Let’s Cut the Strings Tonight

On Saturday I took part in Belfast Book Festival. I was on a panel along with the lovely Andrew Moore and Sarah Mussi, and the three of us were there to answer questions about Children’s and Young Adult writing. The host was Caroline Healy and she was so friendly and her questions were wonderful, and everyone’s kindness helped me relax and enjoy the discussion at hand. The plan was that I would come home the next day and I would write the experience up for my publisher’s blog. But the next day this happened.


And now, if I am writing about A Good Hiding, I need to write something else.

A Good Hiding is a dual narrative. It is told by two characters- a straight girl and a gay boy. Part of the story explores what I would describe as the logical conclusion of the religious exclusion and demonisation of LGBT people. That conclusion being violence.

I know, and am glad to know, that some religious leaders have spoken out, and regularly speak out, against homophobia and transphobia. But I live in a country where religion and homophobia have terrible and frightening associations. There are people in NI whose religious convictions move them to take a firm stand against those associations. And there are those who are at the forefront of securing and expanding those associations. And there are many in between who are too frightened to say or do anything, and they may well have a reason to be fearful.

In A Good Hiding, Nollaig’s story is bound up with Stephen’s in a way which is to my mind completely inextricable to this novel. They are separate people, but their stories are intertwined. Stephen’s experience of homophobia as a young man touches Nollaig’s story. Nollaig’s experience of marginalisation as a young woman touches Stephen’s story. Because they are friends. It’s one story, told by both of them as separate people.

That is how I feel about my loved ones who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer. We have our own stories but we also share a story. Violence against them is  violence to my world because they are in my world. Words used against them which hurt them, hurt my story, because they are part of it. Laws against them which cause them to feel that our government hates them, make me feel angry and sad. I can’t take their place and, even worse, the people causing the pain are the ones who look like me in terms of sexual orientation and gender conformity. Sometimes it makes me wonder where on earth I belong. But as long as they will let me, I will stand beside them.


I wanted to be in Belfast tonight, physically standing beside them, as they think about what has happened and share their grief. But I can’t be there, so this is all I have. It feels dark here sometimes. Dark churches. Dark politics. Dark secrets. The LGBT people in my life know about that. And they know about resistance and solidarity. I have learnt, and continue to learn, so much from them about what it is to be human. I love them, and, different though we may be, it doesn’t make any sense to me to see myself in a separate story.

I will write about the Book Festival panel in time, because the discussion was good, and some of it was not unrelated to what I have said here. Apologies for the delay.

Here’s a song about love and freedom.



Making a Youtube Zine Like I’m John Green

I’m so clearly not John Green.

But anyway, this is a video I made earlier today which demonstrates how to make a mini zine/ mini book.

When I think about ‘being a writer’ and having a career in writing and how it basically depends on people reading and liking and buying my books I can panic a little. It has been known. I can freak out, just a tiny bit. Because I’m not John Green. I’m me, and what if nobody likes me? And what if they hate my stories or don’t get them or think that I’m being a knob when I’m trying to be funny? And what if…

You get it- I’m as anxious as anyone who tries to write things.

When that happens I know that I need to listen to Patti Smith and remember who I am- a person who writes- who will most probably always write, no matter what. And what I love about zines is that they are for all writers. All you need is to want to do it, and then you do it and it’s done, and you can do it again. Blogs are great, the internet is great, self-publishing has been a revelation to me and, in between the periods of self-doubt, I am really happy to have a book coming out

But zines are special.

Zines are personally-made. You can leave them places. You can put them into people’s hands. You can write them anonymously and you can be pretty untraceable. You could go out at night and ninja-flyer all the cars in Tesco’s car park with your zines telling people to try the Polish chocolate*. You could take all the stuff you really, really want to say- all the secret things you’re afraid to say out loud…and you could say them…

Or you could just do a random cartoon imagining that you’re Nick Cave’s best friend and chatting on a park bench.

Thank you to the brillaint poet and educationalist, Mandy Coe, who passed this on to me. It makes me so happy to pass it on to other people.

*Really. Try the Polish chocolate. It’s amazing.


Children’s/Young Adult Books For Christmas!

One of the nicest things about getting involved in the book world from the point of view of an emerging writer is that you get to hear about and read some really great new books, sometimes even before they’re published. Here are some of my recommendations for books to buy for children and young adults this Christmas. I’ve linked to Amazon just because it’s good for seeing reviews but another lovely thing you can do at Christmas is to support your local independent book store, so here’s a link to No Alibis in Belfast too, because they’re so great, and they do have a lovely wee children’s section which you should go in and browse any time you’re in Belfast. You’ll find local books there that you won’t find anywhere else.

First es2up is the first two books in Ruth Fitzgerald’s ‘Emily Sparkes’ series. Ruth’s writing is hilarious. My ten year old daughter loved these books and I’d imagine most 7-11yr olds who enjoy a good laugh will as well. They do deal with serious issues too (the arrival of a new baby in the house/ friendship issues/ bullying), and in my view the balance between these issues and the humour is absolutely spot on. I personally like them more than the Wimpy Kid series (which my girl also loved) because they have a little more grit but no less humour. There are more in the series to come which is a good thing because Emily Sparkes is so readable that kids who enjoy reading will fly through them really quickly.


The next book I want to mention is The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox by Nigel Quinlan. I was lucky enough to attend the Children’s Books Ireland conference this year in Dublin and Nigel was one of a number of Irish writers who had been invited to speak about their new books which came out this year. I loved the idea behind this book- a telephone box which changes the weather- and I liked that it was set in Ireland. When I heard Nigel read a section from the story I knew it was going to be great. Again, very funny and really nicely written. It reminded me a wee bit of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again- funny and charming and a treat for adults to read to their younger children.

Sheena Wilkinson’s Name Upon Name is a great wee story about a mixswed-religion family in Belfast set in 1916 during World War II and the Easter Rising. A brilliant one for helping young people (and adults!) understand some of the issues around these historical events, but also just a great read. A good read to prepare for the Easter Rising centenary next year.

Lastly I’ll mention a book for young adults: Nothing by Janne Teller. This was my personal favourite read of the year. It didn’t come out this year but I read it a couple of months ago and it blew me away. I had to mention it because it is different to any book I’ve ever read. If you have a young adult reader who likes to think about deep and difficult issues around religion, philosophy, meaning-of-life type stuff…. this is the one. It is the story of what happens to a group of friends when a single idea becomes more important to them than anything else. Highly disturbing, really clever, and just one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not in the slightest bit Christmassy. I would have completely loved this at age fifteen. A good one for adults too. Those of you who liked what we did at Ikon will find it interesting.


That’s all I have time to write! I have left out so many but here’s what I’ll do: if you want to write a blog post about your three or four book recommendations for Christmas then write it and send me the link and I’ll collate them all here in a new post and we’ll all have millions of things to read and give over the holidays! Hooray!

P.S. I should probably give a shout out to my own book. I am terrible at this self-publicity lark. Anyway- it is my self published book, Widows’ Row, and it’s still selling and I’m still getting some lovely feedback about it. Good for young adults and old adults :-),  set in Northern Ireland, themes around religion/atheism, homophobia, and it’s a bit ghostly. Enjoy!


Sunny summer news

It has been the rainiest summer in ten thousand years (or something) in N. Ireland and it is now six weeks since I thought ‘Oh great- it’s the summer! Time to clear out all the junk and find my desk!’ and, although I have cleared out a bit of junk, I am still writing at the kitchen table and in various cafes because the desk is still covered in ‘Congratulations on your new baby’ cards (he is now 16 months old) and various other things that never needed to have a place 16 months ago….

There is a sunset rainbow in here somewhere.

There is a sunset rainbow in here somewhere.

But I had some great news recently which makes it feel a lot more sunnier!

I have a book deal!

Next year the amazing Atom Books will be publishing A Good Hiding, and there will be another book after that which I’m part way through writing at the minute.

I am really delighted to have such a great agent and publisher with me on this journey, and I am very excited about the next couple of years and ohmygoodnessmybookisgettingpublished!

Here’s my favourite youtube video. Stories are the best!

Nick Cave at Hammersmith Apollo, 2nd May 2015

‘Who are you going to see again?’ my 10yr old asks.

‘Nick Cave.’

‘Is he the one with the massive tache?’


Pic by the remarkable David Boyd

When I go to concerts I love watching the audience. They are mostly made up of very self-conscious people, like me, and maybe that’s partly why the artist appeals. We know we wouldn’t get away with making a spectacle of ourselves like that. Would we?

Towards the end of the concert, I noticed a woman in the disabled area, dancing. There were lots of people dancing, but she was taking up a lot of space- twirling around and giving it the full Kate-Bush-shapes. She was so lovely that I watched her instead of Nick for the whole song. Both of them, fearless in themselves.

This is part of why I love Nick Cave. One of my friend Peterson‘s characters says that there is nothing so beautiful as a person who is unafraid to simply be themselves. I think that for those fans of Nick who struggle with self-consciousness, Nick Cave offers us the possibility of courage, and we can see how lovely it is. In my writing, and my life, I am reaching for that.

This is the song he finished on the other night. ‘If your friends think you should do it different/ And if they think that you should do it the same/ You got to just keep on pushing/ Keep on pushing/ Push the sky away.’

Jan Taylor

My friend Jan died today. I think of him as a friend although I had not seen him in about a decade and I knew him best when I was a teenager and he was a minister in an Anglican church in Belfast. But he was a friend then, and I have never thought of him as anything else. I think I must have ended up hearing Jan preach on some kind of youth group outing. I really can’t remember. What I do remember is feeling totally out of place in the church. A feeling that I never grew out of. And I remember listening to him and thinking, wow, there is somebody that is a bit odd, like me, and yet feels totally comfortable with the weirdness and even appears to be celebrating it somewhat… photo 1 (7) I wrote him a letter. I always write people letters if they’ve said or done something that has been meaningful to me. It doesn’t matter if they’re very famous or not at all famous. I like feeling that they know how grateful I am. So I wrote to him- I’m pretty sure I looked him up in the phone book. And he wrote back. A wonderful, funny letter, including a poem he’d written about stepping in dog poo in the church. I was, of course, delighted. The official address stamp he used had an image of a square peg being hammered into a round hole. This was someone I wanted to know. Over the next few years I did get to know him. I met many friends though him who were very kind to me- all of them the sort who celebrated weirdness. Suddenly being an odd-looking kid who wrote terrible poetry and enjoyed silliness in a way that was deeply uncool with others, was acceptable and fun. Jan was an inclusive person and the little gang that he introduced me to was made up of people of many different ages and backgrounds and it took us to solemn places like church, where Jan would be the person to give me my first communion, and crazy places, like the Giant’s Ring where we once went in the middle of the night in pitch darkness to join with a huge gang of people who stood around the ancient tombstones to pray (sorry Mum- she is still freaked out by that story).

(I'm not sure who took this one. It was on St Dorothea's Facebook page)

(I’m not sure who took this one. It was on St Dorothea’s Facebook page)

photo (21) Jan taught me how to say ‘give us a snog’ in Romanian. He is the reason why I wear DM boots on a daily basis (he loved his DM’s so much that he staged a funeral for a beloved pair, and he persuaded my mum to let me have my first pair). He came to the house to introduce himself to my Mum and turned up on a motorbike dressed head to toe in black leather with a guy called Pete, also dressed in black. My mum nearly fainted- I think she thought it was the cops. He was possibly the first person to ever read my poetry and he was always positive about it, even though it was dreadful. He made toffee onions and gave one to his brother pretending it was a toffee apple. He played in a band and looked like one of the Village People (it was the 80’s). I have so many memories of this practical joker who was so clever and kind.

(That's Jan in the Kylie t-shirt)

(That’s Jan in the Kylie t-shirt)

The last time I saw Jan I was grown up.  It was lovely to see him again and we asked each other how life had been. I had been to university and got married. He had been to Afghanistan as a padre with the RAF. ‘Wow!’ I said, ‘What was that like?’ ‘Brilliant!!’ he said, ‘I became a Muslim!’ That was just like him. You never quite knew if he was joking. But what was clear was that he had gone out there and met people and listened to them and enjoyed their difference to himself. He never struck me as a person who was afraid of things like that, and that is something really special in our wee country. I am so sorry he has gone, but I am so glad to have known him for that brief time years ago. I wish I had kept in touch, but I get the feeling that he would have been happy to call us friends too, even after all this time. I am thinking also of his family this evening, and what a great loss they have to face. I am sure that over the next few days they will meet many people whose lives were touched by Jan as mine was. I will certainly be holding them in my thoughts as I remember him. Te iubim, Jan! photo 3 (4)

Catch up!

I haven’t updated the blog for a long time. Apologies! I have been busy trying to remember how to work a baby. In writing news; since I posted about the Undiscovered Voices excitement, I have signed with Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates (I have just noticed that ANA take care of Harper Lee, author of the first book to ever make me cry and a life-changer for me in some ways. *swoons*). Jenny is lovely and if you’re interested in the world of Children’s and Young Adult books then follow her on Twitter, here. I’m really happy about this decision and I am now editing A Good Hiding in the hope that eventually a publisher will take it on.

I haven’t had time for much else. The festival season has passed me by this year and I have really missed doing writing workshops and readings. Hopefully next year I can join in again. I can’t complain though, exhausted though I am. We’ve been having our own festival of sorts. Hope you are all doing well. Here’s a picture of our cat, Ibid, enjoying the sunny summer.



for Eoin


Grey morning garden.

I carry you, sleeping,

Among a congregation of weeds;

Dandelion in wet grass,

The white of new daisies,

Dock leaves and nettles,

Briers that promise dark fruits.


Blackbird, starling, house martin;

Their mad hymn moves beyond the beat of a woodpigeon,

And the breath that carries them breathes on us.


At the door to our house I take one hand from under you,

And as I reach to turn the handle

Three raindrops fall on your face,

Cold as light.

main_Ox-Eye Daisy_HS_Nov09_IMG_6157

A letter from Simon Callow

On the day of the first same sex marriages in England and Wales, while we in NI still wait for equality, I thought it might be a good time to share this short note which I received last year.


I had been to see Simon Callow in ‘The Man Jesus’ at the Lyric in Belfast. It was a moving play offering a very human interpretation of the life of Jesus and ending with an appropriate critique of what his followers had become. As people stood to applaud at the end I looked around the room and thought about how many people were Christians. Probably quite a few and, if not, then there would at least have been many there who were familiar with the Jesus story; there aren’t many people in this country who go through their lives untouched by religion in one way or another.

I felt compelled to write to Simon Callow when I got home. I wanted him to know that, to me personally, it meant a lot that he had brought that rendition of Jesus to Belfast- the human Jesus, the one that I think is missing here sometimes, the one whose love was not a victory march but a cold and broken hallelujah. I think we could use more of that Jesus and less of the one who is obsessed with winning, obsessed with power, obsessed with control. I told Simon how difficult it can be for people here who wait and wait for the equality that some followers of the control-freak Jesus would deny to them, and how I was glad for a couple of hours to consider that there are many people here who are in favour of the other Jesus- the man Jesus.

Here is the letter he sent back to me:

‘Dear Shirley, Thank you for your lovely, touching letter. I’m sure eventually all those taboos and prejudices will disappear- the improvement is already extraordinary. Such changes in my lifetime. And think of how other stigma- illegitimacy, for example- have disappeared. That doesn’t help today’s victims, but it’s a sort of comfort. All the best, Simon C.’

SAM_0972 SAM_0973


‘That was all she wrote…’

Apologies for the lack of recent updates!

Gratuitous picture of Bruce. A Brucey bonus, if you like.

Gratuitous picture of Bruce. A Brucey bonus, if you like.

For the past number of weeks I’ve had this line from Bruce (Brooooooce!) Springsteen’s ‘The River’ in my head constantly;

Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all she wrote,

And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.

I have to tell you, I am a huge fan of The Boss (incredibly huge at the minute), but this line gets on my wick. A union card and a wedding coat? Diddums! Mary got stretch marks, heartburn, whacked in the belly from the inside and the unique joy of having to pee every couple of hours during the night. I’m not surprised she had some complaining to do, especially if you’re going around bemoaning the demise of your days having fun ‘down at the river’.

Anyway 🙂

In writing terms I’m enjoying a lovely period of chatting with agents and publishers and getting feedback on my novel, thanks to the Undiscovered Voices competition. It seems that everyone involved in children’s publishing is completely lovely. Who knows where it will all lead; at the minute I am delighted that some industry professionals are reading my work and giving me some really helpful feedback. Meanwhile I am turning over an idea for a new story in my head, and I’m really glad that there appears to be room for it as the baby shrinks my brain to approximately the size of my bladder (think ‘walnut’). Hopefully, unlike poor Mary, my pregnancy won’t be all I have written by the time bubs gets here.

I’ll leave you with Bruce.