Just over three weeks to go until our event and my first interview is with the man himself. Gary McElkerney was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he gained a BA Hons. in Furniture, Product and Interior Design at the University of Ulster, before pursuing a career in Lighting Design. Gary continues to live and work as a Lead Lighting Designer in Belfast. His hobbies include playing American Football for the Carrickfergus Knights and also taking part in endurance races around the UK and Ireland raising funds for charity.
What inspired you to write your first book, Volunteer?
I don't know really, I always had a story to tell, I guess, and being a natural storyteller I thought I'd try and put something down on paper. What started off as a well received 28 page short story developed into a novel, and I have to say I enjoyed writing it.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Well, I think the story itself calls in to question people's beliefs. It is a controversial story, focused on difficult ethical and moral decisions. While it's easy to identify with the protagonist, 'Chris Johnston', and sympathise with his situation it makes you think what would you do in his shoes?
The novel as a whole is a statement in itself. The title ‘Volunteer’ almost mocks the idea that Northern Ireland can really only contribute successfully in this market if it's about the infamous "Troubles"; a Volunteer being a terrorist. I want to show that firstly Northern Ireland has more to offer than its troubled past, and that there is more to us than an outdated reputation.
Are the experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I guess I found it easier to write about things closer to home. Chris maybe a fictional character, but there are certainly aspects of his personality that are reflective of my own, but it's good to see people identify with him in his own right. I volunteered in my early 20’s and did take a trip to Ethiopia, which helped.
What are your current projects?
Now the novel has been published, the first phase of The Ultimate Creative Challenge is complete, so it's now on with the next phases the soundtrack and the movie. I have just sent my lyrics and music samples to Gaz Whelan, member of the iconic band Happy Mondays, who has such confidence in Volunteer being made into a movie that he has started writing the soundtrack. The novel is also currently in the hands of a TV producer in LA. In the meantime, I'm working on the script which should keep me occupied, and out of trouble, for a while.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?
I'm going to say no, simply because I believe I found a happy medium. There were necessary changes and edits needed, but by the same account I could have overworked it. I think between us - Me, Janine (Write Path NI) and the test readers - came up with the best solution.
Is there anything you found particularly challenging in your writing?
I wrote just like I speak which is an editorial nightmare, it's not quite English; it's ‘Belfastian’. While this is a book primarily for the Northern Irish audience, the rest of the world needed to understand it. It's difficult, at times, not to get defensive about your work; someone else making changes to something I'd worked so hard on did make me nervous. When I seen the amount of 'red pen' signalling changes to be made it was a little worrying but, in the end, necessary. The integrity of the story and its message was preserved, and at the end of the day that, for me, was the most important part.
Who designed the covers?
I did. I never approached the novel as an author but as a designer by trade, everything was carefully chosen to either enhance the reading experience, or get a subtle message across. Drew Heaslip of ICON Images, managed to capture exactly what I was looking for right away on our photo-shoot. Write Path advised on the necessary layouts to make the novel as a product come to life.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Yes - never attempt to write a novel! No, planning is key. The back of my bedroom door was covered with large sheets of paper which I continually added to as I was writing the novel. I think if I had to do it again, I would completely plan it out, and then start it as there were a few times I repeated myself.
What has been the best moment on your journey as a write so far?
There have been a few. Holding the finished printed novel I think would be top of the list, and seeing it on Amazon and other sites. A close second would be readers’ reactions. I had an idea of the effect I wanted the novel to have, but it really has been a surprise how well the book has been received. I have had some really encouraging, and flattering, messages from people around the world which are just great to get.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
At one time I had a 5 year plan, but in truth life doesn't work that way. I never thought 5 years ago I'd be a published author, for example. Yes, I have a plan for the challenge but it doesn't have a timescale; I work at it when I can taking each day as it comes. Throughout this whole venture I have been overwhelmed by the offers and help I have received, that a simple idea 2 years ago has now been recognised at international and celebrity level. I do have a goal I'm planning to reach, but I'm going to enjoy the journey in the meantime.
Tell me something about yourself that people don't know?
Tough one…In 1995, for the VE Day commemorations, I played the role of George Formby and sang in the Ulster Hall.
If you didn't live in Northern Ireland where would you live, and why?
There are so many places I'd like to visit, but if I had to settle on one spot I'd say Canada. I have been half a dozen times, I just think it has everything; a great way of life and it's such a beautiful country.
If you didn't have to work, what would you do with your time?
What I'm doing right now, that and travel the world. I want to see everything and love experiencing new cultures. I love anything creative, which was the reason for taking on three of the main creative industries; writing was something new, I have to admit, but I love music and film, so I’m really looking forward to progressing the challenge.
You can connect with Gary on twitter @TUCC2013 and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/UltimateCreativeChallenge.
Gary’s debut novel Volunteer is available in paperback and
eBook from Amazon, Belfast.ie, iBooks and other good stockists.