Annie McCartney Has Done It All

Lee Henry meets the NI writer and broadcaster

Who would answer the door? Annie McCartney the actor, the teacher, the DJ, the writer? Standing on her front step near Queen's University in Belfast, I was about to find out.

From inside, little dogs bark at the doorbell and a woman’s voice commands silence in language as blue as the January sky. Some interviews loom on the horizon like a telephone bill, but this should be fun.

Writing is a solitary business, and writers can be a morose bunch. But Annie McCartney isn’t your average writer. One tends to think that she isn’t your average middle-class wife and mother either. Because there is an irreverent, mischievous air about McCartney that shines in her eyes and seems to set her apart from the average. And when you talk to her for any length of time, you start to wish that all mothers were so damn cool.

McCartney began acting as an undergraduate at Queen’s - where she was also a keen member of the Debating Society – in the late 60s, and made her first appearance in a radio drama directed by Ronnie Mason, in her first year.

After graduating, she taught in various school programmes and continued to act before moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband Ian in 1977, where she had two children and discovered a new vocation as a radio DJ and programme director.

‘I liked to deejay,’ she tells me. ‘I had quite a high profile nationally, so I got to go to rock concerts and things. Limos and backstage passes, stuff like that. It was fantastic.’

In 1987, the McCartney family decided to give up ‘holidays in the Carribbean and skiing in Colorado’ to come back to Belfast, where Annie has since forged a new career for herself as a writer. Her first book, Desire Lines, won the World Book Day Award, whilst her second, Your Cheatin’ Heart, has garnered interest from adaptation-keen Hollywood movie producers.

From Pink Floyd concerts in New York City to a radio studio in Belfast’s Broadcasting House, McCartney has been there, done that and burnt holes in the t-shirt. But in the end, she can only ever have one preference.

‘Acting,’ she says, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘In a way, I think that’s what I really want to do most.

‘I started writing because, in Northern Ireland, there were very few plays and horrible parts for women. I do enjoy writing. I’ve written ten radio plays, three series for Radio 4, six short stories and three books. But I’m only starting to see myself as a writer now. I love writing radio plays, but I like being in them too.’

The third book in the McCartney canon is a reworking of her acclaimed radio series Two Doors Down, soon to be published by Time Warner. It is her first revisiting of past material.

‘It took me an awful long time to get into it,’ she explains. ‘Initially I was reluctant, but my editor suggested that I should approach it from a different angle. So instead of having the main character, Sally, come into this zany neighbourhood where all the people are insane, drink lemon and ginger tea and borrow coriander from each other, and having her sort out all of their mad fusses and menopausal hot flushes, I’ve tried to tell her story. I don’t know how successful it will be.

‘For me, plot and character kind of stumble along haphazardly together. I had no plot in Your Cheatin’ Heart. I just wanted somebody to get shot in the first chapter.

‘Once you create the little thin film around each character to pull them away from your own reality, then they start having their own viability as characters. They start doing things and you think, "Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that."’

Whilst some of her radio plays, such as Go Ask Alice and Occasional Swim, have dealt with serious subjects surrounding the themes of family and parenthood, McCartney says that she prefers to write comedy.

‘If you get the feel for it and you get the character. If you can be outrageous and there are no limits, I would tend to write about pain. But I loved writing Two Doors Down because it was comic. I loved coming up with all the mad dialogue. The next book I write is going to be really mad.’

Such a distinguished career, such lovely little West Highland Terriers, such a beautiful family home. Is there anything Annie McCartney doesn’t have?

‘If I put my daughter’s photo on the back of my next book and let her promote it,’ she says. ‘It would be nice to write a bestseller.’