Thought bubble


Things you should know

I was on the first floor of the library in Coleraine today, working on my laptop. I’d been there for about an hour. There was a man about ten feet to my right, seated at the microfilm machine, I could hear the reel spinning. There was no-one behind me, no-one, in fact walking around on the upper floor at all. I was reading a manuscript for a friend, was working away, absorbed in what I was doing, vaguely aware of the traffic going past outside in the wet, of people coming and going on the ground floor which you can clearly see from above, the first floor being a kind of gallery. There was a soft thud behind me, to my left and when I looked around, I could see that a book had fallen off one of the shelves and was lying on the carpeted floor. In the time that I had been sitting there, no-one had been near that shelf. The man at the microfilm machine didn’t look over. No-one else seemed to notice. I pushed back my chair, got up and walked over to it, and as I did, I could see the title: Things You Should Know, by John MacKenna. I looked at the library ticket inside. It had never been borrowed. So I borrowed it, of course. How could I resist a book with a title like that, a book that had leapt off the shelf to get someone’s attention? I can’t wait to read it, to find out what it is I should know, and maybe in the process, I’ll work out who it is that's trying to tell me it.


Literary Bonanza (or at the very least, a glass of wine)

October and November are looking busy this year so I’m posting all these readings and workshops at the one time. Here goes…

Saturday, October 8th and Sunday October 9th will find myself, along with fellow ACES 2010 Literature awardees, poets Moyra Donaldson and Maureen Boyle ensconced at the Charles Macklin Autumn School in Culdaff, Co. Donegal. I’ll be leading a Short Story workshop entitled ‘The Bones of the Thing’ in St. Boden’s National School from 10.30am-12.30pm on the Saturday, and Moyra will be leading a Poetry workshop (‘The Magic of Metaphor’) at the same venue from 2.30pm-4.30pm that day, before we’re both joined by Maureen for a Facilitators’ Reading in St. Buadan’s Church at 5pm. (Different spellings, same saint? I don't know – come and find out.) The following day, Maureen will lead a Poetry workshop entitled ‘Writing the Season’, back in St. Boden’s National School from 10:30am-12.30pm. There are lots of other events scheduled for the weekend, including music, walks, talks, exhibitions, performances, a book and record sale and even a blacksmith’s demonstration (not something many literary festivals can boast). You can get full details here. To book contact 00 353 874117096 or 00 353 749379104. Email or

Thursday, 20th October, I’m excited to say, sees the return of the Literary Salon as part of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen’s at 6.30pm at the Crescent Arts Centre, University Road, Belfast. We showcased this event earlier this year at the Belfast Book Festival. We even got a review. This time, it’s the full scrambled half dozen 2010 ACES Literature awardees. That would be me, with fellow fiction writers D.W. Lewis  and Sheena Wilkinson, along with poets Moyra Donaldson, Maureen Boyle and Deirdre Cartmill. We will be joined by the very suave Ian Sansom, salonniere for the evening and, there’ll be drink. Admission £8/£6 (including glass of wine). Twitter hashtag #literarysalon. To book contact Belfast Festival on 02890 971197 or email The full Festival programme can be viewed here. And there's more information on the Literary Salon writers here.  

Friday 18th November, because we like to mix it up a bit, there’ll be four of us reading at the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre in Limavady, County Derry, namely me, D.W. Lewis, Moyra Donaldson and Maureen Boyle. The evening kicks off at 7.30pm and, yes, there’ll be drink. Admission £5 (including glass of wine). Twitter hashtag #literarysalon. Full programme here. To book telephone 028 7776 0650 or email or

And lastly, but not at all leastly, courtesy of the John Hewitt Society, I’ll be reading at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Thursday 24th November at 7.30pm with the fabulous Olive Broderick. Olive is originally from County Cork. She won a Hennessy X.O Literary Award in the Emerging Poetry Category in 2009 and in late 2010 she published Darkhaired, a Templar Pamphlet which was nominated for the Michael Marks Award 2011. This will be the third time I will have read with Olive and it is always a privilege and a pleasure. Plus, there’ll be drink. (Admission £5 including glass of wine – it’s beginning to look like we can’t do without it.) To book telephone 028 92 509 254 or email The full programme for Island Arts Centre is here. And that's enough to be getting on with.


The Desecration of the Barbies

One of the best notes I’ve ever come across in a homework diary was the one that read ‘Bring in Barbie for mummification’. This was during our younger daughter’s Egyptian period. The teacher had asked the class to bring in a shoe box and a doll small enough to fit in it so they could replicate the burial rituals of the Egyptians. Barbie was duly wrapped in toilet tissue and over the following days, all manner of gory detail emerged. The Egyptians, our daughter told us, removed the internal organs (apart from the heart), had them salted and wrapped in linen, and stuffed them back in the body after forty days when the corpse itself had been sufficiently dried. There was some confusion over the important role of omelettes until we worked out that they were, in fact, ornamental bracelets (amulets) that would ensure a safe passage to the afterlife. They employed an ingenious device, she informed us, a kind of hook that was inserted via the nostril to mash and remove the brain. ‘Are you doing that with Barbie?’ I asked. ‘No need,’ she said, without irony.


Books are trousers

A little while ago, I was walking the beach with my good friend Nuala, on a gusty evening with the wind whipping our words away. We’d put the world to rights on our way to the Bar Mouth: family, relationships, work, gynaecological matters, and we were on our way back and ready for our favourite topic, books.

‘Books are trousers,’ I heard Nuala say as the wind threw up little eddies of sand at our feet.

‘Trousers?’ I said. It had been uttered with such conviction, fondness, even. Clearly she did not expect a challenge.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘trousers.’

I pondered this for a moment. It wasn’t a metaphor I’d heard used before. Then I thought that I’d misunderstood. Perhaps it was a question: the old ‘What would you give up if you had to?’ game. I hadn’t realised we were playing.

‘Did you say, “Books or trousers”? I asked.

‘No!’ she said, adamant. ‘Books are trousers, are.’ Quite emphatic.

I thought about it for a moment, but it was no good, I had to come clean. ‘How do you mean?’ I said.


Creativity Alert!

If you’re in the vicinity of Castlereagh in the week of the 15th August (2011), and in need of a bit of creative stimulation (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you may want to take yourself to one or more of the following literary events. On Monday 15th August, the melodious Moyra Donaldson, the delicious Deirdre Cartmill and the moreish Maureen Boyle will be reading from their poetry collections at the Civic Centre from 7pm, followed by a Q & A session. On Tuesday 16th August, you can bring all your niggling little writing irritations (the ones you’re prepared to discuss) to Forestside Shopping Centre for a Writers’ Surgery (5pm-8pm). And on Wednesday 17th August, back at the Civic Centre, all your problems solved, it’s Fiction Night at 7pm with me, plus the debonair David Lewis, and the scintillating Sheena Wilkinson followed by more questions, and hopefully, some answers. You can download the full programme here:  Happy writing!


Got a bad review? Give the books away!

To celebrate getting a stinker of a review from one reader on Goodreads (worth signing up just to read it) we’re giving away (yes, we can give them away) three signed copies of The Butterfly Cabinet to Goodreads readers in the UK. You need to sign up for Goodreads to be eligible, then search for The Butterfly Cabinet and the Giveaway will be listed there. If you’re already a Goodreads reader, the little g/Add book widget to the left hand side of my home page will take you straight there. The giveaway is open until 17th August 2011. The books will be posted to the winners directly.

And in the interests of balance, here are some readers who recently read it and did like it:

Kirkus Reviews: ‘An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.’ 

USA Today: ‘This is a fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us with uncomfortable reminders of recent sensational events.’  

Sydney Morning Herald: ‘McGill’s complex portrait of an unmotherly mother is as skilful and unusual as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.’

The Huffington Post: ‘Where McGill succeeds so well is in her language, beautiful and languorous and wild…’

Minneapolis Star Tribune: ‘McGill employs an ingenious counterpoint technique to give her convincing fictional version of the tragedy. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book’s major achievement.’

New Zealand Herald: ‘McGill’s real triumph with this novel is how successfully she manipulates the way we feel about her two main characters… the prose is elegant and assured.’  

Publishers Weekly: ‘a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte’s death are teased out.’  

You can read UK/Ireland press reviews here:  And if you're willing to risk it, good luck in the giveaway draw.


What is the point of a book that you cannot open?

I spent the morning yesterday, along with a number of my fellow ACES awardees (from both the fields of Literature and Visual Arts) in the Golden Thread Gallery, Great Patrick Street, Belfast, where we were given a tour of the current exhibition, 'Convergence: Literary Art Exhibitions' by its curator Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes. In the words of the brochure, the exhibition shows ‘how reading and interpreting literature is – in diverse ways – at the core of some of the most renowned contemporary artists’ practices’. It features over a dozen works by international artists of different generations and highlights figures such as Joyce, Goethe, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald and Vonnegut. The emphasis is very much on the visual representation, or display, of the text as an art object in itself.

A number of the writers among us were a little dismayed by Rodney Graham’s project The System of Landor’s Cottage, a book that extends Edgar Allen Poe’s fragment Landor’s Cottage into a novel-length text. Not shocked, as you might think, that the artist had altered or added to the text (which, apparently, he has). In actual fact, we didn’t get the opportunity to get into a flap about that, because the book is displayed unopened, in a locked glass cabinet to which none of the viewers have access. Gallery Director Peter Richards explained how the unpacking and exhibiting of the piece had, by agreement with the artist, been videoed to guarantee that the book was not opened. What is the point of a book that you cannot open? For all we know, it could contain nothing at all. And yet, we talked about it. I’m writing about it now. Of all of the exhibits there, it’s probably the image that will stay with me longest.


Book Giveaway!

There’s a bit of a Giveaway going on over at Goodreads at the moment: three signed copies of the new UK/Ireland paperback are available for residents of the Republic of Ireland. More giveaways for US/UK residents coming soon. (To be honest, I tried to make them all happen at the same time but the technology defeated me.) You need to sign up for Goodreads to be eligible, then search for The Butterfly Cabinet and the Giveaway will be listed there. If you’re already a Goodreads person, then just click on the little widget to the left hand side on my home page (your left, not mine), under the RSS feed and it will take you straight there. (It reads g/Add book). All the names of those entered for the draw are put in a big virtual hat from which the people at Goodreads randomly pick three winners. The copies are then posted to the winners directly. So don’t be shy. Go on over there. See what you can find. Giveaway ends 26th July 2011.



The girl on the train is pretty and blank. She has a full mouth of teeth and when she smiles you can see her incisors. It makes her look a little predatory. The man seems to like it. He is telling her a story about the time he was using the toilet on the train when the door opened while he was still inside, busy. The embarrassment on the woman’s face, he says, him trying to cover his dignity, her trying to re-close the door. The girl laughs.

He lends her a paper with a story about a trial, a local man charged with murder. ‘Do you think he did it?’ she says.

‘Guilty as sin,’ says he.

They are both suited, delegate badges strung round their necks. She reads him a story about a restaurant that’s been closed by the Environmental Health.

‘I’ve eaten there,’ he says.

‘That’s terrible.’

The train stops at a station and she looks out the window, at the wrought iron railings, a rose motif. ‘Pretty,’ she says.

‘I played a gig here once.’

‘You were in a band?’

‘It must be twenty years ago.’

She looks back out the window. ‘Twenty years ago, I was three,’ she says.

He is quiet after this.


Sunday Literary Salon

ACES Literature awardees pictured with Professor Edward LarrissyACES Literature awardees pictured with Professor Edward Larrissy

Just a quick note to say that I will be taking part, along with four of my fabulous ACES Literature co-awardees, in a Literary Salon (yes, indeed) at the Belfast Book Festival on Sunday 19th June at the Crescent Arts Centre at 1.30pm. These include poets Moyra Donaldson, Maureen Boyle and Deirdre Cartmill and fiction writer D W Lewis. More information on Book Festival events here. More information on the Arts Council’s ACES Awards scheme here. Check out a review of this event at Culture Northern Ireland.