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Northern Ireland novelists shortlisted for national prize

Writers tell of delight over prestigious nominations

By Allan Preston

Three writers from Northern Ireland have spoken of their delight after being nominated for a national literary award.

As an alternative to the Man Booker prize, the ‘Not the Booker Prize’ has longlisted 150 must-read novels from around the UK, with a public vote deciding the finalists.

Two of the diverse titles are set in Belfast — one a murder mystery and the other a riches-to-rags musician’s story — with the third novel following a 19th century love story on Rathlin.

Writers Sheena Wilkinson, Sharon Dempsey and Bernie McGill told the Belfast Telegraph that inspiration can strike from unlikely sources — from hating reality TV talent shows to imagining a murder at a family wedding.

And Damian Smyth, head of literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which has supported all three writers, said: “Three good novels, three different genres, three women from Northern Ireland. What could be better? Vote for them all.”

Street Song, by Belfast-born writer Sheena Wilkinson, follows the story of failed 18-year-old singer RyLee, who struggles with addiction after winning a national TV talent show. Sheena has won numerous awards for her work in contemporary young fiction. She also tutors and is a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Obsessed with writing as a child, she found her focus as a writer in her 30s. “I began taking it more seriously, I won some competitions and went on some courses and started to get the type of feedback that maybe I was talented,” she said.

“The year I finished my first novel, I was working full-time, looking after a horse, my father was dying, there were so many reasons I shouldn’t have been able to get that book finished, but I was so determined.”

Little Bird, the first crime novel by Belfast-based writer Sharon Dempsey, teams forensic psychologist Declan Wells with Welsh detective Anna Cole in the hunt for a killer stalking young girls. After being awarded funding from the Arts Council of NI, she was mentored by the Irish crime writer Louise Phillips for the writing of Little Wing.

Sharon also facilitates therapeutic creative writing classes for people affected by cancer and runs another for young people. “I actually got the idea for Little Bird at a family wedding in Belfast,” she explained. “I was leaving about 11pm and it was a beautiful, warm summer’s night and I could hear the music playing and all the chatter in the distance and thought, ‘This is a brilliant place to set a murder’.

“The story just stuck with me and I wrote the murder scene quite quickly the next day.”

The Watch House, by Portstewart writer Bernie McGill, is inspired by the real life visit to Rathlin in 1898 by Italian radio pioneer Marconi and his team.

Bernie published her first novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, in 2011 and has numerous theatre credits to her name. “I’m a bit obsessed with Rathlin Island. I’ve been coming here for about 15 years or so, initially with the Ballycastle writers group,” she said.

“The novel became a love story, which I wasn’t entirely expecting. The main female character is already married and these interesting Italian strangers arrive with all their boxes of equipment and all these strange things start happening.”

The public have until Monday, August 7, to vote in the competition, run by the Guardian newspaper. Full details can be found at www.theguardian.com

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