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In this day and page: three authors from Northern Ireland on how important writing is to their lives

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Author Riley Johnston at her home in North Belfast

Author Riley Johnston at her home in North Belfast

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan

Author Wendy Erskine

Author Wendy Erskine

Dance Moves by Wendy Erskine

Dance Moves by Wendy Erskine

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Author Riley Johnston at her home in North Belfast

It has long been said that everyone has a book in them. But while this may be the case, not everyone can articulate their ideas or thoughts into a sequence which would make for an enjoyable, interesting, thrilling or even readable book.

However, thankfully for all of us book lovers, there are many writers who have successfully achieved their goal of creating a story, or two, which is compelling enough to be published and entice readers to… read.

‘Confidence stood in the way of my writing for a long time’

As an English teacher at St Genevieve’s High School in Belfast, Riley Johnston is no stranger to the written word, and along with teaching it to her students, she is also a contributor to the literary world with several books to her name.

“My first publication was in The 32: An Anthology of Working-Class Voices, published in July 2021 and edited by Paul McVeigh,” she says.

“I have also written a mystery novel featuring a fledgling private investigator in Belfast, with the working title, A Holy Show, which is on submission. Last May, it was long listed for the Discoveries Prize, a competition for debut novels, run by Curtis Brown Literary Agency. This year, I will see my first publication in translation — a story about a bad date in the Cathedral Quarter, in a German anthology entitled, Irland, Eine literarische Einladung [Ireland, A Literary Invitation].”

Riley says that while she is currently enjoying success with her literary pursuits, she did have some doubts at the start. But sage advice and a dose of self-confidence helped her to pursue her dream. She says she would encourage other budding authors to seek advice from professionals and then let their creative juices flow.

“Looking back, I would say that confidence stood in the way of my writing for a long time,” she admits.

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“I reached a point when I decided to quit listening to the devil on my shoulder, and during the summer of 2016, I wrote a story. It quickly became a passion. Then I took a few writing courses and developed my craft, so if I was to advise anyone else starting out, I would recommend picking a writing course suitable for their stage of progress.

“The Irish Writers Centre has a range of courses and mentorships and frequently offers bursaries for Northern Irish writers. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is great and was very supportive of my work in The 32. They are an invaluable asset to artists in all capacities and I look forward to their support in the future.”

The Belfast woman says although writing can be hard work, once she starts, there is no stopping her, and she would encourage others to do the same.

“Being creative requires mental energy, which is difficult to conjure after a day’s work, so I tend to write at weekends and edit after school on weekdays,” she says.

“While others are counting down to holidays, I’m usually scheduling some huge writing tasks for the school breaks. In fact, I wrote the majority of my novel over a few weeks in August 2020.

“I really enjoy writing and when I start, I enter a sort of flow state where hours can pass and I will be totally unaware.

“I take this as a sign that writing is good for me. And I would advise others to avail of what help is out there and beyond that, just write.”

‘Read as much as you can and to write every day’

Having tried his hand at many different jobs, Michael Nolan, left, who grew up in west Belfast, may be a debut author, but he is already enjoying success with his novel, Close to Home, which has been snapped up by Hamish Hamilton publishing house.

“Growing up, my ma was a cleaner who did all the big houses down Malone Road and my brothers are painters and decorators,” he says. “I’ve worked all sorts of jobs, in bars and coffee shops, a few nightclubs, and a call centre.

“Recently, I worked as a bookseller in Waterstones, which really was a gift.”

Set in Belfast, Close to Home has been described as a “gripping auto-fictional exploration of masculinity, class and trauma”, which he was inspired by his own life.

“The book follows Sean, a young man who punches another young man at a house party, knocking him unconscious,” he says.

“The rest of the novel traces the aftermath of this single mistake, the effect it has on Sean, and the forces which have brought him to this point in his life.

“He’s a university graduate, has only just moved home from Liverpool, and his expectation of what life would be like after he finished his degree doesn’t align with how things have panned out.

“It is set in 2013 when the financial crash has shattered the job market. In the absence of any kind of prospects, in work and in life, the characters that populate Sean’s world are desperate to find some kind of purpose. His mother paints, his brother dreams of writing a Hollywood blockbuster, while his mates desperately want to get out of Belfast but can’t afford to go. They all struggle in their own way to get by, working precarious jobs, making ends meet.

“Overhanging it all is the spectre of the Troubles, which haunts the everyday lives of the people around him. Young people whose parents have lived through the conflict and are profoundly affected by the things they’ve seen and experienced.

“It’s very much a post-conflict novel, in that respect. And it also addresses the issues that people are talking more openly about now such as trans/inter-generational trauma and the effect this has on young people from working-class communities in particular.

“In that way, the inspiration for the book came from my own experiences of growing up and at a particular moment in time, I was eight when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I can still remember the black taxis driving up and down the road, beeping their horns and people out on the street celebrating.”

Now that he is a fully fledged writer, Michael devotes a lot of time to his craft and says it is always something he wanted to do.

“I usually write every day, from first thing in the morning,” he says.

“I get up and go straight to my desk and will sit there until late in the afternoon. It all started when I was a kid — about three or four.

“My ma’s best mate, Mary, lived across the street from us and she had a typewriter on the desk in the corner of her living room. One day, she taught me how to type my name. There was something about seeing the letters appearing on the page that completely mesmerised me.

“God love Mary, I had her tortured as every other day I called over asking if I could come in and write stories on her typewriter. I’d sit there for hours as well, typing complete gibberish. I guess I haven’t really stopped.”

Since developing his career, Michael says he has received a lot of support and would encourage other writers to persevere.

“The Arts Council has been good to me,” he says. “I have had a couple of individual artist awards thrown my way, and a few years ago, I received an ACES award, which came at a time in my life when things were really touch and go. We have been blessed in the North to have Damian Smyth as literature officer as his guidance and support has been invaluable over the years and I’m incredibly grateful to him.

“The only advice I’d have for any writer starting out is to read as much as you can and to write every day. That’s all it takes.”

‘I get inspiration from all sorts of things’

Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast, where she works as a department head in a secondary school. Her book, a collection of short stories called Dance Move, has just been released.

Wendy says inspiration for her work comes from everyday life.

“Dance Move is a collection of 11 short stories published by the Stinging Fly in Ireland and Picador in the UK,” she says.

“They are sad tales, but they are also very funny. For example, the first story is about Roberta who cleans short-stay flats and houses. In one of the empty properties, she finds a little girl who has been abandoned by her mother. The stories have been described as ‘cosmic quotidian’ and I think that’s perfect.

“I get inspiration from all sorts of things: songs, someone’s jumper, a phrase I hear, a haircut, a poster, a political ideology or even a warehouse.”

Wendy has been writing for years and says that although she loves creating stories, it does require hard work and says it is important for other aspiring writers to be aware of this.

“I wrote things for my own amusement for many years and then, in 2016, I did a six-month fiction workshop on Monday nights run by The Stinging Fly in Dublin,” she says.

“As a result of this, I had a story published and then started working on my first collection, Sweet Home, which came out in 2018.

“Since then, I try to be reasonably disciplined and never watch the TV, even though I would like to as I don’t really switch off from writing. I’m always making up stories in my head, thinking about characters.

“So my advice to anyone thinking of becoming a writer would be to abandon any romantic notion of it — what is required is dedication and graft. Keep working and you will find yourself getting better.

“If you write with integrity and guts, you will find an audience, no matter what your subject is.

“Say you are into motorbikes and want to write a short story collection about road racing, then that is precisely what you should do. In fact, please do that — I would buy it.”

Despite the dedication required, Wendy couldn’t imagine abandoning her craft and already has another book in the pipeline.

“In addition to Dance Move, I have another book called On Photography coming out soon. I’m also working on film and TV projects and I’m putting together a book of art criticism. I also host a show for Rough Trade Books on Soho Radio.

“I love writing. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother doing it as life is too short.”


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