Writer Helen O'Neill on Daffodils, Notebooks and Inspiration

A couple of years ago I met the charming writer Helen O'Neill soon after she'd published her exquisite illustrated biography of Harry Seidler. I interviewed her and went on to read all of her beautifully produced and illustrated books. Helen has carved out a niche all of her own in Australian books, one characterised by beautiful images, fascinating prose and handsome finished product. I was fascinated to discover that her latest book is on the daffodil, and fell in love with the idea right from the beginning. I had a chat with Helen about this book and several other things:

What made you decide to write a book entirely devoted to a single flower? 

I’ve always loved flowers but daffodils are special. I grew up in southern England where they blaze across the landscape every spring so they have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Daffodils took on a different meaning after I became ill some years ago and found myself plunged into a deep personal winter. To keep my spirits up friends and family kept sending me daffodils in different forms – in cards, photographs and sweet little pins. As I recovered I began to realise that not only is the daffodil one of the world’s most powerful flowers – this bloom has raised millions for medical research – but that it has a truly remarkable story to tell. 

Narcissus Poeticus, one of Helen O'Neill's favourite daffodils. Photo taken at her mother's garden in England

Did you ever want to be a florist? If you weren’t a writer, what job would you pursue?

That question made me laugh out loud because I flashbacked to an instant when I did think that becoming a florist might be very cool. The moment passed, perhaps because I then quickly remembered that I get hayfever and some flowers make me sneeze uncontrollably. Daffodils never have.

Do you keep a diary, or a writer’s notebook?

My life as a journalist and author is punctuated by spiral-bound notebooks. I generally have at least two on the go simultaneously as I seem often to be working on multiple projects. My notebooks are precious indeed; they contain records of interviews conducted, facts collected and impressions gathered. I would be lost without them.

How do you keep yourself inspired, creative and writing?

Inspiration is not a problem for me, if anything the issue is time. There are so many people and topics I want to write about, and I’m continually discovering more. 

Who have you met in your life that has inspired you as a writer?

Where to begin? Journalists are in the wonderful position of meeting new people and tackling fresh topics constantly but in my experience great ideas can also emerge from the most personal moments of everyday life – which is what happened with my Daffodil book. As British designer Paul Smith put it: you can find inspiration in everything – and if you can’t, look again.

Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a daily writing schedule?

Writing is a job as well as a joy for me. I am pretty organised and keep my work-life highly structured. That said, when I’m in the grip of a subject as fascinating and surprising as Daffodil – Biography of a Flower I lose track of time completely and my working hours can get right out of hand.

Helen O'Neill's latest book Daffodil – Biography of a Flower is out now and available online and at all good bookshops.

Helen O'Neill will be in conversation with Suzanne Leal at Waverley Library on the 21st April, 2016

Helen will be speaking about her daffodil book at Ashfield Library on Monday 2nd of May, 2016


Dina Davis said…

I enjoyed your post on this lovely writer. I heard her speak and bought her book at the Waverley Library last month.

I'd like to reblog a short excerpt about her on my Blog, dinadavis2015.wordpress.com

where I relate her take on Daffodils to the subject of my Blog, the poet Ted Hughes, and his poem on the subject.


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