Sue Divin is a Derry-based writer and peace worker, originally from Armagh in the North of Ireland. With a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies and a career in Community Relations, her writing often touches on diversity and reconciliation. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry, have been published in a range of literary journals.
Guard Your Heart (Macmillan) was her first novel for teenagers and adults, published in 2021, which went on to win the Great Reads Award (Ireland) and to be shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Award. Truth Be Told is her second novel, not a sequel, but a similar gritty, contemporary style packed with dry wit, strong emotions and challenging exploration of issues.
Truth Be Told (Macmillan)
Author of the Carnegie-nominated Guard Your Heart, Sue Divin's new book, Truth be Told, returns to contemporary Ireland with a story about families and a divided country. When Tara and Faith meet across the divide, and realise they look identical to each other, they start to uncover secrets buried in a tragic past. Author Sue Divin tells us more about Truth be Told, and what brought her into writing for young people.
Q&A with Sue Divin
1. First of all, congratulations on your shortlisting for the Carnegie Medal 2022 for Guard Your Heart. How did you feel when you heard the news?
Blown away. In the opening line of Guard Your Heart, Aidan states 'It was more miraculous than the virgin birth, me finishing sixth form…' That's pretty much how it felt to me being shortlisted. To be honest, I was thrilled to have even been nominated. To subsequently be longlisted and shortlisted felt unbelievable. It was quite hard to process.
2. What brought you into writing for young adults?
Dare I admit it was an accident? The truth is, I'd never even heard of 'YA' until a friend asked me why I'd chosen to write that genre. I'm not a writer who has any formal training in writing and when writing my first draft of Guard Your Heart I didn't make a conscious choice that it was YA. I simply wrote the book I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it.
Part of that was that as a peace worker in Northern Ireland, I wanted to write the legacy of the Troubles today. That was the definite decision - I wasn't writing historical novels about my generation growing up in the Troubles, but rather the story of peace. The story of now. The peace deal in Northern Ireland was in 1998. I started writing in 2016 - and I set the novel in real time as I began writing. If you do the maths (NOT my strong point), to have characters in 2016 who hadn't lived a single day during the Troubles, by default, that had to make them 18 or younger. It was at initial editing stage with my agent, Laura Williams, that we made a definite decision the book would be YA.
That said, I always had a tendency, even in flash fiction and short stories, to veer towards child or teenage protagonists. I love their capacity to take risks, to learn, to make mistakes (and admit them) and their energy for life. I also made a conscious choice that the characters in my second book, Truth Be Told, would be younger. At 18, Aidan and Iona were right at the upper end of the age range for YA protagonists. Tara and Faith, aged 16, fitted the YA genre right from the outset.
Above all else though, I find writing teenage protagonists FUN. Maybe it was providence more than accident after all.
3. Your books Guard Your Heart and Truth be Told are contemporary stories that have their roots in the history of the Troubles in Ireland; what draws you to writing about this?
I wear two 'hats'. I'm a writer and a peace worker. There are a great number of stories across the world set in war. There are fewer stories set around peace-building and how to navigate the legacies of violent conflict or pick up the pieces afterwards. On the cover of Guard Your Heart there is a question posed - What if peace is harder than war? That, right there, the complexity of peace, the courage of leadership and risk taking it requires, the compromise, forgiveness, listening and determination it takes, is the nugget of something universal that we need to hear more about from diverse perspectives. I believe that storytelling can be part of this. Fiction is a powerful tool for empathy and empathy is a powerful tool for peace.
As for writing specifically about post-peace deal Northern Ireland as YA fiction, the answer is also back to that mantra of 'write what you know.' I like writing the 'now' - it feels like it's what I know best. There are plenty of other writers who are far better than me at writing fiction set in the Troubles or historical fiction.
Much of my writing tends to focus on a real political / cultural /social context and timeframe. Guard Your Heart was 2016. Truth Be Told is 2019. Perhaps that's something subconscious in me wanting to chew through events and respond to them creatively. Or maybe it's a way of capturing a story of where we are at. Either way, the diversity and complexity of now, that mulling over issues and imprinting them into fiction to make people think and reflect, is what I love.
4. Can you tell us a little about your work in community peace building in Ireland?
In my current 'day job' I work for Derry City and Strabane District Council, managing an EU funded PEACE Programme. Previously to that I worked in a role we called 'Community Relations' and somewhere back in the Stone Age I was a secondary school teacher (history and citizenship). The closest equivalents wider afield might be a community role in promoting equality, inclusion and diversity.
When our local government secures funding for peace and reconciliation work, we look for potential projects with the community and voluntary sector to make a difference in people's lives on issues that are a legacy of the Troubles. Usually, the projects will seek to bring people together from diverse identities and different perspectives and often the projects will include content or dialogue around difficult or sensitive issues eg. human rights, history and heritage, dealing with the past, cultural identity, policing, sectarianism, racism, prejudice...
How we approach those issues varies. Sometimes the 'vehicle' will be sport, or arts, or training, or events. Sometimes it will be taking people into different places and communities they may not have been before - work around 'shared space' that challenges segregation and division. The key thing all the projects will have in common is that they aim to make a difference in how people think and to help people see their shared humanity, even if they have different identities and opinions. For me, writing is another element in that picture. Another tool for building peace.
5. How much does your work inform your writing? Would you be able to write these books without your background and experience?
I suspect many début writers milk all the aspects of their own lives to help inform their writing. In that sense, I think my work has given me windows and insights into a wide range of perspectives and identities in Northern Ireland. I'd equally say however that my broader life experience of living here, of having been brought up to cross bridges and to embrace diversity and of simply being human in this part of the world all feed into my writing.
I write what I know. Certainly, I think it would be very difficult for a complete outsider to come to the north of Ireland and overnight, be able to write about the subtleties and complexities of the issues and identity conflict here. Most of the coverage of Northern Ireland is very simplistic and reductionist - packaged into a 'Catholics versus Protestants' religious fight. The reality is much more complex. There are a lot of grey areas. It may suit some people to hear a simplified version of here but I'm much more interested in ensuring my writing feels authentic.
There is also fantastic personality and humour in this part of the world and a different way of saying things that comes from hiberno-English. How we speak English is influenced by both Irish and Ulster-Scots. I love the dry wit and self-depreciating humour combined with local turns of phrase - I don't think I'd get away with tackling the more serious issues if my writing didn't also have this blend of voice and fun. The north-
west of Ireland is a stunningly beautiful place of seascapes, mountains, coasts and heritage. All of this, not just the political-cultural context, is a big part of my writing.
7. What is your latest novel, Truth be Told, about?
Truth Be Told is about truth, forgiveness and the stories that do not fit. Up front, it's the story of two sixteen-year-old girls, Tara and Faith - imagine 'Parent Trap meets Derry Girls'.
Tara has been raised by her mam and nan in Derry City. Faith lives in rural Armagh. Their lives on opposite sides of a community / political divide couldn't be more different. Until they come face-to-face with each other and are shocked to discover they look almost identical. Are they connected?
In searching for the truth about their own identities, the teenagers uncover more than they bargained for. But what if finding out who you truly are means undermining everything you've ever known? Sometimes who you are, is not what you expect.
Truth Be Told is a pacy, contemporary YA novel set against the real backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in Autumn 2019.
Readers should expect laughs, tears, smiles and a rollercoaster of a read.
8. Why did you put your main characters, Tara and Faith, on different sides of the 'divide'?
I think Tara and Faith are on different sides of multiple divides - not just the stereotypical Catholic / Protestant divide. Their stories are urban / rural, single-parent matriarchal family / traditional family unit, non-religious / religious, non-political / political, breadline poverty / 'middle class', artistic / scientific, straight / LGBTQ+. The only things these two characters really have in common is age and looks. Unless, of course, they uncover more…
Stories are driven by some form of conflict needing a resolution. It made sense to me to make Tara and Faith as different as possible so that their characters and life experiences could throw up as many challenges and conversations as possible. I also needed to make sure they had distinctive voices so readers could easily tell one from the other.
In some ways, Truth be Told challenges the dominant narrative / main story of Northern Ireland. Though Guard Your Heart showed the complexity of peace, it still fitted more or less into the 'Catholics versus Protestants' telling of Northern Ireland. That's the story people are most commonly told of here (and possibly most comfortable with hearing) - it fits our box. In recent years across the world, more diverse stories and voices are being heard. In my book, that's a really good thing. Instead of just the traditional voices saying, 'This is the way it is, was and always will be' other voices are rising to ask, 'Is this the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?'
Truth Be Told digs into those other questions of here. Identity is diversifying and changing. Conflict issues are not always clear cut. Truth can be messy - and hard to hear. And somewhere in all of that messiness are questions of justice and forgiveness not just at a political level, but also at community, family and individual level.
9. How important was it for the reader to hear both Tara and Faith's voices through the narrative, which is told in first person, and how did their voices develop?
Probably the most difficult thing about having two narrators in Truth Be Told is that they're both sixteen-year-old girls from Northern Ireland, yet they needed to sound different on the page so that they were instantly recognisable. For me, it was about delving into their characters to really feel who they were as individuals and trying to permeate that through everything they narrated.
Tara's voice is much edgier and more urban. She's all OMG's and WTF's with a Derry turn of phrase and lots of short sentences interspersed with long, strung together chains of words. Faith is much more rural, natural, scientific and logical. She doesn't swear and her narration is more measured.
There's a sense that 'Protestant' or 'British' perspectives from Northern Ireland aren't portrayed as often in literature or film. For that reason, it's important for readers to hear both Tara and Faith's voices. Vitally, other characters also reflect the increasing diversity within Northern Ireland which, these days, is far more than 'two' communities.
Whilst Guard Your Heart told a valid and authentic story from Northern Ireland, it wasn't the only story. I wanted to tell the stuff that didn't 'fit'. In a writing sense, I also wanted to challenge myself to write strong, female protagonists. I'd found Aidan far easier to write than Iona in my début novel so it was like throwing down a personal gauntlet to decide to have two female protagonists.
Partly their characters and voices developed so as to allow me to reflect contemporary issues. Truth Be Told is framed around a real timeframe in autumn 2019. In Autumn 2019, the backdrop was no government for three years (yes, you read that right); and campaigns for LGBT rights, Women's rights and pensions for victims and survivors of the conflict.
Without government, for many ordinary people, it felt like no-one cared. Tara reflects on this and what it means to her family in places in Truth Be Told. The fallout from the Brexit vote also had a significant destabilising impact here on the peace process - both families in the novel are negatively impacted by that.
6. What is the starting point for your novels - incidents, characters or setting?
Usually character. Specifically, voice. I'm always drawn to the wilder, edgier characters first. Their voices come much easier. In Guard Your Heart, that was Aidan. In Truth Be Told, it was Tara. I just love the rough diamonds. Once I find their voice, they just run off onto the page and take on a life of their own. Sometimes when I'm still trying to 'find' a unique voice for them, I experiment with their characters in flash fiction or short stories.
Often, I have specific music that transports me more quickly into characters. Aidan was Cedarwood Road by U2 and several tracks from Kongos - Repeat After Me, Come With Me Now. Iona was more broadly an Ed Sheerin / Singer Songwriter type of character. In Truth Be Told, Tara and Jack came alive with the track Champions by James Blunt. There was also a track on that album called The Truth which connected for Tara. This doesn't necessarily mean it's the music the characters themselves would listen to - it's simply a tool that works for me. Long walks and swimming also clear my mind to help put me into a writing headspace.
Setting also plays a part. As a writer, real places trigger stories in my head. My first drafts are also often invoked by writing in a particular place - or having been somewhere and scribbled copious notes and observations in words about the vibe I get from it. Sometimes, I'll do this simply because I have a sense that it'll be of use down the line for a story or scene without knowing the specifics. For example, it was either by luck or providence that in autumn 2019 I'd packed my notebook with scribbles from the huge Hallowe'en carnival in Derry and also the Roaring Meg bike show round the city walls. Both of those ended up being key scenes in Truth Be Told - and all of those events were cancelled in 2020 due to Covid, so I don't think I could have written them the same way but for that premonition.
10. So as a writer, you prefer to set your stories in places that you know?
Yes. I'm inspired by real places - and there are plenty of wonderful real places in Northern Ireland. Bearing in mind that I was writing most of Truth Be Told during strict lockdowns, there really only were two places that I could access for significant amounts of time - the city I live in, Derry, and Armagh, where I grew up and my mother still lives. In Armagh, most of the settings were places I could walk my mum's dog! I'd wanted to move at least part of the story out of Derry anyway so that it would give me a rural dynamic and be different to Guard Your Heart.
My first novel had scenes set in Inishowen (County Donegal) but the border was effectively closed to everything but essential traffic during the lockdowns so beyond Armagh and Derry, the only other scenes in Truth Be Told were set in the Mourne Mountains coastal area and Rostrevor which I know inside out from holidays as a child. I was also keen to write places in Northern Ireland but beyond Belfast and the Giant's Causeway - which tend to be the first places people will think of. Fortunately, I think Derry Girls has put Derry firmly on the map these days too.
11. Your novel covers some difficult themes, so how do you bring humour and hope into Truth be Told?
I love humour. It's an intrinsic part of how people chat here. If someone's slagging you off, it means they like you. If they're being polite, they probably don't. The turns of phrase and self-depreciating humour are what I hear around me every day, so it's only natural that if I'm writing characters from here, that they reflect that in their voices.
In Truth Be Told it's Tara's voice that carries the main humour. I love that she's slightly wild and always stumbling into bother. She's original. Allowing her voice to take over was pure indulgence at times, but as a writer, I loved it. Like when she sinks into self-despair about the earful her Mam will give her and narrates, 'I'm doing my best baby-seal eyes but am mortal resigned to doom. It'll be a grounding or a marathon of house-cleaning retribution, or worse, she could put parental locks on the WiFi till I'm twenty seven and make me eat broccoli…' Or when she's lost up in the mountains and thinks, 'I will die here. Froze and mummified in sheep shite, to be resurrected in five centuries and pinned with some mournful history saga of warring tribes.'
Hope is also essential to my writing. Partly that's because I think in YA it's important to hold the readers in mind - it will never be my writing style to leave people desolate and devastated. An ending doesn't have to be picture perfect though to still convey hope and my writing will usually take the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions before they reach that point. I'm genuinely a glass half full person most of the time. Hope and faith are important to me. I believe that hope is real and tangible, even in the tough times, and that it is vital to hang onto it even if it's just by a thread. Perhaps how you approach the world is what you will see in it, give to it and get out of it.
12. Apart from a great story, what would you like your readers to take from Truth be Told?
Truth Be Told is a story with layers. It's about both 'the Troubles' and the legacy of that conflict today. At its deepest level, the novel is the story of women across three generations in Northern Ireland. Stories that are often left untold. Stories that are deliberately left out. Stories that challenge patriarchy. Woven into the narrative are also big questions. Where (if anywhere) is the line between freedom of religion and homophobia? Is violence (in many forms) ever justifiable? What's the relationship between truth, justice and forgiveness?
I hope that readers will love the pace, plot and characters in this novel. I also hope it will make them think. Not just about Northern Ireland, but also about their own families and communities. What are the untold stories that 'don't fit' in their own circumstances? Can they give voice to that?
On one specific political issue in the book, there is still a live context. Faith's family includes victims and survivors of the Troubles. In July 2021, the British government announced plans to bring forward legislation to ban 'Troubles-related' prosecutions. People who suffered in 'the Troubles' may never get their day in court. Experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council have been very critical of this. So have victims' groups. Would it seem OK in Great Britain if serious crimes including murder were automatically dismissed from courts just because they happened over 25 years ago? This legislation is still on the table at Westminster and is causing a lot of concern in Northern Ireland - but it's rarely mentioned in national news. There's something in there again about telling only the stories that 'fit'.
13. Do you find writing difficult, or is it a process you enjoy? Where and when do you prefer to write?
I'd say there's almost a 'before-covid' and 'since-covid' vibe to my answer here. When I have time to write, especially first draft writing and initial edits, I love writing. When I have time, it feels relaxed, characters are good company, and often I have a great sense of peace when the writing is flowing. When I have time, I tend to sit in a tatty armchair in my living room from about 9pm onwards with either a fire or a candle lit and a cup of tea…
Often, however, I don't have time to write or find it hard to make time. I often find it really difficult to discipline myself to prioritise writing new material - there are so many other things competing to be priority and many of those things are genuinely important. Somehow it always feels like that is the 'wrong' answer for a writer to give, but the pandemic has highlighted to me how vital wellbeing, mental and physical health and family are.
I think my current writing practice is in seasons and in bursts. Some writers talk about a 'fallow' time where you read, and reflect and muse. Maybe I'm there. Everyone's circumstances are different, so I don't think there's a 'one size fits all.' When my son was younger, I used to write in the evenings when he was asleep. That doesn't function now he's older and I'm not sure I've found my 'new normal' yet. I recently switched to working four days a week instead of five in my 'day job'. That has definitely helped to free up time to do the work 'about writing' but I'm still searching for focus on writing new material.
Covid killed my creativity and rocketed my stress levels. I say that with a huge caveat that there are things far worse than a loss of creative flow and so many people suffered horrendously through the pandemic. Anyone who thinks, however, that the pandemic must have been a wonderful time for all writers is badly wrong. Writers are diverse. So are their circumstances. I know many people who struggled to write through lockdown. With my own circumstances, writing became virtually impossible. Without a deadline for Truth Be Told, it wouldn't have happened.
I still don't feel I've managed to get back to a healthy balance and routine with writing - and I miss that badly, but equally, I'm not going to beat myself up about it; there are only so many hours in a day. If it takes a bit longer to get into a third novel, so be it. It'll happen when it's meant to. Until then, I'll probably try and enjoy writing some shorter pieces. I'm a big fan of flash fiction and, though I think they're an art I've a lot to learn about, I also enjoy writing short stories.
14. And what do you enjoy doing when you're not focused on your next novel?
I'm a single parent to a brilliant teenage son with ASD (Autism). He is a character - I love him to bits - but being a mum definitely takes a lot of time and effort! What keeps me on an even keel are things like walking/hiking and swimming. I'm also a musician - I play guitar and tin whistle. Lattes with friends are top of my favourite-things-to-do list and on a dark winter's night, I'll rarely say no to a warm fire, salty popcorn and a good movie.