Why are there no romance novels set in Belfast?
Claire McGowan on the potential for genres other than crime to take off in Northern Ireland
Claire McGowan: “I’m part of the problem, I’ll admit, as it wouldn’t have occurred to me to set a women’s fiction novel in Belfast, had my editor not suggested it.” Photograph: Jamie Drew
Writing in 2003, in an essay entitled Why Crime Fiction is Good For You, Ian Rankin commented that there were almost no thrillers coming out of Northern Ireland, perhaps because violence was still too real there to be entertainment.
As we know, that’s no longer the case – Northern Irish crime fiction has flourished over the past 15 or so. Beloved Belfast bookshop No Alibis has, as the name suggests, championed the genre for many years. Local writers such as Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Eoin MacNamee and Adrian McKinty broke new ground writing about our troubled history and restless present. A new wave of female writers has also emerged now, including Claire Allan, Kelly Creighton, and Sharon Dempsey.
Many Northern Irish writers are writing globally too, setting their work in Britain or America and having great success. This includes Steve Cavanagh and now McKinty, whose last book The Chain scored a seven-figure film deal.
So Northern Irish crime fiction has become extremely well established in the years since Ian Rankin wrote that essay. But what about other genre fiction - where is the horror, the fantasy, or even the romance coming out of Northern Ireland? Is it too soon for us to have these genres - are we still working out our demons via crime and thrillers?
Although I’m a Northern Irish writer, I’ve lived in London for many years and set a lot of my work here. I’m part of the problem, I’ll admit, as it wouldn’t have occurred to me to set a women’s fiction novel in Belfast, had my editor not suggested it. As soon as she did, I realised how great that would be: a love story with no violence or murder, capturing the humour and community feel of the city. This became my latest book, The Heartbreak Club (written as Eva Woods), which might be classed as “uplit” or “uplifting women’s fiction”: I wish I could say no one dies, but it’s still one of my books, after all.
However, I found that I couldn’t think of any other romance novels set here. There is of course a long tradition of Irish women’s fiction, with such heavy-hitters as Maeve Binchy, Patricia Scanlan, and Marian Keyes. I devoured all their books in my teens, but where was the equivalent from the North?
Also in my teens, I was enthralled by the hilarious Pineapple Tart series by Anne Dunlop, set in Northern Ireland and featuring an adventurous family of five sisters. It was so exciting to read a book about a place I recognised, that didn’t focus on the Troubles but didn’t ignore them either. There were so few books or TV shows that depicted our country in a positive light, it felt genuinely ground-breaking.
More recently, Derry-born Claire Allan started off writing women’s fiction before turning to thrillers, and has continued in this genre under the name Freya Kennedy. Her books are set in and around Derry and she says, “It never occurred to me to set my novels anywhere but here. I think, as a people, we have such a strong character – passionate, creative, and in some cases damaged – which makes for great storytelling.”
Bernie McGill has also two written historical novels, one a love story, and Catherine Tinley writes historical romances too. I would love to see many more romantic stories set in the North, and especially more funny, light-hearted books, which we’ll all need after the year we’ve just had.
I realised I knew absolutely nothing about speculative fiction set in Northern Ireland, until I came across a blog post by sci-fi and fantasy author Jo Zebedee, about the under-representation of this kind of writing here. Jo writes that she found it hard to interest agents in NI-set SFF (sci-fi and fantasy), but also praises the support of the Arts Council, libraries, and arts venues and festivals such as the Belfast Book Festival and Crescent Arts Centre.
After working on what she terms space operas, she set an SFF novel in her homeland, saying “I wrote it because I was already fed up with Northern Irish stories defined by being ‘Northern Irish’”– meaning the idea that stories from here have to be bleak tales of violence and loss. She tells me, “The comparative lack of visibility of the genre is something that requires a coming together of writing talent, combined with a vibrant fan scene, to address. This is, I believe, something we are building towards strongly.”
Other writers in this area include the multi-award-winning Ian McDonald, TA Moore, who also writes romance and suspense, RB Kelly, and horror writer Philip Henry. Jan Carson also writes in a genre she describes as magic realism. Northern Irish author Gerard Brennan, who has a PhD in crime fiction, is surprised we haven’t seen even more horror and SFF from the province. “So many people here are superstitious, and I’ve met a bunch who visit psychics and mediums. The ghost stories I’ve heard!” He also points to the strong oral traditions of Irish story-telling, especially for darker tales. So perhaps the dominance of crime fiction will soon be on the wane.
One reflection of the prominence of Northern Irish crime fiction was the launch of the highly successful Noireland convention in Belfast. After two years, it had to be postponed due to Covid, but was already established as an event in the literary year, attracting big names from both publishing and TV. In SFF, the Titancon convention also took place in Belfast in 2019 and was postponed in 2020. They hope to return in August this year, building on the strong associations between the North and Game of Thrones. Many other TV series, such as Line of Duty and the third series of Marcella, are filmed in the North, often subbing in for other places. However, Northern-Ireland set programmes are still scarce.
Derry Girls managed to be hilarious and uplifting while not flinching from the reality of the nineties here, but it’s hard to think of other non-crime TV in recent years. The Fall felt fresh as it wasn’t about the Troubles, although it was pitch-black and terrifying, and more recent offering Bloodlands covers familiar ground. It’s been announced that a new daytime show, Hope Street, will start filming soon in the North, so perhaps this is changing.
As Northern Ireland culture continues to flourish and thrive, I predict we will see more and more “non-Troubles” books coming out of the province. Writers will feel more able to cover any ground, rather than working out our difficult history on the page. We will discover a wide variety of genres and topics and tones. Books that are funny and sad and imaginative. Books about different times in our past, books about “ordinary” murders. Books about the future, and the challenges we will face as a society, and about magic and mystery. And even about the more commonplace magic of just falling in love.
The Heartbreak Club by Eva Woods is published by Sphere on April 15th.