JUDITH MacCafferty wrote her first novel at the age of 10 but had to wait more than 50 years before she saw her first book published.
“I’ve been writing on and off since I was a child, so I am delighted that I finally made it,” she declares. “It may be that I am a late developer but at least I got there in the end.”
Set in her native Northern Ireland, Moville Light is a collection of short stories depicting the suffocating intrigue of small-town life and its assortment of the sad, the comical and the plain desperate. Shot through with understated wit and pathos, the tales remind me of William Trevor.
“That is the best compliment anyone can pay me,” MacCafferty smiles. Like Trevor, she describes the process of writing as a journey into the unknown: “I have no idea what is going to happen. It is like going out to sea without any navigation.”
Her short stories have already won her literary prizes in Ireland and France, where she lived for almost 20 years before eventually moving to her Arlington Road home in Camden Town. Now she is putting the finishing touches to a novel.
It is clear that books and writing have dominated her life. Born in Derry, where her father ran a pharmacy, she recalls reading every single book in her local children’s library, from Enid Blyton to Dickens.
“I was at a loss and I had to persuade the librarian to let me use the adult library,” says MacCafferty. “She did, but only very reluctantly.”
It was no surprise when she began to put pen to paper herself, her mother proudly typing out her first book, a story about school life MacCafferty titled Six Included. She studied history, English and French at Queen’s University, Belfast, where she joined a writing group attended by future Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
The Troubles were a few years away but the deepening sectarian divide meant that employment opportunities were limited because of her Catholic background.
“I was offered a job as a librarian by a New Zealander, who did not know how things went in Northern Ireland,” she says. “Once it was discovered I was a Catholic, the offer was withdrawn.”
MacCafferty took herself to London, where she taught at Grafton primary school in Holloway.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it, but probably wasn’t that good as a teacher, though I loved getting the children to write stories and some of them were brilliantly imaginative,” she says. Her own efforts – brief tales of everyday life – she would send off to various women’s magazines. They were all rejected, but she began attending creative writing classes at the City Lit in Covent Garden in the hope of honing her talents.
By this time she had already completed a novel and would pen another when she moved to Paris to join her husband. Two children followed, and MacCafferty continued to write, seeking inspiration from such writers as Flannery O’Connor, Bernard MacLaverty and, of course, the master of short storytelling, William Trevor.
Although the rejection letters continued, Watching, a story about the musings of a child from his sickbed, which is included in the current collection, won a literary prize and went on to be chosen by a French secondary school as an English study text.
“More than anything else, I wanted to get published,” she says.
“Of course, I was disappointed that it wasn’t happening, but I thought I should just keep trying. What else could I do?”
Back in England, MacCafferty met a publisher who described a novel she presented as “a trashy story written well”. Far from being downhearted, she saw that as a form of encouragement.
In 2004, she took an MA in creative writing at Middlesex University run by award-winning authors Sue Gee and Linda Leatherbarrow.
“They were both fantastic and the course really helped,” she says.
Moville Light, named after a lighthouse in Donegal that figures in the poignant denouement of the first story, was picked up by independent publishers Running Water Publications and recently launched at Wigtown, Scotland’s literary equivalent to Hay-on-Wye. Its 10 tales are partly inspired by real people and events. MacCafferty will not reveal which ones, but her brother, who still lives in Northern Ireland, is threatening to pack his bags and leave, she jokes.
Despite being extremely well travelled and a keen observer of people, MacCafferty sets most of her work there. “It’s to do with the dialogue – I can’t get it to work so well anywhere else,” she explains. Would she ever return to the province?
“No,” she replies. “I’ve been away for too long and I love living in Camden Town – all of human life is there. Before I moved here I lived in Portugal. It was beautiful but all people ever did was play golf,” she laughs.
• Moville Light. By Judith MacCafferty. Running Water Publications, £6.99
Published: 21 July, 2011
by ANGELA COBBINAH