Interview by Mary McCarthy
This Literary Life
“When I left my busy IT career my lifestyle transformed overnight. I had enough to live on for one year, but it was still quite stressful going from a well-paid job to the uncertainty of writing.”
Writing can be a lonely exercise and a community of writers can offer support and take the sting out of its solitary nature. One of these communities, Women Aloud Northern Ireland (WANI), also seems to offer a lot of fun with regular meetups and virtual events advertised on its Facebook page. WANI was set up at the end of 2015 by Jane Talbot to raise the profile and create a network for women writers in NI and it now has 185 members, ranging from well-known poets and novelists to community writers who write just because it makes them happy.
At the start of lockdown WANI chairperson Angeline King felt a collaborative project would keep the spirits up and she set about gathering an anthology of writing from the group. North Star—short stories and poems by female Northern Irish writers was put together quickly and published by Leschenault Press, with Angeline as project manager and Kerry Buchanan as managing editor.
The snappy turnaround was because most of the work was already prepared. There was no rigorous selection process—if you wanted to be part of the book you were welcome to submit and 45 members did. Most of them are well-known writers but not all, which gives the book a raw, real feeling—writing too polished can sometimes be less plausible.
It’s a delightful mix—split into six counties and Belfast city, with at least five entries each. For readers from Northern Ireland it will prove arresting, as many of the stories are based on historical experiences in the area, such as ‘Searching the Wreckage’ by Byddi Lee—a poignant retelling of the terrible Armagh railway disaster in 1889 that killed 80 people. A story by Anne Murray is based on her mother’s diaries of her experiences growing up in Mullycar and when she came back to Tyrone with a heavy heart in 1919 after Australia did not work out. Angela Graham’s poem in the Antrim section, ‘The Scottish Referendum: a view from Carraig Uisneach’ is set on Ballycastle Beach and delves into the relationship between that area and Scotland, and Sharon Dempsey, writer of ‘Little Bird’, has a short story describing a family with a child with special needs, where the whirr of the overhead helicopter is the ‘The Belfast Lullaby’ of the title. Well-known poets Anne McMaster and Aine MacAoda rub shoulders with professional storyteller Liz Weir, whose retelling of a tale by the late Harry Scott warmly wraps you up.
Angeline King has been chairperson since last year and a member of the group since the start of 2016 and her story in North Star about the slippery business of family roots centres on a woman tracing her family who finds herself clinging to a connection of a portrait artist: ‘perhaps she needed that connection to sustain her ebbing confidence in an artistic calling that had ripped her away from the security of nine to five’. Angeline could have been talking about herself because this is what she did. Although she had wanted to be a novelist for many years, her busy job working in an IT company left her little time. Once she finished her first novel in 2014, she ditched the secure day job after writing her second novel A Belfast Tale the same year. As a full-time novelist and mum, she wrote her best-known novel, Snugville Street, in 2015.
Although she wrote her first three novels in Standard English, Ulster Scots dialect features heavily in her more recent work. Scots folk migrated into Ireland during the plantation of Ulster in the early decades of the seventeenth century, and, growing up, Angeline’s own parents would talk Ulster Scots at home, and still do. The dialect infuses her work with an easy-to-digest, melodious pitch. It should be harder to read but it is not because it forces you to use an accent in your head, which gives it an easy flow.
Angeline is a powerhouse of accomplishment. Her illustrated children’s book, Children of Latharna (2017)—an Ulster Scots retelling of the Children of Lir—and a non-fiction book, Irish Dancing (2018), shows her wide ability to slip into various genres. Her website advertises services ranging from creative-writing workshops for primary and secondary schools to return-to-work confidence programmes for mums.
Her latest novel Dusty Bluebells, another self-published novel, is set in County Antrim in 1945. The life story of Maisie and her husband Leonard—who is more interested in tinkering with motors or playing in three different bands so he cannot see how badly Maisie wants a child—is told in such a lively way you easily get stuck in. When Leonard’s nephew Daniel from Scotland arrives unexpectedly we are rooting for him to stay: ‘We’ll no turn him away.’ ‘His mother isnae able to leuk after him, so he’s for staying here with me an Leonard’.
With Dusty Bluebells, the Ulster Scots dialect injects a music into her writing—the reader does not have to work hard to reap the dividends because it is close enough to standard English and you can fill in the blanks when not sure. The fluid nature of word order leads to some clever outcomes: ‘Aye, she’d a face on her wud hae soured buttermilk’.
Chatting to Angeline on the phone, her warm personality almost sidelined me at various stages—all she wanted to know was how I lived my life, how I managed lockdown—but I managed to steer her towards the following questions.
When did you start writing?
I loved writing at school but when I did some journalism work experience at sixteen, I discovered I had to pick up the phone and interview people and I did not have the required confidence, so I put becoming a journalist out of my mind.
I tried writing a novel when I was 26, and again when I was 31; at the time I was working full-time and wrote half a novel. It was an always hovering ambition; when I did training courses with work and was asked what my dream job was, it was always the same—to become a novelist. I worked in the IT sector for an educational technology company for a decade, working my way up to senior management in sales and marketing. A crisis point arrived when I was 38 and travelling internationally for work whilst juggling the care of my two young children.
Writing helped me cope and took my mind off my worries. I finished the novel I had begun at the age of 31 and wrote A Belfast Tale while still in the workplace. I would be up scribbling at 2am. I was so greedy for it and had so much stored in my mind from all the years thinking about it. The first book I published was my third novel, Snugville Street, which is written in Standard English. I had worked for an international publisher in the past, but it was still a real adventure. It worked out well; Libraries NI gave me support and I won an award from the Arts Council. I even got a good review in the Irish Times; I was amazed that they gave such support to a self-published author and I’m incredibly grateful to Martin Doyle.
Why do you use the Ulster Scots dialect in your novels?
I grew up speaking Ulster Scots until I was five, but then I learned to ‘speak properly’ at school. I enjoy writing in dialect as it gives an extra energy, but I was not brave enough to do this with my first couple of novels. I enjoyed experimenting with dialect in my latest novel Dusty Bluebells.
My novels have a lot of dialogue because that is what I like to read—I hear social conversations and put them straight into my work. My interest turned academic a few years ago when someone mentioned Snugville Street on Twitter as a good book for those seeking a positive Protestant protagonist in Irish fiction. I decided there must have been a dearth of such books for someone to mention mine, so I randomly phoned the Irish Times to tell them they should write about this. That move started off a sequence of events and I ended up writing a few essays for the Irish Times and studying this niche area. I have just started as Writer in Residence at Ulster University, I feel unbelievably lucky to have been selected for that role. I’ll be doing a Ph.D in English creative writing and novels in Scots by female writers and fictional diaries will form part of my research.
What gave you the idea for North Star?
Women Aloud NI is a great forum for us; we all support each other and when the strict lockdown was announced I immediately wrote a wee message on our Facebook group—‘Let’s write a book’. I knew we could organise it all online. There was a great response and it was a big team effort. The managing editor, Kerry Buchanan, was amazing and ran the operation with military precision with her big colourful spreadsheet. We also had some online events connected to the book, which was a boost for all of us.
Authors need to sell on social media, how do you feel about this?
Most authors I know do not want to be on social media, but there is no way out. I don’t know how I would sell my books without it—Facebook is like a shop for me. Twitter is good for talking to other writers and also being visible to the academic world. Facebook is a different scene—that is where my readers are. Beyond social media, libraries and bookshops are excellent sources of support for writers. Pre-lockdown I would have done many tours and events across the country.
Why can’t men join Women Aloud NI?
Women have a unique set of circumstances that often stop them from finding time to write or promote themselves; caring and domestic duties can be particularly challenging. However, men often say they’d like to join Women Aloud NI, so we are increasingly inviting them to share our events. I’ve had loads of support from men in my career and I think the publishing world has changed a lot, even in the last few years, but Northern Ireland is still a little way behind the south with regards to opportunities for women. Apart from men, our group is diverse with a wide age range, a good representation of Northern Ireland’s ‘traditional communities’, women with disabilities, mental illness, long-term physical illness and learning difficulties. We also support individuals from the LGBT community. Writing is a way for all of us to express ourselves and we give everyone a voice.
How did you adjust to not receiving a full-time salary?
When I left my busy IT career my lifestyle transformed overnight. I had enough to live on for one year, but it was still quite stressful going from a well-paid job to the uncertainty of writing. Up until as recently as March 2020, I was still applying for jobs in the business world, but now that I’ve committed to university and writing, I’m delighted to have a few years off job applications. Financial worries can take up a lot of energy for writers and many of us live on our wits. I remember meeting a well-known novelist at the John Hewitt Society International Summer School who was still working in his finance role in London to pay the bills.
For me another motivation was the decision to spend time with my kids, so it was easier for me to step away from the regular pay packet. When I was working full-time, I felt incredibly guilty about not seeing my children. The first day of my ‘career break’ I picked up my little three-year-old girl from nursery school and she had a mega-tantrum on the way home. The problem was that I tried to move her away from the daisies. The tantrum continued for a while afterwards, but I soon got to know her and understood that daisies were important and chocolate biscuits were a great incentive to get a child moving.
I initially had a few hours in the morning when the kids were at school to sit and type like an absolute madwoman. It is amazing what you can get accomplished in a small amount of time! My working-class parents were shocked that I was leaving a good job to do something as unconventional as writing. ‘Ye cannae gie up a good job like thon,’ my dad said.
My dad is a big reader, but Snugville Street was the first novel my mum ever read. The feedback I get most is from women like my mum, ‘Here, dear,’ they say, ‘thon was a great wee book, and ah’ll tell ye somethin mair, it’s the first novel ah ever in ma puff!’ It’s the ultimate compliment.
When do you do your writing?
I used to be quite productive and disciplined about my writing as I thought I only had one chance to be a writer before I had to return to work. I’m less greedy now, but still fairly organised and try to write in the mornings. Lockdown completely threw me and I had no routine for months—I could not work out the day of the week and my work was ad hoc, so I am delighted things have settled.
Are you happy doing online events?
The switch to online for author events was a massive change for many of our writers in Women Aloud NI. Personally, I’ve shied away from too much online activity. I’d spent a lot of time in my IT career on webinars, so I was in no rush to go back to that, although my future studies will mostly be online. Zoom can’t beat real events and some things, like book launches, don’t work online—you can’t sign the book for a start! I can’t wait to meet up with all my Women Aloud buddies again soon.
Mary McCarthy: This Literary Life
Mary McCarthy is a freelance journalist writing for a number of publications. She is an avid reader and an iron-willed book club administrator.