The Ráth Mór Shopping Centre in Derry~Londonderry's Creggan area is perhaps not associated with creative writing, but look a little closer and you will discover The Hive Digital Studios on the first floor. It is here that a selection of the city's finest authors have gathered at the auspices of Guildhall Press.
Creggan Writers' Showcase is the last of six public events organised by the long-established publisher and Creggan Enterprises, as part of the development of the BT Portrait of a City film and photographic archive a programme, supported by the Big Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Culture for All programme.
Previous events have focussed on specific groups – female writers, young writers et cetera – but today's showcase features a range of authors working in different forms.
Journalist Garbhan Downey, who has published several factual books and satirical novels, is chair of proceedings, and establishes an informal tone by keeping the running order a secret 'to ensure that no-one leaves before the poets and short story writers'.
First up is the most successful writer on the bill: playwright, novelist, poet and screenwriter, Dave Duggan.
Oscar-nominated for his 1996 screenplay Dance, Lexie, Dance, Duggan is a commanding presence, and reveals that he 'walks around with people in my head for days, weeks, months, even years before they end up on the page' – a useful observation for any aspiring authors in the audience who consider preparation to be overrated.
Duggan then reads from A Sudden Sun, his novel written from the female perspective. The central character, Donna Bradley – herself from Creggan, who struggles with grief following the death of her daughter – remains with the author, still talking away in his head, and Duggan admits that he will return to her in the future.
Whether that particular story takes the form of a novel, screenplay or drama, Duggan is yet to decide – for him, form comes last, after he has settled on theme, character, plot and resolution.
Take his most recent work, for example, the verse drama Denizen, a court room drama set in Derry that deals with the concepts of truth and reconciliation. Duggan listened to his protagonist's voice for many months, and was surprised to discover that his story was best suited to a verse drama, a form he had never tackled before.
Duggan is aware, however, that his next project will be a science fiction play written in Irish, which he hopes to see produced in 2015 – rest assured, Dave Duggan is a difficult writer to predict. On the craft, he finishes with Samuel Beckett's oft-repeated advice: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'
Next up is Charlie Herron, former principal of Foyle View School, who began writing in retirement. He published his debut novel, McCauley's War, at the sprightly age of 74, which was followed by The Trouble With McCauley, the second in a projected trilogy.
Though he had a yearning to write for many years, Herron's job and large family took priority, until BBC Radio Foyle asked him – a natural raconteur, who had previously participated in various programmes as a talking head – to write a story for broadcast.
'I knew when I was writing it that it was not a short story, it was a novel,' says Herron. So he pursued something else, and came back to the original idea later. In the event, he finished the first draft of his debut novel in just six weeks. Reading an extract, his mischievous young protagonist finds himself attending confession in a Derry chapel: 'I have a great openness with people,' he quips, 'as long as they're Catholics.'
If Herron is the consumate orator – humorous and confident in front of a crowd – then poet and painter Catherine Canning is the consumate wallflower. 'How am I supposed to follow these two?' she jokes, cannily and perhaps subconsciously putting herself at ease at the same time as informing us that bluster and banter is not her style.
Canning's book, Inch Days: Poems and Paintings, recalls four years living on the County Donegal island, in a cottage surrounded by flowers and wildlife and water and very few people. 'My connection with nature inspired me to write this book,' Canning says – nay whispers – before reading several poems, introducing each with a brief pretext or synopsis.
When Canning reads, she transforms – whereas before she was all hands and nervous energy, now she is still as the morning, her gaze fixed on the page, or occasionally rising toward the ceiling as she reads from memory, seemingly in a trance. Her voice, once frigid, veritably booms; she seems to grow taller with each carefully chosen word.
She reads 'John Sweeney', 'Nest Building', 'The House' and 'Two Dead Lambs', but it's 'Counting Sheep' that stays with me the longest, its imagery stark, its meaning universal. A sheep lies dead in a field, and Canning observes its leg bone nibbled clean, it's empty eye sockets, and ponders how they are 'connected by being female, connected by being alone'.
Other writers follow – Willie Deery, author of Springtown Camp and Derry's Dancehalls of Romance; bookstore owner and poet Jenni Doherty; journalist and short story writer Freya McClements, to name but a few – and the prevailing theme that runs throughout all of their readings is home.
There is no doubting that each and every writer shares a deep affection for Derry as a city, as an inspiration, as a setting in their many and varied works. When Downey asks if he would ever consider setting his fiction elsewhere, Herron confirms that he would – but only in Moville, the County Donegal seaside resort where he spent his childhood, a mere 18 miles away.
Write what you know, seems to be the lesson. Whether it be a verse drama in the classical tradition, a collection of poems, or a trilogy of Second World War homefront novels, these writers all chose to write about the views that they see from their bedroom windows, often in their own dialect. For Derry's writers, there is a lot to be said for authenticity.