Thursday, March 10, 2011

Snapshot of Success Update! Gerry McCullough and "Belfast Girls"

Gerry McCullough: Author of "Belfast Girls."

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Gerry recently, the following is a brief excerpt from that interview, followed by more questions for Gerry on how life has changed since publication of Belfast Girls.

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.

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.

Questions I asked Gerry this week about life since publication.

1. Has your life changed since publication of your work? If so in what way?

Well, I haven’t become famous overnight, as Lord Byron did when his poetry was first published.  Though several times people have recognized me or have heard of the book, or have asked family members or friends if the person they are hearing about is ‘your mum’ or whatever!  What I seem to have become is fantastically busy.  Night Publishing, my publisher, expects its authors to share in the job of publisizing their book, and even before the book was up on Amazon I sat down with my agent and my husband and planned what we could do.  This included radio interviews, extra work on Facebook, etc, blogs, a Press Release, and a book launch in Belfast.  While the three of us shared the work, and I’m extremely grateful to them both, I myself had quite a bit to do.

And of course when it came to going on the radio and reading at the book launch, I was the one who did it.  It’s been great fun, especially the book launch, which for me was really a night to remember.  But it was pretty well non-stop activity up until Christmas.  Then I felt I needed a short break if I wasn’t going to collapse in a melted puddle.  I’m back in the swing again now, but trying to pace myself.

2. Are you writing a sequel, prequel, or do you have a new novel in progress at the moment?

I don’t have any ideas for a sequel, although some people have said they’d love to read one.  What I do have is a book which has reached the halfway mark, of the same type as Belfast Girls, that is a story about two girls, mainly set in Belfast, which includes love and thriller-type action.  This one is possibly more of a thriller, I think.

However, since Belfast Girls was accepted, and even more since it was published, I’m finding it very hard to get back to this book.  I’ve found time for a number of short stories, mainly because I don’t want to miss deadlines and lose my market for these.  But for me writing a book involves more concentration.  I can’t just switch on and write a bit and then switch off and go back to something else, as I could with a short story.

A book is much more of a fulltime occupation, I’ve always found.  I definitely plan to get back to it soon.  But I also have two other books which I have already written, though both of them are very different from Belfast Girls, as well as two collections of short stories, so who knows what will come next?

3. What advice can you offer other writers about getting their work published?

First of all, don’t give up.  Getting published is usually a long, hard process.  Oh, we hear of people whose first book was immediately accepted in their early twenties, and who went on to tremendous success.  But these are very much the exceptions.  Most well known writers will tell you of the years of rejections and the determination needed to keep at it.  Rejection is a painful process.  But writing is not only an art based on inspiration, it is also a craft which can be learnt.

There are tools nowadays which will help the struggling author, such as internet sites where you can put your book up and receive lots of advice, some good, some bad, some great.  Night Reading, the site run by my own publishers, Night Publishing, is one of the best.  And if you can afford it, there are good editors available whose help may make all the difference.  Last of all, don’t give up!   The difference between being a failure and being successful is whether you keep on trying.

4. Did you have assistance in editing your book for publication? If so was it the publisher themselves or outside editing.

When I was writing Belfast Girls, I had the help of my husband Raymond, an expert proofreader and editor who read it through and corrected many things I’d missed. I also edit everything I write several times myself, to try to make sure it’s correct, although it’s amazing how you can still miss something even then.

When I put Belfast Girls up on Authonomy, the Harper Collins website, a very kind Authonomy ‘friend’ who is a professional editor, John Hudspith, edited the first chapter for me and I know improved it considerably.  But the main editing was carried out by my publisher, Tim Roux of Night Publishing, and I’m very grateful to him for the work he put in on that.  Tim told me the number of changes he felt were needed was minimal, but it still matters to have a professional go over the book.  Mind you, he has a queer fetish of hating commas, and removed them by the bucketful.  Personally I think this is just a fashion, and that the comma is a useful tool which has its place in making a piece of writing easy to follow and understand, but I have to admit that all editors these days have the same idea.  Death to the comma!  And certainly if a book is to be accepted, it must fall into line with the current fashions to some extent.  Seriously, I’m really grateful to Tim for applying his editing skills and expertise to Belfast Girls.

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

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

January 21, 2005.
The street lights of Belfast glistened on the dark pavements, where even now, with the troubles officially over, few people cared to walk alone at night. John Branagh drove slowly, carefully, through the icy streets.
In the distance, he could see the lights of the Magnifico Hotel, a bright contrasting centre of noise, warmth and colour.
He felt again the excitement of the news he’d heard today.
Hey, he’d actually made the grade at last – full-time reporter for BBC TV, right there on the local news programme, not just a trainee, any longer.
The back end shifted a little as he turned a corner. He gripped the wheel tighter and slowed down even more. There was black ice on the roads tonight. Gotta be careful.
So, he needed to work hard, show them he was keen. This interview, now, in this hotel? This guy Speers? If it turned out good enough, maybe he could go back to Fat Barney and twist his arm, get him to commission it for local TV, the Hearts and Minds programme, maybe? Or even – he let his ambition soar – go national? Or how’s about one of those specials everybody seemed to be into right now?
There were other thoughts in his mind, but as usual he pushed them down out of sight. Sheila Doherty would be somewhere in the hotel tonight. But he had plenty of other stuff to think about, to steer his attention away from past unhappiness.
No need to focus on anything right now but his career and its hopeful prospects.
Montgomery Speers, better get the name right. New Member of the Legislative Assembly, wanted to give his personal views on the peace process and how it was working out. Yeah. Wanted some publicity, more like. Anti, of course, or who’d care? But that was just how people were.
John curled his lip. He had to follow it up. It could give his career the kick start it needed.
But he didn’t have to like it.

Inside the Magnifico, all was bustle and chatter, especially in the crowded space behind the catwalk. The familiar fashion show smell, a mixture of cosmetics and hair dryers, was overwhelming.
Sheila Doherty sat before her mirror, and felt a cold wave of unhappiness surge over her. How ironic it was, that title the papers gave her, today’s most super supermodel. She closed her eyes and put her hands to her ears, trying to shut everything out for just one snatched moment of peace and silence.
Every now and then, it came again. The pain. The despair. A face hovered before her mind’s eye, the white, angry face of John Branagh, dark hair falling forward over his furious grey eyes. She deliberately blocked the thought, opening her eyes again. She needed to slip on the mask, get ready to continue on the surface of things. Where her life was perfect.
“Comb that curl over more to the side, will you, Chrissie?” she asked. “So it shows in front of my ear. Yeah, that's right – if you just spray it there – thanks, pet.”
The hairdresser obediently fixed the curl in place. Sheila's long red-gold hair gleamed in the reflection of three mirrors, positioned to show every angle.
Everything had to be perfect – as perfect as her life was supposed to be. The occasion was too important to allow for mistakes.
Her fine-boned face, with its clear translucent skin like ivory, crowned with the startling contrast of her hair, looked back at her from the mirror, green eyes shining between thick black lashes – black only because of the mascara.
She examined herself critically, considering her appearance as if it were an artefact which had to be without flaw to pass a test.
She stood up.
“Brilliant, pet,” she said. “Now the dress.”
The woman held out the dress for Sheila to step into, then carefully pulled the ivory satin shape up around the slim body and zipped it at the back. The dress flowed round her, taking and emphasizing her long, fluid lines, her body slight and fragile as a daydream. She walked over to the door, ready to emerge onto the catwalk. She was very aware that this was the most important moment of one of the major fashion shows of her year.
The lights in the body of the hall were dimmed, those focussed on the catwalk went up, and music cut loudly through the sudden silence. Francis Delmara stepped forward and began to introduce his new spring line.
For Sheila, ready now for some minutes and waiting just out of sight, the tension revealed itself as a creeping feeling along her spine. She felt suddenly cold, and her stomach fluttered.
It was time, and dead on cue she stepped lightly out onto the catwalk and stood, holding the pose, for a long five seconds, as instructed, before swirling forward to allow possible buyers a fuller view.
She was greeted by gasps of admiration, then a burst of applause. Ignoring the reaction, she kept her head held high, her face calm and remote, as far above human passion as some elusive, intangible figure of Celtic myth, a Sidhe, a dweller in the hollow hills, distant beyond man’s possessing – just as Delmara had taught her.
This was her own individual style, the style which had earned her the nickname ‘Ice Maiden’ from the American journalist Harrigan. She moved forward along the catwalk, turned this way and that, and, finally, swept a low curtsey to the audience before standing there, poised and motionless.
Delmara was silent at first, to allow the sight of Sheila, in one of his most beautiful creations, its maximum impact. Then he began to draw attention to the various details of the dress.
It was time for Sheila to withdraw. Once out of sight, she began a swift, organised change to her next outfit, while Delmara’s other models were in front.
No time yet for her to relax, but the show seemed set for success.

MLA Montgomery Speers waited for the preliminary interview set up later with local television. He sat in the front row of Delmara’s Fashion Show with his latest blonde girlfriend by his side, and allowed himself to feel relieved.
Francis Delmara had persuaded him to put money into Delmara Fashions, and particularly into financing Delmara’s supermodel, Sheila Doherty, and he was present tonight in order to see for himself if his investment was safe. He thought, even so early in the show, that it was.
He was a broad shouldered man in his early forties, medium height, medium build, red-cheeked, and running slightly to fat. There was nothing particularly striking about his appearance except for the piercing dark eyes set beneath heavy, jutting eyebrows.
His impressive presence stemmed from his personality, from the aura of power and aggression which surrounded him.
A businessman first and foremost, he had flirted with political involvement for several years. He stood successfully for election to the local council, feeling the water cautiously with one toe while he made up his mind. Would he take the plunge and throw himself whole-heartedly into politics?
The new Assembly gave him his opportunity, if he wanted to take it. More than one of the constituencies offered him the chance to stand for a seat. He was a financial power in several different towns, where his computer hardware companies provided much needed jobs. He was elected to the seat of his choice with no trouble. The next move was to build up his profile, grab an important post once things got going, and progress up the hierarchy.
In an hour or so, when the Fashion Show was over, he would meet this young TV reporter, for some preliminary discussion of a possible interview, or appearance on a discussion panel. He was slightly annoyed that someone so junior had been lined up to talk to him. John Branagh, that was the name, wasn’t it? Never heard of him. Should have been someone better known, at least. Still, this was only the preliminary. They would roll out the big guns for him, soon enough, when he was more firmly established. Meanwhile, his thoughts lingered on the beautiful Sheila Doherty.
If he wanted her, he could buy her, he was sure. And more and more, as he watched her, he knew that, yes, he wanted her.

Behind the scenes, Sheila checked hair and makeup. A small mascara smear needed to be removed, a touch more blusher applied. In a few minutes, she was ready. But something held her back.
She stared at herself in the mirror, and saw a cool, beautiful woman, the epitome of poise and grace. She knew that famous, rich, important men over two continents would give all their wealth and status to possess her, or so they said. She was an icon, according to the papers. That meant, surely, something unreal. Something artificial, painted or made of stone.
And what was the good? There was only one man she wanted. John Branagh.
And he’d pushed her away. He believed she was a whore – a tart – someone not worth touching. What did she do to deserve that?
It wasn’t fair! she told herself passionately. He went by rules that were medieval. No-one nowadays thought the odd kiss mattered that much. Oh, she was wrong. She’d hurt him, she knew she had. But if he’d given her half a chance, she’d have apologised – told him how sorry she was. Instead of that, he’d called her such names – how could she still love him after that? But she knew she did.
How did she get to this place, she wondered? The dream of romantic fiction, the dream of so many girls? A place she hated, now? Where men thought of her, more and more, as a thing, an object to be desired, not a person. When did her life go so badly wrong? She thought back to her childhood, to the skinny, ginger-haired girl she once was. Okay, she hated how she looked. But otherwise, surely, she was happy? Or was that only a false memory?
“Sheila - where are you?"
The hairdresser poked her head round the door and saw Sheila with every sign of relief.
“Thank goodness! Come on, love, only got a minute! Delmara says I’ve to check your hair. Wants it tied back for this one.”
The evening was almost at its climax. The show began with evening dress, and now it was to end with evening dress – but this time, with Delmara's most beautiful and exotic lines. Sheila stood up and shook out her frock, a cloud of short ice-blue chiffon, sewn with glittering silver beads and feathers. She and Chrissie between them swept up her hair, allowing a few loose curls to hang down her back and one side of her face, fixed it swiftly into place with two combs, and clipped on more silver feathers. She fastened on long white earrings with a pearly sheen, and slipped her feet into the stiletto heeled silver shoes left ready and waiting.
She moved over to the doorway for her cue. There was no time to think, or to feel the usual butterflies. Chloe came off, and she counted to three and went on.
There was an immediate burst of applause.
To the loud music of Snow Patrol, Sheila half floated, half danced along the catwalk, her arms raised ballerina fashion. When she had given sufficient time to allow the audience their fill of gasps and appreciation, she moved back and April and Chloe appeared, in frocks with a similar effect of chiffon and feathers, but with differences in style and colour. It was Delmara's spring look for evening wear, and she could tell at once that the audience loved it.
The three girls danced and circled each other, striking dramatic poses as the music died down sufficiently to allow Delmara to comment on the different features of the frocks.
With part of her mind, Sheila knew that the audience was warm and relaxed now, full of good food and drink, with minds absorbed in beauty and fashion, ready to spend a lot of money. Dimly in the background she heard the sounds of voices shouting and feet running.
The door to the ballroom burst open.
People began to scream.
It was something Sheila had heard about for years now, the subject of local black humour, but had never before seen.
Three figures, black tights pulled over flattened faces as masks, uniformly terrifying in black leather jackets and jeans, surged into the room.
The three sub-machine guns cradled in their arms sent deafening bursts of gunfire upwards. Falling plaster dust and stifling clouds of gun smoke filled the air.
For one long second they stood just inside the entrance way, crouched over their weapons, looking round. One of them stepped forward and grabbed Montgomery Speers by the arm.
“Move it, mister!” he said. He dragged Speers forcefully to one side, the weapon poking him hard in the chest.
A second man gestured roughly with his gun in the general direction of Sheila.
“You!” he said harshly. “Yes, you with the red hair! Get over here!”

The Modern World - review of Belfast Girls by Kellie Chambers (Ulster Tatler)
by Gerry McCullough - Irish writer & poet on Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 6:31am
Belfast Girls  (Ulster Tatler 'Book of the Month', March 2011)
by Gerry McCullough
Night Publishing

Available as paperback on ($12.99), 
in Kindle ebook format on both ($3.44) and (£2.18)

Co. Down author Gerry McCullough's new novel Belfast Girls is a fascinating exploration of post-conflict Belfast.  The novel focuses on three friends: Sheila Doherty, Philomena Maguire and Mary Branagh.  Within the novel, McCullough charters the lives and loves of the girls as they progress from their schooldays to adulthood.

From a tender young age Sheila considers herself an 'ugly duckling', who can never live up to the beauty of her mother.  However as she gets older she grows into her looks and soon takes the world by storm as a successful super-model dubbed the 'ice maiden'.  However Sheila's cool exterior hides secret heartache.  Philomena may seem lucky in love when she is reunited with her childhood sweetheart Davy.  However Davy is entangled in the local crime scene and Phil eventually must decide whether to betray Davy in order to save herself.  Mary is the wild card amongst the three girls.  However after hitting rock bottom, Mary is left with the unenviable task of trying to rebuild her life from scratch.

Belfast Girls is an original novel, providing a refreshing examination of modern-day Belfast.  Through the friendship of the three friends, who are from different religious backgrounds, McCullough shows how people are starting to unite and move on from the damage done during the Troubles.  However, McCullough's writing is far from naive and she shows how there are still undercurrents of tension throughout the province threatening to erupt at any time.  This is skillfully illustrated by McCullough's portrayal of the drug scene which has become rife in the city since the peace process.  What makes McCullough's writing so fascinating is her refusal to make characters and situations merely black and white - instead she exposes the grey areas, making the novel much more realistic.

Belfast Girls is a multilayered novel, which expertly travels from one genre to the next.  With themes of romance, adventure, glamour, drugs and kidnapping, McCullough's debut novel will not fail to excite.  Her punchy, well paced text ensures the novel maintains the reader's attention from start to finish.  McCullough, who has had a distinguished reputation as a successful short story writer for many years, perfectly showcases that she can carry the weight of a full length novel with ease; Belfast Girls is an impressive debut, which perfectly showcases her innate literary talent, whilst marking her out as a name to watch in future.

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