The second part of an interview with Belfast writer Kelly McCaughrain, fresh from her unprecedented triple win at the Children’s Books Ireland’s book awards for her book Flying Tips for Flightless Birds (Walker Books).
Since its publication, her debut that has been nominated for more than seven awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Prize and since the original interview has also won the Northern Irish Book award 2019, as voted for by pupils across Northern Ireland.
As a debut, ‘Flying Tips for Flightless Birds’ has made an impressive impact on awards lists across Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. It shows life in a northern Irish town, and is a story driven by what is shown and what is hidden when you are teenager, a young love story and the differences between siblings. What was your starting point for this story?
The award lists have been such a huge encouragement. It’s one of the lovely things about writing for kids – there are lots of school libraries eager to celebrate your books and help kids engage with them, and they choose their books with the purest motivation. They don’t care how fashionable your topic is or if you’re a celebrity or if there’s a movie coming out, they just want good books for their readers.
I’d begun a story set in a circus family years before, but it never felt right and I’d abandoned it. But the moment the character of Finch popped into my head it took off like a rocket and I completely rewrote it inside a year. It really felt like he was driving the narrative and I was just trying to keep up. It was a lovely experience that doesn’t happen very often. I had absolutely no plans to write about any particular issues or themes, I was just guided by him. He seemed to walk into my head fully formed, this is who he was and I just went with it. Everything in the book evolved out of his personality.
What type of research did you do for ‘Flying Tips for Flightless Birds’? Can we expect Big Top skills in your school and festival visits in the future?
I did a lot of reading online and watching circus videos on YouTube and calling it work. I love circuses anyway so it was no hardship to research circus history. I have been learning to juggle since I was 16 (still rubbish at it) and I’d love to teach a class basic juggling but you need props. But I do a great talk about circus freak shows!
I also did research on homophobic bullying in schools because Finch is subjected to that, and it was depressing reading. I’d assumed things were much better these days, but the statistics are actually quite frightening. Being from Northern Ireland, I was also thinking about the influence of our politicians on kids here. I know lots of schools in Northern Ireland are brilliant and really tackling these issues, but it must be difficult because how do you get across the message that everyone’s equal when some of the most powerful people in the country are saying the opposite? It’s like bullying on an institutional level and I feel like that must have an impact. I felt strongly about setting the book in NI for that reason. I was a little worried that the publisher (being English) would want to move it to England but they never mentioned it.
What was the hardest scene to write in ‘Flying Tips for Flightless Birds?’ What would you say is the most difficult part of your process?
I find first drafts very difficult and I love editing. I wish someone else would write the first draft for me and then let me fix it. Flying Tips was actually quite a pleasant writing experience though, I don’t remember anything that gave me loads of trouble. The hard bit was abandoning that first draft and then waiting several years for Finch to show up. After that it was easy. But I’m probably just not remembering it properly. I tend to look back at things and have no memory of writing them at all. Maybe it’s like childbirth – it’s so painful you have to repress it!
Wednesday, (May 22nd, the day of the CBI awards ceremony) must have been pretty special for you. Did you even imagine such a haul?
I was so sure I wasn’t going to win anything I told my husband not to take the day off work to come with me. I mean, did you see the shortlist? At the start of the ceremony I told myself to look around and take it all in because this was certainly the peak of my career and it would never get better than this. I was very proud of being on the shortlist and I wanted to remember that moment before it was all over and I was back on the bus home feeling sad.
And then they called my name for the Eilís Dillon Award and I nearly dropped. When I sat down again, I was so busy saying ‘Oh my God,’ to Pádraig Kenny next to me, that I missed the announcement of the second award. I just heard my name, so I got up and accepted this huge bouquet of flowers with no idea what I’d just won. The group of children handing them to me should have tipped me off that it was the Children’s Choice Award but I was in a bit of a daze. It’s particularly lovely to have been voted for by young readers. That feels like a huge validation.
When they announced the third, I could hardly get out of my seat. I’ve had a feeling ever since that it must be a dream and I’m dreading the moment I wake up.
What bookish delights are in the pipeline for fans of Kelly McCaughrain?
I’m working on another book for Walker but I have a history of almost finishing things and then abandoning them or being lured away to other ideas so I can’t say what’s coming next because I won’t know until it’s actually finished. If you find this annoying, you should try being my editor.
And finally, what words of advice have you for writers embarking on getting published?
Be patient. I often hear people talk about how they sent their piece off to three people and it was rejected by all three so they gave up. Or people in their twenties giving up because they’re not good enough. And maybe they’re not; I certainly wasn’t in my twenties, but I got better. Keep submitting. Keep writing. And in the meantime, forget about publishing. Just write the thing you would write even if you knew for certain it would never be published. Then, whatever happens, you’ve succeeded.
Thanks so much for your time again.
Thank you, it’s been lovely!
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