big, vibrant character. With her big energy and big personality, she’s not easy to overlook or dismiss. She’s funny, clever and creative, and she has a special gift. Ricky knows how to tell a story.

As her own story begins, Ricky is uprooted from her home and loses virtually everything that has defined her: the father she adores, her network of friends and the family’s allotment, a sanctuary where she enjoys a profound connection to nature. Ricky is transplanted into an alien and hostile new place. She is alone and vulnerable. She does not know who to trust. When things start going wrong, no one wants to listen.

What Ricky does have is her extraordinary talent for storytelling. She uses her gift to seek out allies and confuse or repel those who wish her harm. Through her stories, Ricky also attempts to sound the alarm. The content of the stories is not always as important as her reason for sharing them. When things begin to spin out of control she is trying to say: ‘Look at me. See me. Hear me. Help me. I have something to say and it is urgent and important.’

Her stories may not always reflect actual events but what choice does she have when no one is interested in her truth?

Apart from Ricky Bird, do you have another favourite character in the book and why are they your fave?

DC: Ricky’s brother Ollie is a favourite. I have very tender feelings for this gentle boy who puts his own suffering aside to help his sister. He’s knowing, loyal and true. Ollie is the heart and the conscience of the book. He shines a light on his sister’s troubles and celebrates her remarkable creativity and strength. Ollie is also a vault of her secrets. He and Ricky communicate through her stories.

It’s probably ridiculous for an author to love her characters the way I love Ricky and Ollie. They are my people and are very real to me. I see them clearly in my mind’s eye. I know their desires and their struggles. I think and feel with them. There are parts of their stories that still bring tears to my eyes.

Diane Connell
Diane Connell

The power of imagination and storytelling are big themes in your novel – how important have they been to your own life?

DC: Storytelling was a huge part of my childhood. I grew up in a large family with a wild and very funny mother who instilled in us all a love of the absurd. She also taught us the power of a good punch line. If you could make her laugh, you could distract her from your petty crimes and win her favour. Indeed, making her laugh was reward in itself. It’s still one of the best things.

Telling stories was how we communicated with each other. It’s how you got attention in a roomful of noisy siblings. If you couldn’t express yourself in an original way, if you dragged out a story or if you let your ego get in the way of its entertainment value, you were side-lined. I wanted ‘in’ so I learned to pick up the pace and apply my imagination from an early age.

For most of my life, I have lived outside my country of birth, spending many years in Japan, France, Britain and Australia. The skills I learned as a child have served me well as I moved through the world. Storytelling is essential to every culture, in every language. Stories are how we share and communicate. It’s an essential part of being human.

There are lots of heartfelt moments in The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird – as an author, how do you know when you have got the emotional tone right?

DC: I write and rewrite every word countless times until it reads smoothly and nothing jars. I’m not saying my work is perfect. What I mean is that Ricky’s story is the result of multiple layers of editing. I work and rework until the story starts to sing and my characters feel authentic to me. I try not to fudge things in a ‘That will do’ manner. I also try to avoid forcing emotions and actions on my characters. The trick is to engage the emotions of the reader without force or sleight of hand and without resorting to sentimentality. Another trick is to keep my ego out of my work. I start out with a big head and big ideas but by the end of the writing process, my ego is locked in a cupboard in a dark room. Writing is a relentless, humbling process.

I wrote the first draft of Ricky’s novel over a period of about six months. I followed an outline I’d created and just kept moving forward. When it came to the second draft, I reworked the manuscript and rewrote virtually everything. This process was repeated over many, many drafts in a process that took, cough, years. By stripping away and rewriting, I got closer and closer to something genuine. I reached a point where I felt every word deserved to be on the page. Then, of course, the manuscript was run past the sharp eyes of my wonderful publishing team.

The book I started out writing is absolutely not the book that ended up being written. And let me tell you, The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird is a much better book for it.

What are some of the writers that you really admire?

DC: I love a good novel and tend to admire writers who write with empathy and humour about troubled characters, the misunderstood square pegs of this world. My favourite books are emotionally complex and character driven. Some of my favourite writers: Elizabeth Strout, Sebastian Barry, Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante, William Trevor, Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys and let’s not forget Tennessee Williams.

The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird is available in store and online.

The Improbable Life of Ricky...
Diane Connell

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