Thirteen years ago, a young writer from Tyrone named Michelle Gallen published a short story, ‘Double Tub’, in literary journal The Stinging Fly. The story told of Conor, an overweight fish-and-chip-shop worker who makes revolting use, at the narrative climax, of an open tub of mayonnaise.
But ultimately it was a touching tale, written in a unique local vernacular, in which a hard-working boy living with the disappearance of his father contends with his alcoholic mother. It met the same fate as a lot of short stories, in that it found a small audience for a short time before becoming unavailable. But for the author the story endured.
“It wouldn’t let go of me,” says Gallen. “I felt this person had a lot more to say.”
Conor became a girl, Majella; the story was expanded into a novel, and the result is now sitting on the table between the author and I.
Big Girl, Small Town has caused a small stir already, even earning itself an annoying if rousing hashtag, #teammajella. The book’s 13-year gestation makes comparisons with Derry Girls, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Milkman more coincidental than suspect (the novel has been described as Derry Girls meets Milkman). “I didn’t watch Derry Girls quite deliberately until I finished the second draft of my second book,” says Gallen.
It was a bumpy ride to publication, but then, nothing has been easy for the author whose life since the brain injury she suffered in her twenties has been marked by a struggle to recover and a work ethic that goes something like “work work work, until I fall over”. Take for example the novel.
After publishing her story in The Stinging Fly, she took a month off to follow a NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel in a Month) plan. She produced 70,000 words in 30 days, and the book took three more years to finish. It then took another 10 years to get it to the stage she is now at, with the book hitting shelves this month. “I really believed in the book, I thought it was good,” says Gallen. “Interestingly, I got zero interest in Ireland. A standard ‘no thanks’.”
After much slog she sold the book at the Irish Novel Fair to John Murray, and found a literary agent in Marianne Gunn-O’Connor.
Written with 100 years of Partition in mind, there is an IRA uncle Bobby, a disappeared father and a murdered grandmother. The story follows Majella from her shifts at the chip shop to her telly binges with her dissolute mother to a surprising relationship with her married co-worker. (It gets very good indeed around page 27.) The autistic protagonist hates gossip and small talk, which makes her a fascinating medium through which to discover the whispering and traumatised small border town in which she lives. The book has a lot to say – but so does its author.
Gallen is drinking her fifth coffee of the day when we meet and she has a cold and hasn’t slept. (After the interview, she came down with fever.) A petite person with shiny black eyes, she is intense and inquisitive. Before I’ve quite sat down she asks me who I like to read.
“Edith Wharton?” she probes.
I confess that Edith Wharton is still just a name to me.
“You’ve got to read her,” she tells me.
Other female authors paved the way for her, from Lisa McInerney to Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James, to fellow Northern Irish author Anna Burns – who she is in awe of, as you’ll tell from the book’s epigraph.
An “omnivore”, she also counts Crazy Rich Asians and The Hunger Games among her spirit animals.
Gallen describes herself as “non-neurotypical”.
“I have a brain injury. But I don’t think I was neurotypical growing up, either. I had a photographic memory. I always felt I had to learn how this world works. You figure it out and learn the rules.”
What happened? Reluctantly, she describes how, at 23, she got encephalitis, a rare brain injury “which is basically where your brain swells up and crushes itself”.
Having left a “tough” background to study English at Trinity College and Publishing at Stirling, she was working in London. Her job as a financial writer involved “picking stocks randomly and saying, ‘This is the best stock ever – you should buy it.’ I wrote headlines for selling financial products. My absolute best-performing headline was ’25 and don’t have a pension yet?’ Like in beauty magazines, you figure out what someone’s weak point is and go for it.”
She had gone so far past her own weak point she couldn’t see it anymore, as I gather the more she reveals. What was she going through? “Really bad headaches, completely out-of-character behaviour.” She tells me that she couldn’t feel her hands and her feet weren’t working properly.
“I was pretty wild and outrageous anyway so when my behaviour was deteriorating, people weren’t that shocked,” she adds.
She had just decided to leave her job, do a TEFL course and travel, and the future looked bright. She says something that would sound heartbreaking, had things turned out differently and she had not become the thriving person she has.
“I have this life that is very much a ‘before’ and ‘after’. I can still feel the person that I was before, her potential, and energy,” says Gallen, and her voice catches. “I’m never going to be that person again.”
In hospital in London she got a diagnosis of “probable encephalitis”. Back in Tyrone, her diagnosis was upgraded to “auto-immune encephalitis”. A “slow descent”, she says.
She had left London and come through the airport arrivals gate in a wheelchair to meet her father. She moved back into her busy parents’ home (they were both teachers, and she is one of six). She needed help walking and she was unable to feed herself.
It was 1999, a year after the Omagh bombing.
“Medical services were really stretched then in the North,” says Gallen who, in her writing and her conversation, sees all personal experience through a clear political lens.
Gallen lists off her symptoms with a sigh. She had seizures, hallucinations, she couldn’t perceive depth (she still hates Apple stores for that reason). She lost a lot of friends. “It’s very hard for people to stick with you when you’re not very well,” she explains.
She got onto a rehabilitation scheme that got her back to work and while she was recovering, she used technology. “Tech is great because it’s black and white. You sit at your screen and you know exactly what you’re doing.”
And this is how she became “geeky”, and a success.
She needed a memory aid to match names to faces, so she launched an app called Schhmooze. It was intended as a social-networking site but it failed because people just wanted to stalk each other, she explains. At home a lot and curious, she wanted to teach herself Irish so she launched the site talkirish.com, which took off.
“After I had the brain injury, I was told, ‘You have a brain injury, your life is what it is, go and do a course in aromatherapy and find a man. You can still procreate.’ They were like, ‘You look pretty, and your eggs are fine. You should be able to find a man.’
“I was trying to prove I could do things again. ‘Look, I’m doing this I’m doing that.’ It’s only recently I’ve stopped and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ I feel like I was playing catch-up. Many of the things I did came at a great cost.
“There were some appalling treatments and advice. Some of it was based on what they didn’t know at the time, but some of it’s entirely sexist, right? The only way I got better was to fight my corner and really try hard. There wasn’t a lot of kindness in that.”
Much of her thirties were taken up with tech pitches and tech panels – once, she was billed to appear alongside Mark Zuckerberg, who failed to show. But in this world of start-ups and venture capitalists, the urge to write was always biting at her. “Writing was my thing,” she says, and tells me a lovely story.
When she was 14 she wrote a short story which was picked out of 30,000 other stories in the WH Smith Young Writers’ Competition (at the same time, her contemporary Caitlin Moran won a short story competition and started writing for The Times. Her mother used to present Michelle with Caitlin Moran’s clippings. “I felt she was the English me,” Gallen laughs wistfully.)
Among the judges was the poet Ted Hughes. It was Michelle’s first time in London and her mother bought her a dress. The dress turned out to be much too short. Ted Hughes walked over to greet her. “I remember feeling my skirt was too short. He was very attractive”, she whispers.
“He said to me, ‘You are one of the finest young writers I’ve ever met.’ He was big into nature. My story may have had a bomb in it but it had nature and bombs. He gave me a really strong sense that it was fine to write the way I wrote. And the way I wrote was completely about the North.”
A sequence of writers’ groups have kept her in production – from the online forums she turned to while recovering from her brain injury to the one in Belfast chaired by poet Sinead Moriarty to the alluringly named ‘The Misfit Writer’s Pop-Up Gin Club’ in Dublin.
But the idea of being a writer people seek opinions from now sits uneasily with her.
“I get very anxious when people look at me,” she says. She can’t imagine being a talking head at a literary festival. “I imagine it’s exhausting. And I don’t know what people want from writers. What do they want from a writer?”
She tries to explain her ambivalent feelings. “I grew up in a town that was under extreme surveillance. You’re under surveillance by the security forces. And you’re under surveillance by the army. And you’re under surveillance by the church. And you’re under surveillance by your own community.”
The town was Castlederg, which was named by one historian as the ‘most bombed town in Western Europe’ between the Second World War and Sarajevo. “There were a lot of bombs.”
There were 3,000 residents, with an equal split between Catholics and Protestants. “You had Catholic schools and Protestant schools, Catholic pharmacies and Protestant pharmacies, Catholic shops and Protestant shops. I’m not Catholic anymore,” she adds.
She recalls running into a young friend on the street who told her excitedly: “We just petrol-bombed the last Prods out of the park.”
Brexit, on its eve, is “genuinely terrifying” to her, she says.
“People forget how inflammatory it is to have an army on your streets. To have an infrastructure of security. The RUC stations, the watchtowers, the barricades.”
Years ago she met Lyra McKee, the journalist who was murdered at a rally in Derry last year, and they stayed in touch. Like many people, Lyra’s death has deeply upset Gallen. “She was one of your bright shiny lights,” she says, quoting Anna Burns.
Having moved back from London and bought a house in Dublin, she is still trying to grasp the reasons for certain certainties “down south”. The difference between Fine Gael and Fine Fáil, for instance. “Somebody shot somebody a long time ago, and this is where we’re now at. It feels to me like they are the Tories. And everyone else is not the Tories.”
Is she voting Green in the general election? “An area the size of England has just burned in Australia. Everything we do in Ireland should be viewed through the lens of the planet. Brexit is this great distraction.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we didn’t have to worry about that shit? If we could look at housing, health, the island as a whole, power, sustainability, planting trees as a gift to the future. Green should just be the new religion. I don’t think there should be a Green party – I think every party should be green.”
With two young sons at home, and a second job as a “digital content provider”, she describes herself in frank terms as a “stressed-out person”. Her husband, Mehdi, is “amazing. He’s a great person”. Mentioning his name, she fills up with a tear.
Recovery, and its draining effects, seem to be an ongoing struggle for her. She still suffers from occasional seizures and bad headaches. When she gets sick, her immune system has an “ultra-response”, she says. “This is one of the reasons I’m so into MedTech.”
One evening last October, she was looking after her boys when she came down with a high temperature. The Fitbit she wears was able to inform her that her heart was racing and that something was wrong.
At the hospital she found out she had pneumonia and, soon enough, sepsis. “My immune system said, ‘What we’re going to do here, Michelle, is attack you! ‘Awesome,’ I said. ‘Been here before.'”
Her next novel, Factory Girls, based on a group of girls working in a shirt factory, has been more difficult to write, says. She once worked in a shirt factory in Tyrone herself.
On a lucky streak to realising her dream, she still can’t quite accept that she has come this far.
“It feels like an indulgence to sit with a book in front of you. It’s a dream come true, but it’s terrifying. I’m doing something I love,” she reflects.
“You know when you’re 10 and you have a dream of what you want to do? And it’s paint pictures, or write or whatever. It feels like an indulgence.
“I think sometimes people want a very simplified narrative. That you recover and everything’s fine. I’m not sure life works like that.
“I’m very lucky in my bad luck,” Gallen adds thoughtfully.
‘Big Girl, Small Town’ will be published by John Murray on February 20