I am excited to introduce this week’s feature, Irish author and poet Gerry McCollough. Her novel Belfast Girls was chosen as the 2010 Night Reading Book of the Year.
Gerry McCullough is an award-winning short story writer, born and brought up in north Belfast. She is married to media producer, Raymond McCullough, has four children and lives in Co. Down, Northern Ireland.She has had between forty and fiftyshort stories published, but Belfast Girls is her first full-length novel.
1. How did you come to write Belfast Girls?
Growing up, as I did, during the troubles, I was very aware that all over the world there was a very simplistic view of what was happening in Northern Ireland, i.e. people seemed to believe that all Catholics thought one thing, and all Protestants thought something else, and that all Catholics hated all Protestants and vice versa. I knew that wasn’t true. It was so much more complex than that. Many on both sides of the divide were horrified at what was happening and only wanted peace and reconciliation. I wanted to write something to show, without lecturing, that a lot of ordinary people in Northern Ireland had no problem with each other – it was just a small percentage who were fighting; and another relatively small percentage who supported them. By the time the book was finished, the troubles were over, so recently I rewrote it to reflect the same thing in the current climate. Of course, like any writer, I also just wanted to write a book, whatever it was about. I had various characters in mind from the start, and I wanted to develop their lives.
2. Tell us about Belfast Girls in a short paragraph.
Belfast Girls is the story of three girls growing up in the new, emerging Belfast, after the ceasefires, and of their lives and loves. It is also the story of the men who matter to them. It is a thriller, a romance, a comedy – like most people’s lives. But it has, I hope, a lot more depth than that suggests. The three girls come from different religious backgrounds, and, starting off as childhood friends, they manage to hold on to that friendship in spite of everything. The plot includes kidnapping, drugs, high fashion, prison, and the spiritual awakening of one of the girls. I hope this is a book which both men and women can enjoy and which they will feel holds something for them.
3. Were you surprised by your novel’s success?
Yes, it’s been a great surprise and a delight to me. When I first read the review by the Ulster Tatler, which chose Belfast Girls as its Book of the Month in March, I couldn’t believe it. When I saw Belfast Girlslisted as No. 54 in Women’s Literary Fiction on UK Kindle early in March, its first appearance in a top 100, I thought I must have misread it, and even more so when the book reached No. 26 in Romance on USA Kindle. The final shock came when I heard I had won the Night Publishing Book of the Year Award. And yet, having said this, I’m daily hoping and almost expecting to see my book go up the charts even further and I’m so excited watching as it keeps on climbing!
4. What qualities do you think a serious writer should possess?
Above all, an interest in people. Without characters who come alive, no book will hold its readers’ attention. The plot matters, too, but it should be the sort of plot that emerges from the characters, not something artificial which has been imposed on them. Writing style is important, certainly, with a skilful, even poetic, use of words, and a clarity and flow which draw the reader on easily. No writer should try to use their book to teach or indoctrinate. Jane Austin is a model I would follow and recommend. She wrote about people, but in the course of that she covered many serious ideas about life, allowing them to emerge naturally.
5. How many revisions were done to your manuscript before it was sent to potential publishers?
I lost count! I always revise and then revise again until at last I feel I must stop sometime. The most serious revision was when, after being told repeatedly by English publishers that no one was interested in a book about the Troubles any more, I rewrote the whole thing, moving it to the modern, post-ceasefire Belfast.
6. How were you approached by Night Publishing?
I heard about Night Publishing through a friend on FaceBook. Bruce Esler, who had read my book on Authonomy.com and admired it, wanted to see the manuscript, and so I sent it along, and Tim Roux agreed that it was something Night Publishing should take. Needless to say, I was over the moon!
7. Are you working on anything new at present?
I’m halfway through a new book which is a similar type to Belfast Girls, partly romance and partly thriller, but I’ve had to shelve it to do some work with an editor on a collection of short stories which a local publisher is interested in publishing. We’ll see if anything comes of that – but I really want to get back to the unfinished book soon.
8. Someone nominated you for a Booker Award. Since there’s many readers who aren’t familiar with those awards, would you elaborate what they are and how they work?
I’m not actually nominated, Lori! A writing friend reviewing Belfast Girls said that she fully expected to see me win. The Booker Award is a very prestigious award in the UK with a large cash prize as well as considerable status and sales for the winning book; but it’s really aimed at the major publishers, who are expected to contribute to the expenses. Night Publishing isn’t really in a position to think seriously about entering books for this as yet, though who knows what the future holds? However, I’ve just heard that I’ve actually been selected as winner of Night Publishing’s own competition, the Night Publishing Book of the Year Award, and I’m more than delighted by this achievement. In fact, if people want to talk to me at the moment, they have to pull me down from the ceiling where I’ve been bouncing around since I heard!
9. What advice would you give to writers who aspire to be published?
Firstly, keep trying. Sooner or later someone out there is going to love your work and want to publish it. I would seriously recommend joining Night Publishing’s site, www.nightreading.ning.com, or even self-publishing, as so many people are doing now. Secondly, enjoy your work. Don’t let it become a burden. I’ve always wanted to write. For many years, I needed to earn a living, and wrote only in my spare time. That’s harder, but still very fulfilling. Recently, I’ve been able to concentrate more on writing. This has been great, but sometimes I find myself working too hard, and letting myself get under pressure. My advice is to enjoy the creativity in you, to have fun, and not to let yourself get weighed down. I sometimes find that I have a list of things to do, connected with my writing, which are not actual writing itself. When I notice this, I deliberately take a day off to do something quite different, and when I come back to it, I make decisions about that list, cut out some of the things, and spend some time actually being creative. I want to be a writer, not someone who never writes, but does lots of things connected with writing. The creative spirit within us is a wonderful thing, and we need to foster it.
10. Where can Belfast Girls be purchased?
Belfast Girls is for sale both as a paperback and in eBook format through Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Barnes and Noble and at Smashwords and various other eBook sellers.