Writer’s Block with Geraldine Quigley

Sophie Grenham speaks to author GERALDINE QUIGLEY about growing up in Derry, working-class writers and her debut novel …

The Gloss Magazine-Writer's Block-Geraldine Quigley

Music Love Drugs War is an astonishing coming-of-age novel by debut author Geraldine Quigley. The youngest of eleven children, Quigley’s immersive text is based on her own experiences growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles.

The story begins in 1981. Bobby Sands is on hunger strike and youths all over the desolate city seek escape. Here we meet empathetic siblings Paddy and Liz McLaughlin and their close-knit group of friends as they engage in drinking, taking drugs and even rioting. On one hand, they’re having the time of their lives going to the Cave, a local dive bar, and listening to 70s rock, punk, new wave and reggae music. But the war rages on. Reality comes to their door when their friend is killed by a plastic bullet, and decisions must be made – fight or flight?

Quigley has given us an eye-opening read in Music Love Drugs War, an enlightening tale that looks at the conflict from a teenager’s perspective. All the while, one is transported back to the days of grotty student flats, where random bodies crash on spare patches of floor, amid piles of cans and ashtrays overflowing with stale cigarettes. There’s a strange nostalgia in the carefree attitudes of the characters as they experiment, and in some cases discover love for the first time.

Geraldine was working in a call centre earning minimum wage when she applied for the Penguin WriteNow programme to find, mentor and publish new writers from under-represented communities. She previously worked in retail for many years, before completing a degree in Irish History and Politics at Magee College, University of Ulster, as a mature student.

At the moment, Quigley works for an insurance company. The author began writing in her late forties, using creativity as an empowering exercise in her spare time – an activity that has more than paid off. Roddy Doyle has said of her debut; “A novel that is warm but also unsettling and exhilarating. That’s some feat, but Geraldine Quigley has managed to make it seem easy.”

Geraldine Quigley lives in Derry with her husband. She is currently writing her second novel.

Love Music Drugs War (€14.99) is published by Penguin Random House and available now from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in a council estate called Creggan, with my husband. Most days, I walk to work, forty minutes each way. We don’t own a car. Our three children are up and away, and I work full time, as a claims handler for a big insurance company. I write on my days off.

We have two family cats, one too fat and the other with no teeth. The house does tend to be noisy – always a radio on or loud music from the record player, or Charlie, our grandson, making the place his own. If we go for a drink, it’s in a place called Sandino’s, which is in town and a twenty minute walk from home. The music is good there and there’s no television, unless there is an important match on, or coverage of Repeal (hurray!).

On roots

My father and mother, Don and May Bradley, already had ten children when I was born, in the smallest bedroom, across the landing from where I am writing this. I grew up in this house, with its big back garden, bay window and solid, post-war walls.

St. Mary’s Church looms at the top of the street and loomed large in our lives. The Bloody Sunday dead were buried from there.

Derry is a small city. The River Foyle divides the place geographically and, to a certain extent, politically, even now. The people are bolshie and aware, but warm. Family still dominates and when I write about Derry it is this warmth that is always at the forefront.

On creating

I commandeered my youngest daughter’s bedroom when she left home. There is a bed settee for when she comes back, and a record player and wardrobe. The window looks out across backyards and up through the estate, towards fields. There are trees and a gap in the sky where my old school once stood. My desk is a chest of drawers, with the drawers removed and the supports knocked out, so I can fit my legs under. With no money for a proper desk, we used what we had, and it is enough. It faces a turquoise wall on which I have written, You are telling yourself a story, to sooth the rising panic of writing a new first draft. Despite its mess, I focus immediately when I sit here, which is lucky, since working full-time means writing time is precious. Any breaks I take involve putting on a wash or doing the dishes!

On bookshops

Until recently, buying books from bookshops, independent or otherwise, was not on the agenda. Books were bought from charity shops, pre-loved – no shame in that. There are two local independent book shops in Derry – Little Acorns and Foyle Books, who deal in second hand books. I once bought an entire collection of Poldark from Foyle Books, to read while I was pregnant. It is crammed with treasures.

On her “To Be Read” pile

So much! I’m reading Sophie MacIntosh’s The Water Cure at the minute, which is brilliant, disturbing and deceptively simple. Next will be The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins. I am lucky to have a proof copy. Milkman is sitting on the sideboard in the living room, looking very tempting, but I can’t read it until I have finished my draft, as the language is too close, and I find it’s easy to pick up the essence of someone else’s writing, in the way someone would pick up mannerisms or an accent. I can’t wait to read the work of my fellow WriteNow companions. We were chosen to be part of the Penguin Random House mentoring scheme in early 2017 and many of their books are to be published soon. Music Love Drugs War is the first, this year. Charlene Alcott’s witty The Reinvention of Martha Ross came out in August 2018.

On escapes

If we go anywhere on holiday, it is usually to Donegal, and Inishowen in particular. Something shifts in me as I cross the border – I can feel the stress giving way. I love a good beach and Inishowen has the emptiest stretches of sand and the cleanest water. Everyone should holiday in Donegal. As a couple, we have never holidayed abroad, but this year I hope to make it to Italy. There is a dream of Tuscany, drinking wine in an olive grove, long walks and reading in the shade. More likely, it will be an Airbnb somewhere, but that’s okay.

On Music Love Drugs War

I was made redundant in 2010 and then lost another job very soon after that. We were broke and things were not good.

One day, I was in my kitchen and The Smiths Hand in Glove came on the radio. I was transported back to the 80s, when we were first married and had nothing. We survived then and had learned the skills to survive this new depression. The seeds of the story came from there but developed beyond that initial thought to become a tale of teenagers coping with all that 1981 could throw at us: the violence, to lack of chances and money, the teenage angst. It was important for me to avoid the clichés and tell the story like it was, to write about the experience of being a teenager in difficult times, from my perspective, as truthfully as possible.

On her Cave

The Cave was not fictional. It stood across the street from the Casbah, where the Undertones, famously, played. It was where the boys were, and so, we girls followed them, to what was a dark and dirty bar, a place where no questions were asked if you were underage, and there was an absence of any of the political tensions on the streets outside. The jukebox was an education, blasting out Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Seventies rock. I grew up there and, when my husband and I got married, we spent the evening with our friends in the disco they ran, upstairs, where there was a large empty room. We danced our first dance to, To Be Loved by Jackie Wilson. It was 1985.

On retail

I hated supermarket work. It was heavy, dull and underpaid and I was on my feet all day. But it was full-time, and Derry is famous for its high unemployment, so I decided that, if I was to continue in retail, I had to become a manager. I didn’t know that, at thirty-eight I would be considered too old. I jumped ship, to Musgrave Supervalu Centra, where I trained as a store manager. Eventually, I ran a tile shop for four years, until the crash of 2008 finished it off. Like hundreds of others, I served my time in a call centre; there was no decision to change career and become a writer. My hobby became a lifeline and an escape. The only benefit of working forty hours over four days is the other three days off, so I crammed the writing of Music Love Drugs War into those.

On what’s next

I’m off to a writing retreat in February, courtesy of the Penguin WriteNow scheme, and I’m excited about that. I could never afford one before, but they look after their mentees. Time to write, with no other obligations, is such a luxury. I’ll use my days to complete the first draft of my next novel, set in Derry after the second world war. I hope Music Love Drugs War will be successful. It’s out in paperback next year. But I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon. That’s the truth about being a working-class writer – there’s not much money in writing books, crucial though it is to humanity. Where would we be without fiction? And, if working-class writers, women writers especially, can’t afford to put pen to paper, who on earth is going to tell our stories?


Read previous instalments of Writer’s Block.

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