Writer's Block with Henry McDonald - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Henry McDonald

Henry McDonald is a critically-acclaimed author and journalist from central Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a staff writer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, covering conflict around the world, with particular focus on the Troubles for over 30 years. His eight non-fiction books include the histories of terror groups ranging from the INLA to the UVF. He was a punk rocker in the 1970s, and remains a loyal follower of Cliftonville Football Club.

Drawing from his own personal experience of the Troubles and the punk and football scenes of his youth, McDonald has created something raw and easily identifiable to many people who remember. The result is his recently released novel, Two Souls, which flits back and forth over nearly two decades, starting in the late 70s. With echoes of Irvine Welsh in the story’s depiction of disaffected youth amid bleak surrounds, protagonist Robert McManus or “Robbie Ruin” is going nowhere fast and that’s not likely to change. That said, his delicious romance with ultra-cool art student Sabine in the summer of 1978 brings hope and promise. The soundtrack to Two Souls is David Bowie’s Low, which provides the perfect backdrop as characters from both ends of Belfast’s sectarian divide find harmony in music. Running throughout the narrative is regular helpings of the city’s gritty local dialect and rounds of rough, rambunctious humour.

Two Souls has received many positive reviews across the board. Gerald Dawe has said of the book – “Withnail and I meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a manic dose of Clockwork Orange thrown in for good measure. Two Souls gets to the heart of the punk generation in Belfast’s darkest recent past and sheds a light on what went on. You won’t forget this novel in a hurry. I’m still reeling.”

Photograph by Bobbie Hanvey

Two Souls (€14.99) is published by Merrion Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

My “barrio” is in Belfast, the Market area of the city. It is right on the edge of the city centre, close to the main railway station. I live in my sister’s house which was our parents’ home before they both passed away in 2011. It is a working-class district that has undergone major re-development from Victorian terraces and, up by the gasworks, even cobbled stone streets and gas lights. The Dickensian darkness of certain corners of the district especially up near the gasworks still cast shadows over my childhood memories and certainly coloured the tone to parts of my novel. Today it is all such a radical contrast with families turning their homes into Airbnbs for the new wave of foreign tourists flocking to Belfast; the gas tanks no longer tower over the place where I grew up as hotels, conference centres and the gleaming glass buildings of 21st century commerce instead now dominate the skyline.

St George’s Market is still a traditional trading centre for a number of families from the Market itself but their numbers are dwindling. They still sell fruit and veg on Fridays or bric-a-brac on Sundays. But St George’s is now a cosmopolitan tourist trap with stalls flogging the food brought into Northern Ireland from people who have come from every corner of the planet. I love the cosmopolitan feel of St George’s and on the way to my favourite writing place I always try to pop in to inhale the mixed aromas, soak up the multi-national atmosphere and marvel over how much Belfast has changed for the better since the dark days of the Troubles.

On comfort

My favourite writing retreat is the Linenhall Library in Wellington Place. This is where I studied for my A Levels back in the early 1980s and it is where I finished Two Souls in my year of living dangerously with heart failure and cancer in 2018. Founded in the 18th century by progressive “new light” Presbyterians, some of whom went on to become central figures in the United Irishmen movement, the Linenhall has long been a place of respite and inspiration for me. On the top floor you work on solid wooden desks among PhD history researchers, American tourists scouring ancestral archives in search of their Irish roots and school kids who remind me of my younger self as they pore over their books and complete their homework.

One floor below is a place of great sustenance and comfort – the Linenhall café. One of the joys of taking time out from writing or researching in the library is lunch in the café, which among other delights serves up life-support homemade vegetable soup just like momma use to make. As someone who last year lost 90% of his stomach to take out a gastric tumour it is a total relief that my guts have no problem absorbing the Linenhall’s legendary soup.

On creating

When I write, whether that be in the Linenhall or at home in the kitchen normally, I like to listen to classical music. I will stick on the cans and tune in to BBC Radio 3 for inspiration or else play my favourite composers from downloads. Bach and Beethoven are the best for getting the brain cells functioning and the imagination fired up. Although when I was writing Two Souls I had Low – Bowie’s first in his Berlin trilogy – on a constant loop given that it became the soundtrack of the love affair between the main character-narrator and the mysterious, arty Sabine.

Working on a book, I don’t do more than five hours in a day, mostly in the morning when I find myself mentally fresher. After eight non-fiction books and now two novels I have come around to the view that less is more; it is more productive to knock out 500 to 800 words of competent prose in one day than “spew out” a couple of thousand in frenzied scribbling. On my writing regime and away from the pressures of the day job as a journalist I “award” myself with a trip to another Belfast sanctuary – Bittles Bar near Victoria Square. Often just before I enter this pub I am reminded of Moe’s Tavern in The Simpsons and evil nuclear power plant owner Monty Burns comment on hearing the sound of merriment outside Moe’s: “Ah the mirthful laughter of the damned.” I like being amongst the damned. I am an old punk after all! The bar attracts an eclectic range of, ahem, “characters” that would provide any novelist with a rich cast to direct on the pages of their books. It is an old-fashioned type of “theme bar” where the theme is simply getting drunk. I particularly like it on Saturday lunchtimes before going up to another of my favourite places – Solitude, the home of Ireland’s oldest soccer club, Cliftonville FC.

On football

Solitude is home ground in more ways than one. The frenetic days of Belfast derbies and visits by the likes of Glasgow Celtic in the 1970s and early 80s partly inspired Two Souls. For a long time living away from Belfast I was unable to attend matches in this compact little stadium nestled beside the man-made lake of the Waterworks and the Cavehill mountain dominating the scenery behind this unique football ground. At the home games I sit with the same crew of grizzled, wrinkled veteran supporters who have followed the North Belfast club for decades. One of them, at home matches, religiously brings a flask of hot water for tea and coffee to warm us all up. The curry chips from the prefab kitchen beside the club shop are also restorative on freezing winter afternoons when icy winds whip off the Cavehill and buffet us all with a bone chilling freeze.

On Two Souls

The seeds of Two Souls go back a very long time into my past but I suppose it was returning from “exile” back to Solitude after my parents passed away in 2011 that precipitated my writing of it. Their deaths made me reflect deeper on what we had all been through during the Northern Troubles and the ways in which it marked us all. Ghosts swirl around this story. In real life all of the core characters (apart from the narrator himself) who were close to me are now dead. Naturally building fictional characters from this assemblage of real-life now passed on people was challenging and sad. As for the rewards, I will let others judge the standard of the writing and the power of the narrative. If their conclusions are positive, which many of the reviews have been thus far, then that will be something to celebrate. I just hope I have painted an authentic and honest picture of turbulent, tragic times and maintained my own humanity in the telling of them.

On his “To Be Read” pile

In terms of books I am on the hunt for at present there is Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Serotonin. The bad boy of French letters comes in for a lot of criticism, a lot of it often ideological rather than literary, but I often find his observations on post-modern life prescient and sharply prophetic if at times a bit scabrous. Although I was never a Blondie fan I like the sound of Debbie Harry’s new memoir Face It, which appears to be an excoriatingly honest account of her life as a new wave icon in New York over five decades with heroin addiction, sexual assault, illness, love affairs and survival the back drop to her career in crazily creative times. Although I have watched the film so many times and even listened to the audio-book I plan to re-read William Peter Blatty’s original novel The Exorcist; the book that inspired the greatest horror movie of all time. Two Souls muses on the nature of evil – nature or nurture – as does Blatty’s masterpiece. My novel is in part an exorcism of demons albeit very real human ones. Perhaps that is why I am driven back again once more to Blatty’s haunting but humane tale of possession, sacrifice and liberation.

On bookshops

Anyone of a literary bent on visiting Belfast must visit independent bookshop No Alibis in Botanic Avenue. Book seller David Torrans and his magnificent team sell a vast range of crime fiction, not just Irish but from further afield. The bookshop also strongly supports Irish writers north and south with prominent displays of works crafted by novelists, poets, playwrights from Cork to Derry, Dublin to Belfast and beyond.

On what’s next

I am torn by two souls that reside in my own breast. There is a family history story to tell about both paternal and maternal great-grandfathers, one Protestant, one Catholic, who each fell in battles on the Western Front in World War One. But into that historical story I want to add a separate 21st century layer, a ghost tale within the bowels of the London Underground involving one of their descendants. Another is a big WHAT IF of history but set in a country that took a radically different turn from the actual events that shook it to its foundations in the late 20th century. Which one? Or which one first? Time to talk to my publisher then…

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