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Author My recovery from illness helped me create characters for my books

Jenny Ireland tells of how she came home from hospital after brain surgery and felt a strong urge to give the writing thing a go.

Jenny Ireland is a Young Adult writer who lives outside Belfast with her husband, two children and border collie. She is a Law and French Law graduate and former paralegal. Jenny was part of the Penguin Random House WriteNow programme, which asks writers from unrepresented backgrounds to submit their manuscripts to an editorial mentorship programme. Puffin then signed her up to a book deal and her second YA novel is now out. She draws on her own lived experience of having a disability (she has juvenile arthritis) when writing. In 2019 she underwent emergency brain surgery. Here, she shares her experience of recovery and how that brought her to life as a writer…

I’D JUST HAD the most incredible idea for a novel. One of those ideas that was going to make me rich.

One that would be pre-empted by publishers, made into a movie, and would make me a household name. It didn’t matter that I didn’t yet have an agent, or that instead of being ecstatic, my family just looked at me pityingly and neither agreed nor disagreed with my revelation.

It might have been because, 1. The idea was rubbish and 2. It was 2019 and I was in Neurology Ward 7 in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast after unconsciously making my way out of ICU and HDU after contracting encephalitis. Two brain surgeries later, I was alive (hurray) but certainly not myself.


While I can concede that the whole five-week experience was much tougher on my family, for me, true hell was recovery.

My children were only four and six at the time. Of course, they didn’t understand how sick I’d been, a credit to my husband and parents. In fact, my daughter’s main complaint was that I’d missed her sixth birthday.

I couldn’t have been happier to be home, sent back to my parent’s house with a bin bag packed with medication. I’m exaggerating. But that’s what it felt like. Industrial strength steroids, anti-epileptic medication and a host of other tablets that I had to take daily.

Side effects were rapid weight gain, facial hair, skin thinning, acne and tremors, to name but a few. Perhaps they explained all this in the hospital and I just forgot. I’d forgotten a lot of things. But it still felt like a shock.

The Boy Next Door High Res Jacket

And somewhere, in the midst of illness, I’d lost who I was. I certainly didn’t look like myself. At two stone heavier with a five-foot frame, I was soon unrecognisable from the skeleton that emerged from the Royal Victoria Hospital, barely able to walk.


But there was something else that had changed. The desire to write. Don’t get me wrong, before surgery, I loved to write, and I’d been sending off my middle grade novel to agents just before I got sick, but when I returned from the hospital, it was like I needed it. I couldn’t read. The words would blur together when I opened a book, and the almost constant headaches made concentrating on anything impossible. But I persevered.

Writing garbled accounts of my experience and chatting to my online writing group about books, agents and publishers, was an oasis in the desert. I could talk to my friends about whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have to be self-conscious about an appearance that wouldn’t look out of place in Moominvalley.

In 2020, the midst of lockdown, I entered the Penguin WriteNow scheme, a mentoring program that pairs underrepresented authors with an editor. Not just any editor, a Penguin editor. I didn’t expect to get anywhere with it. My 1000 words had been the beginning of a Young Adult (YA) novel featuring a girl with the same inflammatory arthritis diagnosis as me, and I didn’t really know where it was going. But a couple of months later, I was longlisted, then shortlisted and finally offered a place with thirteen others on the mentorship scheme.

Over the next year, I worked with my wonderful editor Ruth Knowles on the book that would become ‘The First Move’ and was offered a two book deal with Penguin in November 2021. It didn’t feel real then, but I’m not sure it does now either.

Health challenges

When I had to think about my second book, I had no doubts that I wanted to use my experience of brain surgery as inspiration, just like I had done with my experience of arthritis in ‘The First Move’.

Maybe it’s egotistical. A kind of selfish therapy, using my characters to voice all the things I find so difficult to say in person. And perhaps it is. But then again, they do say, “write what you know”.

And when I started to receive messages from young people on Instagram, ones who had medical conditions similar to Juliet’s arthritis, and who related so strongly to my words, I have never felt more gratitude than for the opportunity that Penguin gave me.

In a desperate attempt not to feel sorry for myself during my recovery, I thought about situations that would have made my illness even more unbearable. As difficult as it was to try to be a parent to two young children during the recovery, what could possibly be worse? And then it hit me. A teenage girl. A time when the majority of us are insecure, with raging hormones and a roller coaster of emotions, before adding anything else into the mix. So just as I’d done with Juliet in ‘The First Move’, I gave encephalitis to Molly in ‘The Boy Next Door’.

How was this beautiful teenage girl going to deal with her whole world turned upside down? Where she wouldn’t recognise herself in the mirror, and there is little after-care from the hospital.

My illness inspired me to write about body image issues, disordered eating and identity crises. All things I experienced in the wake of my world turning upside down, as well as many issues that belong solely to Molly.

I hope this book is a comfort to anyone who has experienced an acquired brain injury, that it might show them that they are not alone. Or at the very least, for someone who hasn’t experienced a brain injury, it might give a glimpse into the life of someone who has.

I am ever grateful to the NHS for saving my life, and weirdly, I’m (almost) thankful for the experience itself for giving me this unique perspective, where I can look at the world slightly differently and channel it into my writing.

And for now, I eagerly await the next medical drama to inspire future novels.

‘The Boy Next Door’ by Jenny Ireland is published by Penguin (Puffin) and is available in shops and online from 11 April.

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