Kelly McCaughrain lives in Belfast where she works with disabled students in further education. Her debut novel, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, won the Northern Ireland Book Award in 2019, and she was the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland 2019-2021.
Kelly says: "I get my best ideas from observing teens. I love their high ideals and natural barometer for injustice. I always want to write things that are worthy of their huge capacity to scrutinise the world and their place in it."
When she isn't writing, she likes to travel with her 1967 classic campervan, Gerda, and her 1977 classic husband, Michael.
Little Bang (Walker Books) January 2024
Award-winning author Kelly McCaughrain introduces her new novel, Little Bang, a powerful and timely novel exploring gender parity, a woman's right to bodily autonomy and the issues raised by abortion. Centred on the relationship between Mel and Sid, it's also a coming-of-age exploration of love and finding ourselves.
Author Q&A: Kelly McCaughrain tells ReadingZone what inspired the novel, how she researched the issues
the characters face and why she hopes Little Bang will 'start conversations'.
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, and what kinds of books you enjoy writing? What draws you to writing for YA readers?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was a child so it makes sense that I still love reading and writing books for young people. I write YA because my teen years live vividly in my memory, and I still find it one of the most interesting stages in life. I also started going out with my husband when we were 16 so I definitely believe in high school romance!
2. What happens in your new book, Little Bang - and why did you choose this title?
Little Bang is about a completely mismatched pair of teenagers, Mel and Sid, who get pregnant on their first date. To complicate matters, they live in Northern Ireland in 2018 where abortion is still illegal and everyone they turn to for help has their own agenda and strong opinions about what they should do. Mel is a shy physics nerd and Sid is the school troublemaker. They're an unlikely couple but they fall in love and then have to work out how to hold onto each other when their relationship starts to crack under the pressure of a teen pregnancy.
The title comes from Mel's interest in physics. She knows all about the Big Bang Theory, but when she gets pregnant she realises that she may be an expert in physics but she knows very little about biology because she's been told almost nothing about these things. And yet what's going on inside her body is going to have the biggest impact on her life. She starts calling the baby 'Little Bang' because it feels like an explosion that's blowing her universe and everyone in it apart.
"I think a woman's right to bodily autonomy is central to gender equality."
3. Why did you want to explore the question of women's right to choose, and since the law has changed in NI, why did you feel it was still important to explore it through Little Bang?
I think a woman's right to bodily autonomy is central to gender equality. As Mel says in the book, "What's the point of them saying no one can touch you without your consent if men can control your body without touching you at all?" Her teachers and family are pushing her to excel in STEM subjects and they expect her to have all the advantages and choices women have gained in the last hundred years, but then absolutely all of that is jeopardised simply because she's not allowed to decide what goes on in her own body.
Abortion was decriminalised here in 2019 but we only need to look at America to see what can happen when we take things for granted. We assume the UK is pretty progressive but most people are surprised to learn that abortion has never been decriminalised in England, Scotland or Wales. The 1967 Abortion Act provides a legal defence for doctors who perform abortions under certain conditions, but it remains a criminal offence and people are still put on trial for managing their own abortions.
It's still tied up with shame and judgement, rather than being part of ordinary healthcare, and some of the most powerful people in the NI Assembly would happily undo decriminalisation given the chance, so we really can't sit back and relax yet.
4. What research did you need to do before writing Little Bang, and do you draw on any real life stories you have heard about in the book?
In Northern Ireland abortion is one of those things that is everywhere and nowhere. We all know plenty of real life stories, but you still have to whisper about it because there's so much stigma. But in the wake of the referendum and decriminalisation, people tentatively started to tell their stories (the "In Her Shoes" social media threads, for example) and, although I read a lot of academic writing on both sides of the argument, it was these personal testimonies that were actually the most influential and helpful in making Mel's journey feel authentic.
"The dual narrative made clear, even to me, how much Mel's world narrows
while Sid's expands in the wake of the pregnancy."
5. The story is told through Mel and Sid's experiences; why did you want to write Little Bang as a dual narrative, and why do you keep them in the present tense?
One reason for the dual narrative is that, as Mel soon discovers, pregnancy is a very different experience for boys and girls, especially when the rest of the world finds out about it. Sid is treated like he's done something stupid, while she's done something "wrong". Sid is praised for "stepping up" and sticking by her, while Mel is humiliated at school. Mel also becomes aware of how different parenthood would be for them both, and how much freer Sid is to walk away.
The dual narrative made clear, even to me, how much Mel's world narrows while Sid's expands in the wake of the pregnancy. It shouldn't be the case, but it very much is the case that men and women's experiences of pregnancy and parenthood are different, which is another reason why these choices should be the woman's.
I'd like to say I had a literary reason for writing in the present tense but the fact is I just like it. I suppose I could say that I felt we have to keep these narratives in our present. But I'd be lying.
6. How did Mel and Sid's characters develop, and why do you give them such different backgrounds?
Mel and Sid are an unlikely couple. Mel starts out as this shy people pleaser and Sid gives her the courage to be a bit of a rebel. But that backfires on him when she starts to stand up to everyone, even him. Meanwhile Sid is a total waster but Mel makes him wonder if there could be more to him than everyone expects and that makes him want to try harder. That backfires on her when he decides he's going to 'step up' and starts pushing things in a direction she's not sure about. I think they learn a lot from each other, but it takes them a while to apply these lessons in the right way.
Mel's family is religious and conservative while Sid's mum is a strident feminist and they represent the typical tensions in the abortion debate. It can be such a heated and ugly debate, but no one arguing about this stuff is a bad person, they just care about something. As one character in the book says, "That's what you have to remember when you start arguing with folk. You're not arguing with their heads; you're arguing with their hearts. Their hopes and fears and everything going on behind closed doors."
I wanted Mel and Sid's families to be normal, flawed, decent human beings who just care about their kids and are coming from very different places. But I also wanted Mel and Sid to realise that getting everyone to agree or to approve isn't the point. They have to make up their own minds and let everyone else believe what they like.
7. Despite its big themes, Little Bang is also very funny - how do you create humour in this story?
I don't think anyone's ever convinced me of anything without making me laugh. Stories with no humour just don't ring true to me. Because life is hilarious. And the worse it gets, the more we make each other laugh (have you ever been to a funeral?). I don't set out to write 'funny', it just happens when the characters are being real. That's how I know they're being real.
"I didn't start out reading about this stuff in order to write a book, but the more I read,
the more the book became inevitable."
8. Why was the Northern Irish setting important for you, and for the story?
When Ireland announced its referendum on abortion in 2018 I realised I knew so little about the subject I wouldn't be comfortable voting. It's kind of astonishing to me now to admit that, but that was the situation and actually, it wasn't that astonishing at all because abortion was not something anyone had ever educated me about.
I started to wonder why I knew so little. Surely, as a young woman, it was something I should have known a lot about? But it just wasn't talked about in Northern Ireland, and it certainly wasn't part of our sex-ed in school. And when I looked into RSE in schools today, I realised not much has changed. In 2023 they introduced a standard curriculum that includes things like abortion but some schools are fighting it so it's still a pertinent issue that's impacting our young people, sometimes in life-altering ways.
I decided to educate myself about it, and the more I read the angrier I was about how little I'd been told (about anything relating to sex) and how vulnerable I'd been as a 16 year old girl embarking on her first relationship knowing practically nothing.
Some writers write because they have something to say. I think I write because I have something to process. I didn't start out reading about this stuff in order to write a book, but the more I read, the more the book became inevitable.
9. Apart from a deeply engaging and powerful read, what would you like your readers to take from Mel and Sid's experiences in this book?
I wanted Little Bang to offer some solidarity to teenagers facing the stigma and lack of information that is still the situation when it comes to pregnancy and abortion today. I'd love them to be able to support each other when support is lacking elsewhere.
And I'd just love them to come away with lots to think about. I'm not interested in browbeating anyone into believing what I believe or even deciding firmly what they believe. In fact, I think a lot of our problems are caused by people deciding too quickly and too firmly what they believe and then refusing to hear anything they don't like. And I understand why we do that, it's horribly uncomfortable and even hurtful to hear things we think are wrong, especially coming from people we want to love and respect, like our families.
But we get much more from listening to others, and realising that people are not their opinions; their opinions are just a result of their life experiences. And actually, if we do that, we stand a much better chance of them listening to our opinions in return.
I'd love Little Bang to start some conversations. Not arguments, conversations. It's so much harder to hate and judge someone you're actually talking to, and the more hate and judgement we can remove from the world, the better!
10. Where and when do you prefer to write, and what are you writing currently? What kinds of things do you enjoy doing when you're not at your desk.
I like to write in the morning, ideally in my garden. I used to have a desk in the box room but it felt too much like work. I'm currently writing another YA.
When I'm not writing I'm probably reading or gardening or driving around in an ancient and mechanically unsound VW camper called Gerda.