Deirdre Devlin: 'The characters in my books are as real to me as my family and friends'
With her second children’s novel finished, BelfastTV producer Deirdre Devlin tells Una Brankin how she would love to make writing her full-time career.
For years, Deirdre Devlin has been telling those she meets outside Northern Ireland that she's from Narnia. No, she's not bonkers. The broadcast producer is simply proud to come from the same city as CS Lewis, who took inspiration from the east Belfast landscape of his childhood for his classic children's book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
In turn, Glengormley-raised Deirdre has been inspired by Lewis, as well as the evening mists on her travels in Ireland, for her own children's fiction, The Fogmakers, and its upcoming sequel.
"I love children's literature best of all, as most children's books spark the imagination and take the reader to a completely different place," she says. "When you're young, you're totally open to this. The books I've loved best all my life are the Narnia books by CS Lewis. I remember being absolutely lost in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
"I've always found it inspiring to think Lewis came from Belfast and I've walked the streets he walked. I'm very proud he was a Belfast man and have been delighted to see his memory honoured, among other places, in the east of the city where he lived as a young boy. I think that's something we should all be proud of."
A youthful 50-year-old, brown-eyed Deirdre trained as a journalist in London after graduating from Queen's University in Belfast with a degree in psychology and a masters in political science. She began her broadcasting career in Belfast in 1990 as a reporter and worked her way up to the post of executive producer, looking after a wide range of factual content mainly from the independent sector.
"It was the right job for me; journalism is endlessly fascinating, meeting different people each day, being involved in different stories and meeting lots of interesting people," she says. "There was always an adrenaline rush to meet deadlines, which I really liked.
"But I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I remember. It would be a joy if I could ever make a living by writing books."
Like quite a few from her generation, Deirdre could read before she started St Bernard's Primary School in Glengormley. She grew up with her younger sister Orla (44), a former sales and training manager now training as an audiologist. Her mother Monica looked after the home while her late father Joe worked as a telecoms engineer.
"My mum and dad read to me from a very early age - these are some of my earliest memories and I have always loved reading as a result," she recalls. "There were always loads of books in the house. The very young books that were read to me by mum and dad have long gone but I always asked for books for Christmas and birthdays, and scoured jumble sales for more as I got older.
"I also inherited books when they were outgrown from various older cousins, so the collection grew. It was a wide and random selection but I loved them all. The first book I remember reading by myself and loving as a child was one of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Later on, I remember loving Little Women by Louisa M Alcott and shedding a few tears over Black Beauty."
Deirdre was in primary five before she discovered The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. She has read the entire Narnia series many times since and the influence is evident in her own well-written fiction, with its clear narrative and vivid sense of place.
In Fogmakers, mysterious creatures generate dense mist as a means of sneaking about on Earth, creeping into people's homes, "pretending to be shadows if anybody comes" and pinching knick-knacks to bring back to their secret kingdom, to teach their young about humans.
The action begins when some of the creatures turn out to have bad intentions. The idea for the book came to Deirdre while driving through Donegal at dusk.
"It was the time of year when a spooky looking mist hangs about 10ft above the ground," she remembers. "It struck me this would be exactly the right kind of cover for creatures to creep about unseen. The first day I sat in front of the keyboard to write Fogmakers, I wrote the title half a dozen times, then backspaced, then started again.
"It felt like the first dive off a high diving board and I was nervous about starting. I'd sketched out a rough idea and had a fair idea about the characters. But I knew I'd never do it unless I actually started so I just took a deep breath and dived in.
"The writing came surprisingly easily but you do have to write, then re-write, then re-write again. I knew before I started how the book would begin and end, but the fine detail came to me as I wrote."
Deirdre's keen eye for detail has resulted in a tale with a lush cinematic sweep. At one point, her young (human) protagonists find themselves in a huge, beautiful ice cavern with giant stalactites and stalagmites and sparkling white rock walls, but as they look more closely, the cavern takes on a more sinister air.
"It was as if I was watching a spooky film as I typed, as I didn't know what lay behind the columns either," the author explains. "When I write, I try to think how I might behave if I'm being faced with the strange, wonderful and terrifying things experienced by the characters in the book. I'm not sure I'd have been as brave as they were in the end however.
"Often, I was just as surprised as the characters. As the story flowed and the pace quickened, the process became easier but I was still constantly surprised by what popped into my head.
"It's harder thinking about sitting down to write than actually doing it - there are always hundreds of reasons to do something else. The most difficult bit is walking to the keyboard but once I start, I quickly become immersed totally in the world I am creating so writing comes fairly easily."
James Joyce, another literary hero of Deirdre's, didn't always find it easy to get his writing to flow, once complaining to a friend that he'd only managed seven words in one day, and that he didn't know what order to put them in. Deirdre first discovered Joyce while studying the Dubliners short story collection for her English A-level. He cropped up again when she took English Literature as part of the first year of her degree course at Queen's.
"That's where I first read Ulysses, which was a much more challenging novel," she admits. "Joyce was a genius and I'm proud he was from Ireland. Nowadays, I read a wide selection of books, mostly fiction.
"I'm currently reading two: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and The Versions Of Us by Laura Barnett. Like many people, I read when I have the time and love sinking into a great book with memorable characters and a strong storyline. Anything with a sinister mystery always works for me."
Deirdre named two of the characters (Holly and Emma) in Fogmakers after the children of two of her friends, and used elements of their personalities in her characterisation. She believes it's vital to lure kids away from social media and get them interested in fiction as a way to develop their imagination.
She says: "It must be so difficult for parents now with so many distractions for children. I'm not a parent myself so it's difficult to give advice, but I guess one idea might be to find out what your children are liking and following, and find a great book for their age group on that subject.
"The parent could then suggest if they love that subject they could learn more about it from the book and be better able to come up with interesting things to post about afterwards on social media."
She has recently completed Terror In The Kingdom, the "scarier" sequel to Fogmakers, which was well received on Amazon. This time, the writing process came with more ease.
"I knew my way around the creepy medieval world of the kingdom fairly well by that stage," she says. "What works best for me is setting aside a time that I 'must' write. It doesn't actually matter where I am. I use an iPad with a blue-tooth keyboard so the venue is immaterial. I have worked in the house, in cafes or in hotels if I'm away.
"The second book flowed much more easily than the first and there's a lot more action and definitely more weird and dangerous beasts in the forest.
"All the original characters are back; they're a little older and wiser now but pretty much the same as they were first time around.
"There are a few new Fogmakers, too, but readers of the first book will find plenty of the old ones."
Terror In The Kingdom is currently with a literary agent, who is pitching it to publishers. Meanwhile, for 2017, Deirdre's one wish is to make a living from writing full-time, a dream for so many fledgling authors.
"One of my friends once asked would I not be lonely doing that as I am a big people person. I answered truthfully that it's impossible to be lonely when writing as the characters are as real to me as my family and friends," she concludes. I think if you are blessed with a supportive partner and family and have great friends, which I do, then writing full-time would be a joy and a privilege.
"The feedback from readers has been the most important thing of all. To be able to write something that a child loves is just the most amazing feeling in the world and if I could keep on doing that, it would be quite something."
- Fogmakers by Deirdre Devlin is available in Kindle £2.24, and paperback £8.99, from Amazon.co.uk