Hi! I’m Gerry McCullough, born and bred in Belfast Northern Ireland, and now living in County Down, not many miles away from the city. I’m married to Raymond McCullough, a Media Producer and singer/songwriter, and I have four children, now all grown and flown, alas!
I’ve been writing since my childhood, almost as long as I’ve been reading, and I’ve had nearly fifty short stories published, some light, some more serious. One of the more serious ones, Primroses, won a prestigious award, the Cuirt Award for New International Writing organized as part of Galway Arts Festival in 2005, and this was a great encouragement to me. It’s been marvellous to see my short stories becoming successful, after many years of failing to get anything published, but recently things have been even better for I achieved a lifetime’s ambition when my full-length novel, Belfast Girls, was accepted for publication by Night Publishing. It’s now out on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, both as paperback and Kindle.
Belfast Girls is set mainly in (guess?) Belfast, and it’s about three girls, friends since childhood in spite of their different religious backgrounds, in a country where this has too often been a major source of division. The girls grow up into the emerging post-ceasefire Belfast of material wealth, fashion, drugs, and crime, and this is the story of their lives and loves. Like Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, even Little Women, this book doesn’t just centre on one character, but perhaps Sheila is nearer to the centre than the other two. Her off-on relationship with the moral, stubbornly judgmental John Branagh runs through the book, and the question ‘Will they get it together or not?’ has kept many readers swiftly turning the pages – or so I’m told. It’s a setting which came naturally to me. I’m concerned about my home city, which I love, and about the way things have been developing there. Also I’m pretty familiar with it, so, hey, it was the easy option, wasn’t it?
I’ve always loved reading – I come from a family of readers, so it was the most natural thing in the world to me. Every fortnight I trotted off to the nearest Public Library, the Children’s Section at first, and came home with a careful selection of books by my favourite writers which kept me happy for the next two weeks. If I ran out of library books, there were always plenty of other books in my house, many of them too old for me but that didn’t matter. And the more I read, the more I wanted to write similar books myself.
When I began writing, as a child, I probably copied most of my ideas from whichever book I was currently reading, or else from things which had been happening in my life. Naturally, I was my own heroine at that time. Then, as I wrote more, I learned that while other people’s books and my own life can be the spark for inspiration, it’s important to use these and develop my own plot, instead of just lifting chunks and dumping them in raw. If a book is like a meal, then the ingredients won’t necessarily be very different from the usual ones, but it’s what you do with them that matters and how well you cook them. A pinch of something unexpected, some spice here, some sweetener there, and you can create an original dish fit for a king – well, possibly!
The same is true of characters. Unless you draw inspiration for your characters from aliens in outer space, they are bound to be drawn from books or from real people. But there’s no need, again, for direct copying. My own characters all have a great deal of me in them. In Belfast Girls Sheila, the ugly duckling who grows up to be a supermodel, has a lot of the shyness and lack of confidence which I experienced in my early teens; Phil, her closest friend, is a much more confident and bouncy person than I ever was, but her reluctance to be involved in her boyfriend Davy’s drug dealing and the moral conflict she goes through are feelings I can easily relate to; while Mary’s spiritual experiences mirror my own quite closely. But none of these three girls are particularly like me, generally speaking. Certainly I’m not tall and red-haired, like the beautiful Sheila.
When I began writing, I wrote in the first person. Looking back, I can see that this was because I was mainly still writing about myself, and from my own point of view. Gradually I learnt to be more distanced from my characters, and often used the third person. First person has a lot of problems as far as the plot is concerned. It’s only possible to see the action from one person’s point of view, and this can create huge difficulties. You can find yourself forced to make one of the characters report on the action in a very boring, unsuccessful way whereas with a third person story you can change the point of view when it becomes necessary; and show the action directly instead of telling about it. I use both styles in short stories, but for a longer work I think third person works better. The only other person possible would be second person, and I suppose I’ve used this in a few short stories, addressing the reader as if the first person narrator is speaking directly to them, and making them an actual character, part of the action.
I start with one character, and as I write about her or him, I find that they grow and develop without much thought from me. It’s, I suppose, an instinctive process. Plotting, on the other hand, needs a lot of thought. Sometimes it will develop naturally out of the interaction of the characters, and that’s usually the best type of plot. But inevitably, even then, there comes a point where you have to sit down and to some hard work, thinking out how things are going to fit together, and what needs to happen to make the part you’ve already written join onto the part you want to write eventually. I usually have at least some idea of where my book or story is headed, but when I start out I’m often still very vague about how it will get there. That’s where the work comes in.
I’ve developed a habit of writing about a thousand words a day – or at least that’s the plan. Now that the children have left home I have the use of one of our former bedrooms which has been converted to an office for me, and I like to go there reasonably early in the day and work. My system is to reread the bit I wrote on the previous day, edit it as I read, and then move on. This works for me, and overcomes my normal writer’s reluctance to start, because I’m not starting straight in to write. Reading is easy, and editing follows quite naturally, and by then my creativity has begun to flow, and I’m keen to move on with the next part – which usually I’ve been thinking about at intervals overnight.
Seeing Belfast Girls published has been wonderful. With the emergence of eBooks, I’m finding that although people certainly buy the paperback, the vast majority of my sales have been on Kindle. It’s been amazing to watch the book make its way up the bestseller lists, reaching No 8 in Women’s Literary Fiction on UK Kindle recently, and being ranked at No 26 in Contemporary Romance on Amazon.com. But at the end of April, I was especially thrilled when the results of the vote for the Night Publishing Book of the Year were announced, and I found that Belfast Girls was the winner of this exciting new award. Unbelievable!
Next stop No.1 on the all-genres bestsellers list, and the Booker prize! Okay, not seriously. But I am hoping to keep on moving up, a bit more at least. And well, there’s no harm in dreaming – I’ve seen so many of my childhood dreams come true already!