Another award for Co Armagh writer Orla McAlinden

Co Armagh author Orla McAlinden has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic for her debut short story collection. Jenny Lee finds out about what drew the former vet to writing

Ana Dorado
Ana Dorado

ORLA McAlinden MVB MSc HDipEd has nearly as many letters after her name as there are in it – yet none of them have anything to do with writing.

Having qualified and worked as a vet for 10 years, McAlinden re-trained as a secondary teacher before taking a career break to become a full-time mum of four.

The death of her father was the turning point for her new 'career' as a writer, though Orla still struggles to describe herself as an author.

"It's strange. I would probably still describe myself as a housewife," she says modestly.

Only last week the Portadown-born author got yet another vote of confidence in her writing, when she won the Short Story of the Year category at the prestigious Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year Awards.

Following in the footsteps of last year's winner, Donal Ryan, McAlinden won for the short story The Visit, taken from her debut book The Accidental Wife.

"It's unusual for a debut writer to be nominated for a national award, and to have won it is honestly a dream come true," says the 42-year-old, who is now based in Kildare.

Set against the background of the Troubles, The Accidental Wife follows the lies, half-truths and omissions of the McCann family over seven decades.

"I never wrote a word until 2012. It was all triggered by the death of my father, who before his death had told me a few little family stories. It was like turning on a tap.

"When I left Portadown I very deliberately stripped a lot of my local dialogue out of the way I speak. But when I started to write the stories of my dad and I was writing in his dialect I really felt I had impoverished myself of this very rich, vibrant and rural language.

"I had robbed myself of it and had become very bland and British/mid-Atlantic.

"I loved the language and wrote loads of family stories. But I realised I didn’t want to publicise them so I started inventing people to write about and that’s where the book came from."

Although the Accidental Wife is a collection of inter-twinning stories about a wider family circle, McAlinden didn't consciously start with this intention.

"The first half-dozen stories I wrote were written as standalone stories, I had no idea the people in the stories were related in anyway. One morning in the middle of the night, I just woke up and went 'Oh my God, Joan is Gemma's mum'.

"The more I worked on the half-dozen stories, I realised they were definitely related and it gave me a whole new outlook and like working out a family tree."

Whilst all her characters are fictional, McAlinden admits that "it's not possible to write a book about Northern Ireland's Troubles without stirring up memories belonging to other people".

Her award-winning short story, The Visit, shows how terrorist activities seeped into everyday life as a farmer is robbed by paramilitaries.

"Dozens of farming families could claim that as their own story. My later uncle was one of those farmers, and although I haven't written his story, it was impossible to write the story without thinking of his suffering and the things that were never spoken of in public."

Not just another book about the Troubles, McAlinden describes The Accidental Wife as being about "ordinary people getting on with life during extraordinary times".

"You were very careful and censored what you said and you didn’t go into certain places, but the vast majority of us did not go to bed in fear. We just faced each day as it comes."

As well as the political backdrop, McAlinden explores wider issues of religious intolerance, homophobia, the Celtic Tiger, emigration and struggles with fertility.

"People in Northern Ireland are just as three-dimensional as anywhere else. I don’t think it’s fair the country should be defined by sectarian conflict.

"I remember in the early 90s there was a 'leaver fever'. There are so many stories of forced emigration and people leaving in tears. Through the character of Rory, I wanted to show a story of someone who was thrilled to be leaving Ireland."

McAlinder incorporates some lighter moments, inspired by her own life as a mother, such as baby Siobhan's first-poo-in-the-potty antics.

"Toilet training is a nightmare. It’s heartbreaking," she laughs.

Whilst her first ever short story was accepted for publication within weeks of writing, McAlinden admits trying to securing a literary deal was challenging.

After some rejection letters, she decided to enter some writing competitions – winning the Eludia Award on her second attempt.

Presented annually to a woman who comes to publication slightly later in life, the American award led to Philadelphia publishers Sowilo Press taking on her work and publishing The Accidental Wife in July 2016.

"When you come to writing later you have life experience to draw upon for inspiration. But it is more difficult to get published as an older writer – it's a simple fact of life.

"That is why competitions are good as often you enter them anonymously. So if you trust in the work you get an unbiased response to the work," she advises.

Her second book, The Flight of The Wren, follows the journey of 12 year old Sally Mahon as she flees the Irish famine and seeks a new life in the New World, transported at her Majesty’s pleasure to the penal colony of van Diemen’s Land.

"It couldn’t be more different. It’s a historical novel set in the famine in Kildare, the research has been thoroughly enjoyable," adds McAlinden, who has started penning a play.

"So many people have said my dialogue is so powerful and I should write a play. A few years ago I didn’t have a clue how to write a book, so I’m going to give it a try."

:: The Accidental Wife is available now at amazon.co.uk and in No Alibis Bookstore, Botanic Avenue, Belfast. The winning story The Visit is available to read online at Ilanot.wordpress.com/the-visit.