Sue Divin is a Derry based writer, with Armagh roots. Her writing often touches on diversity, reconciliation, borders and the legacy of the Troubles today.
Sue’s début novel, Guard Your Heart, published by Macmillan in April 2021, has been described as ‘profoundly powerful, subtle and effective’ by the Guardian and ‘compelling’ by the Irish Times. The story’s protagonists are teenagers Iona who is Protestant, and Aidan who is Catholic. Sue says that this story is “Romeo and Juliet set in Derry in 2016”.
“January 2018 was the first time I’d ever attended a creative writing course,” she said. “When I booked, I’d already written a complete first draft of my novel, Guard Your Heart, without telling a soul, and I was clueless as to how I’d manage to get a babysitter for the first session, never mind six consecutive Thursday nights. For me, it was always more about getting the story out there than ‘being’ a writer.
“There was a ‘wile’ determination in me about getting Guard Your Heart out of my laptop and into the world. It was a story I felt needed to be told. A Romeo and Juliet set in Derry in 2016. A story of the legacy of the Troubles and the complexity of peace. Winning the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in 2019 was the breakthrough. That led directly to signing with an agent and getting the two-book publication deal with Macmillan.”
Guard Your Heart was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award, and was the joint winner of the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair in 2019. Sue also has a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies, and a career in Community Relations. “Growing up my influences were Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Billy Connolly,“ she said. “An unlikely trilogy– and very male dominated too on reflection, but I suppose what underwrote it was a combination of human rights and justice on the one hand, and astute social observation underpinned with humour on the other.
“I think those are some of the values I still try to reflect in my writing today. I’m inspired far more by ordinary people than by celebrities – people who achieve despite the odds, Paralympians, young environmentalists, community workers. In terms of writers, authors like Angie Thomas, ‘The Hate You Give’, that blend of fiction with reality, driven by purpose.
Sue best describes her writing as “contemporary, gritty, fast paced fiction with a dry sense of humour and often a Derry or ‘hiberno-English’ turn of phrase”. She recites a line from her novel Guard Your Heart: ‘I’d have been a bloody brilliant rioter if I’d been born in the Troubles’ -Aidan.
“I write for empathy,” said Sue, “to make people think, but that only works if the characters and plot bounce off the page and grip you from the start. Authenticity is key, and voice. As well as novels, I write short stories and flash fiction, often on topical issues, diversity and identity.” (‘The attitudes hadn’t changed, just the tools. We fought with culture now, not guns.’ – Iona.)
“Because I write mainly YA (Young Adult)/Crossover, my novels are accessible to, and enjoyed by, teenagers and adults. No literary degrees needed – possibly a flat white, box of tissues and a comfy armchair. Most common complaint noted from Derry readers: ‘Your book kept me up half the night. Couldn’t sleep until I’d finished reading it.’
Guard Your Heart captures love in a generation that is still divided in post-Troubles life. In 1979 Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers released a track named ‘Barbed Wire Love.’ The essence of the storytelling reflects on Sue’s writing, and the struggles of love from two different sides.
“There’s already mountains of brilliant writing on the Troubles, but I wanted to tell today’s story,” Sue said. “2016 was the anniversary of the Somme and the Easter Rising. In the field of peace / community relations that I work in, there was a lot of talk about the decade of centenaries.
“Could we explore the past in a way which remembered our future? My brain kept asking who is telling the story of the present? One night I got an idea for a story, switched off the TV and started to write.”
In September Sue took part in a novel discussion at Culture Night, which was funded by Derry and Strabane District Council. This was a poetry trail walk around the city that finished with a Q+A session in the Gasyard Centre. “Three writers, Frank Rafferty, Mel Bradley and myself combined forces to run Word on the Street,” she said. “The evening was fantastic. Our first live audience in ages and a small showcase of the local literary offering –spoken word performances, poetry and a panel of novelists including Claire Allan, Brian McGilloway, Dave Duggan and myself. Local writers often find paid work, and interest in their writing is in demand beyond, but not in this city. We’re a city of culture, but is something missing in that conversation? Culture Night was an attempt to put words onto the agenda.”
Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have been published in The Caterpillar, The Cormorant, The Honest Ulsterman, The Bangor Literary Journal and Splonk. Her second novel, ‘Truth Be Told’, will be published in April 2022.
‘Guard Your Heart’ is available online and at independent bookstores such Little Acorns Bookstores on Foyle Street and all major book chains such as Waterstones, Easons and WHS Smith.
The book can also be found in various libraries, as well as school libraries. For more information visit www.suedivin.com or on Twitter: @absolutelysue.
“In a nutshell, Aidan is Catholic, Irish and Republican,” said Sue. “With his father gone, his mother dead and his brother becoming increasingly ‘connected’, Aidan’s hope is pinned on exam results earning him a one-way ticket out of Derry. To anywhere. Iona, Protestant and British, has family connections with the police. She’s got university ambitions and a fervent belief that boys without one track minds are a myth. Both their fathers held guns, but safer to keep that secret for now. Of course, they meet… and therein lies the story: What if peace is harder than war?”