This week marks the end of a long journey (and hopefully the beginning of a new one) for Belfast-born author John Chambers, whose book ‘A Belfast Child’ is out on Wednesday September 3.
John’s story is truly extraordinary. Brought up on an ultra-Loyalist estate in west Belfast at the height of the Troubles, for many years John had no idea that his absentee mother was a Roman Catholic from the ‘other side of the fence’. The book explores the tribalism that has divided this city for many, many years, but it’s also about love, loss, family, humour and reconciliation. There’s even a dash of the ‘80s Mod movement thrown in for good measure.
It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to work on this story with John, despite it being far from an easy ride. He contacted me a good five years ago and immediately I was intrigued; not only because his was a great story but also that it hadn’t yet found a home. John had been trying to tell his tale for years but it seemed very few publishers were interested in Northern Ireland and the Troubles. Even when we worked on a great submission and tried all the big names, we failed miserably to get a bite.
It was hard to know what to think, other than ‘Let’s keep going.’ We both knew this was a great story, full of drama and character, and that someone, somewhere must surely take an interest. At times we both wondered whether it was worth the bother, but we persisted nonetheless.
Then two things happened. The first was Brexit. In the wake of the 2016 vote there seemed to be an upsurge of interest in ‘backstops’, ‘hard and soft borders’ and lines down the middle of the Irish Sea. What was all this about, and why was Northern Ireland in this strange position? For those who didn’t know the story (or had simply forgotten) the dark history of the province was aired once again and now, publishers were taking an interest.
The second stroke of luck was that I contacted Maggie Hanbury, the redoubtable London-based literary agent, about John’s book. Immediately, Maggie saw for herself what John and I always knew – that this was a cracking story which deserved publication. Maggie got to work (and got me to work, writing two more sample chapters) and within weeks found us a publishing deal with Bonnier/John Blake.
Finally, we had a home and a few quid with which to fund the writing. Luckily, John doesn’t live far from my home town in Lancashire, so I was able to combine visits to family with interviewing sessions. John is a great storyteller, relating tales with native wit and humour, even in the story’s darkest moments, so right through the process he was a great interviewee.
Still, I wanted more, so I proposed a joint visit to Belfast for research purposes. Of course, it’s changed a lot (for the better) since John lived there; even so, there was plenty to see that related directly to the tough times he lived through during his childhood and teenage years. We had a great few days exploring the area he grew up in and meeting the people he knew back then. We even ended up in a holding cell in the former Crumlin Road jail, in which he’d carved ‘Up The Mods’ on the wall in the 1980s (unbelievably, the graffiti was still there). We had a few pints here and there too, soaked up the following day by the classic ‘Ulster Fry’ breakfast or pastie supper along the legendary Shankill Road.
Then it was back to the writing and by autumn 2019 we had a hard-hitting, heart-warming story to deliver to our publisher, ready for release in Spring 2020. Then Covid-19 struck, everything went skywards, and here we are in September, a few months late but still raring to go.
The story of this book’s journey to publication kind-of proves that you shouldn’t give up easily. Sometimes you really do know when to quit; other times you have an inkling that somewhere along the line you’ll get lucky. I wish John every success with ‘A Belfast Child’. He deserves it, not only because of what he went through but also because he had persistence, patience and humour. And my god, don’t you need that latter trio in the publishing game!
For more info about me and my work, visit www.ukghostwriter.co.uk
To buy A Belfast Child via Amazon visit www.tinyurl.com/wzpp5ra