Talented Friends: Kelly McCaughrain

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This time tomorrow evening my good friend, Kelly McCaughrain will be launching her debut novel, “Flying Tips for Flightless Birds,” to a packed house at the Crescent Arts Centre. (Nb. if you’re reading this blog on Saturday night -10th March- [and I’m guessing you’re probably not, because most normal people aren’t at home blogging, and catching up on their medical dramas, on a Saturday night, they’re out doing fun, social things with other normal people], then you can still make the launch 7:30pm Sunday evening). They’ll be mad ukulele music, wine, circus-themed everything and a glowing, though not particularly eloquent, introduction from me. It’s going to be a great, big, noisy celebration, and so it should be. This book deserves a thoroughly joyful launch, because it’s a thoroughly joyful wee read.

I’ve known Kelly for about four years now. I first met her at a strange knitting and book-themed event in a cellist’s back garden. I’m allowed to say it was strange, because it was my event; one of those Jan-specials where the pun comes before the concept of what exactly the event will entail. Literary Knittery was the name and though I didn’t manage to produce a single line of knitting, I do recall great buns and meeting Kelly and her husband, Michael, (who was equally shit at knitting). We’ve been good friends ever since, meeting regularly at literary events and later, just because we enjoyed each other’s company, to talk books: the reading, writing and oftentimes, not-writing of books. Kelly’s one of the first people I go to when I write myself into a corner and want to throw my laptop in the bin and do something which doesn’t involve words for a change. She’s always calm. She’s always wise. She’s always honest about her own journey with writing. I usually leave our chats feeling like I might just go and hoke my laptop out of the bin and have another stab at whatever story I’m currently suffocating in. She’s been such a welcome addition to my community of friends who also write, I’m thinking of running another Literary Knittery, just to see who else I might meet.

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For as long as I’ve known Kelly she’s been working on a Young Adult novel. It’s gone through several incarnations. It’s sometimes felt like publication day was many million light years aways. A number of times, usually over wine, Kelly’s questioned whether it would every be finished. But she’s always kept moving slowly and steadily towards finishing her book. And, I’m so glad she has. I’ll say a little more about the actual novel in a second, but for now, I’d like to commend Kelly for keeping on, keeping on. This month I’ve blogged about two different dear friends releasing debut books. Both have been hard fought publications, involving long writing journeys. Five years. Ten years. Dear only knows how many years? Sometimes we lose track of how long we’ve been working on a project. But I think it’s important to celebrate perseverance and the sort of dedication to craft, which a writer like Kelly exhibits: spending time with a manuscript, allowing it to breath and grow, to refine itself with every subsequent edit, to get a book as close to perfect as possible, before releasing it into the world. I have a tendency to rush, in life and in writing, but I’m learning from people like Kelly to slow down and stay focused and not give up on a story just because it feels a little bit too much like hard work. I remember hearing George Saunders talk about the sixteen years he spent writing and rewriting a single short story. Later I read the short story in question and was almost instantly able to see where time had matured and honed it to something akin to perfection.

So, I’m particularly proud and honoured to be have a small role in celebrating the launch of “Flying Lessons for Flightless Birds,” tomorrow evening. I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. I’m not a young adult anymore, I’m just a regular adult now, perhaps even edging on the boundaries of older adulthood. However, I enjoyed this book. I don’t think it’s just a YA book. It has an appeal beyond its demographic. I loved its vibrancy. The colour and joy which leaks out of the characters as they talk about growing up outside the boundaries of normal Northern Irish life in a circus school. It made me wonder why we haven’t more Northern Irish books like this, telling the stories of the marginalised and incredibly intriguing people who call this wee corner of the world, home. I enjoyed the book’s honesty. The way it wrestles with issues around gender, sexuality and acceptance. the characters are so beautifully and believably written, I was right there beside them, through the highs and the undeniably low lows of their journey. Don’t be fooled by the bright cover, or the fact that Roddy Doyle’s called this book “sparkly.” It’s not just fun and froth. It packs a fair punch too. There are sections demand empathy with characters who are journeying through some truly devastating experiences. And while, it’s not the sort of book I’d usually read, if I had children in the early teens bracket, I’d definitely be buying them a copy, and probably stealing that copy for a sneaky wee reading session of my own, because “Flying Lessons,” is more than just a book about teenagers learning how to become functional adults. It’s a book about deciding that you’re ok being yourself no matter how strange, or outlandish you may be. I’m nearly forty and that’s something I need reminded of on an almost daily basis. Hats off to Kelly. Tomorrow night’s the first of many, many book launches to come.

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