Writer’s Block with Jenny McCartney

Sophie Grenham speaks to Belfast author JENNY MCCARTNEY about her debut novel, The Ghost Factory …

Photograph by Rajeev Syal

Jenny McCartney is a journalist and author from Belfast with two books published to date. Her first offering, The Stone Bird (2017), is a children’s picture book in collaboration with renowned illustrator Patrick Benson. McCartney worked for The Spectator before embarking on a 19-year career with The Sunday Telegraph, where she wrote news features, columns and film criticism. She has worked as a freelancer since 2014.

McCartney first covered the issue of paramilitary attacks in Belfast within communities in the mid-1990s. Understandably moved by the stories of Protestant and Catholic youths, she began writing an early draft of her first novel, The Ghost Factory, which is set at the tail end of The Troubles. Despite ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement, violent acts of “punishment” saw a serious spike around that time. The Ghost Factory is a book about family, friendship, identity, loss and fear. Set in Belfast and London, we follow protagonist Jacky after the sudden death of his father. When his best friend Titch is attacked and Jacky in turn is brutalised, he flees to London for safety, but sometimes even our quietest demons have a way of creeping in on us. While the novel certainly explores uncomfortable issues, contained within are slices of masterful wit and searing truths. Hard edges are softened without detracting from the task at hand, giving a unique approach to a delicate time in Northern Ireland’s still very recent past.

Anthony Quinn has said of the work, “I was gripped at times, and surprised by laughter, and bound up helplessly with Jacky’s life. I read sentences that were piercing and true on every page. The Ghost Factory deserves to be a mighty success.”

Jenny is the daughter of Northern Ireland lawyer Robert McCartney QC, who once led the UK Unionist Party and was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. She went to Methodist College, Belfast before studying English Language and Literature at Keble College, Oxford. She completed an MA in newspaper journalism at City University, London. As well as England, she has lived in Paris and Prague.

Jenny McCartney lives in Highgate, North London with her husband Rajeev Syal and their two children. She is currently working on some short fiction.

The Ghost Factory (€15.99) is published by 4th Estate and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Highgate, North London, with my husband Rajeev, two children and our ginger tom cat, a charismatic recent arrival. When I first came to London I enjoyed its feeling of anonymity, but now I like having so many good friends here. We ended up in Highgate partly because there are a lot of parks and green spaces – Hampstead Heath is close by, as is Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried – but also because our flat is very near the Tube which means we can get into the centre quickly. Highgate Village itself is pricey but has historic pubs and excellent charity shops for wardrobe bargain-hunting. Nearer to us, next to the thunderous Archway Road traffic, there is a brilliant Turkish coffee shop and a tiny Polish-run café which is always crammed because of its wonderful food.

On childhood

When I was six we moved from Belfast to just outside the city, near Holywood in County Down, although I still travelled to school in Belfast. Our house was five minutes’ walk from the shore of Belfast Lough. The household consisted of my parents, us four children, my maternal grandparents, and a stream of friends calling in. The kitchen was the main theatre: the kettle was constantly on the boil for tea and with the tea came stories. I associate my childhood home with the nearby sea, blazing stoves, a ringing telephone, my father’s “Big Soup” broth – his mother’s recipe from his childhood on Belfast’s Shankill Road – the precision-cooking of an “Ulster Fry”, and the roll-call of breads: Big Loaf, Veda, Wheaten, Barmbrack, Soda, Potato…

On early reading

Both my parents read to me but they also made up their own signature stories for us that ran as serials: my father’s were kind of epic adventures and my mother’s were about a reliably naughty boy called Alistair Murgatroyd. We got them most on holidays or if we were feeling upset or unwell. As a child I remember particularly loving The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay and The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nicholls. Then later came Agatha Christie and Monica Dickens and, later still, writers such as Edna O’Brien, James Thurber, Emile Zola and George Orwell.

On familial roots

I think Belfast in the 70s and 80s had a particular energy that I felt and absorbed: it was dangerously electric, politically claustrophobic, often intensely sad but also with this quick wit and readiness to grab for joy that you could see among people in the bars and clubs. There was an unspoken value placed on telling a good story, the tacit expectation of a small performance: the speech there has particular rhythms that still feel almost poetic to me. Growing up in a place with so much heart, and heartbreak, left me interested in exploring the tangle of history and the effects of political violence, in how people construct identities and survive tragedy. And also, through all that, I kept seeing the stubbornness of love.

On creating

I write mostly in two different places: at a foldaway desk in our front room, which looks out on to the street, and in a garden shed. Through the window in the front room I can watch passers-by, and the cat now comes and lies beside me on an ancient chaise longue. I’m more distractable here but usefully surrounded by teetering stacks of books and near the kitchen for tea: when it comes to tea drinking I’m the equivalent of a chain smoker. And I also think that sometimes I write more easily if I sneak up to the task casually, without an anticipatory drum-roll of sitting down in the “perfect place in which to write.” If very serious concentration is demanded, though, I do shut myself away in the whitewashed interior of the garden shed where the only sounds are of squirrels running across the roof and the rumble of traffic.

On independent bookshops

I like the Highgate Bookshop which has a great mix of classics and new books and staff who help with recommendations. But I also enjoy Black Gull Books in East Finchley, which has an eclectic choice of second-hand titles: it feels like an old-fashioned bookshop from a film. In Belfast the main independent attraction is No Alibis in Botanic Avenue. And Shakespeare and Company in Paris still feels special, soaked in history but very open to the present: there’s a room at the top where you can borrow a book from the shelves and just sit and read, a little patch of calm with the hustle of the city all around you.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’ve just bought Ben Judah’s This Is London: Life and Death in the World City. It’s a nuanced portrait of the recent immigrants who keep London running – often in the shadow economy – but are frequently overlooked and almost unseen. I’m also planning to read Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, short stories set in Belfast which I’ve heard very good things about, and Tim MacGabhann’s Call Him Mine, a noir thriller set in Mexico City – the excerpt I read was intensely atmospheric, and it’s a city with a compelling nervous tension which I’ve been interested in ever since I went there in 2003.

On escapes

The best place for me to escape is in my head, by reading or thinking about something different from whatever I’ve been working on. But I quite often go for a week with my extended family to a rented house in different coastal towns in England and Wales: Southwold, Shoreham-by-Sea, Cromer, Swanage, Aberdovey. I love the fact that we can drive or get the train – without the misery of airport security – and end up eating fish and chips on a beach with a breeze. I find the sea very calming, and in my dreams I will live next to the sea again one day. I’m not usually keen on hotels, but recently I spent a lovely night in Rathmullan House in Donegal, an elegant but easy-going big house on a broad sweep of golden sand, and I thought that if I ever won the lottery I’d happily stay there half the year.

On The Ghost Factory

My regular work is as a journalist, and in the mid-to-late 90s – although living in London – I reported from Belfast quite a bit in the aftermath of the paramilitary ceasefires. It included writing about the brutal frequency of so-called “punishment” beatings and shootings which republican and loyalist paramilitaries dispensed to youths in their “own” communities – and still do. That set me thinking of a novel about a young man who has experienced such violence and how he might process it in the long term, a perspective that’s often ignored. The first-person writing took me back into the Belfast vernacular, a rich and familiar voice for me: in some ways The Ghost Factory is a love letter to my home city. But it’s also about how painful events get wrapped up in silences. Writing it I realised that there were silences about Troubles-era Northern Ireland within me, too: at times I could feel a palpable anxiety just at putting words to that charged, disputed territory.

On what’s next

I’ve been writing some short stories, which are mainly from the perspectives of characters who feel slightly out of kilter with whatever circumstances they are in. I think I enjoy the probing of secret dissent, of people who crave little escape routes from their daily lives. I also have an idea for another novel, this time set away from Northern Ireland, but it’s still under wraps as I’m very much at the research stage.

@SophieGrenham

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