Libraries NI's Writer in Residence for Creativity Month on 'faction', the writing life and why the arts matter
For the past couple of years, Libraries NI has invited a local author to be their Writer in Residence during March’s Creativity Month. Previous participants have subsequently included Portstewart novelist, Bernie McGill, and Derry-based crime writer, Brian McGilloway.
This year, former Man Booker-nominated author, Eoin McNamee, who penned the critically acclaimed Resurrection Man - a story about the Shankill Butchers - has been allocated the slot. As a result, he’ll be taking part in a range of writing-related workshops, talks and events, as well as blogging about some of these on the Libraries NI website.
The author of 17 novels, including The Ultras, 12:23 and the Blue trilogy (The Blue Tango, Blue Orchid and Blue is the Night), McNamee has a string of literary credits to his name. He also writes for BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Plays slot, for TV, and has written a series of young adult novels.
Of his new role, however, McNamee is very enthusiastic, and those who are set to take part in his various workshops and events are in for a treat. It’s not every day, after all, that you get the chance to have a New York Times bestselling author critique your work, or give you tips on writing for the page and screen.
'I’m looking forward to it,' he says. 'It’s been said that writers are shy people, and I wouldn’t have seen it as part of the writer’s life when I started, but I’m well used to it now!'
As a father of two teenagers – an 18 year-old daughter and 13-year-old son – one of McNamee’s more recent public engagements involved talking to his daughter’s class on writing about the Troubles.
As an author of ‘faction’, McNamme writes about crimes, but isn’t a traditional ‘crime writer’ per se. That is, he fictionalises real-life events, such as the Troubles, and uses the real names of those involved. It’s raised a few eyebrows over the years perhaps, but McNamee has stuck to his guns, subsequently producing an impressive body of work.
'When I got to the end of Resurrection Man, I changed all the names,' he says. 'But it almost felt like a dishonest thing to do, as everyone knew who it was about, so when I did Blue Tango, I just felt it was the right thing to use the real names, because that was the story you were telling.'
Having studied law at university, McNamee was suitably versed on the legalities behind writing in this way and so managed to avoid the potholes other writers may have fallen into.
He adds: 'People bring up the moral question about putting words into people’s mouths, but I keep waiting for someone to come up with a killer argument to say, ‘that’s not a valid thing to do’, and they haven’t.
'You’re not a priest – you don’t have a social responsibility to that extent. If you get it wrong, you get it wrong.'
Originally from Kilkeel, McNamee now lives in Sligo with his children and artist wife, Marie, but in his early career, he initially took himself off to the Mournes to pursue his literary dream. He soon realised however, that the author’s life wasn’t quite what he’d thought.
'When I left school, I took a year out to try to start writing,' he says. 'I had a very glamourous idea of what it would be like!'
He then went to Trinity College in Dublin to complete his law degree, before travelling to New York to try the writing again.
'I thought I’d give myself a couple of years, otherwise I’d regret it,' he says. 'I was fortunate – just as I started writing, Irish writers were becoming fashionable.'
Talent of course, perhaps played a bigger role in the author’s subsequent success, with McNamee going on to receive an Irish Times Literature Award nomination for his novella, The Last of Deeds. Then along came Resurrection Man, as well as the subsequent film, and McNamee’s future was set.
As part of his Libraries NI Writer in Residence role, McNamee will be engaging with aspiring authors, as well as those who are simply fans of his work, and his advice is simple. 'Be true to yourself and your own writing, and if the work is publishable, then you’ll find a publisher,' he says. 'If you think too much about publishers and agents, it distorts what you do.'
Having received a Major Individual Artist Award of £15,000 from the Arts Council NI in 2014, McNamee’s next novel will focus on the snooker player, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. Meanwhile, he’s also recently written for the Welsh TV drama, Hinterland, has just finished recording a play for BBC Radio 4, and is on deadline as we speak, for a project on the writer, Dermot Healy. As for the recent furore over the cuts to arts funding in Northern Ireland, McNamee says the most worrying thing about it is the inability of people to see artistic work as valid work.
'There are so many misconceptions of what’s involved in art in general, not just writing,' he says. 'The people I know who are good in their field are hard-working, rigorous, questing people. Quite often, it’s after they’re dead that people realise how much they contributed. 'In the smallest possible way, writers become part of what binds society together. The simple act of saying things out loud is worth paying for.'