Anne Harris

An Interview.

Colin Dardis

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Anne Harris writes fiction, drama and poetry and lives in Belfast. Her plays have been produced by RTE and BBC, and her short stories published in various publications, winning a number of competitions within Ireland. She is one of Lagan Online’s 12NOW writers to watch out for in 2017.

Colin Dardis: When did you first start to identify as a writer?

Anne Harris: As long as I can remember, since being a little child, I was always writing stories. I had a lot of illness when I was a child, so I was in the house while my friends were out playing. I also read a lot, and I identified with that, wanting to create my own stories. It sort of fell apart – well, not apart: I went to university, I did English and Politics, but I didn’t really write. Then when my children were still quite young, I said ‘I’m going to do something about this’. I joined Ards Writers, and that set me off on a path. We were very lucky to have Damian Gorman as a tutor; I defy anyone not to write with Damian as a tutor, he’s terrific!

CD: Did you make any tentative approaches to writing when you were young, or in your teens?

AH: No, the only thing I remember was having a piece published in the Belfast Telegraph, in response to them asking people what the Troubles mean to them. It was only short, but then somebody quoted it on television, which was quite amazing! But apart from that, I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn’t have the confidence yet, and it wasn’t until I joined Ards Writers that I got the confidence.

I was always encouraged to write by my father. My family were not well off at all, we were working class, but the first thing you had to do was join the library. I can remember sitting and reading and writing rather than going outside to play. The library such to have a story group: we read The Cry of the Curlew and The Silver Spurs, quite old stories, but I loved all of them. At the same time, I hated that in school, you had to dissect everything, but I realised afterwards it was actually very good grounding. It’s something that stays with you subconsciously.

CD: I suppose if you over-dissect, you lose that idea of fantasy or escapism.

AH: You do. I remember reading Julius Caesar, and it wasn’t until I saw the film version with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, that the speeches made sense to me. I realised then that not everything had to be dissected.

CD: Before you discovered Ards Writers, I imagine you must have felt in isolation. What difference did it make joining a community of writers?

AH: Well, it helped me think that all these voices in my head weren’t madness! It also made me realise that there are other people out there that want you to succeed. That’s very important. There’s always that little voice in your head saying ‘who do you think you are?’ But these people were very supportive, and any criticism was always positive, to help make you better. It was also a very high-calibre group, which you want as a writer, rather than just coast along. Before I joined, I had this vision of little old ladies writing sonnets! But the group was excellent for challenging you.

CD: Confidence is key in getting your work out there. When did you start to gain confidence as a writer?

AH: I entered two short stories into a Harmony Hill competition, and I came first and second. I think they changed the rules after that! That really did boost me, and then I won the Downtown Radio Short Story Competition a couple of times, and was shortlisted for the Ian St James competition. Quite a lot happened in a short period of time. And then I went to a workshop in Edgeworthstown, wrote a play, and RTE accepted it and produced it, which I was so pleased with.

I was Secretary for the Creative Writers Network for some years, and in 2010 I happened to be talking to someone one day there who told me that the BBC was looking for Irish short stories. I submitted one, got a call that they were going to use it, and – I think this is the highlight for me – it was read on the Afternoon Story by Jemma Redgrave. I just thought ‘Jemma Redgrave is reading my work!’, and it was amazing, she was so lovely.

In 2011, I was also shortlisted for RTE’s Francis MacManus Short Story Competition, but to be honest, I haven’t done much in the past years. I’ve had poor health, but I’ve been writing, and I was published last year in The Honest Ulsterman, so maybe I can still do it!

CD: And you did a Masters degree in the middle of all this.

AH: Yes, my group was the first to do the Masters in Creative Writing at Queen’s, and I studied with Glenn Patterson and Daragh Carville. It was wonderful, and I wish it could have lasted a lot longer. I got a Distinction, which I was very proud of, which made me the first women to get a Distinction in Creative Writing at Queen’s, not that it mattered, as someone had to get it, and somebody had to be the first. It really helped me to hone my work, and that’s where the work started to take a bit of a darker turn.

CD: After your initial success, did you find your style of writing changing?

AH: My style has changed dramatically. I think what I write now wouldn’t have been accepted back then; it certainly wouldn’t have read on Downtown Radio. They were quite light and funny, what I’m producing now is grittier. I would be harsher, not as afraid of using bad language, and I’m not writing for anyone else. I’m writing the kind of thing I like reading. I like something harder, gutsier than say Call The Midwife.

CD: Bearing in mind that we now live in a post-Brexit, post-Obama, ‘post-truth’ world, do sociological or political factor impact on your writing?

AH: It can have. I would be more political from a human perspective, rather than directly write about the Troubles. I’m conscious as a Northern Irish writer to be labelled as a one-trick pony, but virtually everything I write is somehow or other anchored to here. Even the story that was read on Radio 4 was set in Rome, but Jemma Redgrave said that she knew immediately that the characters came from Belfast by a throwaway comment in the story.

I’m trying to write a novel at the moment, a character-led crime novel set in a fictional village, which is vaguely like where my great aunts live. I have a landscape in my head, not necessarily a real landscape, but I suppose everyone in Northern Ireland is only a couple of generations away from farming. It’s set in the Fifties, and is one of the few things I have written that isn’t set in the city.

CD: Am I permitted to ask about the plot, or it that top secret?

AH: It’s about a small boy that goes missing, and when he is eventually discovered, he’s found to have been severely attacked. He lives the rest of his life, which is very short, in hospital, not knowing anyone, and how this affects his family and his older brother, who was supposed to be looking after him.

There is a political element to it I suppose, as it’s created in this village where it is split up the middle, with a Protestant end and a Catholic end. The priest and the minister get involved, bouncing off each other, but it’s about the reality of life here, rather than making a big deal about hatred. From what I know about where my great aunts lived, people got on with their lives; there might have been suspicious of each other, but there wasn’t hatred like in the city, so that’s why I chose to set the novel there.