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'You can talk away to people at bus stops here... do that in London and they look at you like you're crazy'

 

Novelist Nick Cann is originally from England but has considered Northern Ireland his spiritual home since moving here 30 years ago after meeting his first wife in a Soho nightclub. Here he tells Stephanie Bell how Holywood inspired his new novel, Come Home, Harry String

Nick Cann could never be accused of taking himself too seriously, but the author does admit to some anxiety when it comes to launching a new book.

Having enjoyed a colourful career working in daily newspapers as a designer and journalist in London in the Eighties when the industry was booming, Nick (59) only started to focus on becoming an author in his late 40s.

His new book, Come Home, Harry String is his third publication. His first novel, Jake's Eulogy, was the number one bestseller in the Belfast Telegraph paperback listings in August 2005. His second book, On The Island, followed hot on its heels and also generated praise from critics and readers alike.

Nick grew up in a posh part of south west London, an area where neighbours included many television stars. He even once kicked a ball in a park with famous dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who lived just around the corner.

He went to a public school and, despite his privileged background, visiting his grandmother in her council house every Sunday was a highlight of his week.

Nick gave up his cushy life in the big smoke to move to Northern Ireland 30 years ago - at the height of the Troubles - after meeting his first wife at a nightclub in Soho.

He describes the province as his spiritual home and even feels homesick when he boards the plane to London every six weeks to visit his elderly mother.

Nick has two grown-up girls, Sophie (27) and Chloe (22) from his first marriage, and five-year-old twins Poppy and Jack with his wife Dawn, a marketing director at her family's business, Avondale Foods in Lurgan.

The couple live in Holywood where, as well as writing, Nick still works as a freelance designer. He is well known in the local publishing world, having designed many leading magazines including Northern Woman, the Ulster Tatler and the Wedding Journal. A bit of a character who doesn't take life seriously, he was once nominated for the title of Northern Ireland's Best Dressed Man, as well as featuring in one of the more memorable episodes of Come Dine with Me, shot in Belfast.

Nick was in his early 20s when he landed a top job with the then new mid-market tabloid Today.

The publication was the UK's first full colour newspaper, and Nick worked in the heart of the industry during its heyday in the Eighties.

"I was very lucky that I got into newspaper design in London when I was 21," he says.

"It was a time when there was a big boom in the magazine industry and it was a very exciting time to be in London.

"I got my big break when the Today newspaper was launched. Somehow, I got offered the job of art director of the Sunday supplement.

"That was a fantastic break. The job was incredibly well paid and it opened lots of doors for me.

"When Hello! magazine started, I was offered a job with them, but I didn't fancy that. I think I had my heart set on designing for Vogue, but that didn't happen. Then I met a girl in a nightclub in Soho and the next thing I knew I was waking up in Northern Ireland. I dropped everything and came here.

"As soon as I stepped off the plane in Belfast, I realised I had found my spiritual home.

"I found I could talk to people at bus stops. If you do that in London they look at you as if you are crazy. Here everyone is at it and I just loved it.

"I arrived the weekend after the two Army corporals were murdered in Belfast. I have to admit, I was terrified, but I feel safer here than I do in London.

"My career also went off in a different direction. I find in London you get pigeonholed, whereas over here people are happy to give you a chance to try something new.

"I did the redesign of Ulster Tatler and designed their new men's section and also worked on Wedding Journal and Northern Woman, which I also redesigned. I also did the new design for the Bangor Spectator when it went tabloid."

While design was his main skill, Nick always flirted with writing and journalism, doing an arts column for Today and a diary column for Northern Woman when he moved to Northern Ireland.

He wrote his first short story out of boredom while at university and attempted a novel in his 20s, but he never tried to get it published.

"I studied illustrated design at art college and I actually always wanted to be a political cartoonist," Nick says. "I think maybe I've always been overly ambitious. The higher you go up the ladder, the greedier you get for success. Maybe that is just the natural process of development.

"For me I always enjoyed writing and, at the same time it makes me nervous as you are putting yourself out there."

The author's latest novel, set in his hometown of Holywood, deals with central character Harry String's struggle to regain his memory after being critically injured in a car crash and then, later, his relationship with his married marriage guidance counsellor, Susan Heywood. The relationship soon leads to violence, however, when String is confronted by Susan's jealous husband.

Nick says it's very plot-driven: "The book's pacey, with lots of twists and turns. I like to think it's a bit of a cross between Woody Allen and Dan Brown. There are serious elements and it should probably contain a pre-watershed warning because of it has scenes of a sexual nature, scenes containing violence and some with bad language.

"That makes it sound heavy going, but there's black humour throughout which, I suppose, is synonymous with our little corner of the world."

Paul Flowers, editor of Spectator Newspapers, recently said of Come Home, Harry String: "It's an intriguing premise that sucks you into a well-crafted tale of fragmenting domesticity and the search for solace.

"It's a narrative rich in cliché-free observations, yet opens a window on what may, or may not, make people tick."

Nick says he can't help feeling nervous when a new book is published.

"You just hope that people will like it," he explains. "I usually do get emails and the biggest compliment I could get is if someone emails me to say they enjoyed my book.

"There is the odd person who takes offence. I have been trolled in the past and I reckon that is the age we are living in.

"It's not something I expect to make millions with - although who wouldn't love to be JK Rowling and sell millions of copies? - but writing for me is more like an artistic release. With books you can do what you like and I enjoy playing around with ideas and trying to make it work. I'd like to think it does work.

"It would be great if someone would buy the film rights. That would be lovely - to see your characters come to life."

As well as a new career, Nick is enjoying becoming a father again in his 50s, which has given him a new lease of life.

The twins are the centre of his and Dawn's world.

"They keep me young," he says, adding: "I haven't looked back. I was expecting when I went to the school gates that everybody would think I was the granddad, but it hasn't been a problem at all.

"If anything, I feel a pressure to look after myself more to ensure I last a bit longer." His fun-loving side was revealed when he took part in the popular Channel 4 series Come Dine with Me.

Recorded back in 2009, it has been re-run a number of times and Nick never ceases to be surprised by the strangers who to this day recognise him in the street and comment on it.

"The reason I did it was actually to try and promote my second book," he says. "I thought I would get a chance to mention it, but we did so much eating and drinking and had so much fun that I forgot about it.

"I made a really good friend from the show, Donal Kelly who runs Skin Works in Belfast, and I did a reading at his wedding. I was lucky I went first. We had four nights of dinner parties with lots of booze and a great laugh. It was eight years ago, but they keep repeating it and every time they do someone mentions it to me in the street.

"Donal took the first prize and the rest of us were joint second. Everyone got on so well - there was peace in Belfast."

Book number three launches this month and already Nick has completed his fourth novel, which is currently being edited and is due to be published next year.

He will be signing copies of Come Home, Harry String at Stewart Miller & Sons in Holywood on Saturday, November 18, when the book will be on sale at a special discount. He will also be signing copies at the official launch at the Concern bookshop in Holywood on Thursday, November 23, from 6pm, with all proceeds going to the charity.

"Since Come Home, Harry String is set in Holywood, I was keen to launch it in the town, reinforcing the sense of place which pervades the book," Nick says.

"Also, it's out just in time for Christmas and should make a really good stocking-filler."

Come Home, Harry String is now on sale at branches of Stewart Miller, No Alibis, Concern, Holywood and other outlets province-wide. The book can also be bought online at indiego.co.uk.

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