'I thought that I was writing for my kids as they wouldn't have their grandfather growing up'
Former vet Orla McAlinden from Co Armagh, author of The Accidental Wife, chosen for the Armagh Big Read 2017, says local rural life influenced her writing despite the fact she lives in a housing estate.
Armagh-born Orla McAlinden was inspired to write her first book following the death of her father - and it brought a disappearing world back to life.
Now her book is set to inspire hundreds more after it was chosen by Libraries NI for a mass reading event. The Accidental Wife will be read by book groups and schools throughout the county after it was chosen for the Armagh Big Read 2017.
Orla was born in Portadown in the Seventies and grew up in a semi-detached house in the town - which may surprise the readers who have fallen in love with her very rural characters.
"I spent a lot of time in the countryside with various relatives and friends. I always thought I was cool when I was in the country and felt like a bit of a culchie when I was in town," says the 44-year-old.
"I had ponies so I spent a lot of time out in the countryside, with farming people and farming men in particular, so when I started to write, those were the people that came back to me - they seemed to be country people.
"All the men in the book are characters that I've conjured up out of my childhood."
Her dad John McAlinden worked with Northern Ireland Electricity and her mum Barbara was a telephone operator with BT.
Orla went to Presentation Convent in Portadown and St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon, followed by Armagh Tech, and then moved to Dublin to study veterinary science.
"I managed to sneak into veterinary college with two As and a B - I was the only person in the class who didn't have three As. I absolutely loved it," she says.
"At that time I had nothing to do with writing - I never wrote a word. But I was always a very voracious reader. I just read all day long - if I didn't have to work I would just sit and read until the cobwebs grew over me."
After college Orla was in veterinary practice for 16 years, including spells in England, Dublin and Kildare.
"I met my husband in veterinary college and I came back from England to Ireland with a view to getting married," she recalls.
"Although I expected to work as a country vet, with horses, I ended up working almost completely with wee cats and dogs and pets. It's not what people expect when they read my book. I can hear them saying I bet she lives on a farm - but I live in a housing estate."
Orla's husband Patrick is still a vet and works with racehorses in the Curragh, but she had to give up work after having her children - Patrick Jnr (11), Eoghan (10), Claire (8) and Sinead (6).
"I had four children in the space of five years and that was the end of any concentrated work apart from running the house. I became a full-time mum and it was very much in at the deep end," she says.
"That was the end of being a vet and I am unlikely to go back. But I retrained as a science teacher so if all else fails there might a be a school somewhere needing a science teacher."
Becoming a writer had never been part of the plan - and even when she started writing Orla wasn't considering trying to get her work published.
"What actually happened was my mother-in-law died in early 2012 and my father died in the spring of the same year and it was just a really stressful time because both had been quite sick," she says.
"After they died in the summer of that year I started to remember all the little stories that my father had told me. He was really into horses and I started to remember family incidents and I wrote them down with no plans to publish them or do anything with them.
"If I thought I was writing for anybody I suppose I thought I was writing for my children as they wouldn't have their grandfather growing up."
Orla found the Ulster dialect started to come back to her as she was getting the words down and it ended up really flavouring her writing.
"As I was writing it down I thought 'this is disappearing really fast - I wonder how many people are writing this down?' And I started thinking I really wanted to write in this dialect so people would know it had existed," she says.
"I invented a new family, called them the McCanns and I started to write about them. It was just for fun.
"Before I knew it there was a book written and then the hard work started, trying to get the book published.
"It's an interlinking collection of stories - 24 short stories - and as you read through the book you start to realise all the characters are related to each other, as family, relations or even enemies.
"It's developed over a period of about 70 years, so there are stories of characters going right back to World War Two and stories of characters set in 2016, so there is a nice mixture.
"There is someone making hay with horses and carts and at the other extreme you've got a child playing with Facebook. You can drop in and read a story, or you can start at the beginning and read the whole thing."
But then reality bit, Orla says.
"I sent it to every Irish publisher I could find. It was a bit raw, a bit rough round the edges perhaps. No one wanted it. I couldn't place the book anywhere, but I put my faith in the characters - they were old friends now. I had to keep editing, keep submitting, keep trying," she says.
Getting published was a challenge but two years later the book won a publishing deal with boutique Philadelphia publisher Sowilo Press through a competitive process, winning the 2014 Eludia Award for a debut book by a woman writer.
Orla says she actually wrote The Accidental Wife during a six-month period when the family experimented with hiring an au pair.
"She used to mind the children for three hours in the morning in the warm house and I would sit in the garden shed in a coat and scarf and a pair of gloves and type away on the computer - and that is when the book got written," she says.
Orla is very excited about Libraries NI taking the book on.
"It has become very popular for libraries to choose a book and try and have a mass reading," she says.
The Armagh Big Read is a free, open-access reading event and 300 copies of The Accidental Wife are available for library members to borrow from the nine Libraries NI branches in Co Armagh, and to order in branches province-wide. People are encouraged to borrow and read the book during February and March.
Meanwhile, Orla will travel north to four free, open-door events, during March in Armagh, Bessbrook, Portadown and Lurgan, hosted by Libraries NI and facilitated by internationally acclaimed best-selling local crime writer Anthony J Quinn. Readers and library members will get to read and review the book, attend the public sessions, meet the author and engage in the Q&A and discussions parts of the events.
Orla says she has lots of plans for new books and is working on a new novel called Flight of the Wren based in Co Kildare and set during the famine.
She also says that because the reaction to The Accidental Wife has been so positive she is keen to do more about the same characters and is working on a second collection of short stories based in Northern Ireland called Full of Grace. She is also keen to highlight the work of Women Aloud NI, a group which she has recently joined.
"There are a lot of women writing in Northern Ireland and the group has about 200 members. Some of them are household names, some are coming onto the scene and some are beginners - and they range from novelists to playwrights and journalists," she says.
"That's a large collection of women producing a lot of work but who are finding it hard to find a voice. Publishing is still very male-oriented and people can be quite dismissive of women's writing.
"So this is a cooperative group of women who are working together to help each other find opportunities to express what they're doing and they're planning a series of events on March 8 which is International Women's Day. They aim to raise the profile of women writers in Northern Ireland."
- Readers can find out more at orlamcalinden.com or follow @OrlaMcAWrites. Meanwhile, Armagh libraries are running a series of events for the Armagh Big Read in March.