A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Congratulations on the publication of your second novel, The Unknowns, Shirley! It’s a great read, lively, thought-provoking and very contemporary.
Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Thanks Sheena! The Unknowns is about a girl named Tilly who lives with her dad in Belfast. She is bright and generally well behaved, however, she secretly sneaks out at night to go free climbing. The story begins on the top of one of the Harland and Wolff cranes. As she descends she notices a young man standing at the bottom of the crane. His name is Brew and as she gets to know him she becomes involved in an underworld gang of young people who have parties in the ruin of Crumlin Road courthouse and go on missions to disrupt racist and sectarian activity in the city. As the story continues Tilly finds it harder to keep the activities secret from her father who is a journalist investigating the gang’s movements, believing that they are perpetrators in the acts of violence they are trying to disrupt.
I remember a couple of years ago on Facebook Melvin Burgess said something about the lack of political stories for young adults. I had a kind of Guy Fawkes/ V For Vendetta idea about the gang living underneath Stormont (although not necessarily blowing it up. But maybe…) and it made me think about the political buildings we have in NI which are now part of our troubled history and which remain as derelict buildings. So I decided the gang should be based in the old law courts on the Crumlin Road. I liked the idea of them using the political tensions here to their advantage- so for example they have wild parties when the police are diverted by nearby riots. At the same time I was turning over an idea which came from the name of a band: Vigilantes of Love. I remember a friends trying to visualise it as a movement: you’d get a loud knock at the door in the middle of the night and when you answered it would be a complete stranger to give you flowers and a hug. I have no idea why it was in my mind for this particular novel, but it made me think about having a gang who went around trying to deliberately disrupt violence, racism and sectarianism in NI, like an updated version of Enid Blyton’s ‘Put ‘Em Rights’.
I have friends who have done this kind of thing- some who have painted apologetic graffiti over hateful sectarian graffiti, or others who have stood outside the houses of threatened refugees until the threat had passed.
Northern Ireland gets terrible press and lot of it is completely justified, but we have these really brave people too- the kind of people who started movements that led to the end of the violence here. Politicians tend to be the ones who win prizes for that sort of thing but there are many ordinary people who have taken huge risks for peace too.
I also wanted the story to centre around a fat girl who takes it upon herself to go beyond the expectations of her family and friends, maybe even her own expectations. In my opinion there aren’t enough stories about fat girls who are doing things beyond worrying about being fat or trying to not be fat. So there is, I hope, a feminist element to the story as well.
Belfast is such a vivid setting; it’s almost a character in itself. You do that great thing where the city you describe can only be itself, and yet that very specifity makes it more universal. And speaking as a fellow Northern Irish writer, it’s so refreshing to see a picture of Belfast which is gritty and realistic but free of the lingering clichés of the past. Can you talk a bit about the importance of the setting?
I grew up firstly in the countryside, then in Lisburn (a town near Belfast). Lots of my friend were from Belfast, particularly East Belfast, and so I’d go to gigs there, hang out in the town, and I was quite into my religion as well so I’d go to Christian events there too. The Belfast of The Unknowns is a mixture of some of the places I knew as a young person (for example Delaney’s café, in the town centre, and the City Hall where as a kid you’d hear Paisley yelling at people through a loudhailer) and places I know now (the Ark café is based on a cafe called The Dock which is in the Titanic quarter, very near the famous Harland and Wolff cranes).
I’m glad you said that you feel the setting is important- it is really important to me. In both books I was really keen to give a feeling of the city that I know rather than an accurately mapped representation of it. So there are some made-up places and some real ones but I think it’s the feeling that matters. Of course it won’t feel like that for everyone who lives here- I’m from a time when there were different Belfasts and certainly parts which I wasn’t allowed to go into. This has changed a bit now and the city has opened up a bit more, but for a lot of people their ‘Belfast’ will be different to that of the people just a few streets away.
I know there’s a wonderful children’s book scene in the Republic of Ireland, but as a Northern Irish writer, with a publisher in London, do you ever feel on the edge of the YA or general children’s book scene in the UK? What’s it like for a YA writer in Northern Ireland?
Yes, a friend described it as being ‘a bit liminal’. It’s definitely a bit lonely here in Northern Ireland if you write for young adults! I do feel a bit like I don’t fit into either ‘scene’ and there isn’t really a YA scene in N Ireland (and many here feel that writing for teenagers isn’t really that difficult or important). But this reminds me that it can be a bit lonely being an actual young adult in N Ireland too. Sometimes they feel liminal – or that the adult world feels they are unimportant. So I try not to get too bothered about the lack of kudos attached to being a YA writer in NI, because actually people who genuinely love reading only really care if a story is any good or not- they don’t care where I came from or where I studied or who I’m friends with. I try to bear that in mind because I really want my focus to be on doing the best work that I can and taking care of that connection between the writing and the reader. It will speak for itself, in the end.
This is your second traditionally-published novel, after the equally impressive A Good Hiding last year. What do you feel you’ve learned in your first year as a published author? Is there anything you wish you’d known before? Any big surprises? Any advice you’d pass on to up-and-coming writers?
I don’t know if there’s anything I’d wish that I’d know in advance, but it has certainly been a learning curve. Being published was a long-time goal of mine and so it was amazing to achieve it after twenty years of writing and sending things away, and in many ways I am an emerging writer myself really. I have spent the past year asking established writers questions about how on earth to cope with the various anxieties about how to make a career happen once you’re on the path. I’ve mostly learned that it’s difficult for most people, and that the main thing is to carry on writing and not pay too much attention to anything else. A few months after the publication of A Good Hiding I wrote a piece for Writing.ie about rejection and ego* and it’s something I like to go back and re-read. Advice to anyone else who is about to published for the first time? Join supportive groups for published writers. Ask other published writers how they deal with difficult things. Don’t forget to celebrate your publication. Keep writing.
Your work with young people, particularly LGBTQ young people is well known in Northern Ireland. To what extent does that impact on your writing?
I think it has affected my writing a lot. Most of my characters actually form as composites of adult friends of mine with completely imaginary bits stuck on for good measure. But I have found bravery, good humour, creativity, resilience, kindness in the young people I’ve worked with over the years… all these qualities that people naturally have if you don’t try to fence them in, and it really is inspiring. Young LGBTQ people in Northern Ireland are living in a country which denies them the same rights as their straight/cisgender peers, a place where they will not infrequently hear the leaders of the country talk about them as if they’re something disgusting or dirty. Even just surviving is an act of resistance that I think everyone ought to notice. It shouldn’t be a struggle for them. We shouldn’t have a situation where, according to recent research, almost half of young LGBTQ people feel unsafe in their school. It would be a deliberate snub on my part if my stories didn’t have LGBTQ characters because the world I inhabit isn’t just straight and cisgender, so on one level I am writing what naturally occurs to me to write, but I am also aware that if you are an LGBTQ young person in NI it will be difficult for you to find stories set in NI with characters who you can relate to. I’d like to see that change and it would be particularly good to have those young people as the authors of their own stories. Imagine if we had a queer publishing house in NI which was putting out novels, poetry, non-fiction, history etc from the local LGBTQ community. I think that would be amazing.
The Unknowns is refreshingly political without being remotely didactic. Having also written about politics this year, albeit in the context of 1918, I was interested in how you tackled ideological issues. How interested would you say teen readers are in politics?
I don’t know if there’s a huge interest in things like Brexit or the collapse of NI Assembly. Maybe there is for some young people. But for a wider number there is certainly interest in the issues that these things affect; young people feel the unfairness of the ban on same-sex marriage, the unfairness of racism and violence against minority groups, the unfairness of homelessness and poverty, the unfairness of transgender people being denied access to a toilet… When you widen out those issues you find bad governments, bad laws, bad decisions about climate change, a lack of care at leadership level in the Western world. So I think young people are very aware and angry on a political level, even if they’re unsure how exactly the situations came about. I’d say that on some level their interest in political issues is more vital than for those adults who believe that the answer lies in everyone simply voting a different way. Voting makes a difference but for so many of us activism ends at the ballot box. The young people I work with want to be practical, they want to protest, they want to act.
Finally, can you give us any hints about what might be coming next from Shirley-Anne McMillan?
I am currently writing another YA, this time set on the North Coast of NI. The focus of it is narrower than with The Unknowns- one girl trying to balance her personality with what she knows is good for her, and one boy who makes her decision more complicated. There is a shipwreck, a séance, and lots of sneaking off into the forest. I’m enjoying writing it which is probably a good sign. I also have a ‘back burner’ novel that I’m starting to research. It will take some time before I even start writing it but it’s one of those ideas that won’t leave me alone and I love it when that happens- it’s like a secret message someone’s trying to send, and I wonder if I’ll ever find out what they’re trying to say.
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