Sue Divin: Guard Your Heart

In Sue Divin’s inspiring debut YA novel Guard Your Heart, we meet Aidan and Iona, two teenagers navigating their way through division and brutality in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. Shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019, Guard Your Heart is a sharp, modern love story told with empathy and hope.

Sue, many congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut novel! We loved joining you and your friends for the Guard Your Heart launch party the other night. How valuable have you found it being part of a supportive writing community, and what plans do you have to promote Guard Your Heart as the lockdown restrictions ease?

It’s massively important to me to be part of a vibrant writing community – both as a writer and simply as a human being. Since I first ventured into networking with other writers, I’ve found not just brilliant advice, but also fantastic friends. Connecting opened up an entirely different social world to me at a time when life circumstances had closed walls in around me a little more than I’d have liked.
I’m not sure how many people stumble into writing from similar routes to myself (the Derry literary phrase would be ‘arse about face’). January 2018 was the first time I’d ever attended a creative writing course. When I booked, I’d already written a complete first draft of Guard Your Heart without telling a soul, and I was clueless as to how I’d manage to get a babysitter for the first session, never mind six consecutive Thursday nights. There was a ‘wile’ determination in me, something akin to a sense of purpose, about getting Guard Your Heart out of my laptop and into the world. Thankfully, I also had a blissful ignorance about the competitiveness of submissions and the height of slushpiles. I’d strongly recommend to any emerging writer to find (or create) a writing community. Honestly? Without all those random connections, encouragers and mentors I’ve found on the writing journey, Guard Your Heart wouldn’t be published.

In terms of promoting Guard Your Heart, I’m not sure what lies ahead. My plan had been to take a year out of the day job and explore what a creative/writery/freelancing approach to life might hold. A series of school talks and workshops had been on the cards, but the global pandemic had different plans. Perhaps I’ll try that next year with book two instead… I am keen to take opportunities to discuss readers’ reactions to characters and issues in the novel. Cue blatant plug – if anyone has any opportunities, give me a shout! With the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland/Partition of Ireland this year and the current impact of Brexit and other issues, it seems like an important time to talk.
What inspired you to write Guard Your Heart, and what was the significance of setting it in 2016?

I have two main answers to this. The not-so-literary one is ‘boredom’. Envisage evenings on repeat as follows: child sleeping, single parent, tatty armchair, no babysitter, every night, after work, day after week, month after year… Somewhere around year two the TV lost its appeal, I got an idea for a story and started typing. Characters turned into company and walls turned into opportunity.

The more professional-sounding answer relates to my day job. For over 15 years I’ve worked in peace and reconciliation in Derry, Northern Ireland. In 2016 much of the peacebuilding focus was on what we term the ‘Decade of Centenaries’. Ireland from 1912–1922 went through a period of turbulence and violence – politics and power struggles between those fighting for independence from Britain and those fighting to remain part of the UK. 2016 was the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in WW1 (of particular significance to the Unionist/Protestant community) and the Easter Rising (of particular significance to the Nationalist/Catholic community). In the Community Relations field I work in, people were asking how we could explore history in a way which also remembered our future. Home in the tatty armchair after work each evening, my brain was asking, who is telling today’s story? Aidan and Iona and Guard Your Heart were birthed out of that process. I wanted to tell the story of two teenagers, both born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal who had never lived a single day during The Troubles. I wanted to write about the legacy of the Troubles and the complexity of peace.

In the author note at the end of the novel I put it like this: Often Northern Ireland is explained in simple terms – ‘It’s about Catholics and Protestants…’. When it’s put like that, it’s easy to think, Why don’t they just get over it? The truth is much more complicated. Religion is just the simplest label for complex political, historical, cultural, human rights and identity issues. Guard Your Heart is about Northern Ireland, but it’s also about more than that. Similar issues are found in communities and countries worldwide. I’m hoping that even when readers come to Guard Your Heart with no prior knowledge of this part of the world, something universal will still resonate.
Your novel is driven by very strong characters, with the two teenagers, Aidan and Iona, at its heart. How did you find – and write in – their voices, and how easy was it to write about post-Peace Deal Northern Ireland as YA fiction?

If people are expecting big literary answers here, they should probably stop reading! I don’t think I understood the term ‘voice’ until after I had a first draft. I also didn’t write Guard Your Heart as a YA book because I didn’t know the term ‘YA’. (I wasn’t lying in the second paragraph when I mentioned blissful ignorance). One of the first things I learned when I connected with the writing community was that 106,000 words was way too long for a debut novel. The second thing I learned was that ‘voice’ was not just what your character said in direct speech, but how they perceived their world and formulated every thought. I also learned that writers should read… (I did warn you not to expect radical insight). Now, if I’d known I was writing a YA book, I probably would have reached for YA novels. Instead, I came across three books, two written for adults, with young male protagonists – The Glorious Heresies (Lisa McInerney), The Good Son (Paul McVeigh) and Bog Child (Siobhan Dowd). The first two are stunning examples of voice, the third was the closest in ‘feel’ I’d found to Guard Your Heart – gritty, sociopolitical, Northern Irish teen romance – except it was set in the 1980s.
Having imbibed learning, I set to editing. Edit every line (no scenes) to reduce word count by 25,000. Edit every line to strengthen voice. Edit plot. Edit grammar. Edit formatting. Edit. Edit. Edit. The armchair became tattier. Guard Your Heart became stronger. I guess that’s my top tip to emerging novelists: learn to self-edit. (With hindsight, it would have been easier to have read Into the Woods or had an inkling about voice, acts, structure, character arcs and all that great stuff before writing a first draft but then I also meant that ‘arse about face’ line from earlier).

Aidan fell into place first. By fell into place, I mean infiltrated my brain and took up residence. His teenage banter and social commentary invaded walks, drives, meetings. I even knew his favourite songs (Kongos – Repeat After Me and Come with Me Now. Anything alternative/rock in a minor key). His voice is best summed up in the line which was nearly the opening line of the novel: “I’d have been a bloody brilliant rioter if I’d been born during the Troubles.”

Iona was much harder to write. It wasn’t until many edits in that I realised why. She didn’t have enough of her own plot. Cue edits. Also, not enough bad stuff happened to her. Cue further edits. Then… magic. She came alive with enough kickback and attitude to be the equal that Aidan needed if romance were to blossom.

As for writing post-peace deal Northern Ireland for a YA audience? That came fairly naturally. I’m infused with the issues day-in-day-out in my work. They were in my face. It’s that write-what-you-know mantra (and what you know emotionally). Tailoring it to a YA audience (and to a crossover audience who may know nothing about Northern Ireland) came in the fine-tuning edits with my agent and publisher (did I mention there were edits??). The more complicated the issue, the more important the use of straightforward language and imagery.

You use your city, Derry, as a backdrop to much of the novel’s action, and also take Aidan and Iona away from the tensions into the surrounding countryside. How did you choose their places of escape and how important was it to get all the settings right?

Finally – an easy question! They go to all my favourite places. Derry is a stunning city. The tourist board spiel would probably say something about it being one of the finest walled cities in Europe… fantastic for a city break… neighbouring beaches in Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way… windswept mountains and Celtic heritage… Have I convinced you? You really should come and visit. Staycations are in. Bring an umbrella. Anyway, I suppose in writing, the thing in my mind was why set every scene over a mug of tea in a kitchen when there are such AMAZING backdrops in the North West of Ireland?

You signed a two-book deal with Macmillan – can you tell us what are you working on now?

Top secret if you swear not to tell a soul? It’s not a sequel but it’s another YA in a similar vein, gritty, contemporary, Northern Ireland, with a working title of Truth Be Told. Big picture – if Guard Your Heart is about peace and conflict, Truth Be Told is about truth and forgiveness. The upfront story, set in 2019, has two 16-year-old girls, one from Derry and the other from rural Armagh. They couldn’t be more different, yet when by chance they meet on a cross-community youth outdoor-pursuits weekend, they look virtually identical. Are they related? If so, who is their father and where is he? When they go looking, they don’t quite find what they expected. Where Guard Your Heart presents the prevailing narrative of Northern Ireland, Truth Be Told explores stories that don’t fit. It tells stories of women.

And finally, what encouragement would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

Go for it! Make sure you are taking your own writing seriously so that you give yourself the best chance possible. Scroll back up to that stuff about editing… Know that to have a fighting chance, you owe it to yourself to present the most polished work you can. Also know, being longlisted, shortlisted or winning can open doors which power you towards publication.
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