Spotlight on All The Walls Of Belfast (Sarah J Carlson), Excerpt, Interview, and Giveaway!
Today we're excited to spotlight All The Walls Of Belfast by Sarah J Carlson.
Read on for more about Sarah and her book, an interview, an excerpt, plus an giveaway!
Meet Sarah J Carlson!
Sarah J. Carlson writes contemporary YA that delves into complex, real world problems. Professionally, she is a school psychologist who works primarily with a diverse, mostly low income population. Her professional focus is around supporting the success of children with behavioral and mental health needs and helping to promote resilience in children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress. Sarah lives outside Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, two young children, and an energetic terrier.
Meet All The Walls Of Belfast!
The Carnival at Bray meets West Side Story in Sarah Carlson’s powerful YA debut; set in post-conflict Belfast (Northern Ireland), alternating between two teenagers, both trying to understand their past and preserve their future. Seventeen-year-olds, Fiona and Danny must choose between their dreams and the people they aspire to be.
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…
~ Author Chat ~
YABC: What gave you the inspiration 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.
YABC: Who is your favorite character in the book?
My favorite character is definitely Danny, one of the two point-of-view characters. He’s actually my most favorite character I’ve ever written 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 he has a huge heart and boundless hope.
YABC: Which came first, the title or the novel?
The novel. It was my agent, the fabulous Claire Anderson-Wheeler, who came up with All the Walls of Belfast right before it went out on submission. For all the years prior, it was called Hooligans in Shining Armour unofficially, though I knew that title would change..
YABC: What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
I’m most proud of the last scene, which means I can’t tell you much about it ?. What I can say is that I feel like it captures the hopeful uncertainty of a future that’s become a blank page.
YABC: Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
Accept hard feedback and continue pushing my craft. When the first, second, third book doesn’t land you an agent, write another. Never. Give. Up.
YABC: What do you like most about the cover of the book?
The color choices for the background capture the frequent rain of Northern Ireland and a certain sense of foreboding, but the umbrella Danny and Fiona share suggests hope and shelter they may find in one another. The peace wall separating their neighborhoods is, in some ways, a character in and of itself, so I wanted at least a hint of a wall in the background.
I also wanted to subtly incorporate the colors of the Irish flag – orange and white in the title letters and green in Fiona’s coat. The tricolor has symbolism rooted deep in the island’s complex history, which I don’t think many Americans realize. Very simply put: green represents Roman Catholics of Ireland, orange represents the minority Protestants, and white represents the hope for a lasting peace and union between people of different traditions in an independent Irish nation. All the Walls of Belfast explores the lasting impact of the sectarian violence of the Troubles, which has its roots deep in that same legacy in Irish history, on the lives of two teens long after it officially ended.
YABC: What new release book are you looking most forward to in 2019?
Heroine by Mindy McGinnis. Love my issue-y contemporary YA.
YABC: Which character gave you the most trouble when writing your latest book?
You’d think the American-ish girl from the town I live in would be easy, right? Nope. Finding Fiona’s unique voice was incredibly challenging, especially since her story evolved and changed in huge ways as All the Walls of Belfast was written and re-written and re-written over the years.
YABC: What would you say is your superpower?
I’m a school psychologist at an elementary school for my day job. I have convinced more than a few children I’m a mind reader ? Mostly because I’m good at reading body language and making informed guesses as to what’s going on in their heads.
YABC: Is there an organization or cause that is close to your heart?
~ Excerpt ~
“Remember, Danny Boy, you’ve got the brains to be an officer.” Mr. Sinclair pulled to a stop in the Palace Barracks car park. “Sit up tall. Yes, sir, no, sir. And for Christ’s sake, don’t say ‘like’ every other word.”
“Aye, sure.” I slouched in my seat.
Sinclair shot me one of his irritated looks over his glasses.
“I mean, yes, sir.” Sinclair was still the only teacher at Ballysillan Boys’ Model who wasn’t a complete tosspot.
He turned off his car. “Right then. Let’s see if the candidate support manager thinks you’re ready.”
The Officer Selection Board was three days of mental and physical tests. And I’d be competing against a bunch of posh arses. I tightened my school uniform tie and checked my reflection in the mirror. My blond hair was getting a bit too long on top. I smoothed it down.
“I told you to get a haircut,” Sinclair said as we got out.
“But all the wee girls think it’s class.”
“Sure they do, big man.” He gave me a sour look as we walked up the footpath. I tried not to think about the fact that my trousers and blazer sleeves were almost an inch too short.
I walked into the army recruitment center clutching my letter. The whole place was filled with posters advertising the benefits of joining the army. Pictures of people in uniform “securing Britain in an uncertain world,” looking brave as they stood on tanks, passing out food to kids from different countries, and pointing massive guns at things in the desert. The one from the Careers Suite at Ballysillan Boys’ was up too—a soldier with a medic armband helping a Middle Eastern woman with a wee baby.
Sinclair nudged me toward the desk guarded by a secretary.
“Em, hi, I’m here for my appointment with Candidate Support Manager Flowers.”
“Can I see that letter?”
I handed it to her. It was wrinkled and damp from my palm sweat.
She scanned it. “Just a moment.”
My mobile vibrated against my thigh. The secretary was on the phone and Mr. Sinclair was inspecting posters, so I checked it.
Da: WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU???? GET UR ARSE TO PRACTICE NOW
I felt a bit bad about missing band practice since we’d the mini-Twelfth at the weekend, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I shut off my mobile.
A glass door popped open, and a man in full uniform, complete with maroon beret and shined boots, emerged.
I almost laughed. Nobody ever called me Daniel.
“Support Manager Flowers. Pleased to meet you.” He crushed my hand and shook it. I gripped his back. Firm handshake, like Sinclair said. He led us into his office, and I slid into a chair next to Mr. Sinclair. Flowers took a seat facing us. Behind him was a Union Jack and the flag of the Royal Irish Regiment—red, green, and blue stripes with the lyre and crown at the center. Flowers flipped through a file. I tried to peek inside, which earned me a disapproving look from Sinclair.
“Relax,” he mouthed.
Easy for him to say. I slumped back and then remembered to sit up tall.
I’d been embarrassed two days ago when I’d had to ask Sinclair for a lift all the way to Holywood, but now I was a bit glad he was here. I’d already had to ask him if I could get my post from the army application sent to his house. I’d told him we were moving and that was why.
Flowers looked up from the file. “From the Shankill,” he said. “We don’t get many lads from there looking to become an officer candidate.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He flipped through more pages. I hoped my school discipline reports hadn’t found their way in there. Principal Doyle had had it in for me since year eight. “Right, so you’ve done all the prerequisites. And you’re interested in being a nursing officer?”
I caught my fingers drumming on my thigh. “Yes, sir. Em, specifically an adult health nurse.”
He raised an eyebrow. “May I ask why?”
His tone almost made me lose my rag. This is an interview, Danny. Don’t muck it up.
“Because I want to save lives, and the army seems like the best place to do it. I’m keen to go on humanitarian missions, see the world. And I think I’ve what it takes to be a leader. I want to be a career soldier, sir.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a rare nod of approval from Sinclair.
“So you know that involves forty-four weeks training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as well as specialized training in nursing.” Flowers looked over something in my file. “You’re sitting your A-2 Levels this week?”
“Aye. I mean yes, sir.”
“I’m confident Danny will earn the necessary points,” Sinclair said.
Having a teacher at one of these things instead of a parent had its advantages.
Flowers closed my file. “I’ll put you down for the Main Board on twelfth through the fourteenth July at Leighton House in Westbury.”
Crap, the twelfth. And where the hell was Westbury? I glanced at Sinclair.
“It’s near Bristol,” he said.
In England. “Em, sir, excuse me. Isn’t there an assessment center in Belfast?”
Flowers looked at me. “There is, but officer candidates undergo assessment at Leighton House. Here’s all the information you need.” He stood, thick packet in his hands.
I scrambled to my feet too, because you were supposed to do that when your superior officer got up.
“If you get accepted, be prepared to enlist immediately.”
Which was exactly what I wanted. It looked like I’d be homeless come my birthday in a fortnight. “Yes, sir.”
He handed me the packet. “Best of luck, lad.”
Another hand-crushing shake.
“Thank you, sir.”
As we left, the impossibility of it all smashed down on me. How was I supposed to buy a ticket to England when I couldn’t even afford a bloody haircut?
And crap, it was on the twelfth. I’d miss the Twelfth of July parade for the first time ever. I didn’t care for my own sake, but Da would kill me. I was supposed to be playing in the band.
I climbed into Sinclair’s vanilla-scented car. It was half seven. By the time he dropped me off, band practice would be over. Now I had to worry about that text message from Da. He’d be raging I hadn’t shown up.
“Distant Sighs”—my second favorite song by my secret favorite band, Fading Stars—played on the radio as we drove back to Belfast. As I focused on the slow twang of the banjo and the gentle plucking of the guitar, my nerves started to calm a bit. I dug out my mobile and looked up ways to get to Bristol.
Most of the plane tickets were around seventy pounds. I noticed the flight times. The earliest one didn’t get to Bristol until ten in the morning, but the papers said I’d to be to Leighton House by 0800. So I’d have to fly over on the eleventh, which was more expensive. And I’d have to miss the Eleventh Night bonfire.
I’d need to earn at least one hundred ninety-five quid to cover the ticket and rent.
I’d tried to get a weekend job, but Da was second-in-command of the West Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force and since businesses in the Shankill had to pay them protection money, most weren’t too keen on hiring me. I did jobs for cash in hand, but it’d been an expensive spring—a hundred and forty quid for A-Levels, eighty-two for my passport, twenty-five pounds a week rent for Da, and buying minutes for my mobile. Thank Christ I’d finally be done with school tomorrow, so I’d have plenty of time to work. But Sammy, the fella who usually had work for me, probably wouldn’t need my help for the next few weeks. He was one of the collectors for the bonfire, which meant he’d probably already stopped working so he could spend his days gathering more pallets and tires.
Two months back, Sinclair and I came up with a list to get me ready for my Main Board. At the top were the things I could not do: get a criminal conviction or an offensive tattoo, like an Ulster Volunteer Force one. Then there were online reasoning and aptitude tests, interviews, training for the fitness standards, filling out loads of paperwork, finishing school, getting that passport and a physical. Sinclair had even taken me to some posh restaurant in the city centre so I could practice for the formal dinner. Put your napkin in your lap and eat slow enough to talk, but don’t talk with food in your mouth.
When Sinclair had seen how high my GCSE scores were after year twelve, he’d convinced me to try for army officer, which meant going to sixth form instead of leaving at sixteen with the rest of my mates—and two more years of Da.
I shifted in my seat as I stared out the window at Belfast Lough. A patch of water glittered where the sun managed to break through the gray wall of clouds.
Now I could almost feel the army uniform on my skin, but the Main Board was all the way in Westbury. The farthest I’d ever been from home was Londonderry for parades. We passed the Clifton Street Orange Hall, where all the flute bands met on the Twelfth for the march out to the field. There was a white splatter of paint over the entrance. Some Catholic bastard had thrown a paint bomb, attacking our heritage again.
Da hadn’t worked today, which probably meant he was blocked already. Most of the time, we had a peaceful coexistence as long as I paid my rent. Da was always on about how his own da raised him with his fists and I was lucky he didn’t, because I was a dirty wee poof who couldn’t handle it. But missing band practice, me “abandoning my culture” again, would rile him.
Back in the nineties, Da had been the best boxer in the Shankill. If he knew what I’d been getting on to, he’d knock my head in. I’d made the mistake of telling him my dream a year back. He said that no son of his would run off and be a wee nurse for the authorities. He hated the British government, because they negotiated and did deals with the IRA. They’d abandoned us, he said. They were supposed to be our government, and they were giving the Republicans more funding for their Irish language classes. No way was his son going to be in their army. After that, I let him think I stayed on in school to be a firefighter. Christ, I was dying for a pint.
The stack of army papers resting on my thighs burned through my trousers. It was dangerous for me to have them in the house where Da might see. But if I asked Sinclair to look after my papers, he’d ask a million frigging questions about everything in my life.
“Can you drop me off somewhere else?”
“Danny, you know school policy says I have to drop you at your address.”
I clenched my hands in my lap to stop myself from drumming.
“Why?” Mr. Sinclair checked his mobile for directions as he drove up Shankill Road.
“For a wee swallow with the lads.”
“I know you’re counting on the fact you got all A grades while faffing about last year, but this is your future, Danny.”
I didn’t need him reminding me about my future.
“I’m not stupid.” Sinclair glanced at me, evening sunlight framing his face. “You’re not moving house, and your da’s not working late. Those bruises last March, I’m fairly certain they weren’t from getting into a ruck with the lads.”
I glared through his insect-splattered windscreen. I wasn’t a tout, and if those social workers had taken me away, they’d have put me in some boy’s home and I wouldn’t have been able to finish my A-Levels. Plus the UVF, Dad’s crowd, would end me if I told on him.
“As much as you try to hide it behind that generally piss-poor attitude, you’re intelligent and you’ve a good heart, Danny Boy.” Mr. Sinclair would not shut his gob. “But you need to get yourself out of the Shankill, away from that sectarian rubbish. And something tells me if you don’t now, you never will.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?”
Sinclair sighed. “Right.”
Christ, I wasn’t some lost puppy.
Sinclair turned onto Lawnbrook. The lads were pouring out of the Supporters Club with their drums and flutes. Da’s car wasn’t in its usual spot, which meant he was probably home already.
I folded up my papers and shoved them in my blazer pocket.
Sinclair got to our dead-end street. Sure enough, Da’s Astra was parked out front of our terraced house. Billy’s Corsa wasn’t. Maybe I could do a runner, just pop Sinclair’s door open and roll out. Sinclair pulled into the spot next to Da’s. Our curtains ripped back. Da’s wide form filled the window, backlit by the flickering TV.
“Em, thanks for the lift.” I pushed the car door open.
The front door near flew off its hinges. Da’s eyes bulged over his puffy red cheeks as he glared at Sinclair, sun shining off his bald head. Grease stains dotted his Rangers top.
Sinclair knew who my da was. Everyone did. But he just stared right back at my da like he didn’t care. That wasn’t going to make Da go any easier on me. Could he not go have tea with Mrs. Sinclair? I got out before he could say anything and shut the car door.
“Get your arse in here, you wee bollocks,” Da growled, tattooed arms folded over his gut. “I messaged you hours ago.”
“Feck up,” I muttered. My heartbeat rattled my sternum like Da’s Lambeg drum as I walked up the footpath.
Da slammed the door behind me. An empty bottle of Bushmills stood in the middle of the tin-littered coffee table like a guard tower.
“What were you doing with that hippy twat?” he slurred. I almost got tipsy off his whiskey breath. “Letting him touch you up?”
Tires crunched on the pavement outside. Thank Christ Sinclair was leaving.
On Da’s spectrum of drunkenness, he appeared to be closer to “lie-down, black-out bollocksed” than “punching bag after a few pints.” Which meant his motor coordination wasn’t at peak capacity. Good for me.
“Revising for my A-Levels,” I said.
“I just spent hundreds of pounds on your new band uniform because you grow like a fecking weed, and here you are mitching off practice.” His fist pounded the side of my head. Pain plugged up my ears and spread to my brainstem. Da’s tirade gradually came back into focus, but black spots danced in my field of vision.
“. . . disgrace. Too good for that job at Hardy’s. Staying on in school like a posh knob instead of earning like a real man.” Da ripped off my school blazer, nearly wrenching my arms from their sockets.
The front door flew open, and my brother Billy came in. I was taller than him now, but that square-jawed bruiser had two stone on me, all muscle. It was Billy that forced me to bathe and wrestled me into my school uniforms back when I was a wee skitter in primary school. He glanced in my direction. His brows knitted for a second. “Match is about to start.”
The belligerent look left Da’s eyes. “Why can’t you be more like him?” He grabbed an upright tin from the coffee table.
My blazer tucked in his armpit, he pushed through the kitchen door. My enlistment papers were in there. That dirty beast.
“Aren’t you supposed to be smart?” Billy folded his tattooed arms across his chest, muscles stretching the mechanic’s uniform. “You provoke him. Wise the bap.”
From the back garden, the rubbish bin lid snapped closed. It hadn’t been put out in weeks. But since Da wasn’t shouting, he must not have found my papers. My brain throbbed against the inside of my skull, but I could breathe again.
Billy ran a hand over his number one crop. “Have you applied to Queen’s yet?”
Though part of me wanted to prove I could go to uni, I didn’t want to deal with snobby professors and homework and even more posh arses than in the army. “It’s my life. What does he care what I do with it? Or you, for that matter.”
Billy shook his head at me.
“I’ll boot your hole to the moon!” Da lumbered back in. “Upstairs! Find some proper jobs to apply for.”
Once upstairs, I dropped onto my bed. I checked myself with my camera app. There was a massive red lump on my forehead near my hairline. I brushed my hair down; it was mostly covered. I dug under my mattress and pulled out my baby book. I flipped past the picture of Ma snuggling me as a newborn, my baby footprints, a photo of me in a Christmas jumper, and loads of blank pages to my favorite page. There, written in pretty cursive, “Danny, my sweet boy, I dream that you’ll save lives instead of take them. Make the world a better place. Mummy loves you.”
I traced over the last three words with my finger, felt the pen indentation on the page. Then after I tucked it back in its hiding place, I dug out the Biology Revision and Practice book Mr. Sinclair had shoved in my rucksack a fortnight ago.
All The Walls Of Belfast
By: Sarah J Carlson
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Release Date: March 12th, 2019
Two winners will each receive a copy of All The Walls Of Belfast and autographed custom book plates ~ (US Only)
*Click the Rafflecopter link below to enter the giveaway*
This story has some personal connection for me. I am very interested in reading it. Good luck with your novel. The cover is interesting and storyline intriguing.