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  • Helen Lederer

Michelle Gallen goes very large with Kathy Burke

Helen Lederer here, I felt everyone would want to know the answers to these personal questions put to Michelle Gallen - for your eyes only obviously…

1 When was the first time you spotted your searingly funny novel Big Girl Small Town displayed in a book shop – and did you rearrange it so that the spine stuck out just a little bit more?

1a) Also do you use the word searingly often?

Just before lockdown 1, I went to Eason’s in Dublin on a searingly bright morning to buy Marian Keyes’ searingly funny book Grownups and was searingly thrilled to see Big Girl Small Town on the searingly lower shelf below. I wanted to show EVERYONE IN THE SHOP that my book was in the same shop as Marian’s book but instead I slowly licked its searingly tasty spine, replaced it on the shelf, then brought home a copy of Grownups, 9 Cadbury’s crème eggs and a searingly beautiful feeling of professional satisfaction.

1a) See above.

2 Who is the most admired famous person who has adored Big Girl, Small Town who wants to join the creative team to adapt the novel into film? If you are not at liberty to answer – make someone up, we won’t know.

ARGH I think I’m allowed to say that comedy and acting legend Kathy Burke fell in love with Majella when she read Big Girl Small Town and nudged Lookout Point to acquire the rights. She’s currently helping the wonderful Pippa Brown and myself adapt the book for screen – WHICH IS EVEN MORE FUN THAN I’D IMAGINED!

3) Why do you feel Big Girl Small Town is doing so well in USA? Will you be moving there?

3a) Please tell us your most memorable American novel.

I think the success of Big Girl Small Town in the USA is due to proximity. It’s like when someone falls on their face in the street in the mud – you’re more likely to laugh if you feel you’re at a safe distance… you’re less likely to laugh if you’ve got 2 inches of mud up your nose. I haven’t yet invested in a pied a terre in the US, because I’m currently in negotiations with my Malibu-based agent on suitable US locations for the filming of Big Girl Small Town. I favour Hawaii myself, but she’s got her eye on the Beverly Hills, while Steven Spielberg keeps pushing Manhattan. Someone will have to compromise, but such is the creative life of a comedic fiction writer.

3a) I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath when my brain was becoming critically inflamed by encephalitis at the age of 23, so that book is both the most memorable one I’ve read, yet also the first book I couldn’t memorise because my photographic memory was being destroyed from the inside out. The first pages still transport me back to reading in my bedroom in London, wondering if the book was doing weird things to my brain, or if my brain was doing weird things to the book.

4) How much of Majella is you? If the answer is over 25% please list some commonalities.

Hahahahhahahaha I wrote Majella thinking she was a bit odd, while believing she’s quite the EveryWoman. I think we all have a bit more than 25% Majella in us. Personal commonalities include enjoying fish and chips, beautiful Irish scenery (from a safe, warm distance with a glass of hot whiskey in my hand, not the up-close-wet-feet-and-mucky-shoes type of appreciation), hot showers, wanking, chocolate, Dallas, sex and feather duvets.

5) Do you write lists on a note pad or on your computer?

Before my brain injury I catalogued the world in my head. Since then, I type obsessive lists into my phone, using the Quip app to pretend I’ve got my domestic, personal and creative lives somewhat in order.

6) Have you used a biro to mark your best piece to read out sections from your own book at festivals? A highlighter? Post it note? Do you like reading out loud from your novel? Does it make you nostalgic thinking back to the time of writing?

My mother would have a conniption if she thought I was taking a pen to a book, even if it is the ‘sort of thing’ that I’ve written myself (this is the woman who introduced me to a friend of hers at a funeral saying ‘This is my daughter, the writer. She writes things that would cut you to the bone with the shame of it’). So I use a 3D chip bookmark that a friend gifted me to mark extracts I’ve agreed to read. While I’ve always enjoyed reading my work in workshops or live performances, I haven’t attended a single book festival in real life – and I’ve attended not very many online festivals. I find reading into the screaming void of the Internet about as enjoyable as talking to myself when drunk. I really miss the days when I was writing Big Girl Small Town – I was single, had cheap rent, no kids, loads of writer and non-writer friends, and I got to pour words out onto pages that I took to various performance nights, pubs or writing workshops in Belfast, where my friends helped me improve my work. I switched on the news the other night, and saw loyalists rioting in Shaftsbury square and it broke my heart. I wrote 70,000 words of Big Girl Small Town in a loyalist enclave on a street just off Shaftsbury square, at a time when I hoped riots like that were a thing of the past.

7) Why do we champion Majella? I know I do.

I like to think that people know that Majella is the sort of person who’d have your back in real life. She’s never going to lie and tell you what she thinks you want to hear – she’s got the guts to cut through the bullshit and tell you what really matters. She’s a good listener, and I think many of us have never felt like we’ve been listened to properly. She’s strong, she’s loyal, and is at heart kind and generous. I don’t want to rescue Majella from her life. I would love to be a part of it.

8) Why do you think it was only when Majella got fat that Marty fancied her?

I think many people are sort of ‘tricked’ into believing the body types and faces favoured in the mainstream media are desirable. I think it takes a lot of work to step away from the diet of male and female body ‘types’ we are served up on TV and film and to create the space where you can recognise what it is you love for yourself. Marty (whose wife is on the skinny side) would do himself a favour if he discovered that his ‘type’ of woman isn’t a skinny, big busted blonde, but a strong, curvy woman who listens to him, and isn’t afraid to call him out on his shit.

9) Are you obsessive about anything and if so, would you like to say something positive about the CWIP prize - along the lines that it was an idea that ended up grouping together some amazing witty women writers...? (In your own words of course.)

When I look back on the past year – which has been a surreal mix of pandemic-related horror, grief and loneliness and writing-related highs – I remain incredibly grateful to the CWIP prize for shortlisting Big Girl Small Town and shoving Majella into a line-up of characters created by literary superstars like Jeanette Winterson, Candice Carty-Williams, Angela Makholwa and Nina Stibbe. I love the ambition, generosity and bravery of the CWIP prize – though it’s kind of annoying that the idea of celebrating funny women authors is still transgressive. Being shortlisted for the CWIP prize remains a confidence booster to me when writing – I’ve found that CWIP makes me feel like I’m part of an incredible network of women who write stories that are both funny and sad, hilarious and bleak, that explore grief and laughter as they so often happen in our lives – side by side.

10) What next? We know it will be exciting…

I’m juggling 3 things…the adaption of Big Girl Small Town for screen, editing my second book Factory Girls for publication, and writing my third novel which is going so well it doesn’t have a title… Each project is incredibly exciting and demanding, so I will be the first to admit (before my mother can say a word) that my bathroom is grimy, my floors are dusty, my kids are being raised by their tadpoles, and burnt toast and easy peeler oranges are a marvellous food source for humans of all ages.

Thanks so much to Michelle for such great answers to Helen's probing questions.


Thanks to Michelle's publisher, John Murray, we have two paperback copies of Michelle's book Big Girl Small Town to give away. All you have to do is reply to one of our social media posts about this blog Q&A and tell us what you'd order from Majella's chipper.

We'll pick two winners after 5pm on Wednesday 21 April.

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