Sarah J. Carlson: All the Walls of Belfast
Welcome to March, where the debuts are plentiful and the books are awesome!
All the Walls of Belfast
by Sarah J. Carlson
Fiona and Danny were born in the same hospital. Fiona’s mom fled with her to the United States when she was two, but, fourteen years after the Troubles ended, a forty-foot-tall peace wall still separates her dad’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood.
After chance brings Fiona and Danny together, their love of the band Fading Stars, big dreams, and desire to run away from their families unites them. Danny and Fiona must help one another overcome the burden of their parents’ pasts. But one ugly truth might shatter what they have…
March 12th, 2019
Introduce yourself and your debut novel!
Hey, I’m Sarah J. Carlson, YA author and school psychologist, meaning I try to solve all the world’s problems one elementary schooler at a time. Or, in actuality, try to help them feel successful and cared for at school by helping kids, parents, and teachers. Occasionally I convince them I’m a mind reader.
My debut is All the Walls of Belfast, pitched as The Carnival at Bray meets Westside Story. In post-Troubles Belfast, Northern Ireland, two teens must grapple with the fallout of their parents’ pasts as they strive to define their own futures. But one ugly truth, not the peace wall between their neighborhoods, might tear them apart.
Also, I’m running a library request raffle right now; check it out here. (link: https://sjcarlsonauthor.com/2019/02/01/library-request-raffle-all-the-walls-of-belfast/ )
What’s the most surprising part about your debut journey so far?
Well, I’m still not totally convinced my book is going to be unleashed on the world, even as reviews keep popping up and I have the ARCs and… Yeah. I guess for me the most surprising things has been how, once you sign the contract, the book isn’t just yours anymore. And, up until that point, you control everything about it. But then it becomes a joint effort, and, for me, I guess the most surprising thing has been, and still is, all the stuff going on in the background I have no clue about. And sometimes find out by randomly googling. For example, like two weeks ago I happened to google my audiobook only to find a sample posted which I hadn’t even heard, lol. And it was so amazing listening to this person I don’t even know reading the first chapter of my book! I don’t even see the tip of the iceberg of how hard my amazing publisher, Turner Publishing Company, is working.
Give a shout-out to a fellow debut!
Just one? Haha. But seriously, I’ve gotten SO, SO much support from this fabulous group of people, from thinking through a possible think piece to answering random questions about stuff like launch parties to having a group to commiserate and celebrate with. If I had to pick a debut novel I’m particularly excited about (near impossible because there’s just so much awesome), I’d say Erin Stewart’s Scars Like Wings.
Who is your favorite character?
All the Walls of Belfast is dual point-of-view. My favorite character is Danny hands down. Sorry Fiona. He’s actually my most favorite character I’ve ever created. I love him because he strives so hard to rise above the path laid down for him to make his deceased mother proud, all while trying to maintain his chavvy persona around his friends and family. He’s immature and naïve about girls and the world beyond Northern Ireland, but has a huge heart and boundless hope.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Five or six years. The creation and completion of All the Walls of Belfast involved three trips to Belfast, five Belfast readers (including two developmental editors), and ongoing research around current events, history, dialect, culture, food, setting, etc. It was piecemeal totally re-written, and Fiona’s story line was re-written completely several times. For context, I signed with my agent in January of 2015; the book didn’t go on submission until February 2018.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write All the Walls of Belfast during a trip to Northern Ireland I took back in 2011. Prior to that, I had vague memories of hearing about the Troubles in middle school but forgot about it. On this trip, I was shocked to find that, while the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on, some working class Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republican communities in Belfast were (and still are) separated by massive peace walls and many children from these communities may go their entire childhood without talking to someone from the other religion. I found a story to tell.
What was the hardest scene to write?
The first chapter. There must have been at least twenty distinct Fiona Chapter One’s. Ranging from being set at an airplane to a funeral to riding the bus home from the last day of school to finding a letter in a mailbox. There may have been a few others, too, haha. It took me years to truly find the heart of Fiona’s story and voice. So of course I didn’t know how to begin. You’d think she’d have been the easier character to write, since she grew up in my city, but nope. It was the boy from Belfast.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
Write what you love. Have fun with it. Pay attention to what you like in books, ranging from the way its plotted to the way the characters are developed to the dialogue to the ways things are described and learn from it. Find your writer tribe, whether it’s face-to-face through Meet-Up, your local library, or professional writing organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America or conferences; or online through things like Twitter, WriteOnCon, or online contests like Pitchwars.
Never give up. Apart from very rare exceptions, it’s the writers who get rejected again and again, but remember it’s a business, then emerge stronger. Keep writing new projects. Keep developing their craft. Keep working collaboratively and critiquing (and being critiqued) by other writers. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Caffeine. Hard work on nights and weekends, squeezed in whenever possible. The ones who “make it” are the ones who persevered.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
I’m kind of a Pantsner, or a Planster, What I mean by that is my natural inclination is to be a Pantser. The novels I write are all about characters, and the plots therefore are driven by the character. I discover my characters as I write, not just what they are and what they’re interested in, but I discover much deeper things, like their core beliefs about themselves, the world, and the people around them. I discover their insecurities and what about their core selves, their personalities, makes them strong. I get to know WHO THEY ARE on a deeper level.
All of this is what determines how they will act and react to other characters and the obstacles thrown in their way, which is the plot.
But at the same time, I can’t just totally throw characters together and see what happens. I need at least a bare bones idea of what might happen. So what I generally try to do is start with a general idea of what the central conflict and antagonist are, then I try to flesh out a bit the major points in the novel, based on the framework I typically use loosely based on The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures by Christopher Vogel.
Then what typically happens is the plot completely evolves and changes as I’m writing and discovering my characters. Haha. But I do feel I need to have some kind of a baby plot to at least start with. I don’t think this is the fastest way to write a book by any means, but I do feel, for me, it leads to a story with rich, deep characters who make decisions based on who they are, rather than to fit my plot.
Who is your favorite author?
Lately I’ve been enjoying the writing styles of Jessie Ann Foley and Jeff Zentner, but my favorite book of all time is The Giver by Lois Lowry.
What book or author has most influenced your own writing?
Hmm… Well I will confess that my first foray into novel writing was I guess what would be considered quasi-fan fic of The Stand by Stephen King. Written on two hundred pages of loose-leaf paper when I was twelve because we didn’t have a computer haha. So I guess Stephen King is perhaps what launched the baby baby steps of my writing career.
Share pictures of your characters, novel aesthetic, ALL THE STUFF!
Fiona and Danny:
This is a picture from the Routeburn Track on the South Island of New Zealand. My husband and I did a three day hike on this track, full-on backpacker mode carrying everything. I may have almost fallen off a narrow path to my death and had to climb up a quasi-water fall running over the flooded trail, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of my lifetime. One foot in front of the other will get you to the end, that’s one of the many things I learned during this experience.
Read all about Danny and Fiona on 3/12/19!