book reviews | fiction | writing

Interview with Deborah O’Brien author of The Trivia Man

Deborah O’Brien is a renowned Australian author with books such as “Mr Chen’s Emporium”, “The Jade Widow” and “A Place of Her Own” under her belt. Her latest offering is “The Trivia Man”, a charming novel about the search for one’s place in the world and finding love in the unusual places, when you least expect it. You can visit Deborah’s website here, and you can also read my review of “The Trivia Man” here.

Where did the inspiration for The Trivia Man come from?

‘The Trivia Man’ was conceived way back in January of 2011 when we had friends staying for New Year in our little cottage in the country. Like me, they’re both trivia buffs and they happened to mention a two-man team they’d encountered, which had never been beaten. That night as I lay in bed, an idea began forming in my imagination: What if there was – not a two-person team – but a one-man trivia team? And what if this particular man was so successful that every other team wanted to headhunt him? So, a couple of days later, as soon as our guests left for Sydney, I went straight to my laptop and started writing the story of the one-man team. The only problem was that I was also working on the final draft of ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’.

So I found myself alternating between the two stories and two very different heroes– Charles Chen, a dashing Chinese merchant living in the Gold Rush era, and my trivia man, someone far less glamorous than Charles, but intriguing nonetheless. The process of writing two books at once, albeit at different stages of development, soon left me feeling guilty that I was dallying with each of my heroes, rather than devoting myself to one or the other.

So, at 40,000 words into ‘The Trivia Man’, I consigned Kevin Dwyer to a digital drawer, but I didn’t forget him. Every now and then, in between books, or after finishing an edit, or meeting a deadline, I’d secretly visit my trivia man, and add another scene or two. And now, after all those years of our on-again, off-again relationship, I hope I’ve finally given Kevin the closure he deserves. A book of his own


I think many people can relate in some way or another to Kevin. How hard was he to create and get the balance between quirky and likeable right?

It’s an odd thing to say, but Kevin came to me fully formed. He was so real that I wondered whether I’d actually met him. When I finished the first draft and read through the entire manuscript, it dawned on me that Kevin had a great deal in common with a person I’ve known my entire life. Not just an acquaintance or even a good friend, but someone I know intimately. Yes, you guessed it – Kevin is me! Or more correctly, one side of my personality. The ‘nerdy’ side.

Once I started looking, I found many connections between us. Most were inspired by long-forgotten fragments of memory which must have bubbled up from my subconscious during the writing process. For instance, as a teenager Kevin auditioned for a fictional ‘80s quiz show called ‘The World’s Biggest Quiz’ and missed out. When I was ten or eleven, I auditioned unsuccessfully for the ‘Quiz Kids’. For different reasons we both vowed never to try out for a TV quiz show again, and I wiped the incident from my conscious mind. In his teens Kevin was stood up by a group of his peers who invited him on an outing. The same thing happened to me. Kevin is hopeless at sport; so am I. Kevin loves making lists. Ditto.

I didn’t really set out to make Kevin likeable – I just wrote his story with all its quirks and hoped readers would find him engaging. I do think that seeing Kevin from Maggie’s point of view helps the reader to empathise with him.


Many of your books seem to have the underlying theme of ‘fitting in’ or ‘finding one’s place in the world’, is this a coincidence or just what you like writing about?

That’s a really interesting question. The idea that we all need a place to belong is very important to me, as is the concept that each of us is an individual and shouldn’t be stereotyped. That’s why I think those themes have emerged in all my books, but in differing ways. In ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, the story focuses on the ostracising of Chinese settlers in nineteenth century Australia. In ‘The Jade Widow’ it’s about gender differences and the battle for equality. In ‘A Place of Her Own’ the female protagonist is seeking a safe haven when nothing feels safe anymore. As for ‘The Trivia Man’, it’s about finding a niche for yourself in a society which is often intolerant of idiosyncrasy.


Tell me about your writing process? Are you a plotter or pantster? Is it there a similar process for each novel? Do you stick to a routine?

In everyday life I’m a ‘plotter’, addicted to checklists and agendas. As a novelist, however, I’m quite the opposite. I have no plan beyond an initial concept and a few guideposts. In the case of ‘The Trivia Man’, I asked myself: What if you were always on the outside looking in? And that question was foremost in my mind as I worked on the story.

In my writing life I find it liberating to allow the narrative to unfold, driven by the psychology and actions of the characters. For me, it’s essentially a process of exploration and discovery and I enjoy the surprises it brings me.

Because I don’t plan my plots, I need a strong structural framework to keep me in line. Each chapter of ‘The Trivia Man’ is a week of the competition, culminating in the big reveal at the end of the season when the winners are announced. And each week we meet the characters in their everyday life and at the Tuesday trivia night which ends each chapter.

As for routine, I’d love to say that I disappear into my ‘writing cave’ for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon and write 2000 words a day. But I have no routine. Writing fits into my life whenever I have some free time. I wish it were the other way around!


What 3 pieces of advice would you give for aspiring authors?

I’m always reluctant to give advice because every writer has his or her own approach. But here are some general tips:

  • Write from the heart. Don’t be afraid to work from your emotions – you can always edit later, if necessary. I’ve always liked what Wordsworth had to say on the subject: ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’
  • If you really want to be a writer, don’t put it off. Even though your life might be too busy to contemplate penning a 100,000 word novel, there are other possibilities such as blogs, short stories or even a novella. George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), who was arguably the greatest Victorian novelist, once said: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been’, and equally, it’s never too early to start!
  • On a practical level, don’t consider sending your manuscript to an agent or publisher before you’ve proofed the text thoroughly for spelling and grammar mistakes. Reading your manuscript aloud is always helpful, not just for spotting typos, but also for checking the flow of the text and identifying clunky language. And if you’re in a writers’ group, seek feedback from your peers.


Thank you Deborah, it was a pleasure.