Friday, January 21, 2011

Interview with Gerry McCullough author of "Belfast Girls" and a great deal more.

You were born and raised in Belfast, during very turbulent times. Can you share with us what is was like for you growing up in that time and place?

I’ve always loved Belfast. It’s my home city. But there’s no doubt that for a time, at the height of the troubles, it was no longer a good place to be. I remember incidents like being caught in the evacuation of a city centre area where a bomb had been left, seeing the clouds of smoke and hearing the noise of the explosion so close at hand. There were regular searches and checkpoints which were constant reminders of the risk of being there. There were tragic events, too, such as serious injuries to more than one of my friends. When I married, we moved out of the city, and I’ve always been glad that my children were able to grow up in a relatively safe environment.

When did you discover that writing was something you loved to do?

Do you know, I can’t even remember? Since I first learned to read, I’ve tried to write as well. It just seems to have been a basic instinct, to try to do something which gave me such pleasure when others did it.

What came first, poetry or prose?

Prose came first. I didn’t attempt to write poetry until I was in my teens, and then it was a very private process. But I wrote stories from early childhood, and made up plays for my friends and myself to act out as a regular game. At that time, I was happy to share what I’d written. Later I became very secretive about my prose writing, too, and would only show my stories to my close family.

Do you have a preference between them?

They fulfill different creative needs. My poems come mainly from a desire to create beauty by putting words together. My stories exist because I have the urge to create characters and to write about their lives. But having said that, the distinction isn’t always so clear cut. Some of my poems are about people; and I certainly want to use words to create effects in my prose as well as in my poetry.

You are married with grown children. Has this enabled you more time to dedicate to your writing, or were you able to write throughout raising the family with their support?

My family have always been very supportive, and having young children never stopped me from writing. In fact I had a useful built-in audience. The main difficulty was when I had a demanding full-time job after the children started school. It’s since I’ve been able to give it up my job and concentrate on my writing that I’ve been able to put in enough time to see some success.

What was your first published work?

My first published work, apart from a poem in a local paper and a number of articles in different magazines, was a short story which was accepted by the Irish weekly magazine Ireland’s Own. It was the first of my Tales of Old Seamus, about a lovable old rogue who isn’t too law abiding, but will do anything to help his friends. The magazine has been happy to publish these stories on a regular basis, and although they are much lighter than my other short stories, I always enjoy writing one, and have a specials affection for them.

Your husband Raymond is a talented singer/songwriter, have you combined your talents and produced things together that you would like to share?

There’s quite a long list. Some years ago, I worked with Raymond on the magazine Bread, which was sold all over Ireland, North and South. Raymond was editor and I was assistant editor. Raymond moved on to producing podcasts, running an internet radio, and producing a regular programme which is broadcast worldwide on satellite, and I’ve occasionally been involved in this, reading some news items, for instance, but mainly when he records one of my stories for podcasting. As far as the singing/songwriting goes, my only skill in this area is as a listener, so there he’s on his own.

You have had in excess of forty short stories published. Do you have a favourite? And if so why?

Of my lighter stories, two of the Old Seamus ones, The Parish Outing and The Cuckoo Clock, are my favourites. Both of them are, I think, particularly funny, and I also consider them better written. But they could be superseded at any moment, since I always, temporarily, think the story I’m currently writing is the best ever. Of my more serious stories, Dark Night, which has been published and has had some flattering things said of it, is one I particularly like, but so is Tigers, which I personally think is as good as anything I’ve ever written, but which has yet to find a publisher. Maybe some day!

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels? Or do they each fulfill the need to write in different ways?

A short story is easier because it’s short. A novel takes a lot more work. But I suppose my main desire has always been to write novels. Perhaps I write so many short stories because it’s the lazy way out. Both fulfill the creative urge which seizes me from time to time.

Belfast Girls is your first full length novel. What inspired you to write it?

I had written novels before - but this is the first published one, and gives me a marvelous sense of achievement! 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 ordinary people in Northern Ireland had no problem with each other - it was just a small percentage who were fighting.

By the time the book was finished, the troubles were over, so 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. And I wanted to create characters who had something of me in each of them, and write about them.

It has been very well received. How long did it take you to complete from word one to final manuscript?

I suppose the first version took me about six months. But then I edited and rewrote, and then rewrote it completely when I changed the date, and then went on editing. So the answer could be six months, or years and years, however you want to look at it.

In 2005 you won the Cuírt International Literary Award for 2005 (Galway); a very exciting event. Tell us about the winning entry, “Primroses”.

Did it change your life as far as publishing a story was concerned?

Primroses is a story about an elderly man, a widower, who is wrongly suspected by gossiping neighbours of being a pedophile, and of how he deals with this painful experience.

It wasn’t the first story I had published, but it was certainly the most important. When I heard I had won such a prestigious literary competition, I thought I had it made. Everyone would want to publish everything I had written from now on, and I could consider myself a successful, established author. Alas, I soon found out that that wasn’t how it was. The rejections kept coming. But then, so did the occasional acceptance. I had so much more confidence in my writing, and that was a major difference. It helped me to plough on, believing that since I had had this success, I would have others. It’s really just a question of keeping on keeping on, isn’t it?

This is what the judge Helon Habila had to say about "Primroses'

The Cuírt prize was judged by celebrated Nigerian writer, Helon Habila, who had this to say about the winning entry:

I choose Gerry McCullough’s ‘Primroses’ as winner because it is a simple and well judged story about very difficult themes: courage, paedophilia, and growing old. The author has managed to truly inhabit [her] narrator, to use his voice, and to clearly see his point of view – these make the story so convincing that the reader is not aware how difficult it is to achieve.

Age and the passage of time are shown in the change in the landscape, in the ugly square houses that have sprouted to replace the beautiful flower gardens of the narrator’s youth. The relationship between the narrator and the little girl, Jacqueline, is used to recapture the relationship between the narrator and his dead wife: youth and age, present and past are thus simultaneously captured in a single frame.

The narrator refuses to back down from his purely innocent relationship with Jacqueline even at the risk of being seen as a paedophile, this takes courage. Finally the story is about flowers – primroses – those beautiful, non-utilitarian things that symbolise the brittleness of existence, the fine balance on which everything rests, transience, and trust."

You have won and been short listed for a number of other awards, share that with us?

I won the Cuirt with Primroses in 2005. In 2006 I was runner-up in the Ireland’s Own/Original Writing Open Short Story competition, for The Cuckoo Clock. In 2008 I was short-listed in the Brian Moore Short Story Awards, for Stevie’s Luck. In Spring 2009 I won the Star Prize in Ulla’s Nib, the Magazine of the Creative Writers’ Network, for Slipping, and in September 2009 my story Giving Up was commended in the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and selected to be included in the Stinging Fly Anthology, Sharp Sticks and Driven Nails, published in October 2010. This has all been very encouraging. A bit of success now and then is a great help!

You have two more completed novels

 “Lady Molly and the Snapper”

Brother and sister Jik and Nora are bored and angry. Why does their Dad spend so much time since their mother’s death drinking and ignoring them?

Then they meet the Snapper, a cross looking saint with a sailor’s cap, who takes them back in time on the yacht Lady Molly to meet Cucholain the Irish warrior and others.

Jik and Nora plan to use their travels to find some way of stopping their father from drinking - but it’s fun, too!

Or is it? When they meet the Druid priest who follows them into modern times, teams up with school bully Charlie Flanagan, and threatens them, things start getting out of hand.

Meanwhile, Nora is more than interested in Sean, the boy they keep bumping into in the past…

“Not The End of the World.”

It’s the end of the world! Or is it? Merc Swingly, young, naive employee of the seven multi-national companies running the planet Luxuria, is sent back, after a scary dream, to save the planet. He has to contend with his crocodile-smiling boss, Flacker Winterbotham; the terrorist organisation, the Twisted Rosebud; and the Twisted Rosebud’s unknown leader.

But he has help - his smart, tough wife, Seraphina, his personal supernatural yuppie advisor, ‘Mr Brown’, Alexa, the feisty orphan, and the sexy Kyra Hotberthy – who may or may not be on his side!

Will Merc manage to carry out his mission?

If you can stop laughing long enough, you’ll find out!

Please share with us what they are about, and again what inspired you to write both of them?

Lady Molly is a children’s/YA story about time travel, in which the children go back to important eras in Ireland’s history. Not the End of the World is a comic fantasy novel (think Terry Pratchett with a touch of CS Lewis) set in the future. I wrote both of them because, as I think CS Lewis once said, they are the sort of books I want to read myself. I’m still hoping to have both of them published before too long.

Do you currently have a new work in progress?

Yes, while Belfast Girls was still looking for a publisher, I began a follow up book of the same type, although with different characters, and had worked up to halfway through when my agent suggested I should go on Authonomy. Since then I’ve hardly had time to breathe!

You made the Editors desk on Authonomy the Harper Collins site. That in itself is an awesome feat. How did you find the Authonomy experience?

Weird, wonderful and both physically and emotionally exhausting! Some really good things came out of it for me. I would never have heard of my present publishers, Night Publishing, if it had not been for my Authonomy friends and contacts, so I have to be very grateful for that. Besides, it has opened several doors in terms of publicity, getting my name known, etc, so that has to be a good thing.

Would you recommend Authonomy to other writers for gathering feedback on their work?

I went on Authonomy on the advice of my agent, Bill Jeffrey of the Wordsmith’s Forge, and I certainly gained from it. It’s good to have had my book reviewed by experts like Harper Collins, even if I don’t accept all their advice. They felt I should change my approach to make the book genre specific, either romance or thriller.

 But I believe a writer should be free to write about life in all its aspects. I now know that I could have had good feedback, and been published, if I had gone on Night Publishing earlier. Authonomy has a lot to offer, but I would only recommend it to anyone if they have the stamina for a long haul! I spent six months working long days every day, with practically no breaks, on the site. The changes they have recently made may mean that isn’t so necessary now, but I take leave to doubt it!

The world of publishing is undergoing enormous change, where do you see it heading?

Undoubtedly, as more and more people buy Kindles, iPads, etc, the eBook is going to become more and more natural and normal. A dozen years ago, few people used the internet. Now those who don’t are becoming the exceptions. I think people who don’t have eBook readers will be the exceptions twenty years from now.

Your work is available on Kindle, yet many people still come to your book signings and readings, do you believe the paperback novel will survive the new innovation of eBooks?

Yes, I think there will always be people (including myself) who will want to read an actual paperback or even hardback book. I have a collection of books, bought over the years, which I know will never be available on Kindle because they are not classics or best sellers, but which I really love, and reread. Many of these I have had to buy second hand because they are out of print. The eBook reader can never replace these. I would see the place of eBooks as an addition to paperbacks, not a replacement.

What are you plans personally and professionally for the next 12 months?

To try to publicise Belfast Girls as much as possible. To finish my follow-up book. And to try to get some rest!

Do you have a special place where you sit and write?

Yes, when our children moved out, we transformed two of the bedrooms into offices, one for my husband Raymond and one for myself. I need to be on my own if I’m going to write. I’m not one of these multi-tasking women you hear about who can chat and write and cook a four course meal all at the same time. When I write, I need to be able to concentrate.

 I aim to write at least a thousand words a day, and having a special place to go into for that purpose helps to get me started. I used, years ago, to write in an old notebook on my knee, curled up in an armchair. But then it all had to be typed. Nowadays I write my first draft straight onto the computer, and of course that’s so much easier. Have I already mentioned that I’m lazy? Anything that makes life easier is a blessing!


By Jessica L. Degarmo -
This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)

Not only is this book an entertaining read, it's also an important look at the life and times of young women in Ireland. This book has a depth to it that adds to its believability. The issues of religious struggle, coming of age, and high fashion are expertly woven into the plot so that we care about the characters. The author has done an amazing job with this work, and it deserves to go far. Hats off to Ms. McCullough!

5.0 out of 5 stars wonderfully written!
By Mel Comley (France) - This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)
I loved this book. The characters were believable and as a reader I felt connected with them straight away.

Also loved the fact the book takes place in Ireland it's a place I've always enjoyed reading about but never had the fortune of vistiting.

An intelligent read that has been wonderfully written.

You won't be sorry if you buy this stunning novel.

5.0 out of 5 stars Troubles of a different sort, December 1, 2010

By T. Hewtson LE ROUX -
This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)

I suppose it is true of most places that are covered in the news daily for years; when the story is over, we rarely hear what happens next.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the violence of the IRA and the UDA has been taken up by drug gangs (a bit like the former KGB still controls Russia, but in another form).

I certainly hadn't associated Belfast with the fashion industry. I hold my breath for when Belfast fashions arrive in Hull.

'Belfast Girls' is an excellent street-level briefing on Northern Ireland in the Troubles and post-Troubles era, seen through the eyes of three girls who are schoolfriends. One gets directly into drugs and ODs, another gets into someone who is an opo for a drugs syndicate, and the third gets into fashion which is also a drug in its way.

The supermodel among them, Sheila has probably the most comprehensively irritating boyfriend in the history of fiction - an update to Jane Austen's Darcy whose appeal I have never understood - a portrait which is not only accurate of a certain sort of man, but also emblematic of the political and religious prejudices that have blighted Northern Ireland. It is fascinating how Gerry McCullough can make a 'righteous' character appear generally more low-life than Phil's drug dealer boyfriend who may indeed be the more principled of the two leading males, until the self-righteous John redeems himself.

In short, the streets of Belfast remain as dark as the front cover, but the writing is both educational and compelling.

5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a MUST read., November 28, 2010By Soooz Burke -

This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)

Author Gerry McCullough has not merely written a book. She has lovingly crafted a work that insinuates itself into your soul.

The world of the 'Belfast Girls' is life in Northern Island as it is today, a contemporary world steeped in ancient traditions.

Gerry McCullough has given life to her characters, they live and breath, laugh, hope, cry and dare to dream.

You cannot help but become connected with them, such is the nature of the book and the skilled hand of a craftsman or in ths case craftswoman at work. She lures you into their world and you are there with them, feeling their pain and sharing their joys.

The pacing is fast, the characterizations are truly memorable. Be aware...this book is un-put-down-able, so allow the time to enjoy it in one sitting.

Bravo Gerry McCullough, you have crafted a book that will endure.

5.0 out of 5 stars Booker Prize Contender, December 9, 2010) This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)

I can't help quoting this amazing article! Teresa Geering says, " I have just finished reviewing Belfast Girls and I sincerely believe it has the potential to be shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.

Belfast Girls is primarily about the lives of several friends, totally unaffected by different religious beliefs which is considered against all the rules.

As we move through the years, the writing expertise of Gerry McCullough, cleverly shows us how lives can be so deeply affected by religious and political issues of the Irish nation. Yet strength of friendship can still maintain and provide solidarity.

The story begins within the fashion world, and we learn that Sheila Doherty has survived the gangly carrot top teenage years and matured into a beautiful, green eyed, red haired super model walking the famous cat walk.

Nicknamed the Ice Maiden through indifferences in her personal life she contentedly lives up to the image.

Her friends pass through her life at various stages, including her original love interest John Branagh a reporter with BBC TV. Will they ever get together I kept asking myself?

We watch with bated breath, as drug gangs intent on holding their territory to the extent of murder are introduced into the story. Close friends from childhood, each following their own political viewpoint.

As we move on to the closing chapters, we observe Shelia Doherty now an international star walking the famous cat walk for Delmara Fashions. Suddenly hooded gunmen break in and in the mayhem Shelia is kidnapped due to mistaken identity ..............

BELFAST GIRLS for me has been an absolute pleasure to review. This is a story that held my interest from beginning to the unexpected ending.

Like many other readers of BELFAST GIRLS, I would certainly recommend it as a 5 star read.

A serious contender for the 2011 BOOKER PRIZE"

5.0 out of 5 stars Get Ready For A Wild Ride!, January 9, 2011

A Kid's Review
This review is from: Belfast Girls (Paperback)

From the very first paragraph author Gerry McCullough "abducted" this reader. She forced me into a car and took me down the dark, icy, uncertain streets of Belfast. I had no choice in the matter. All I could do was clutch the armrest and go for the ride.

I'd never had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland's capital city until this book transported me there. Not only is the imagery cinematic, but you can also touch, smell, feel, and hear Belfast during some of its most trying times. As for the characters and their dilemmas...well...just read the first few pages.

It's no surprise this book has done so well since its recent release.

Thomas J. Winton

author - Beyond Nostalgia

Time to plug your sites: (Podcasts of my 'Old Seamus" short stories, published in Ireland's Own; and one of Actress Kate O'Toole reading Primroses, the Cuirt prize winner.)

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  1. Excellent interview with refreshingly honest answers. Gerry seems to encapsulate the paradox of publishing today - she's obviously a talented writer (the prizes, reviews and commendations are proof of that) and yet she wasn't snapped up by a publisher years ago. Ridiculous. The Harper Collins remark about making the book 'more genre-specific' says more about their limited perceptions than her talents as a writer.

    Thanks. I enjoyed this.

  2. Soooz, thanks so much! If reading this article doesn't make people buy Belfast Girls, then Nothing will! What a marvellous interview!

  3. Gerry is an awesome writer and I loved "Belfast Girls". Looking forward to future books by Gerry and hoping for a sequel too.

    Renee Quail

  4. Anything to help both you lovely ladies,
    Tee x

  5. Wow! What an interesting and particularly fascinating woman. With 40 short stories under her belt, I am deeply impressed, myself having just taken the decision to start writing ss before I begin my next novel.

    I think the book signings are so much more personal than selling a book online, although of course, the revenue matters, too. But I truly hope I will be able to sign my own published novel one day.

    Great interview.
    CJ xx

  6. Great interview, Soooz. Gerry was always gonna be good subject matter! xx


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