Northern Exposure: The Unknowns by Shirley-Anne McMillan

Northern Exposure shutterstock_226220014

There has been an explosion in Young Adult fiction over the last twenty-years and the genre is growing, particularly here in Northern Ireland. The main exponent of the genre is probably the Kevin and Sadie series from the 1980s, which explored the political situation in Northern Ireland through and across the divide romance.

Shirley-Anne McMillan is a fresh new voice in YA from Northern Ireland and has just published her third novel The Unknowns. Set in a Belfast where the Troubles are firmly in the past, this is a city that still holds dangers for lead character Tilly. Sectarian violence may be a thing of the past, but the idea of difference is still resisted. Tilly certainly feels different, she is bisexual and lives with her single Dad following the death of her mother and finds release in climbing tall buildings late at night.


Courtesy of a chance encounter, she befriends Brew, an interesting boy who introduces her to a group of outsiders led by the charismatic and enigmatic Meg. They throw parties in an abandoned courthouse and carry out ‘missions’ to help strangers in need. Through these ‘Unknowns’ and through her growing relationship with Brew, Tilly finds a sense of family and belonging that she didn’t realise she was yearning for. Yet, when this shadowy nightlife starts to affect her schoolwork and her safety, Tilly is left making choices that will stay with her forever.

The Unknowns is a smart and well-balanced novel centred on a believable and natural romance. The book’s message that we should be who we want to be and not who we are told to be is an idealistic one and in other hands could be clunky. McMillan though, handles her characters with care and humour and presents a world where it might be hard to be different, but where you can also find your own path.

I am delighted to welcome Shirley to 746 Books to talk about The Unknowns and about the YA scene in Northern Ireland in general.

The Unknowns opens with Tilly at the top of the Harland & Woolf crane in Belfast. It is a striking image and one that captures a lot of the spirit of the book. Was this idea of a girl who climbs cranes the starting point for the book, or did inspiration come from elsewhere?

It’s really hard to remember how my books start because I tend to walk around with a bunch of ideas for months before attempting to put them together. I know that there was definitely an image in my mind of Tilly on top of the cranes at some point. I had been watching Youtube videos and documentaries about urban climbing and parkour- young people doing terrifying climbs up cranes and bridges. It struck me that they were from all different backgrounds- some very middle class and others from quite poor backgrounds, but all finding some kind of purpose and solidarity in these very daring climbs.


At the same time I wanted to write something overtly political to address the sense of disconnection that young people (and lots of adults) feel from the political system here currently. We know that it affects us, but we tend to feel powerless to help ourselves. I wondered what would happen if some young people who had nothing but fearlessness in common could get together to try to address some of the inequalities that have been imposed upon them.

You tackle the politics of Northern Ireland in a subtle way in The Unknowns, particularly in the scenes set in the old Maze Prison. How receptive do you feel teenagers in Northern Ireland are to exploring issues arising from The Troubles, given that they are the first generation here to have lived in a period of relative peace?

I work in an Integrated school and it gives you a really interesting perspective into how young people today see the Troubles. Some really nothing about it- they haven’t been told about it and they haven’t experienced any sectarianism. Others will know about it because they have grandparents who were killed or injured. And some live in communities where although the bombing has stopped they are still all too aware of paramilitary groups and sectarian divisions. Young people across NI have vastly different experiences of our present ‘peaceful’ times. In The Unknowns Brew’s community still has strong paramilitary ties which is one of the things which sets him apart from Meg who has clearly had her own experiences but from an entirely different angle.

Our recent history is, in some ways, something we want to leave behind, but we can’t completely do that because it has shaped our present society. I don’t feel like it’s a question of whether or not young people are open to exploring that history so much as they are the living embodiment of its legacy. It would be impossible to write a book set in NI for young people which in some ways was not about the Troubles, even if you’re not writing directly about it.

I wanted the Maze to be in there because to me it is a representative concrete conundrum. We don’t know what to do with that building because we don’t know what to do with ourselves and our history, and I wonder if people have thought to ask young people what they think we should do with it. I suppose I was trying to ask that question of Brew and Tilly.

In The Unknowns, Belfast is almost a character in its own right. How important is place to you in terms of grounding a story in a particular environment?

It is one my biggest concerns. Thank you for saying this! It means such a lot. Northern Ireland is different to anywhere else in the world, for better and worse. It is really important to me that any place I set a story should be part of the force that defines that story.

Many of the characters in The Unknowns feel trapped within the confines of what society expects from them, even Meg with all her wealth and power. Given the work still to be done in Northern Ireland on rights for all members of society, do you feel a responsibility to raise questions about both Northern Ireland’s past and its future?

I don’t think I feel a responsibility to do that as much as I just want to do it. I made a conscious decision to stay in NI and the Good Friday Agreement had a lot to do with that, but all of us who did stay know how frustrating it can be to try and live here as well. I do want to express that in my stories because it’s every-day life. We can listen to the radio and have a detached debate about things like (the lack of) arts funding or the RHI scandal, but it affects real people every day as well and to write a story about young people set in contemporary NI without letting those issues shape the lives of your characters would be to lift them out of the place they’re meant to be from.

As a teenager who lived before YA existed as a genre, my generation had the Kevin and Sadie stories, which also tackled politics in Northern Ireland in an accessible and thought-provoking way. How influential do you think those books have been for YA and children’s writers in Northern Ireland.

I want to say that Joan Lingard’s books were undoubtedly very influential for YA in NI, given that almost anyone who writes YA here knows them and read them as children (including me- I loved them). But part of me then wonders what on earth happened. We don’t have a great culture of writing for teenagers in NI. If you read articles about children’s books in NI they will mention Joan Lingard for teen readers and hardly anyone else (simply because we don’t have many writers of YA). But Kevin and Sadie are now in their late 40’s! I don’t really know what happened in between then and now, but I am obviously hoping for a resurgence in YA.

As well as writing, you work with young people as a teacher and as an alternative chaplain, running a Gay Straight Alliance group and a Peace and Integration Group. Do you feel that it is important to explore themes relating to these issues in your work, particularly when that work is aimed at young people?

Yes. Again, I’d say it’s just part of daily life in NI. We are different to England and different to the South of Ireland as well. We have a situation here where if we marry a same-sex partner in England we come home and our marriage isn’t legal any more. Or if one person in a married partnership transitions they they can’t legally be married anymore because they are now a same sex couple. We continually have ex-gay therapy groups organising and practising here. One of our biggest churches, the Presbyterian church, recently voted to excommunicate openly gay people, and our politicians frequently make homophobic or transphobic remarks in public with impunity.

Young people are not only aware of these things, their society is directly affected by them. Young LGBT people are many times more likely to suffer mental health problems than their straight/cisgender peers. A lot of this is preventable, and where it isn’t we do not have the mental health resources to help them thanks to an ineffectual government. I can’t not explore these themes if I want to write realistic characters from Northern Ireland. We have a big problem with social divisions in education, a big problem with mental health, a big problem addressing poverty, and many young people are affected by these things daily.

By incorporating certain issues, you have created a very believable romance between Brew and Tilly at the centre of the novel. How important is it for you when writing YA to balance idealism and reality and present relationships in a believable, yet interesting way?

I think that’s one of things which is hardest. In The Unknowns I did want to go beyond what-is and think about what-is-possible, but almost every idea I had for the gang was something which is either already happening in some capacity, or it’s something which I know has been done elsewhere. So the positive use of graffiti/ street art, the reclamation of derelict spaces, the literal standing-in-the-way of violence; all of this has been done, all I did was to make it happen to one group in one city. So it’s idealistic in a way, but it’s also really happening.

You hear people speaking of anarchist societies as either an ideal or a nightmarish vision, but actually anarchy is what we have now- we have collectively decided to have the society that we currently have, and if we don’t like it then we collectively have the power to change it. But we ONLY have that power as a collective, and that’s where we need a collective imagination. I strongly believe that people have the power, however, and it is something that I want to continue writing about.

In terms of children’s and YA writing from Northern Ireland, do you feel the genre is growing and whom would you recommend for further reading?

It’s hard for me to say if it’s growing because before I was published I didn’t know any other NI YA writers. Now I know a handful, but I can only assume there have always been people writing YA from NI. What I would like to see is an increase in published YA from and about Northern Ireland, and I do think that will happen eventually. Sheena Wilkinson has written some great YA (Street Song is my favourite) and Kelly McCaughrain’s teen read Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is also excellent. There is now a Facebook support group for NI writers of YA, set up by Ellie McKee who is herself a YA writer, and it’s great to see that there are a now a number of new writers submitting new work.

Finally, are you working on anything at the moment? What can we expect next from Shirley Anne-McMillan?

My next YA novel, Every Sparrow Falling, will be published by Atom in September 2019. It is set on the North Coast and it’s the story of Cariad, who is in foster care in a small town having been placed with an elderly religious couple. It’s a story about the tension between independence and support and it has a missing boy, a shipwreck and a séance.


About the Author


Shirley-Anne McMillan was born in Lisburn and now lives in South Down. She worked for several years as an English teacher and more recently has worked in Shimna Integrated College as an alternative chaplain, running a Gay Straight Alliance group and a Peace and Integration Group.

Shirley self-published her Young Adult novel, Widow’s Row as part of her Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2012, and in 2015 she signed a two-book deal with Atom Books. A Good Hiding is the first of these YA novels and is now available from online and traditional bookshops.

Irish Literature Northern Exposure The 746

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10 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Sounds like a real goodun, and the central character, Tilly, sounds to have great appeal. Thanks. both, for such an absorbing interview.
    By the way, The Unknowns is surely Ms McMillan’s third YA novel, not her second.


  2. Such incisive questions and responses – enjoyed learning about this author and the YA scene in Northern Ireland. The novel sounds sharp and socially conscious.


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