Meet Majella O’Neill, a heroine like no other, in Big Girl, Small Town, a captivating Irish debut that has been called Milkman meets Derry Girls. We spoke with author Michelle Gallen about the inspiration for Big Girl, Small Town, the talents of Nicola Coughlan (the audiobook’s narrator), and more!
“You might fall in love with this rough, bawdy, funny, and heart-wrenching novel because of the skill with which Michelle Gallen gives you the cadences and nuances of English as spoken in small-town Northern Ireland. You might fall in love because Gallen is showing you a working-class setting seldom depicted on either side of the pond—an atmosphere of sweat, grease, and labor, of Friday night pubs and Saturday hangovers, of people bursting with shattered dreams and electric intelligence. But you’ll most fall in love with Majella O’Neill, the narrator.”Robert McDonald, The Book Stall
Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.
I’d been writing a collection of short stories, all set in a border town. The final story, “Double Tub,” featured an unhappy young man called Conor who worked in the town’s chipper. Conor’s father has disappeared, his ma’s an alcoholic and he’s bullied by the Daly brothers. When I finished this story, I realized I was in love with the little world in the chipper, but I wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of a woman. I could ‘sense’ Majella in the shadows of the chipper, so I took a month off work, wrote the first 70,000 words in a fury, and Big Girl, Small Town was born.
In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise Libro.fm listeners about your audiobook?
Big Girl, Small Town was Nicola Coughlan’s first audiobook. We were incredibly lucky that she had a tiny gap in her schedule and agreed to record the book.
Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?
When I listened to Nicola Coughlan’s narration, I was first impressed by the accuracy of her accent. Nicola isn’t from Tyrone, but her experience in learning a Derry accent for Derry Girls really worked in her favor. But the thing that really impressed me is how she brings all the characters in the book to life, from Majella’s ma, to Marty (her colleague), down to the minor characters who walk in and only speak a few words.
Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?
I’ve enjoyed listening to Michelle Obama’s Becoming recently—she’s a compelling speaker and I feel that the audiobook version brought me much closer to her words than simply reading them.
What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?
Independent bookstores and booksellers have offered me a refuge for years now. I feel safe in bookstores, and love losing myself among the books. I also love writing in bookstores—there’s something so encouraging about being surrounded by books and people reading.
Header photo by Deci Gallen