If you’ve ever gorged yourself on food – anything from an exquisite eight course Michelin-starred dinner to a huge salty bag of fish and chips – and then vomited it all up afterwards, you’ll recognise my writing process.
I binge read words from every era and genre and drink in my own life experiences, then, when I’m stuffed to bursting point, I spew up my words all over the page. These word splatters are usually a spectacular, smelly mess – nothing like the poetry or fiction I’ve read or the pain and beauty of my lived experiences. After the word purge, I begin the mucky business of cleaning it up – a process that can feel as repulsive and rewarding as deep cleaning a public toilet or licking up your own puke.
I wrote most of my debut novel – Big Girl, Small Town – in just thirty days. I was living and working in Belfast at the time and had written a short story set in a chip shop in a small town on the Irish border. The original protagonist was a man, but I was attracted to the silent presence of his co-worker, Majella – who appeared in my head as an odd but compelling woman. Once her character got under my skin, I knew I needed to tell the whole story in her voice.
But I was still in recovery from the brain injury that had shattered my life a few years previously, leaving me with multiple neurological deficits, including short- and long-term memory problems. It had taken me a long time to work up confidence to tackle writing short stories – I was terrified of trying to write a whole novel and had no idea where to start.
I then stumbled across the NaNoWriMo challenge which asks authors to commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days. I thought that maybe if I started the novel and just kept writing day after day for thirty days and did nothing else – I could write half the book. So I took November off work and wrote 70,000 words in a fury.
I’m not the only writer I’ve heard of who has worked like this. Sally Rooney wrote 100,000 words of Conversations With Friends in three months. Kazuo Ishiguro famously wrote his masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, in just four weeks. His wife took on his social and domestic responsibilities so Kazuo could write from 9am to 10.30pm every day for four weeks, a period they nicknamed ‘The Crash’.
I call my own month of writing ‘The Fire, the Fun and the Fury’, for although there are dark scenes in Big Girl, Small Town – and the town of Aghybogey is a troubled place – those thirty days of writing were both cathartic and enjoyable. I loved being in Majella’s body and brain when writing. I enjoyed seeing the minor characters walk into the chipper in my mind’s eye, and I had fun recording how Majella interacted with them.
I wrote alone, but often, when I was spent from writing, I’d meet up with friends to share my latest scenes with them. We’d laugh at the funny bits and share our own memories of darker times that were still fresh in our heads. New ideas sparked in my mind during each conversation – and I continued this practice of sharing scenes with friends (albeit at a much slower pace) even after that glorious month of writing was over and I had to return to work. It took me 3 years to write the last 30,000 words of Big Girl, Small Town, and a lot longer to find a publisher (but that, as they say, is another story).
I’m no longer a single woman with cheap rent and the luxury of walking away from my work and domestic responsibilities for 3 whole days, never mind 30 days. These days I have to choose what I can manage from a smorgasbord of social and emotional demands, including paid work, raising the kids, fixing up the wreck we live in, managing my health, paying the mortgage, and producing creative work. I try to get up as early as possible each morning, to write what I can with the first fresh burst of the day’s energy, before I’m drained by all the other demands on my time, my heart, my soul. By 8pm most days, I rarely have anything left to give to my writing or friends, let alone myself.
I still write short stories hoping to find a way ‘in’ to a novel. Sometimes reading a single line from a poem triggers a short story; sometimes it’s the experience of being ambushed by a good or bad memory. But because I’ve never lost my fear that my brain will fail me – that I’ll start to write something and then ‘forget’ the fire that fuels the words – I write as much as I can when something grabs me: I’ve learned through bitter experience, that leaving a writing project to go cold is much like leaving a plate of fish and chips to go cold – I’m not likely to finish it.
I do wish I could be kinder, more cow-like in my writing practice. I wish that instead of several stomachs, I had a series of brains that would allow me to crop and store a feast of books and experiences that I can later chew over. I’d quite like to sit in the sun, regurgitating the half-digested contents of my first brain, tranquilly working on this rough mixture in order to separate the flesh-feeding nutrients and bone-building minerals from the colon-cleansing fibre. But I do what I can with this one brain, fallible as it is, reading and spewing, breathing and renewing.
(c) Michelle Gallen
About Big Girl Small Town:
Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.
*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground
*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is
Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers.
Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.
But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.
‘Milkman meets Derry Girls. A cracking read’ Sinead Moriarty
‘A thrillingly fresh, provocative and touching voice’ Marian Keyes
‘Bawdy yet beautiful, full of everyday tragedy, absurdity and truth. I grew extraordinarily attached to Majella’ Sara Baume
Order your copy online here.
Big Girl Small Town by Michelle Gallen is published in Trade Paperback by John Murray, £13.99