Monday 17 June 2019

'I hope it's not just because of Brexit that we're sexy' - Derry author Geraldine Quigley

Geraldine Quigley tells Hilary A White about being a debut author in her fifties and the rich seam of material she and her Northern peers have to mine

The cast of Derry Girls
The cast of Derry Girls
Back to school: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell with her fellow class-mates in Derry Girls
Northern exposure: Geraldine Quigley grew up the youngest of 11 in Derry. Photo: Justine Stoddart

Hilary A White

'It was as fundamental as having your dinner, and then going out and getting into a riot," explains Geraldine Quigley. "That was the reality here in Derry back then. Things like [Eoin McNamee's novel] Resurrection Man and that, there's always a psychopath in it, it's always dark and ultra-violent, and set in an almost dystopian Belfast. That's not what it was like in reality. It was normal people, and I'm sure Anna Burns would say the same."

The Derry author is remarking on the idea that Northern Ireland - and the stories it has to tell - is back in the spotlight, but not necessarily for the reasons that it perhaps once was.

"I hope it's not just because of Brexit that we're now sexy in some way," the 54-year-old continues. "There was no Brexit when myself or Anna Burns were writing our books. I'd like to think that it's more because we have writers at the moment with something real to say."

It's important to state at this point that Quigley would never dream of comparing herself to the recently crowned Booker-winner, even if she had just cause to. Her debut novel Music Love Drugs War, is just released and, if anything, she is endearingly beside herself with "who, me?" ­modesty. "Sometimes I'm okay doing interviews," she demurs. "Today, you're getting me on a nervous day."

She'll just have to get used to it. Music Love Drugs War is a beguiling, confident debut from someone who is neither a bright young thing strutting their way into a book deal nor a career fiction writer who has put life on hold to reach the holy grail of hardbound publishing.

It tells of a gang of young friends in Troubles-ravaged Derry who shun sectarianism by celebrating post-punk, drugs and hormones in The Cave, a real-life local grubby rock den that put inclusivity before politics. At the same time, the all-consuming hunger for teenage kicks makes the riots outside an entertaining chaos to join in on. As the tension comes to a boil in 1981 in the wake of the hunger strikes, some will be unable to resist a seductive cause in need of young thrill-seeking recruits. Mainlining themes of justice and dissent into their young minds was the tightly-wound political soundtrack of Gang of Four, Linton Kwesi Johnson and other revolutionaries.

"We were not a political family. For me, the focus as a teenager was all music, music, music, boys, boys, boys, like that Viv Albertine book title. We rejected the war, but rioting, throwing stones at the soldiers, was an occupational sport in Derry. You would've gone as a spectator. You saw fellas who were just like, 'ah, nothing's going to happen to us, we're invincible.' I remember that Easter of the hunger strikes when people were killed and worrying because people I knew were out rioting, too."

Right up to the arrival of Music Love Drugs War from the publishers, it was a prospect she couldn't take for granted until it was tangible, an indisputable fact that she could feel in her fingers. "What if they pull out?" she recalls saying to herself. "What if they decide not to go with it? It's like having a baby, until you have it in your hand, you can't relax."

What books and babies also have in common, she agrees with a hearty chuckle, is that there ain't much relaxing once they arrive. The youngest of 11, she spent her youth in a crammed Derry household that was short on somewhere to sit, let alone privacy. She still lives in that same house, which, she discovered later in her life, was far more spatially suited to a married couple and their three children.

There are dozens of pathways to becoming a writer but all seem to begin with a niggle. In Quigley's case, quiet desperation finally gave way in her forties to something which today she simply can't imagine herself not doing.

Her first foray was The Good Mother, an affectionate 2013 ode to her mother May and the community's other "unsung heroes" of the matriarchy who kept the show on the road during Derry's most trying times.

When May became ill with vascular dementia and her children began caring for her, treatment diaries used by the rotating siblings provided a structure to Quigley's Kindle memoir after her mother's death in 2008. A conflict in her arises from the fact that losing her mother was the last step in liberating her.

"This sounds wrong but it's not," she says. "There's a certain amount of freedom from losing that final parent where it frees you up to be completely an adult. I wasn't able to write about the things I wanted to write about without looking over my shoulder. Being the youngest, there was a lot of people watching you and saying, 'don't let us down or be showing us up'.

"Now, my family are there and I love them, but I keep the writing quite private. It's something I have to do on my own."

The punk spirit is alive and well in Quigley. Before she came of age to frequent The Cave, her brother Michael's role as bassist with The Undertones granted her household local-legend status. Many moons later, when her children had grown and she was working in a call centre, she set-up Shift, a literary journal for newbies such as herself to get published. Short stories and essays appeared, strands of which wound up in the fibres of Music Love Drugs War. It's that DIY thing that prescribes the rolling up of sleeves and ignoring the lack of resources to hand. A busted up keyboard, wired by her son through the living-room telly, and access to Google Docs was enough to get airborne.

"It was very punk," she agrees of Shift. "We wanted that 'just f**kin' do it' attitude. The very first edition was actually stapled together by us. People got a lot of worth out of it. Taking that plunge to let others read your work can be terrifying so we tried to be as welcoming as we could. And then it fell apart after five editions, as these things tend to." With The Good Mother already available online and work commencing on Music Love Drugs War, Quigley was sheepish about submitting her work anywhere. Sensing that further refinement of her craft was needed, she then applied for the WriteNow mentoring programme run by Penguin Random House which further boosted her confidence.

She can't say too much about her follow-up, which she's 50,000 or so words into, but she does reveal it will probably deal with a generation of fiercely independent women who laboured in the town's factories and lived exciting lives after hours. There's no stopping now.

"My eldest son was born when I was just 19," she argues, "so up until my forties, I was just focused on bringing up our three children and bringing money into the house. You're at this age where everyone seems to be younger than you. All around, it's all 'debut novel by a young writer'. There aren't that many releasing debuts at my age, and you wonder, will people think you have nothing to say? When I applied for WriteNow, they asked me why I wanted to write. People always have lovely answers for that question, but all I said was that I write because I've allowed myself to write, because it's too easy for me to talk myself out of doing it."

'Music Love Drugs War', published by Fig Tree, is out now

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