A Northern Irish Christmas tale in London with surprising female twist.
In the King’s Cross area of London at Christmas in the early 90s, an abusive relationship leads a young Irish woman, Blathnaid, to hide out in an acquaintance’s flat. A knock on the door, which she reluctantly opens, leads to a friendship with neighbour and street walker Nadina. As Blathnaid faces the ups and downs of life, it all starts to erupt.
Belfast-born Maeve studied at Cambridge University, where she was a member of Cambridge Footlights and co-founder of the women’s theatre company Trouble and Strife. Maeve is the writer and director of several acclaimed shorts and three feature films, all of which have been selected for and won awards at major festivals. While her novella is a work of fiction, it is inspired by real life in Kings Cross, with Maeve previously having lived where the story is set.
Was there a moment that prompted your writing?
I first started writing a novel when I was about 10 or 11, when I was a growing up. I can’t remember much about it, just that it had a young girl as the lead. I used to read Mollie Hunter’s book The Sound of Chariots at night before going to sleep, and that awoke my desire to write. There was a young girl in that who I really engaged with. I wanted to create a compelling character like her that people could relate to.
Did your background from Northern Ireland shape your writing at all?
Blathnaid, the lead character in Christmas at the Cross, is Northern Irish. The book is from her point of view, it is her voice. She is in her mid-twenties, so it is a young woman’s voice. It is set in the early 90s. She is part of the London Northern Irish world and a part-runaway from it because she is trying to get away from an abusive relationship and has moved to do so. This makes her isolated, but she opens herself to a new world of people where she lives in a sub-let in a run-down part of Kings Cross with neighbours, some of whom are outcasts or outsiders often stigmatised in society — sex workers, addicts. She is reluctant at first, but she discovers a shared humanity with them.
My background not only shapes my writing but also informs and directs themes in my writing. I have also used the Northern Irish idiom for her voice, which felt really important.
Blathnaid is a warm, charming, strong character, and it is great to create a distinct Northern Irish woman in my fiction who also has the sardonic Northern Irish sense of humour. Her journey towards a kind of redemption is the journey of the book, which is also how it relates to Christmas.
In her case, the redemption is not from sin but a sinful situation — male violence/domestic violence. Her former abusive partner is Irish and everything between them has got dark, which can happen at home or away. But if away, it can create even more isolation. As the violence starts to spill out, it is [about] the coming together very gradually of local women in King’s Cross and Blathnaid finding her own bravery, which creates a transformation that none of them could have expected. So, it is a Northern Irish Christmas tale in London with a surprising female twist.
How do you find writing a novella compared to films?
The big difference between writing feature film screenplays and a novella is the interior voice aspect. A screenplay dramatizes conflicts and dilemmas through action. Though a novella also deals with plot, it’s the voice of the mind which mostly drives it. We get to know them on the inside, which creates an intimacy with the reader. Whereas in a film, you get to know the characters mostly from what they do on the outside. I loved writing from Blathnaid’s interior. I felt very at home with that. In some ways it felt easier in this instance.
What do you hope readers take from reading Christmas at the Cross?
I want people to along with Blathnaid, to go past kneejerk judgments about people on the margins of society and realise the value of all — that people are not their work. I want people to also realise the power of coming together, of joining together, especially women. In terms of Christmas, that can create miracles. I want people to feel uplifted by her journey and her pluck from alone and isolated to strong and victorious.
You address powerful themes. Was that important to you as a writer?
Yes, I feel it is good to have strong themes that people can connect to. I don’t consciously create the themes for that reason; they just arise naturally from following the story. The themes are connected to emotions and themes of personal safety, of women’s safety and of friendship and justice. They can be very relatable.
Was it important to show the friendship side of the area, a sense of community?
Yes, it was hugely important to show the friendship side of things. The power of friendship, the power of connection, can be life-changing and even life-saving. Friendship is one of life’s greatest treasures and female friendship can bring a special type of empowerment through empathy. The power of joining together within a community can bring so much strength to a situation. People are no longer alone and everyone can go further because of it. I think we know the positive sense of that in Northern Ireland.
Christmas at the Cross is a Christmas tale. The redemption in it is about how that sense of community can bring positive change. Sometimes the people deemed least powerful are the ones who can win.
Christmas at the Cross, by Maeve Murphy, Bridge House Publishing, £7, is available now