Londonderry Romeo and Juliet tale is Waterside author Sue’s debut
‘It was more miraculous than the virgin birth, me finishing sixth form…’ begins Aidan. Guard Your Heart, a new gritty contemporary novel set in Londonderry in 2016 is set to hit the bookshops (real and virtual) on the 1st April 2021.
The novel is a Romeo and Juliet featuring protagonists Aidan and Iona, two 18-year-olds both born on the day of the Good Friday peace deal. After being shortlisted in the Caledonia Novel Award, an international novel competition based in Edinburgh, and becoming joint winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in February 2019, the début novel by local author, Sue Divin, was snapped up by Laura Williams of London based Greene &Heaton literary agency. After interest from two UK publishers, the novel was acquired by Macmillan and is their lead YA (Young Adult Crossover) novel for 2021.
‘It felt like a miracle,’ says Sue Divin. ‘The odds of getting an agent are unbelievable – like a lottery win. To then land a major publisher was overwhelming at first. It took me a long time to admit I was a writer – when success began to hit, I actually went into shock slightly. It was hard to believe the novel I wrote in evenings sat in my living room armchair would actually see the light of day.’
By day, Sue works as the PEACE IV Manager in Derry City and Strabane District Council. By night, she scribbles novels, short stories and flash fiction. Her writing often tackles subjects around diversity and reconciliation in contemporary Northern Ireland. ‘I write because I like to make people think – but I also like to make them laugh. Something poignant that packs an emotional punch, but still leaves you with a wry smile on your face is the type of space I like to be writing within.’ Ultimately what lies behind much of Sue’s writing is a quest to ‘humanise’ the ‘other’. ‘Conflict dehumanises the other,’ says Sue. ‘Stories connect us to the ‘other’. I write because fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy, and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace. In life, just as in my writing, I believe that hope happens because of risk takers. I see a lot of community workers across our city and district taking positive and creative risks for peace – in a different sense, Guard Your Heart, was my way of doing that.’
It isn’t lost on the Waterside author that the book is published during the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and the Partition of Ireland. ‘Whether you see it as a party or a wake,’ says Sue, ‘2021 is a significant year. The novel has something to say about the legacy of conflict and where we’re at in building peace. Then again, it’s published on April Fool’s Day so who knows what the real meaning is – perhaps I’ll leave that to readers to decide.’
It has certainly been a tough year for those working in creative arts. ‘I’m very grateful to local arts organisations and other Northern Irish writers,’ says Sue. ‘Writers like Dave Duggan, Bernie McGill, Damian Gorman and Maria McManus have been a fantastic support and encouragement over the last couple of years. Writing courses held in the Verbal Arts Centre and Playhouse were instrumental in my own development as a writer and it’s great to see the Nerve Centre delivering so many writing based events and workshops. Also a shout out also to the Sandwich Co on Bishop Street who for the year before lockdown hosted our writer’s networking group ‘This Writing Thing…’ one Saturday every month. Hopefully after lockdown we’ll get back there to sup tea and talk literature. I can’t wait till the local bookshops open again too – after losing Eason’s, we need everyone to support our independent bookstores.’
Advance reviews from book bloggers, librarians and those in the publication industry have been very positive. Waterstones describe it as ‘Both a touching love story and a sensitive exploration of the Northern Irish Troubles, Divin’s beautifully wrought debut brings a Catholic boy and a Protestant girl together in the wake of a sectarian attack.’ ‘I’d have been a bloody brilliant rioter if I’d been born during the Troubles,’ reflects Aidan, in the novel. ‘The attitudes hadn’t changed, just the tools. We fought with culture now, not guns.’ Iona. Comparisons have been made with Joan Lingard’s Across The Barricades. ‘I’m humbled by those references,’ says Sue. ‘It was also definitely in my mind that we’re almost 50 years, or two generations on, from when the tale of Kevin and Sadie was first published in 1972. I think today’s generation have a new story to tell. That’s what I wanted to put on the map.’
The novel puts more than the story on the map. As well as city backdrops like the Peace Bridge, Guildhall Square, and the City walls, local events such as the Foyle Maritime Festival feature in the narrative.
Local readers will also spot areas outside the city – Mussenden Temple, An Grianán Fort, Kinnagoe Bay, Lisfannon Beach woven into the action.
“I love Derry and the North West,” says Sue, who is originally from Armagh but who has lived in the city for over 20 years. ‘I couldn’t miss the opportunity to weave scenic seascapes as well as urban edge into the story.’ Ultimately though, the story is a coming-of-age romance. ‘We cut a ragged path through the foam of the shallow breakers, shifting back towards the shore if a larger wave pulled at the shingle, toppling the pebbles over in the drift. Neither of us changed course as our shoulders touched…’ Iona.
Guard Your Heart is available for sale from 1st April 2021 in local independent bookstores as well as Waterstones, Eason, Amazon and other retailers.