Gerry McCullough, Author of "Belfast Girls"
This is an interview with award winning Irish writer and poet Gerry McCullough. Gerry has a distinguished reputation as a short story writer, but the recent publication of her full-length novel, Belfast Girls, has moved her career in an exciting new direction. Belfast Girls is published by Night Publishing.
Gerry: I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. Poems were a later development. When I was at kindergarten, I used to get a lot of praise from my teacher for the stories and, as they were called, ‘essays’ that I wrote. I loved writing these, and I loved the praise – that’s human nature, I suppose! I read a lot, and naturally wanted to write the sort of stories I read.
Gerry: This is a hard one. I think I would say my mother and my older sisters. They read the books first, I followed in their footsteps. It was wonderful to grow up in a house where everybody read a lot, and it seemed natural to do the same. My father sang to me, and sparked off a poetical response, my mother recited poetry to me, which I suppose did even more to make me a poet. My older sister took me to the library as soon as I was old enough to join. I am grateful to them all. If you mean actual writers, then the list is endless! Jane Austin, Shakespeare, Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, P.G.Wodehouse, J.E.Flecker, C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, Terry Prachett - oh, and Georgette Heyer, a very under rated writer. (I remember reading one of her books under the desk at primary school!)
Gerry: Okay, my actual first published work was a poem in a local newspaper when I was still at school. It felt pretty good. I thought (wrongly) that I was definitely set to be a famous writer. After that I had a good number of articles published in various magazines and newspapers. But my first fiction, a short story, was published in the magazine Ireland’s Own (sold throughout Ireland, but nowhere else, as far as I know) in 1999. This was the first of my Old Seamus stories. Old Seamus is a ‘Seanachie,’ that is, an Irish storyteller, and the stories he tells are about Ireland a good few years ago. Since then, I’ve had a lot of the Old Seamus stories published, and I’ve put some up as podcasts, or rather my husband has recorded me, and done the rest of the work! You can find them on PodOmatic under his name, Raymond McCullough. The Old Seamus stories are my lighter work. I’ve written, and had published, quite a few more serious stories as well.
Gerry: My major breakthrough was when one of my more serious Irish stories, Primroses, won the Cuirt Award for New International Writing in 2005. This was an award organized by a Galway magazine, West 47, in conjunction with the Galway Arts Festival. I was bouncing off the ceiling! I really thought I’d made it. No looking back, no more rejections, everyone would want to publish everything I wrote from now on, I thought. But I found out before long that there was still a long way to go. Rejections still came. But so did acceptance, and encouragement, and I realized I just needed to plough on.
Gerry: 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.
Gerry: Each of the main characters (the Belfast girls, Sheila, Phil and Mary) has something of me in them. I suppose this is inevitable. You can’t write about someone unless you relate to them. Sheila’s feeling, as a child, that she isn’t attractive, stems from my own feelings at that age. Like her, I got over it - but unlike Sheila I didn’t win a beauty contest or become a fashion model. Mary’s spiritual awakening is very much based on my own life. I think all writers take parts of their own experience and build on that.
I also relate to the men characters, although naturally in a different way. John Branagh has been described as ‘a modern Darcy with a thick Ulster accent and religious scruples to boot’ and readers either love him or hate him. I created him, but I have to say I find him fascinating!
Gerry: 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 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.
Gerry: 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.