Lead On, Macduff


Blanaid McKinney is a self-confessed civil servant who, in her own words, also "scribbles". Despite huge acclaim for her first collection of short stories, Big Mouth, published recently, however, she has no intention of giving up the day job.

"I have to have a proper job to keep the rain off my back," she told me in the Mayfair hotel where we met last week. "And in any case, it's important - and fun - to exercise different parts of the brain. I think I've got the balance right. Besides, I'm good at it," and she sips modestly at her half pint of Beck's. "It" is her job with the Greenwich Waterfront Development Partnership, which she has done for the last two years. "Regeneration", it's called. Before that, she did the same sort of work but based in "a wee fishing village in Scotland called Macduff. You know - lead on Macduff." That job lasted for eight years.

And before that - she's only 39, but she seems to have had more than her fair share of jobs - she taught politics at Queen's, Belfast for two years. "I was doing research for a Ph.D which I never finished and the teaching was part of it." While there, she discovered that there were no women's studies courses at Queen's and commented on this fact to the authorities: "Imagine, no women's studies at a big university like that, in the early nineties!"

So the powers that be told her to make a start, which she did: "I gave a lecture on feminism - and 400 students turned up." Her own degree had been in Politics ("from Plato to NATO") but university teaching didn't suit her, and although she was writing a bit of poetry at that time, she took off for Scotland, where her mother and sister were living. "My mother is from Dublin and my father from Kerry. They were both dentists and they moved up to Lisnaskea in 1949 - which is how I was born in Enniskillen."

A convent education followed, then Queen's. And although she hasn't lived in Belfast for 15 years, she still calls it home and wouldn't mind moving back there again if the right development job came up. It was while she was in Macduff that she started putting together her collection of short stories: "I'd written a film script, but it turned out to be the most overpopulated script ever written. Totally unmanageable. So I took out individual characters - the interesting ones - and put them into short stories. Most of the work had already been done and it was just a question of getting it all down on paper. One story I wrote in six hours. I found it quite satisfying, writing the short stories, and I discovered that what I hadn't used was only dross anyway."

She got a great deal of help from the literary agent and editor, David Marcus: "I read that he was the Irish end of Curtis Brown, the London agents, and I sent seven of the stories to him. He was very kind and edited them, working mainly on things like punctuation and grammar and when he'd done that he sent them to Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown, who is now my agent."

When the stories landed on the publisher's desk, there were one or two discussions about changes to be made. "I'd referred to the skipper in one story moving like Diaghilev and the editor said, but Diaghilev was really a choreographer, not a dancer. And to me it was more the impression that was important and I thought, hang on, that's just making changes for the sake of changing things. So it stayed." She's not a great believer in the old writing course adage - write about what you know. Indeed, she has never been on a writing course. "Whatever happened to imagination and creativity?" she asks. "I think research is all-important. I jot everything down in jotters, in no order at all, and then I look at them and sort them out and think, yes, that'd go in this story and this bit in another. I've been collecting news stories for years." One of her stories contains a phrase she saw cut into an old gravestone in Macduff years ago. Another had its genesis in a Texas newspaper cutting. A third is based on her experiences travelling round Aberdeenshire as Economic Development Officer. "I spent a significant amount of time traipsing around fish processing factories, prawn factories, lobster tanks, dealing with skippers and attending auctions," her CV tells us. "I may not have been the most recognisable writer in Aberdeenshire, but by God, I was the smelliest."

Other research she does by the book - literally. When she wanted to write a story about a card-playing gangster, she read a poker bible to get the jargon right; though regrets the fact that it failed to turn her into a rich poker player. For a story about the destruction of a car, she bought a car repair manual and studied it thoroughly. "I already had the idea for that story. It was crystal clear in my mind. I just needed to study the manual to get the details right. To know what went under the bonnet of the car."

Intriguingly, many of the stories take a dispassionate angle on violence. There's the punter who ends up with his hand nailed to the floor, the young father who, in a hospital, pulls out the tubes which are prolonging the life of his child and the man who has to watch while a gunman puts a bullet in his small son's head. Heavy stuff for a civil servant, you might think. She doesn't: "It's good to get away from what you know. Otherwise you end up with yet another Bridget Jones novel about a thirty-something asking why haven't I got a man."

Her current reading is Raymond Carver and David Mamet's essays. And Sophocles's Oedipus: "I first read it about 10 years ago and ended up whimpering." Big novels she dislikes: "I struggle enough trying to get through two pages of a newspaper."

At the moment, she's working on a novel: "The publishers wanted a novel after the short stories but as soon as it's finished, I'll go back to the short story again." She's having discussions with herself about the writing of the novel: "In the stories, with the interior monologue, I could step back and let the characters talk. I didn't have to give my opinion. I didn't have an agenda. Anyway, I'm sick and tired of being preached at by other writers. But now, perhaps there'll be a little more of me in the novel. Maybe. I don't know. It's a tricky one."

Industriously, she's brought along to the interview some notes about her work and later sends an email detailing reviews and correcting one or two minor points. That's the civil servant in her. The notes say one of her pastimes is to sit outside pubs giving wrong directions to tourists. That's her other side. As she said, a good balance.

Blanaid McKinney's Big Mouth is published by Phoenix House, price £9.99