Shirley-Anne McMillan | Interview
Author of A Good Hiding
By Conor O’Neill
Respectable woman from Lisburn meets her alter-ego with panache and wit, and with teen/adolescent her vibe, Shirley-Anne McMillan gives half an hour to chat with CultureHUB. Her new book, her debut to most but her second to knowing fans, has claimed awards and smashing reviews since its launch. So many questions to ask, so much to touch upon the life of a writer, a youth worker and a mum, how the hell does she cope with it? “I tend to write in the evenings,” she reveals, “… as a mother of two it’s not possible to sit down to a routine.”
When did she start writing, I ask. “From when I can remember” quips the author of her newest novel, A Good Hiding. There is a twist of the tongue and message with the title. Betwixt and between the title are the unforgettable words ‘Some secrets keep you safe, others hold you hostage’. Let’s not get away from the fact of this fiction … everyone, every character, every page to page has a new revelation and smell of suspense. I dare you to read A Good Hiding while eating a sugar coated donut and not lick your lips.
On writing and the base of characters, Shirley tells of the amalgamation of people she’s known or knows: “I’ve never been a teenage single mum-to-be, I’m not a gay boy, I just imagine characters and their feelings.” But McMillan’s twist on life is defined by her day job. She supports youths, some of whom are in trouble, gay, bi or transsexual, and from this she draws her far from picturesque yet stark moments of melancholy yet jolly spectrum of teen life.
As to why she chose teen-fiction, Shirley answers: “When I was growing up there was little for me to read. I read young adult fiction, so I enjoy writing it.” And boy does she do it well. On when she became a proper writer in the true sense of the word, Shirley says: “I started taking it seriously when I was about twenty. I done a Masters on creative writing at ‘uni’ and haven’t stopped since.” Her first novel was self-published, the second she sent excerpts to a writing competition called Undiscovered Voices and won it. “After that I had a few agents interested in my work. I was lined up with a publisher and the last couple of years have been mad.”
As for the book … teenage pregnancy, homophobia, and Morrissey would love the victim/saviour of a vicar in a tutu, or so we’re led to believe. Domestic violence, a drunkard, silly games only the teens can enjoy and nuggets of secrets tucked up everyone’s sleeves is page-turning, pure fantastic brilliance.
To paraphrase Russell T Davies of Doctor Who fame, ‘Writers just write’. As to McMillan’s technique, “At the start it was just writing, but for this novel I sat down with the plot in mind and constructed it from start to finish.” Kind of like a cartoonist with a storyboard; with strong characters, a brimming-with-confidence plot, McMillan is at least one of the most well grounded and imaginative authors to come out of our wee country in recent years. The book reads cinematic. As to how this came to be, Shirley comments: “I never really thought it through that much. A poet friend of mine, Damien Gorman, helped me with a few scenes and a novel is quite a long thing to write, so I suppose it might read that way.”
So what’s next for Shirley-Anne McMillan? A Good Hiding getting great reviews, her name on the literature map, will there be a sequel? “People keep on asking me that. They want to know what happens to Nolliag and Stephen after the story ends, but the next one is again set in Belfast and is at the publishers now. It’s about a teenage free-climber who scales Harland and Wolffs’ cranes and gets involved with an anarchic group.” More of which McMillan won’t reveal, but you can bank your dropping Euro it’ll be another cracker.
A pleasure to talk to, laughter always just a breath away and oozing enthusiasm, there’s a writer bold enough to take serious matters with a light heart, first person intrigue and characters too close to home to be fictional. Really, we all still remember our teens with a fish-eye microscopic lens. And really, really, really this novel should see the stage.