This week on Flourish and Blogs we have Belfast writer Kelly McCaughrain, fresh from her unprecedented triple win at the Children’s Books Ireland’s book awards. I first heard Kelly reading from her young adult book ‘Flying Tips for Flightless Birds’ (Walker Books) as a New Voice at the CBI’s annual conference, last September, and was struck by how witty and fresh the story was.
Since its publication, her debut that has been nominated for more than seven awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Prize.
Thanks so much for talking to us today, Kelly.
Thank you for having me, Olivia.
So first of all, what’s all this about you being a closet writer?
It’s true, I’ve always written but I hadn’t ever told anyone before I was forced to come clean when my Times/Chickenhouse shortlisted novel was about to be mentioned in The Times (you can’t really hide that).
Partly this was because I’m shy, and I’ve always written purely for myself and being read was never a motivation (the validation of being published is really important to me, but I dread the actual ‘being read’ bit), and partly because I always had this sense that telling people about it would mean having the pressure of their expectations on me. As soon as people know you write you’re constantly being asked, ‘How’s the book going?’, ‘Have you found a publisher yet?’, ‘When’s the next one coming out?’ At which point you reach for the wine.
Julia Cameron said that admitting you write is like admitting to an embarrassing case of unrequited love, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to describe it. I was absolutely certain I’d never get anything published and I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. When I was a kid, I loved books so much my parents would say, ‘Oh, you should be an author!’ in that way they do when you express an interest in anything. When I told them (at about 6 years old) that yes, I was going to be an author, they told me it wasn’t a good career choice because I’d never make any money. At 6, I hadn’t linked the two ideas – writing and money – but I suppose that’s when I realised that other people do, and I kept quiet about it after that because I felt I’d be seen as a failure if I didn’t make a lucrative career of it.
What inspired you to begin writing?
I remember realising that these picture books my dad read to me were written by a person, that this was a thing you could do, and that seemed amazing. And the first story I really ‘noticed’ in a writerly way was The Little Mermaid because it had a sad ending and I remember realising that this was different to the other fairy stories but that it was the right ending for the book, and a happy one wouldn’t have been as good. At 14 I read Frankenstein, which was the first proper classic I’d ever read and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is what language is for.’ I’ve just always been fascinated by how stories are constructed and what language can do.
How did you find your writing routine and has it developed with your writing style?
My routine consists of being very slow and annoyed at myself at all times. I try to write most days but it just depends on how well or badly it’s going. My technique has basically been to have a series of part time jobs that don’t demand that much of me, leaving me time and energy to write when I feel like it. As a result, I’ve never made a decent wage but I can spend my mornings and school holidays (I work in a college) writing. I’m lucky because we have a two-income household and no dependents. I really don’t think I’d be able to write if I had a proper full-time job or kids. I know many people do, but I couldn’t.
How did you find the Chicken House Prize experience in 2013? Did it change your writing?
I don’t know if it changed my writing, but it definitely changed my life. Before that, no one but my husband even knew I wrote. I got an agent as a result of the competition and I didn’t even have to go through the process of looking for one because she contacted me. And I was able to proudly admit I was writing novels because I had this ‘proof’ that I was OK at it, thank you very much.
How have you found working with an agent and an editor having been so secretive about your writing previously? Has any aspect of this side of getting published been eye-opening?
Having to send unfinished stuff to complete strangers was my worst nightmare. But actually, the editing process was incredibly helpful and I learned a lot about my own writing from it. It helped that I have such an amazing editor. Lucy totally ‘got’ and loved the book and all her suggestions really improved it. I remember saying to my husband, ‘This woman must be awful to live with because she’s right about everything!’
I wouldn’t like to be doing this without an agent. I think they make life a lot less stressful. They’re not miracle workers, they can’t place everything you write, but they have a much better shot at it than you would alone, and they can negotiate a better deal for you when they do. They also deal with anything business-related that might come up between you and your publisher, leaving the very important relationship between you and your editor to focus on the creative stuff.
Writing a second book is exactly as hard as they say, and what I’ve found surprising is how supportive and patient everyone is. I’ve never been good at admitting when I’m finding things tough or asking for help, and that’s been a new and difficult experience for me. I worry about letting people down. But my agent (Kirsty McLachlan from DGA) and my editors (Lucy Earley and Emily McDonnell) all missed their calling as cheerleaders because they’ve been nothing but encouraging and reassuring. I’m thrilled about the CBI awards because it feels like I owe them a lot and it’s brilliant to be able to repay their faith in me. I know they’re really proud of me and that’s an incredible feeling.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of this interview, which features an insight into Flying Tips for Flightless Birds and Kelly’s reaction to winning three awards in one day.
Kelly McCaughrain is a YA writer from Belfast. Her first novel, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is published by Walker Books and won the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year, Eilís Dillon, and Children’s Choice Awards 2019.
She works as a support provider for students with special needs and volunteers with Fighting Words, Belfast where she runs Write Club – a free, drop-in writing club for teenagers.
© Olivia Hope