Sue Divin – Q&A

Sue Divin’s novel, Guard Your Heart was published by Macmillan Children’s on 1 April 2021.

Sue kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Guard Your Heart.

Guard Your Heart is a YA/Crossover Romeo and Juliet set in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 2016. It’s a contemporary, gritty and fast paced romance, set in the legacy of the Troubles, with two eighteen-year-old protagonists, Aidan and Iona, who were both born on the day of the peace deal.

In a nutshell, Aidan is Catholic, Irish and Republican. With his father gone, his mother dead and his brother becoming increasingly radicalized, Aidan’s hope is pinned on exam results earning him a one-way ticket out of Derry. To anywhere.

Iona, Protestant and British, has family connections with the police. She’s got university ambitions and a fervent belief that boys without one track minds are a myth. Both their fathers held guns, but safer to keep that secret for now. Of course, they meet… and therein lies the story. What if peace is harder than war?

Think Angie Thomas, ‘The Hate U Give’ or Malorie Blackman, ‘Noughts and Crosses’ meets Derry Girls. Maybe fire in a bit of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People.’ We’re talking big cross-cultural romance meshed with contemporary issues and a dose of dry wit and self-depreciating humour.

2. What inspired the book?

So, there are multiple answers to this. One was boredom. Visualise single parent with no babysitter, stuck in tatty armchair in house after work every evening who eventually got fed up with mid-week TV and who got an idea for a story… why not reach for red button on the remote and try something different?

Another take is the old adage of ‘write what you know’ (or at least what you know emotionally). I’m a peace worker. I’ve worked for over sixteen years in tackling the legacy of conflict and promoting diversity, respect and understanding between different communities and identities in Northern Ireland. I’ve lived in Derry for over twenty years. In 2016, one of the big discussions in the field of peace-building was about how we marked really contested, divisive history from 100 years ago – the decade of centenaries. 2016 was the centenary of the Easter Rising (A famous Republican rebellion to attempt to gain Ireland’s independence from Britain) and the Battle of the Somme (a World War I battle which cost thousands of Ulster lives and which holds particular significance in the Unionist, British community here). In all our reflections, the question in my mind was, who is writing the story of here, now?

I suppose one of the more literary answers to this is that I wanted to make people think. Guard Your Heart is a story of the complexity of peace. Many people know little about Northern Ireland – not an issue in itself, and you don’t need to know anything to read or enjoy the novel – but I guess the issue for me was that Northern Ireland is so often explained in a reductionist, (colonial?), simplistic way. ‘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?’

Perhaps a better comparison would be to think on the Black Lives Matter movement. Prejudice and colonialism manifests itself in complex ways. Whilst there are undoubtedly differences between sectarianism and racism, there are also some similarities. Religion in Northern Ireland is just the simplest label for complex political, historical, cultural, structural, human rights and identity issues. Political tension is a colonial legacy. I hope that in reading Guard Your Heart, people will see that prejudice, grief, radicalisation, faith, hope, love, battling against circumstances – these are universal challenges and themes. Fiction is a powerful tool in creating empathy and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace. Guard Your Heart was inspired by the desire to tug hearts and minds into empathising that wherever it takes place, and in whatever form, reconciliation can be a fragile process. A courageous risk.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?

This question, I’m taking back to basics. I’m not a trained writer. Guard Your Novel was the first fiction I wrote and I’d written the whole first draft before I dared admit to anyone that I was writing. It took at least a year after that before I could vaguely feel comfortable with owning the word ‘writer’. It’s like there’s a whole ‘coming out’ process about being a writer that our brains have to engage with before we even get to the point of thinking about how we write.

Writing Guard Your Heart was a complete ‘pantsing’ job – not out of choice, just sheer ignorance. And maybe there was a beauty in that naivety. Maybe I’d never have started if I knew the odds on ever getting published. I didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘planning’ a novel – never mind any concepts of three or five act structures, character arcs, inciting incidents. The truth is, I’d never even heard of ‘YA’ until a friend asked me why I’d chosen to write that genre.

 The flip side of ‘pantsing’ it was that was that, learning as I went along, I had mountains of self-edits to wade through. It probably added a year into the process. Learning about formatting – and fixing it. Learning about voice – and fixing it. Learning about dips in the mid-section – and fixing it. Learning about word count – and removing 25,000 words line by line. The key thing though was learning to fix it myself – an upskilling that was worth the investment.

 For the second novel, after 12,000 words I hit a crisis. I’d a sudden realisation that, having winged it on the first book, I actually didn’t know how to write a novel. Cue research. Cue ‘Into the Woods’ and all that vital stuff. As a result, novel two ended up much more planned – it needed careful plotting. Not surprisingly, the first draft of Truth Be Told, started from a much better position than the first draft of Guard Your Heart. In the debate of planning versus pantsing then I’m a balance of both at this point.

4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?

Bearing in mind that until recently I knew nothing about publishing a book, I would say that pretty much everything surprised me. I had no concept of how competitive it was. No concept of the amount of work in edits and promotions. Equally, I’d no concept of how much I would love it all and how life affirming it would feel. I’m really enjoying the process.

If I had to pick one thing, I’d say that I was clueless about the role of editing. I think my head figured that a writer wrote their book (AKA first draft) and that an editor fixed it all up on their behalf and it got published. I’d no sense of how you work with an editor and that their role is often more to highlight issues and make suggestions, but that ultimately it’s the writer that does the work to ‘fix’ things.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I spend more of my time not writing than writing – and a very limited amount of time relaxing (unfortunately). Like many writers, writing is not my full-time job. I work full-time in managing an EU funded Peace and Reconciliation programme for my local council. On a daily basis, that looks something like managing 65 fairly major community projects – dealing with horrendous paperwork but also seeing the positive impact of engagement with people’s lives in my local area. I love making a difference. My life circumstances have also made me a single parent to a brilliant teenage son with high-functioning ASD (autism/aspergers). Busy would be an understatement – and not necessarily a good thing either. When I do have time though, I love walking/hiking and swimming and I’m also a musician. On a dark winter’s night, I’ll rarely say no to a warm fire, salty popcorn and a good movie.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

The book of Psalms or The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The former being an anthology of poems and lyrics, some bizarre, but many taking me through a full spectrum of human emotions and circumstance, the latter a clever twist on how we inhabit and understand a perspective on the world we live in – Letters from a Senior Devil to a trainee junior. Both fire my brain and being into the sense of there being more than just what we see visually on this planet. Something in my own spirit likes that there is a sense of purpose behind how we choose to be in our lives. An alternative would be ‘As If I Cared’ by poet and writer Damian Gorman. If there were only going to be one book, then it would need to have something profound to say on the human condition and the importance of listening. Damian’s writing does that.

7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

That’s an interesting question. As I’m fairly new to being interviewed, there are probably many questions I haven’t yet been asked. I’m looking forward to hearing what questions people will have. I do already know the ones I’m least comfortable with: What age are you? What religion are you? Was your childhood impacted by the Troubles? Tell me about your family…

One question might be, ‘Did you have any worries about publishing Guard Your Heart?’

Yes. I love where I live. Society here has made massive progress and ultimately, I see my city as a place of hope and as somewhere that can tell a powerful story about peace. In creating fiction though, usually there has to be some kind of a conflict and you will commonly choose for protagonists the people who are most impacted by that. They have to be those with most to lose or they’ll have the least to tell in the narrative and there won’t be a story worth reading. Whilst Aidan and Iona are an honest representation of some identities and aspects of society here, they don’t represent everything. Not everyone is so deeply impacted by the legacy of the Troubles. I hope people will sense that if they read Guard Your Heart, and that I’ve managed the balance between setting out the issues of the legacy of conflict but also showing the progress and hope that exists in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, I suppose it’ll be the readers who will tell me whether I’ve managed that or not.

About the Book

Derry. Summer 2016. Aidan and Iona, now eighteen, were both born on the day of the Northern Ireland peace deal.

Aidan is Catholic, Irish, and Republican. With his ex-political prisoner father gone and his mother dead, Aidan’s hope is pinned on exam results earning him a one-way ticket out of Derry. To anywhere.

Iona, Protestant and British, has a brother and father in the police. She’s got university ambitions, a strong faith and a fervent belief that boys without one track minds are a myth.

At a post-exam party, Aidan wanders alone across the Peace Bridge and becomes the victim of a brutal sectarian attack. Iona witnessed the attack; picked up Aidan’s phone and filmed what happened, and gets in touch with him to return the phone. When the two meet, alone and on neutral territory, the differences between them seem insurmountable.

Both their fathers held guns, but safer to keep that secret for now.

Despite their differences and the secrets they have to keep from each other, there is mutual intrigue, and their friendship grows. And so what? It’s not the Troubles. But for both Iona and Aidan it seems like everything is keeping them apart , when all they want is to be together . . .

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