INTERVIEW: Charlie Herron

Publishing his first novel at the tender age of 74 means the world to this former school teacher from Derry

Derry man Charlie Herron has just, at the sprightly age of 74, realised a lifetime’s ambition. His first novel - and we are assured there will be a second - has just been published by Guildhall Press. From the outset Herron knew that McCauley’s War was 'something different'.

Set in Derry in September 1941, McCauley’s War is written through the eyes of the streetwise nine-year old Dickie McCauley, who dominates his friends and constantly outwits his elders. Torn between the foolish, drunken dreams of his father and the realities of family life in wartime Derry, Dickie’s antics with his motley gang bring unwanted attention to the doorstep of his long-suffering mother. These innocent scrapes, ultimately complicated by much darker deeds and local politics, lead to terrible consequences for the close-knit McCauley family.

The former principal of Foyle View School, and a lifelong storyteller, Herron is a well known character in the city now dubbed the UK Capital of Culture for 2013. His short stories have been retold many a time on local radio and his tall tales have been the highlight of many a night’s craic at the Colmcille Debating Society.

Herron also holds the proud accolade of being a four-time winner of the ‘prestigious’ Baron Von Munchausen competition. But it was not until his 70th birthday approached that he found himself writing something that would, in the end, turn into his first novel. It was not something he was expecting.

'BBC Radio Foyle were always on the phone to me looking for short stories. I tried to work ahead - when I could. I liked to have one done and one on the go, so to speak. When I started writing this story I just knew, instantly, it was something different.

'The whole story developed in a different way. The characters grew and took on lives of their own. The mini plots evolved within the main plot. I didn’t have a clear cut middle or end, the characters just took off and drove the story. It was overwhelming to see how it grew - but I just went with it,' Herron says with an infectious enthusiasm.

Stopping midway through the writing process to complete one of his famous short stories for the radio, Herron returned to the book with renewed vigour and within three months had completed the manuscript which he described as 'a rough diamond'.

That rough diamond was to become the highlight of his 70th birthday celebrations when his daughters presented him with a bound copy of the book at his party. 'They are great typists and they put it all together and gave me a spiral bound copy on my birthday,' Herron recalls. 'It was a remarkable moment, especially when they had me read from it and everyone clapped.'

With an inkling that the book could take, and on the advice of his late brother Hugh who read the first draft, Herron approached Paul Hippsley of Derry based Guildhall Press, who offered to publish it.

'Guildhall Press are a joy to work with. They know the local market and they know what people want. Their criticisms were always very constructive and their skill at drawing a book together and getting it out there are second to none. Working with them was a privilege, one that I could not believe until the book was in my hands.'

The experience is remarkable for a man who took up creative writing as a hobby after his early retirement in 1987, although he says life is now busier than ever. With 15 grandchildren in his brood, Herron is delighting in the fact that some of them are now reading his newly published novel. And he is grateful that Paul Hippsley encouraged him to take out some of the swear words.

Herron has begun work on a follow up, which he hopes will hit the book shelves next year and has described the experience of being published as a 'whirlwind'. 'Through the edits, the publication and the publicity it has just been unreal. I have been gobsmacked by the enthusiasm people have had for the book and the support which they have given me.'

McCauley’s War by Charlie Herron is published by Guildhall Press. Available from local bookshops, and CultureNorthernIreland's Amazon store.

Claire Allan