Arts

Tyrone author's debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Castlederg author Michelle Gallen's debut novel has been described as Milkman meets Derry Girls. Jenny Lee chats to her about recovering from a life-changing brain illness, her fictional heroine Majella and how reading is the perfect antidote to the coronavirus crisis

Castlederg writer Michelle Gallen

WE all have lists in our heads – shopping lists, to-do lists, wish lists. Many of us also, secretly, have lists of things we don’t like.

But for the character in Castlederg-born author Michelle Gallen’s novel, Big Girl Small Town, lists are her solace and how she copes with life.

The full list of ‘stuff’ Majella doesn’t like extends to 97, with subcategories for each item. What Majella does like is the routine of working six evenings a week in her local chippy and 80s US television drama Dallas.

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But when her grandmother dies, suddenly everyone in Aghybogey, the small fictional town in Northern Ireland where she grew up, wants to know all about hers.

Written with 100 years of Partition in mind, Big Girl Small Town features an IRA uncle, a disappeared father, a murdered grandmother and an alcoholic mother.

"I grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post-Second World War and went to school in an area that had the highest unemployment rate anywhere in the industrially developed world," says Gallen.

"I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain."?

Gallen's writing talents were first recognised when, as a 16-year-old, she was selected out of 32,000 entrants to win the prestigious WH Smith Young Writers Competition.

She went on to study literature at Trinity University Dublin and publishing at Stirling University, and worked as a copywriter in London, while also writing fiction in her spare time.

But at the age of 23 her life was to change, when she developed a rare form of encephalitis, which swells the brain. At the time little was known about the auto-immune condition. Her illness started gradually, with headaches and a feeling confusion.

“Then I got really forgetful. I couldn’t remember what I had read and I could be taking notes in a meeting in a meeting and I literally couldn’t write," she says.

“Growing up in the north and during the Troubles you have this mentality of not making a fuss and just getting on with it. Eventually I collapsed in work. My boss took me to hospital and things went downhill very fast. I spent six weeks losing my mind, accused of taking drugs or having a nervous breakdown.”

Gallen returned to live with her parents in Castlederg. It was 1999, a year after the Omagh bombing and she received little medical care.

“I spent the year doing nothing, except trying to learn everything all over again,” she recalls.

She then moved to Dublin, with a good friend, and sourced rehabilitation. And after a few years, Gallen felt well enough to get back into employment, moving to Belfast and working for BBC online education learning.

Much of her 30s were taken up working in internet communication, including setting up the world’s first social-media network for Irish language speakers, talkirish.com.

But the urge to write never left Gallen, and she had a number of short stories published, including Double Tub, the story of Conor, an overweight fish-and-chip-shop worker, which appeared in the literary journal The Stinging Fly.

A short time after Gallen took a month off work to follow a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an online 30-day writing project) plan, changing the protagonist to the female Majella.

“I wrote 70,000 words in a month. It then took me three further years to finish and 10 years to get a publisher,” says Gallen, who sold the rights at last year’s Irish Novel Fair in Dublin.

“I felt Majella had a lot more to say. She is so physically strong but sees the world in a completely different way,” adds Gallen, who, in the book's blurb, reveals that Majella is autistic but, like many females, has not officially received a diagnosis.

Nicola Coughlan, who plays the role of Clare Devlin in Derry Girls, narrates the audiobook of Big Girl Small Town. Gallen says she considers it a compliment to have her work compared to the hit Channel 4 sitcom, but that she herself didn't see the show "until the book was at the printers”. ?

Now in her 40s and living in Dublin, with her husband and two children, aged five and seven, Gallen is currently writing her second book, Factory Girls, set in a west Tyrone shirt factory in the mid-90s. She also works as a “med tech evangelist” which, in layman’s terms, is a digital content writer and consultant in the area of online health, she says.

So how is she reacting personally and professionally to the coronavirus pandemic?

 

“All the book events I had been asked to take part in have been cancelled. While that's hitting me hard financially, it's also been emotionally tough. I was so looking forward to meeting people and taking part in workshops and panels. However, because I'm a 'high risk' group for Covid-19 complications [due to several underlying health conditions], I am glad that people are taking this so seriously.” ?

And how does she think Majella would have coped with coronavirus?

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus's effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.

"In many ways Majella herself is typical of a worker who would be economically and physically vulnerable to Covid-19. Her boss, who doesn't allow her access to the clean, properly equipped indoor toilet, is not likely to fund the additional health and safety measures needed.”

Gallen quotes DH Lawrence in suggesting how we might all find solace in the midst of this unprecedented global health crisis. Lawrence, author of The Rainbow, Sons And Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover, said that “one sheds one’s sickness in books”.

“I think Majella herself would be happier if she watched less Dallas and read more books," she adds.

"She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She'd have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.”

:: Big Girl, Small Town is published by John Murray and is out now.

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