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Singing Happy Birthday to the wrong table - Jo McGrath on wit and mishap

Jo's writing partner Ziggy

Jo’s writing partner, Ziggy, who likes to rest his head on her laptop as she writes, adding typos as she goes.

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize?

My lovely friend Marija sent me the competition link back in January and said I should enter. We met on the Faber ‘Write a Novel’ course pre-pandemic and are now in a weekly writing group with three others. Marija is one of the few people who has read my book — chunk by chunk — and thought the CWIP Prize was worth a shot.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I’ve been writing for a while, on the side of doing other jobs to distract myself. I have the Writers and Artists Yearbook from 2009 and 2019 staring at me from the bookshelf, which gives you some idea. Back in 2009 I was writing for The London Paper (which doesn’t exist anymore) and an agent contacted me to ask if I’d ever thought about writing a book. Which I had. We had a flurry of conversations about it, I got really excited at the idea and then I carried on working in advertising for 10 years. Idiot.

Talk to me about teenage angst: Was it manifested in poetry or diary form?

I did have a diary, much to my little sister’s delight. I stopped writing in it when she started quoting passages at me. She still to this day says it was an excellent read and she always looked forward to the next instalment. (There was no privacy in my house when I was young!)

Can you describe what your novel, SIX MONTHS TO FIND A HUSBAND, is about in two sentences?

Two words: Roadkill Romance. Two-ish sentences: Hazel Wells is approaching 30 and feeling lost — no job, no money, no abs and no man. She visits Mystic Myrtle who reassures her that everything will be absolutely fine and ‘the one’ is en route, but is he really? Hazel starts looking at the world with fresh eyes and every man, every date, every nod in her direction has her on husband alert. Meanwhile she starts working at her parents’ pub and when the supply chain goes awry she has to use her Michelin-star skills to transform roadkill into top-notch foodie nosh.

Did you set out to write a funny book?

Yes. I can’t help but veer into silly situations when I write, it sort of just happens. As soon as I get deep into a scene, my mind goes on auto-search for a funny angle and bizarre scenarios write themselves.

Where did the inspiration for Mystic Myrtle come from? Do you dabble in astrology?

I love a clairvoyant and have seen many over the years. My best friend saw a Madam Shirley in Blackpool as a teenager and was told she’d be married in ‘a big white dress’ to someone ‘slightly older than her’ (she was 16 at the time) and ‘slightly taller’ than her (she’s 5’2”). I love the dreaminess and hope that fortune tellers offer. Another one of my friends was told she’d meet her husband at ‘The Embassy’ which led to an endless Embassy-themed treasure hunt. We went to several nightclubs called The Embassy, we blagged ourselves onto the guestlist for an event at The Australian Embassy and one guy gave her his number on the back of an Embassy fag packet. Was he the one? No.

What inspired you to centre your novel around a family pub?

My Dad was a landlord when I was born and I’ve always loved the dynamic of a family-run pub. Mom and Dad running the show, the kids all working behind the bar, the regulars, the buzz, the food. I also worked in many hotels, pubs and restaurants in my twenties and there were so many laughs. Singing Happy Birthday to the wrong table, drinking shots after each course while serving Christmas lunch and being too drunk to serve the coffees. One time we were given a dozen yellow roses to present to a lady for her golden wedding anniversary and I got the wrong end of the stick and handed them to a lady on another table for her birthday. Poor anniversary-guy watched on in horror as his expensive flowers were given away and birthday-husband was totally baffled at the amazing flowers for his wife.

Who do you enjoy reading?

I love Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Caitlin Moran, and many others for comedy. I’ve been reading Tyson Fury’s The Furious Method recently and have just finished The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne which was beautifully written and incredibly moving. My bookshelf is an eclectic mix to say the least.

What’s your favourite type of humour?

I like imagined worlds and ridiculous, silly humour. Eddie Izzard’s Death Star Canteen, everything Katherine Ryan does, Dawn O Porter’s Instagram Lives, @loveofhuns, @dianechorley and @charityshopsue.

Is there a funny line, scene, or book that you wish you’d written?

I love anything written by Sharon Horgan — especially Motherland, which is brilliantly observed. I’d like to have written the Halloween episode when Anne goes to the party dressed as ‘peas in a pod’ and Amanda says she looks like a massive green vagina. I’m also a huge fan of Ruth Jones’ writing in both Gavin & Stacey and Stella and every Richard Curtis script ever written. Comedy writing that is heavily character-led and draws you in within seconds.

Where does your writing magic happen, and can you tell us about your writing routine?

Once I’ve procrastinated for a few hours, cleaned the house, washed my hair, done my Christmas shopping etc. I sit down with my notepad and write by hand. I find it easier to pen and paper it and then do a rough first edit as I type it up. This is how I used to do my English homework a hundred years ago and it’s how I best process my thoughts. Setting a timer also helps me get my head down and go for it, otherwise it’s too easy to get lost on Instagram for 40 minutes and do absolutely nothing. So half an hour, go for it, then a Kit Kat. Another half an hour, go for it again, another Kit Kat etc…

Helen Lederer ‘What kept you so long Jo? Needing Mystic Myrtle’s prophecy urgently - does she do zooms? Loving your turn of phrase and affection for mishap!

2021 Unpublished Longlist
‘Six Months To Find a Husband’ by our Jo McGrath is fifth along from the left

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