MOST writers dream of their work reaching a wider audience.
For Flowerfield Arts Centre, the lucky stars have lined up in spectacular fashion. Not one but THREE writers associated with the award-winning arts centre have achieved significant success in the past year.
Creative Writing tutor Bernie McGill attracted rave reviews and strong sales last year with the publication of her debut novel The Butterfly Cabinet.
The book’s profile took a giant step up just before Christmas, when no less than Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, described it as one of his favourite books of the year in The Observer ‘Books of the Year’ special.
Claiming The Butterfly Cabinet as his novel of the year, Fellowes - who won an Academy Award in 2002 for his Gosford Park screenplay - praised the story for its focus on “the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most”.
He added: “McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor”.
Bernie, who is working on a collection of short stories which is due out later this year, is sharing success with two of her students on the Creative Writing class at Flowerfield, both of whom have achieved successes of their own – Debbie McCune is about to release the first installment of what will be a three-book deal for publishers Hot Key.
And Mandy Taggart also achieved success with her short story ‘Ways of the North’, winning the bi-annual Michael MacLaverty Short Story award, organised by the Linenhall Library in Belfast. In addition to having her story published, she also collected a cash prize of £2,000.
The writers’ success is a validation of the hard work that Flowerfield has been doing for many years in supporting the growth of creative industries in the area. The Creative Writing Class has been running for many years at the centre, and throughout that time the writers have picked up awards and publication on a number of occasions.
The fact that three writers have hit the headlines in the same year is unusual, and both Debbie and Mandy are quick to give credit to Bernie and the very existence of the Flowerfield class for helping them with their achievement.
“I have always written, since childhood,” explains Debbie. “But I began to take it more seriously about three and a half years ago when I moved to Portstewart and joined the writing group. I was someone who had half finished four books, but I owe a lot to Bernie, who was a constant source of encouragement, in helping me get the book finished. She also helped me to make contact with a literary agent.”
Debbie sent off four sample chapters and suddenly found herself with a very keen agent. Despite wide interest and an offer from one publisher, she actually withdrew her first novel, went back to the writing desk and came up with another story that fared even better.
Death & Co has been bought by publisher Hot Key in a pre-emptive deal and is being promoted by the publisher as the first of a three-book series.
Mandy Taggart tells a similar story - of finding more direction and purpose after joining the Creative Writing community at Flowerfield.
“I had always written, but didn’t really take it very seriously,” she says. “I had always considered it to be something that I wasn’t allowed to do. So joining the Creative Writing class at Flowerfield was the return of me giving myself permission to write, and as a result, writing seriously for the first time in 15 years.”
All three writers understand that finding success with creative writing has a lot to do with stamina. There are lots of people who feel they could write a book, but it takes a lot of hard work and persistence to keep at it.
Being part of a family of writers has given all three of the authors a sense of purpose and validation. This validation doesn’t come much better than having your book selected for praise by someone like Julian Fellowes, however; “It’s a real shock, reading praise like that,” says Bernie of the Observer mention, “for what is your first novel.”
Bernie had started as a writer for theatre – her first piece The Weather Watchers was staged by Cahoots Theatre Company, and she also wrote The Haunting of Helena Blunden for Big Telly Theatre Company.
The Butterfly Cabinet had started as a short story, she says. “But then it grew several heads - and became a larger piece of work!” It was a real marathon, she confesses - the book took five years of effort.
“The hardest thing was to keep faith with it. But I’m quite dogged, and I didn’t want to start the thing if I couldn’t finish it, so there came a point when I said I was going to finish the book if it killed me.”
The success is obviously catching – the Creative Writing class at Flowerfield is back in action as part of the centre’s winter term of classes.
And surprise, surprise – all the places are taken.