All the Walls of Belfast is such a unique YA historical fiction. After finishing I knew I wanted to talk to Carlson more about the process of writing and inspiration! Continue reading to see Carlson’s interview where we talk research, family, and change.
All the Walls of Belfast
Fiona and Danny were born in the same hospital. Fiona’s mom fled with her to the United States when she was two, but, fourteen years after the Troubles ended, a forty-foot-tall peace wall still separates her dad’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood.
After chance brings Fiona and Danny together, their love of the band Fading Stars, big dreams, and desire to run away from their families unites them. Danny and Fiona must help one another overcome the burden of their parents’ pasts. But one ugly truth might shatter what they have…
For those who haven’t read All the Walls of Belfast, can you talk about your inspiration for the book?
I was inspired to write All the Walls of Belfast during a trip to Northern Ireland I took back in 2011. Prior to that, I had vague memories of hearing about the Troubles in middle school but forgot about it. On this trip, I was shocked to find that, while the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on, some working class Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republican communities in Belfast were (and still are) separated by massive peace walls and many children from these communities may go their entire childhood without talking to someone from the other religion more than twenty years after the Troubles ended.
As I sought to understand the long history leading up to the Troubles, the thirty-year period of armed conflict between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans, and the progression of the peace process after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I found a story to tell about a boy and a girl from very different worlds with one big thing in common: a desire to escape their families’ violent legacies as they’re grasping for their own futures. But, when they need one another the most, one ugly truth might shatter everything.
Did you have to do any research for the book, can you talk us through your research process?
The creation and completion of All the Walls of Belfast involved three trips to Belfast, five Belfast readers (including two developmental editors), and ongoing research around current events, history, dialect, culture, food, setting, etc. I first traveled to Belfast in July 2011 as a part of a group, with the purpose of understanding the Troubles and its impact. While there, I had the opportunity to go on political tours of the Shankill and the Falls lead by former Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, tour museums, and speak with individuals who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. I also was able to attend an Eleventh Night bonfire and the Twelfth of July parade, both Protestant Loyalist celebrations of the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. I visited Belfast two more times to further research setting, dialect, culture, and perspectives. I went to every setting in the book.
I spent several years tracking current events and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland from a variety of news sources; it was a particularly interesting time, because during this time a US diplomat tried work with Protestant and Catholic political parties to resolve lingering issues around flags, parades, and the past. The parties failed to come to an agreement. Some of the other things I researched include paramilitaries after the Troubles, the impact of paramilitaries on teens living in certain areas of Northern Ireland; the state of peace walls across Northern Ireland; Protestant Loyalist Flute Bands; intracommunity peace efforts between Protestant and Catholic areas; education in general and educational achievement by gender and religion in Northern Ireland; and the process for joining the British Army. I even went so far as to research how to open a bank account at Ulster Bank.
Additionally, I sought out and consumed various media created by Northern Irish creators including books, movies, and TV shows to help with dialect and understanding culture and perspectives.
Family is incredibly important for Fiona, can you talk about writing Fiona’s family?
Family is so important to Fiona because her mother fled with her from Belfast to Northern Ireland when she was two, and she’s spent her whole life wondering about her dad and two older half-brothers. She didn’t even know she had a nephew. She polar plunged into meeting her family after discovering her father always wanted her, and then she’s in a foreign country she doesn’t remember with four complete strangers who are also her family. And she’s angry at her mom because she thinks Mom kept Dad from her. As Fiona starts discovering the truth of her family’s involvement with the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, and how it tore them apart, it forces her to question not only her blossoming relationship her dad and brothers, but also her very concept of right and wrong.
Capturing her family was incredibly complex. Fiona’s relationship with Dad, Patrick, Seamus, and Finn had its own unique arc that coincided with the plot and each character’s story arc. Although her mother, back in the United States, plays a much smaller role on the page, Fiona and her relationship had its own arc too. It took a lot of work to weave the evolving relationships together as Fiona’s understanding of the truth progressed.
A big theme of the book is around how the traumas our parents live through spread to the next generation who never actually experienced it. Fiona, Seamus, Patrick, and Danny and his friends were all impacted differently by that intergenerational trauma. Patrick played a large role in helping Fiona understand her dad’s choices, and Seamus helped Fiona understand the impact of her mom’s. Finn showed how that impact can spread to the next generation. I also wanted to show the strength and love we can draw from our family, even when they’ve had to make tough choices that tear us apart.
Being able to change and atone for our mistakes is a huge theme in your book, can you talk more about how it was to write that and did any of the actions change greatly between your draft and the final copy?
One of the core questions Fiona (and hopefully the reader) struggles with is whether her father was a freedom fighter or a terrorist when he was a part of the IRA during the Troubles. Fiona grew up in the United States as a direct result of her father’s choices, and her mother chose to keep her ignorant about the Troubles. After Fiona gets to Belfast, she learns the dark truth about her loving father’s past.
Everyone in the Falls where Dad lives considers him a freedom fighter, a hero. Even Fiona’s mother, who eventually fled from the Irish Republican Army, saw Dad as a freedom fighter forced to make the impossible choice to engage in violence as a last resort to gain rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland and to protect their community from the mostly Protestant police force, the British Army, and the violence of Protestant paramilitaries on the other side of the peace walls.
But to Danny and his Protestant community, who live just twenty feet away on the other side of a peace wall, Fiona’s dad is a terrorist, a murderer who killed innocent people and unleashed violence and chaos across Northern Ireland for thirty years. Through Danny, I wanted Fiona and the reader to experience the life-shattering impact of Dad’s choices, to feel the agony of one of the IRA’s innocent victims. Because that’s Dad, too. Danny doesn’t have a mom, and his dad never recovered from that trauma, but Fiona’s dad is walking free taking his daughter to Giant’s Causeway after only going to jail for a few years. For Fiona, this is a hard pill to swallow. Harder still for Fiona is figuring out if a person’s past must define their future, and if they deserve a second chance.
In earlier drafts, Fiona’s mom was dead, because I couldn’t see how she’d let Fiona go to Belfast to be with someone who’d been a part of something labeled a terrorist organization. But as I continued my research and deepened my understanding of the Troubles, I was struck by the complexity of it all, and that the idea of good and bad is relative. I realized Fiona’s mom may well have supported her father’s involvement because at the time there seemed to be no other option. Mom’s thoughts on this evolved, but in her heart, she wouldn’t see Dad as a terrorist. My empathy for Dad also grew, and he became a rather tragic figure desperate to make the future better than the past for his children and communities on both sides of the peace walls.
Can you talk about the process of writing your debut?
All the Walls of Belfast was an incredibly complex book to write. Not only was I writing characters and setting outside my lane, I also had to contend with a complex social/political/historical context and a dual point-of-view story. It took over five years to research and write. And re-write. And re-write. And … I think re-write until I finally found the heart of both Fiona and Danny’s stories and how they linked together. For context, I signed with my agent in January of 2015; the book didn’t go on submission until February 2018.
The basic idea, a boy and a girl separated by religion and a peace wall, stayed constant, but their individual stories, and all the secondary characters, evolved with each re-write.
What are some of your other favorite historical fiction books?
After traveling to Cambodia a few years ago, I wanted to learn more about the tragedy and genocide suffered by the Cambodia people during the Khmer Rouge. Two books that deepened my understanding were Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick and First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung.
Your next book is coming out in May, how was it to write and how did it differ in writing process from your first?
My second book, Everything’s Not Fine, is actually set in the town in where I attended high school, so I didn’t need to do all the research around setting. Still, I wanted to dedicate the same amount of thought and energy to capturing the small-town Wisconsin setting, dialect, and culture as I did for Belfast, which meant looking at this place I lived in for ten years through almost a sociological lens to capture the beauty and struggle.
Everything’s Not Fine is about Rose, a seventeen-year-old girl who escapes to a world of bright colors and canvases to ignore the elephant in the room. But after her mother almost dies of a heroin overdose, she doesn’t have the strength to pick up a paintbrush, until the new boy shows her the power of admitting that everything really isn’t fine.
For Everything’s Not Fine, I researched various facets of opioid addiction, the workings of Child Protective Services, eviction laws, art school entrance requirements. I also interviewed social workers and a police officer. Because one of the characters is Mexican American, I used several sensitivity readers to look at representation and the minimal Spanish I included. I also used an authenticity reader.
About the Author
I’ve been writing “novels” since I was twelve. Somewhere I still have a three inch binder with my very first attempt scrawled in pencil on loose leaf paper. I have several other manuscripts locked away in a virtual secret vault on my laptop, but learned volumes with each one I wrote.
While living in Singapore for a year and a half, I had the opportunity to focus entirely on my writing, thanks to my wonderful husband. I’ve also had the privilege of traveling to seventeen countries on four continents so far. What can I say? I like going on adventures.
Currently, I live near Madison, Wisconsin with my husband and two small children. I have a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, a Masters of Science in Education, and an Education Specialist degree in School Psychology. Professionally, I work as a school psychologist in an elementary school with a diverse, mostly low income population; I have also worked in middle schools. My professional areas of focus include supporting the success of children with behavioral and mental health needs and helping to promote resilience in children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress. Love–love!–working with kids.