Michelle Gallen told David Hennessy about her hit debut novel Big Girl Small Town which has been described as ‘Derry Girls meets Milkman and is about an autistic woman living with her own legacy from the Troubles, and the rare brain injury that saw her treated appallingly by doctors who told her to go home to her mammy for a feed.
Although it was ten years waiting for a publisher to take a risk on it, Tyrone author Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl Small Town became a hit earlier this year. Getting the endorsement of respected authors like Marian Keyes, Gallen is now labelled as an author to watch.
The debut novel follows overweight autistic girl named Majella as she deals with an alcoholic mother, the brutal death of her grandmother and all the gossip of the small town of Aghybogey where she works in a chip shop. Majella has lost both her father and uncle to the Ulster violence. Although her father’s death is more mysterious with no body ever being found, there is little doubt that he is dead.
Michelle told The Irish World the hit novel was a long time with the first draft written 13 years ago: “People kept saying to me, ‘She’s not very likeable’. There used to be this great idea that men could just be men but women had to be likeable.
“That’s possibly why it’s so of its time. I wrote it and set it roughly in the time period and very much living in that world at the time. Northern Ireland in 2006 was not a sexy topic, was not something people wanted to read about.
“It didn’t do any harm that Derry Girls was out and there was a bigger interest in Northern Ireland. And Brexit also put the border back onto the stage, well thrust it ono the stage for the first time ever maybe.
“Also, Anna Burns’ Milkman, she’s probably not the most likeable of narrators. There’s just been so many other things in and around it that maybe publishers felt they could take a chance.”
The book has been described as Derry Girls meets Milkman but the book’s gestation period makes any similarities with Lisa McGee’s Channel 4 hit are coincidental.
“Me and Lisa McGee, we’re not from very different backgrounds and not that different in age groups, it is going to happen that we end up having written about some of the same things. It was my second novel that I deliberately got my first draft written before I watched Derry Girls because so many people had been saying to me, ‘Oh my God, have you watched Derry Girls?’ I was like, ‘I can’t watch it until I’ve finished this book because what if I watch it and it derails me somehow?”
Now that she has caught up on the show, we ask Michelle what would Majella think of them if the characters of the Channel 4 show walked into A Salt and Battered? “They’re the sort of girls who wouldn’t have spoken to her in school, do you know what I mean? They’re into Take That and stuff. They’re more girlie, girlie than Majella. It probably would be a hard sell for them.
“She would feel sorry for James and then secretly want the ride as well,” she laughs.
There is a responsibility that goes with writing about an autistic protagonist and Michelle has got the endorsement of people who live with the condition.
“It’s nice to hear people talking about how the book articulates things that they identify with. I wouldn’t say that this is a portrait of every autistic person ever. I have had quite a few autistic people contact me and say they felt the portrait was really insightful which is good to know.
“I think anything is hard. If you say that this is a portrait of whatever, then anyone who identifies as that whatever it is you’re trying to portray will come to it with a really specific personal view of what you should be showing. My personal experience of people with autism ranges really from people who are profoundly disabled, whose whole family’s lives are massively affected by their condition, right through to people who most people don’t know that they are autistic.
“The golden ticket of being autistic is pretending you’re not which is awful. I was coming to it very much from the point of view of, ‘This is a portrait of an undiagnosed female with autism who has also undergone incredible trauma at a particular time in history’.
“The autism doesn’t lead it. Majella herself does. That’s one of the things that is relevant to how she interprets the world, how she experiences the world and how other people maybe don’t understand her so well.”
Although Majella has her own worries, the tension of the Troubles are very much in the background throughout.
“A lot of Troubles stuff is very much, ‘Here’s someone who is a terrorist who is planting a bomb or shooting a gun, the whole focus is on this violent act.
“Majella’s life has not been defined by one hour of violence here or there, it’s defined by living with violence or living with the threat of violence.
“Majella is Majella but she is formed and her family is formed and moulded by politics essentially, a border that was created and that her family has fought against for a century and the impact of that on her and her relationships. I think Derry Girls is a very good sitcom but I do think the fact that it’s set in Derry with the Troubles going on in the background is actually a very, very important part of how that sitcom is so good.
“I remember reading The Butcher Boy years ago. It’s set in one of the border counties and I just remember thinking about the way people are treated in their community. These tiny communities are almost like traps and there is no trap. Majella can leave at any time. The Butcher Boy could too.
“I am really fascinated by people who maybe don’t even think of themselves as trapped, who are and how you get into that.
“Why do you feel safe in an environment that is clearly not safe? It’s something I did ask my parents when I was a teenager. I was like, ‘We live two miles from the border. You could have moved two miles away. We could have gone to a different school. We could have had a different healthcare system, different police force, more importantly no soldiers. Why did we stay here? It would have been a stone’s throw.”
And why did they not move? “It’s their home. It’s always been their home.”
Northern Ireland was something of a tired topic when Michelle first wrote the novel. In fact, Big Girl Small Town was born as a short story about a man named Conor that was published in The Stinging Fly. However, Michelle wanted to develop it more and developed the character of Majella.
“When I wrote it, there was that real feeling in the North, ‘Well the Troubles are over, will you go away and stop whining?’ This real ‘shut up and go away’ attitude.
“I was really interested in the whole narrative around the 100 years since the 1916 rising. It was relatively positive, ‘it was bad, now we’re grand’ sort of narrative going on.
“That was April and I think it was June the referedendum was. Suddenly I think alot of Irish people were shocked to see how little most English people know about Ireland in general and the North specifically.
“There’s nothing like a pandemic to distract you from the beauracracy of Brexit. You can kind of see the jostle in the headlines between Loyalists angry about the irish sea being the new border and then on the other side hospitals are so overwhelmed. I think people aren’t sure what to be worried about at the minute and the pandemic certainly makes you realise we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
“But before Covid-19 became a big deal, I think people were still very worried about Brexit and how the border was going to be implemented and what the realities of all the promises and all the claims was going to be.
“The other side of it is the border became a big deal in the pandemic because on one side of the border was lockdown. While my parents in Tyrone were going to wakes and funerals, we weren’t even able to set foot outside the front door. I thought that was very interesting.
“A lot of Nationalists that I knew said that they stopped listening to the British government and started looking at the advice that was being given down south and following that. The pubs in Derry closed whenever the Irish pubs closed, they didn’t wait for Westminster guidance to come along.
“There’s a lot of things that need an All-Ireland approach, like an all-island approach that we just don’t seem to wrap our heads around. Healthcare is one of those. utility, electricity, gas, planning transport. There’s a lot of ways in which I think an all-island approach would help everyone but there’s a certain mindset that you bump into at the border like it’s an invisible wall.”
Michelle was 23, living in London and working as a financial writer when disaster struck. She started to have seizures and hallucinations. She also lost a lot of weight as well as her depth perception.
Something was seriously wrong but nobody could tell her what it was. The condition of auto-immune encephilitis was not known much about. She returned home to Tyrone in a wheelchair but says she was treated terribly by doctors who told her she was a hysterical woman who needed feeding up by her mammy and to find a man.
“It wasn’t properly diagnosed. I was treated appallingly in hospital. I had a series of male doctors saying things to me like I was just hysterical, I was just a little girl who wasn’t eating enough, who needed to go home to her mammy.
“A doctor actually said to me I needed to go and fatten up at home, ignoring the fact I had lost a stone and a half in four weeks because I was sick, not because I was anorexic or something: Really appallling treatment from a lot of male doctors.
“Basically, I was told to do an aromatherapy course and get a man and make babies because my eggs were fine. Even though my brain was damaged, I had decent enough DNA to procreate. There were a lot of very dubious encounters with a medical system who treated me like a mentally ill female rather than a physically ill female.
“Then my next door neighbour who was a doctor who had actually auto-immune encephilitis himself recognised it. He was a great help when I was at home recovering. I spent about a year in Tyrone trying to get myself together. Then I moved down to Dublin where I got a bit more support medically speaking.
“It left me with fairly catastrophic neurological deficit so it took me an awful long time after having it to get my life back together. It still has a huge baring on how I perform each day and each week, I certainly haven’t managed to overcome all my deficit.
“It’s good days/ bad days. If I’ve not properly slept, I will have problems. Usually it’s to do with sleeping and exhaustion or over exposure to lots of new things or noise and confusion and stuff so I need to be well rested and not over whelmed by things.
“It was one of the reasons I sat down to write the novel in 30 days, I just wasn’t sure I would be able to write a novel over a year of managing real life, a job and all these other distractions. Sitting down to write it and making it my job for a month is the best decision I ever made.
“I would love to do that again.”
Thankfully more is known about the condition now. Auto-immune encephilitis can be a sign of an undiscovered cancer that the immune system is trying to fight.
“It’s not going to change anything for me but for some women who present now in hospital with what looks like psychotic behaviour, weight loss and a range of unspecific symptoms, at least now you might find someone testing for auto-immune encephilitis, testing them for an undiscovered tumour rather than just saying,’You’re just too thin, go home to your mammy, you just miss your mammy’. The textbooks have been rewritten since I was sick.
“One of the good things I do feel about the last 20 years is that we are at least having strong conversations about how women are treated in medical environments and how a man is treated differently to a woman displaying the same symptoms. I’m really interested in how far we’ve come in the last 20 years. I like to think this pandemic won’t reverse things too far for us.
“In all fairness I think the medical system in Northern Ireland was overwhelmed at the time. It was post-Troubles but it was the year of the Omagh bomb so there was an awful lot of huge trauma in the community and people with physical injuries. It wasn’t a great time to have something that is incredibly rare and not even recognised at that point. It was not an easy time.”
Michelle would try to return to London after her brain injury but found she was just “not well enough to do it”.
However, she would return with her husband and have children in London living in Mile End and Greenwich.
The author laughs when she remembers her first trip to London. She was in her teens when her short story was picked from the 30,000 entries to win the WH Smith Young Writers’ Competition. However, she remembers a random encounter that happened on the trip to this day.
“That was my first trip to England and I got to meet Ted Hughes.
“One of the funny things about that trip that I really remember is my dad who literally had gone to England and worked on the building sites but who then hadn’t left Castlederg since the mid 70s. We were walking down the street in ’92 or something, no idea where we were and this man goes, ‘Charlie Gallen’.
“And my dad goes, ‘Brian Towey how are ya?’ It was just a completely random encounter with someone from his townland or something. Me and my mum were there feeling like spare tools, going, ‘What is this?’ Then the two of them go, ‘Right you are, goodbye’. And they both went about their business.
“What I also loved about it was it was as if we were walkind down castlederg main street, do you know what I mean? ‘Charlie Gallen, how are you?’ ‘Brian Towey…’ And going off on one like, ‘This is very normal’. It’s not normal.
“Because my mum was actually born in London, she is English and my grandfather was a British solider, a Londoner, a cockney. They would not think if we went to London we would have casually bumped into one of my dad’s friends but there you go.
“The next time he’s in London they’ll see each other again on the same street. No idea what that was about.”
Michelle is currently polishing her follow-up novel, Factory Girls which is about three girls who work in a shirt factory.
“It’s a fun novel. It’s about how three girls manage in the factory. They’re waiting for their exam results so that they can see if they are going to get the exam results they need to get them over the water to London.
“They’ve kind of grown up in a town kind of like the one I grew up in where you basically never met any protestants. There’s separate schools, separate churches, separate parks, separate everything. They’ve just left school. Now they’ve got a job in a local factory and they’re thrown in working with a load of Protestants.
“It’s set in the summer of the ceasefire.”
Although hostilities were supposed to be suspended, the summer of 1994 saw the UVF burst into a Down pub to kill six civilians in retaliation for the murder of three UVF men days earlier.
“It was kind of an odd summer. Ireland was in the US in the World Cup and then back at home you had lots of random shootings. The UVF shot up a bar. There had been a hit on the UVF by the INLA. Everybody thought the INLA were dead and gone, shot a few UVF guys and then after that, the summer was just full of random, awful shootings.
“I remember that summer well.”
Big Girl, Small Town is out on John Murray.