Meet the corporate high-flyer who cut back on long hours and constant travel for a better quality of life - writing science fiction books
Author Joanne Zebedee is well-known for her fantasy novels set in the streets of Belfast. She tells Lee Henry how the deaths of her father and grandmother proved a catalyst for downsizing her job to get a better work/life balance.
It was following a hectic Christmas period of non-stop, work-related travel around the UK and Ireland that Joanne Zebedee decided to make a change in her life.
For decades, Joanne had been slogging it out in the corporate world, regulating a range of training organisations as quality manager for Ireland with ILM, part of the City & Guilds Group, and, in the main, she enjoyed her work.
She took great pride in meeting her targets and educating thousands of thankful students over the course of a busy and fulfilling career.
She pulled in the big pay cheques and had the house and the car to prove it.
But, after the festive dust had settled back in 2010, it was obvious that something wasn't right. With her girls, Holly and Becky, then aged five and 10 respectively, by her side, she opened the pages of her diary and recognised that her life was not her own.
"I had been travelling for weeks," she recalls, "and I was tired. When I opened my diary and could look back on the crazy schedule of meetings and flights and more meetings that I had gone through, I realised that I didn't want that life anymore.
"I enjoy the corporate world. I have a lot of friends and colleagues in that world and I find the work satisfying and challenging.
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"But I needed balance between my personal and professional lives, so I resolved to make a change."
Joanne subsequently downsized, transitioning from a full-time to a part-time position within the ILM organisation, and found instant gratification. She had more time to spend with her daughters and her husband, Chris. Time at home to read. Time to reflect on what she truly wanted from life.
That process had begun a year or so earlier, when she had experienced a double loss after her grandmother, Elizabeth (89) and her father, Bill (68) had passed away within months of one another.
"It was hard, as a family, losing them so close together and it did, of course, make me reflect on their life and my own," she says.
"I was fortunate enough to work with my father for a number of years and he had a strong influence on my approach to work and my focus on it.
"When he passed on, suddenly, from cancer, there was certainly room for reflection on the path to take in the future.
"I'm not sure if their deaths spurred me on to become a writer, exactly.
"That change in priorities was very much self-driven, but I think my father would have been proud of how I have done as a writer and would have liked to see me working hard for something I believe in.
"I know, for sure, he would have supported me in it, as would my gran. I've always been very lucky with support from my family and loved ones."
Those loved ones are now big fans of Jo Zebedee, the prolific science fiction and fantasy writer, author of the acclaimed Inheritance Trilogy of sci-fi books and several stand-alone novels.
Her creative reinvention has been remarkable and perhaps not so surprising, given that she studied theatre studies and English literature at university in Coleraine and has previously worked as a manager in Easons book shop, never too far away from a bookshelf.
"I must always have had some sort of creative urge in me," she adds.
During those many years of relentless corporate work, Joanne reveals that she carried with her a cast of weird and wonderful characters that first came to mind in her teens, characters that she has since committed to the page. "When I first stepped down from my full-time role, I hadn't known I was going to take up writing," she admits.
"It wasn't until the summer that I realised I had free time and I found myself wondering what to do with it. I decided that it was time to write the story I'd wanted to write for years, once and for all.
"I thought it would take three months, but I haven't stopped writing since and I feel that a void I never realised I had has been filled."
Joanne has been a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genre for years, and credits her mother, June, with instilling a love of reading. "My mother introduced me to a huge range of literature as a child," she remembers.
"I've watched and read genre fiction most of my life, especially science fiction.
"I first read Star Beast by Robert Heinlein and that snagged me forever. I worked my way through AC Clarke via some of the great fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. My favourite book is Dune.
"Simultaneously, the late Seventies and early Eighties were so rich for sci-fi on television, with Blake's 7 a huge favourite, and in film, with the sci-fi world being reinvented through Star Wars. So I think my father influenced my approach to work and my mother my love of words. Without both, I don't think I'd ever have taken up writing."
Joanne (45) was born in Belfast but raised in Carrickfergus, where she now lives with her own family. She met her husband, an Englishman originally from Lancashire, while studying in Coleraine.
Although she would wait until her late 30s before completing her first book, her years spent in the boardroom were not entirely in vein. In fact, her corporate experience has proven invaluable in her success as a writer.
"I have been surprised how many of my skills have transferred over," she explains.
"Writing is creative, but getting a book out to market is about organisation and commitment. It's not all coffee shops and muses but hard grind and determination. That I was already self-managed and used to getting on with the job in hand helped me reach the finishing line."
Joanne has applied her management smarts to the process of publication, too, curiously combining traditional publishing with more innovative self-publishing techniques in order to maintain creative control and ultimately see her work reach an audience.
"I'm what you might call a trendy hybrid author," she jokes. "There is an urban myth which claims that it doesn't cost anything to self-publish. That's not true. Books still need edited and cover art. To cover that cost for one book was feasible for me, but not for a trilogy, so I chose to go with a specialist UK publisher, Tickety Boo Press, with The Inheritance Trilogy.
"I've had a good experience with them but my next book, Waters and the Wild, is a literary fantasy, a fairy road trip set in the Glens of Antrim, and I chose to go with another small publisher, Inspired Quill, who publish both fantasy and literary books."
With the popularity of sci-fi and fantasy at an all-time high, the mum-of-two finds herself competing for readers with hundreds if not thousands of other authors from Ireland and beyond, self-published and otherwise.
It's a difficult field in which to shine, but Joanne is certainly representing Northern Ireland on the global stage. "Science fiction is a shockingly male-dominated field and to get the encouragement I have from readers all around the world has been amazing."
Joanne now divides her time between running her own management consultancy and writing. She coaches writers, is a mentor for the Irish Writers' Centre, and will deliver a course on writing speculative fiction at the Crescent Arts Centre in 2017.
Unlike most writers, she doesn't have "a great dream" to give up the day job entirely, but confesses to wearing "a lot of different hats". She says: "I try to get through my to-do list by 4 o'clock and then write for a couple of hours. In quiet weeks, I hit the writing harder."
She has her family to thank for helping to make the creative freelance life run smoothly. "My daughters and my husband are great," she says.
"When the muse comes on, or I have a deadline to work to, I can be a little obsessive to say the least, and they are always supportive. The girls are older now and bring me cups of tea while I work, which is great.
"I'm mostly at home, with any meetings scheduled during school hours, and there's a lovely sense of stability with that.
"What has been a little harder, perhaps, is the change in regular income. I'm now self-employed, with all of the peaks and troughs that brings, and the family are realistic when things are a little slow, and then suddenly busy and crazy again."
It's been a huge transformation for Joanne, but one that she has firmly got to grips with.
She admits to being "very lucky" in being able to combine her creative pursuits with her profession, and has inspiring advice for those aiming to do the same in the New Year.
"If you do have a dream, find a way to make it work," is her advice.
"I think the fear factor is a big barrier for people hoping to change their lives, especially around money. I do think it's good if you can put a safety net in place. Reduce hours, for instance, rather than merrily walking out. Be realistic, ask what you're happy to sacrifice materially, and plan ahead.
"Always remember, you only have one life. I'm so glad I've used some of mine to tell my stories."