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From a 'dreadful' job to publishing her first novel at 54: 'It's life-changing, it really is'

Geraldine Quigley was 54 when her first book was published – and it’s all about growing up in Derry.

“THE HUNGER STRIKE, us as teenagers… what it’s like to try and escape from poverty. That kind of thing pushed me to write about this,” says debut fiction author Geraldine Quigley when asked about the roots of her novel, Music Love Drugs War. “It grew from there.”

True to the title of the book, music played a big role in Geraldine Quigley’s life when she was a teenager – her brother Michael was even in the Undertones. But while she and her friends were off having their fun at an enjoyably rough-around-the-edges local venue (called The Cave), outside their doors there was a civil war.

Quigley grew up in Derry in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the Troubles were raging. Now she has taken those experiences of unrest, sectarianism and teenage emotions and put them all into Music Love Drugs War, which was published when she was 54. Though at one point she didn’t have confidence in her fiction writing, it was thanks to Penguin’s mentoring programme WriteNow that she got published.

The book comes at a time when there’s some incredible talent emerging from the North – like Booker Prize winner Anna Burns and her novel Milkman, Jan Carson (whose book The Fire Starters is due out in April), and writer Wendy Erskine (whose debut short story collection was published by The Stinging Fly in 2018). Each of them gives their own slant on life in the north.

For Quigley, her own book was a chance to look back at her teenage years and add to the narrative of what daily life was like during the Troubles. The formative year that she writes about was the time in her own life when she met her husband, but was also the year her father died. She says had not come across much writing about the Derry she recognised from her teens. 

“All the other books were very dark, very

 

bleak,” she tells TheJournal.ie. She wanted to write something different. 

When she heard about WriteNow (which aims to help marginalised writers in particular), she was “working in a dreadful place” and feeling like there was no way out. Writing helped give her purpose and, she says, “gave my life value and worth”.

Though she had helped set up a literary fanzine – Shift – which she and friends self-funded, confidence wasn’t easy to come by:

I never had any confidence in myself that I could write fiction. Honestly, I never thought I had the imagination to write fiction – doesn’t that sound terrible? But it’s true.

“I have said in the past that I allowed myself to write and a lot of that was to get over that feeling of ‘I can’t do this’,” she explains. When Derry was named City of Culture in 2013, she had a lightbulb moment when she saw a family performing on the street. 

“They weren’t perfect but they were really going for it and I remember being jealous of them and thinking: you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be James Joyce, you just have to do it,” she says. 

She’d already written a short memoir about her mother, who had vascular dementia. But for fiction, she turned to her teenage years. As the youngest of 11 children, Quigley wanted in particular to explore what Northern Ireland was like for women during her youth.

She worked full-time while writing, so it took four years for her to finish the first draft of the book.  

Music Love Drugs War

‘We just had to keep ourselves going’

Quigley believes that there are stories from during the Troubles that are only starting to come out – and that there is a “certain amount of myth-busting that has to be done”.

She points to Anna Burns’ book Milkman, which is also set in the north. “She says it’s living in a really confined tense environment where you can’t be critical, you’re almost silenced – and when you’re silenced everything’s silenced, including sexual abuse or secret abortions. I think we’ll see a lot more of those stories coming out.”

But she’s cautious about why there is an interest in writing from the North.

“I would be really sad to think it was Brexit that meant people wanted to hear our stories from over here,” she says.

She says that living through the Troubles in the North “was far more mundane” than we might think. “You had bursts of unrest or rioting, or it became violent, especially when I was young in the early 70s,” she says. “Other than that we really normalised it to the point where it was a drone in the background, it was always there.” 

Things could be tense, but teenagers “really just had to keep ourselves going”, she says. “You wanted to be a teenager and you pushed it to one side, It’s normalisation, that’s what it is: normalisation.”

Looking back there was so much fear that we didn’t recognise because it was normal, because it was always there. I also know I was so young, I don’t think I realised just how young I was then.

She says there’s more freedom in the north now, something reflected in her daughter’s lives. ”There was certainly an innocence there about your own sexuality and things like that access to contraception,” she says about her teen years.  She describes her and her friends as very innocent compared to their English counterparts. 

In her book, she explores the impact of paramilitary groups on the local community, but she “didn’t want supervillains and didn’t want victims – I wanted it to be the way it was. And also to be non-judgemental”. She didn’t judge her characters, some of whom make questionable decisions. 

She believes that with books about this era, there can be a “fear that it is glorifying paramilitarism or the violence of something in some way – which this book totally does not, under no circumstances”.

If anything, it’s an anti-war book, she says: “In the way All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war book. I had no time for armies of any kind, I just think they exploit [people].”

Quigley describes the hunger strike in 1981 as “a real radicalising thing” that brought up “a lot of anger”. She saw acquaintances changing slightly as a result. “At the time I think there were a lot of decisions that had to be made – you had to take a stand.”

People were in a position where they had to make a decision: am I supporting or not supporting this.

She says she was “quite surprised that Penguin in the UK really engaged with the book. “I think they saw more than I saw in it. They saw it as a book about radicalisation and a universal appeal to it because it’s such a universal subject at the minute.”

When she got the email to tell her she had been selected for WriteNow, she was sitting in her work canteen (she has since moved on from that ‘dreadful’ job). “It was so exciting – I couldn’t contain myself. Penguin read something I’d written, they said it was good…. It’s life-changing, it really is.”

She says feels very lucky, praising her great editor and agent – before adding: “‘Great agent’ – words I thought I’d never say. I’m 54 and I have an agent.”

As for her next book, Quigley is working on a draft of her next novel – which is also set in Derry, but this time after WWII. Again, she will be focusing on women’s lives. 

She still has her full time job, and anticipates staying in it and writing outside of work. She still seems quite taken aback by her success, but glad to have the chance to do what she loves. 

“I couldn’t have predicted any of this, I couldn’t have,” she says. No doubt her teenage self would be very proud. 

Music Love Drugs War, published by Fig Tree, is out now.

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