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Interview with Shirley-Anne McMillan

My first ever lovely pen was a Disney Parker fountain pen which I got in Primary school when we all had to use fountain pens to write with. I loved how thick the ink went on and I liked using the blue blotting paper to make it dry. I still use Parker fountain pens sometimes, if I’m writing letters, but for speed I tend to use gel pens more often these days. My current favourite pen is the new Papermate Inkjoy gel pen (black). I feel like I’ve been waiting for it forever! It’s a really smooth writer but the wonderful thing about it is that the ink dries super quickly. I have always preferred black ink but purple is a good standby.

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I have two main non-negotiables when it comes to buying a notebook. They have to be A5 sized and they have to have blank pages. It is boring, but I generally go for a plain black cover. Covers which are too ‘busy’ irritate me too much and if I feel like a bit of colour I prefer to customise my plain black notebooks with my own drawings or with stickers. I love stickers and I collect them for making zines or decorating letters, so sometimes they’ll find their way onto a notebook.

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I don’t like notebooks with lines because I often make notes very quickly and messily, and I tend to draw diagrams and doodles as well. I like the feel and paper quality of Moleskine and Leuchtturm notebooks, but if I feel I can’t afford them on a given day I will go for Asda’s A5 blank notebook (black)- not so luxurious as the others but the paper quality is good and it does the job. Because I’m a writer people often buy me notebooks as presents, but I often don’t use them for book notes.

An exception would be a wonderful gift I received on my last birthday; a friend gave me a green HMSO notebook, just like the one my dad used to bring my sister and me home from his work in the civil service in the 1980’s. I’m using it for research for my next novel. I have a drawer with several very pretty unused notebooks that I don’t really know what to do with. I will use them for something eventually, but there is something I need in a plain blank page. I don’t want my notebooks to tell me anything at all- they’re there only to listen and reflect back what I’ve confided to them.

I also use post-it notes for plotting, and sometimes large blank art-pad paper for mapping. When it came to the second and third drafts of A Good Hiding I found it helpful to colour code post-it notes for each character and stick them on the wall so I could visualise their progress and contribution. Good quality post-its are essential because the pound shop variety fall off the wall really quickly!


I also mapped out the town where the book was set (a kind of fictional Belfast with some real places and some made-up). I used colour coded highlighter pens to mark out the various aspects of each chapter (action Vs dialogue Vs interior thought etc) so that I could clearly see how balanced each section was and how the pace of the novel might be affected accordingly. This kind of thing helps remove me as the writer of the book so that I can imagine myself as the reader. In doing so I can then return to being the writer and hopefully improve things in the next draft.

22519523_10155537013030781_6868528530103499660_nI write contemporary Young Adult fiction which is set in Northern Ireland. My first book, Widows’ Row, was self-published and since then I have had two books published by Atom; A Good Hiding and The Unknowns. I like writing about the aspects of Northern Ireland which bring me frustration and joy- the difficulties faced by young people here, and the bravery and resilience of those young people. The Unknowns is set in Belfast and is the story of Tilly, a bright and generally well-behaved girl who secretly sneaks out at night to go climbing. The story begins with Tilly on the top of a huge crane. As she descends she notices a young man standing at the bottom. His name is Brew and as she gets to know him she becomes involved in an underworld gang of young people who have parties in the ruin of a courthouse and go on missions to disrupt racist and sectarian activity in the city. As the story continues, Tilly finds it harder to keep the activities secret from her father who is a journalist investigating the gang’s movements, believing they are perpetrators in the acts of violence they are trying to disrupt.


Twitter: @shirleyannemcm


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