We caught up with Sue to find out more about her time on the course, her approach to writing and the inspiration behind her debut…
You studied on our Edit & Pitch Your Novel course in 2018. How did your time studying online with us impact your writing journey?
The six-week online Edit & Pitch course was critical to my breakthrough with the novel – and no, I’m not just saying that, I actually mean it. My novel is set in summer 2016 and that’s when I started writing it. Prior to that point I hadn’t written fiction since GCSE’s in school. Through 2016/17 I wrote the first draft of the novel without telling a soul I was writing. Early 2018 was the start of my journey beginning to admit to myself and others, that I was a writer.
Joining the CBC Edit and Pitch course in January 2018 was a big step. Online was perfect. I live in Derry in the north west of Ireland and specialist local writing courses are virtually non-existent. The CBC course was the first time I’d connected with other emerging writers, the first time I’d had structured teaching, the first time I’d invested in myself as a writer and the first time I’d had feedback on my novel. It wasn’t just that the course taught me vital skills such as self-editing, honing plot, how to write cover letters and a succinct synopsis, it was also a chance to gauge the level I was writing at and start to believe.
I’d highlight three particular outcomes for me from the course. Firstly, a chapter and some scenes written as course exercises are in the published novel. Secondly, I’m still in touch with many of the writers I met on the course – some were fantastic beta readers in the early stages. Finally, the ‘elevator pitch’ and the advice to hone your novel into a single sentence or question struck such a resonance, that the question I formulated on the course not only helped a winning pitch to my now agent but is also printed on the novel cover. What if peace is harder than war?
Your debut YA novel Guard Your Heart (published by Macmillan) is out now. How does it feel to be a published author?
Miraculous. I’m glad I wrote the first draft with a complete naivety about the height of slushpiles and the competitiveness of the industry. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’d have started if I’d known. Not only has each step of the journey felt like a miracle – it’s actually been quite hard to believe.
I remember key moments so distinctively. A text message from a friend. December 2018. Please tell me you’ve checked your emails? (I hadn’t.) Guard Your Heart was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Later the same day, driving through the Sperrin mountains, my mobile buzzed. In pitch black, with dodgy 4G and rain almost drowning out the call, the Irish Writers Centre told me I’d made the final of the Irish Novel Fair 2019 – a pitch event to agents and publishers. An April Monday morning in the office, an email from Laura Williams of Greene and Heaton. ‘I sat down this weekend to read your book, and I completely fell in love with it… I’d absolutely love to work with you.’ My birthday in July 2019, during a flash fiction writing course in Donegal, a phone call to say one publisher had made an offer and another was interested. Later that month, in my hometown of Armagh I was at the John Hewitt Summer School on a writer’s bursary, sat on marble steps outside the theatre, when the phone call came to confirm the deal was agreed with Macmillan. It took until August, the flight home from London after a meeting with my editor in Macmillan, before it actually sank in. Guard Your Heart was going to be on bookshelves.
Right now, it still feels miraculous. I also feel very grateful and humbled. In some ways, the journey wasn’t about me becoming a published author, it was about getting the story out there – which happens to lead nicely into the next question…
The story is set in post-Troubles Northern Ireland, it follows two star-crossed teenagers from opposing religious backgrounds as they struggle against their differences to be together. Can you tell us a bit more about your novel and the inspiration behind it?
I have two main answers to this. The not-so-literary one is ‘boredom’. Envisage evenings on repeat as follows: child sleeping, single parent, tatty armchair, no babysitter, every night, after work, day after week, month after year… Somewhere around year two the TV lost its appeal, I got an idea for a story and started typing. Characters turned into company and walls turned into opportunity.
The more professional sounding answer relates to my day job. For over fifteen years I’ve worked in peace and reconciliation in Derry, Northern Ireland. In 2016 much of the peacebuilding focus was on what we term the ‘Decade of Centenaries.’ Ireland from 1912 – 1922 went through a period of turbulence and violence – politics and power struggles between those fighting for independence from Britain and those fighting to remain part of the UK. 2016 was the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in WW1 (of particular significance to the Unionist / Protestant community) and the Easter Rising (of particular significance to the Nationalist / Catholic community). In the Community Relations field I work in, people were asking how we could explore history in a way which also remembered our future. Home in the tatty armchair after work each evening, my brain was asking who is telling today’s story? Aidan and Iona and Guard Your Heart were birthed out of that process. I wanted to tell the story of two teenagers, both born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal who had never lived a single day during The Troubles. I wanted to write the legacy of the Troubles and the complexity of peace.
It’s apt that Guard Your Heart is published in the centenary year of the creation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland. It’s even more significant now that we see the impact of Brexit on our peace process. People often have such a reductionist picture of Northern Ireland, yet have never actually had the opportunity to empathise with the courage it takes to build peace in the legacy of trauma and division. Some of the closest comparisons to aid wider understanding might lie in understanding race relations – like the complexity and depth of important issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement – or in our understanding that the Covid pandemic will have long term mental health, domestic violence, social, economic and family impacts. Why would we think thirty years of violence with political, historical and cultural root causes in Northern Ireland wouldn’t take time to heal?
In the author note at the end of the novel I put it like this: Often Northern Ireland is explained in simple terms – ‘It’s about Catholics and Protestants…’ When it’s put like that, it’s easy to think ‘Why don’t they just get over it?’ The truth is much more complicated. Religion is just the simplest label for complex political, historical, cultural, human rights and identity issues… Why do I write? I like to make people think. I hope that Guard Your Heart will do that. Conflict dehumanises the ‘other.’ Stories connect us to the ‘other’. I write because fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy, and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace.’
The Northern Irish setting of the book is crucial to the narrative and the characterisation of your protagonists. What came first – the setting or your characters?
In a sense, they are both intertwined. I wanted two protagonists who had never lived a single day during the Troubles here, but yet who found their lives still deeply impacted by them. I also wanted the dry wit and self-depreciation in Derry humour (think Derry Girls…) and a fair smattering of the local hiberno-English (Think of the gaffer in Line of Duty and, Mother of God, you’ll be sucking diesel.) For good measure, fire in an element of the romance from Normal People.
Given my day job, and the ‘write what you know’ mantra, it made sense to write about Derry and the legacy of the Troubles. The novel is narrated in alternative chapters by Aidan and Iona – both eighteen and both born on the day of the Good Friday Peace deal, yet both from very different identities. Who they are goes beyond the stereotypical he’s Catholic, she’s Protestant. Big questions explored in the book resonate elsewhere. Can teenagers escape identity conflicts inherited from their parents? How do poverty and marginalisation impact a teenager’s life choices? What empowers a new generation to move forward into a shared society? The novel is a Romeo and Juliet, a love story across divides. It is fiction, but the setting is real.
What I really love though, is voice. Aidan fell into place first. By fell into place, I mean infiltrated my brain and took up residence. His teenage banter and social commentary invaded walks, drives, meetings. I even knew his favourite songs (Kongos – Repeat After Me and Come With Me Now. Anything alternative/rock in a minor key). His voice is best summed up in the line which was nearly the opening line of the novel – ‘I’d have been a bloody brilliant rioter if I’d been born during the Troubles.’
Iona was much harder to write. It wasn’t until many edits in I realised why. She didn’t have enough of her own plot. Cue edits. Also, not enough bad stuff happened to her. Cue further edits. Then… magic. She came alive with enough kickback and attitude to be the equal that Aidan needed if romance were to blossom.
Learning about voice was something I found really useful on the CBC Edit & Pitch course. Something clicked better with the new material I wrote as part of the exercises there. The course also helped me realise that writers need to read – no big revelation to many, but since it was the first creative writing course I’d attended, it probably was the first time that message sank in with me.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
So, I feel like there is a ‘right’ answer to this question and that mine is ‘wrong’… The ‘right’ answer mantra goes something like this – have a routine, catch the dawn and write before you even speak, have a particular place, walk with your characters, turn up every day…
I know the mantra. I don’t have a typical day. I don’t have that luxury.
I’m saying that just like it is because maybe some emerging writers need to hear that. Especially now with the impact of Covid. For some writers, the pandemic has created oodles of free writing time and unleased creativity. For others, the impact has been very negative. So let’s be real. I don’t know what your circumstances are, but mine are these – I’m blessed to have a day job. I wasn’t furloughed. Work increased and also got more complex and stressful because of the pandemic. I’m a single parent. My teenage son has ASD (Autism) – home-schooling was not fun. Especially not combined with homeworking. I’ll not labour the point, but I really don’t feel bad about not having a ‘typical writing day’ right now. Give yourself permission to fit your writing around what works for you.
My caveat, if I have any, is that the key thing about writers is that we write. When I wrote Guard Your Heart, I wrote mainly from 9pm – 11pm multiple weeknights. Sometimes, I’d take a more intensive run at it at weekends. Why? That’s when I wasn’t working and that’s when my son (younger then) was out or out for the count. It doesn’t work as easily now he’s fourteen…
In writing book two, things changed. More often than not, I had to take unpaid leave off work for a chunk of time and work in blocks. In between blocks of writing, I’d be plotting and planning the next chapters. Occasionally, I’d book a writer’s retreat in a wonderful place in Northern Ireland called The River Mill. Then I’d be able to work at twice the speed because I didn’t have to simultaneously ignore the building up of housework or the calls of, ‘Mum? Have you seen my trainers?’
I also discovered that building a writing CV (submissions and publications of smaller things like flash fiction or poetry, attending courses, participating in platforms) puts writers in a stronger position to apply for funding. That helped me secure grants from the Arts Council NI and also my local council, which in turn covered some costs for writing retreats, mentoring, courses (including CBC courses!), attending literary events and most critical to me now, time to write.
Do you have any top tips for aspiring YA authors?
Yes. Don’t write in a condescending way. Young adults are exactly that. Don’t write as if they’re little kids. It may be important to moderate some types of content or language but don’t underestimate your readers and their capacity (and desire) to engage in difficult issues. Pack your writing with plot and keep it pacy but also build strong characters and voice.
Here’s a confession. Listen up. I didn’t know I was writing YA when I first drafted Guard Your Heart. I didn’t know the meaning of the term ‘YA’. I’d never been on a creative writing course. No Master’s Degree in creative writing. No insight into the literary world. (If that’s you too, read that with hope – breakthrough is possible). What I did have, was a passion to tell a story that just happened to have two eighteen-year-old protagonists. I had a vision of a novel that, in my wildest dreams, might help people understand Northern Ireland better. And I had a lived experience of the context which could help me write. Write what you know. What you know emotionally. And write towards what you want to know but haven’t quite reached yet.
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
Top secret if you swear not to tell a soul? It’s not a sequel but it’s another YA in a similar vein, gritty, contemporary, Northern Ireland, with a working title of Truth Be Told. Big picture – if Guard Your Heart is about peace and conflict, Truth Be Told is about truth and forgiveness. The upfront story, set in 2019, has two sixteen-year-old girls, one from Derry and the other from rural Armagh. They couldn’t be more different, yet when by chance they meet on a cross-community youth outdoor pursuits weekend, they look virtually identical. Are they related? If so, who is their father and where is he? When they go looking, they don’t quite find what they expected. Where Guard Your Heart presents the prevailing narrative of Northern Ireland, Truth Be Told explores stories that don’t fit. It tells stories of women.
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