Over the past decade, Belfast and Dublin have been promoting reading through the One City One Book initiative. The premise is simple – each city selects a novel and asks the public to read that particular book in April, discussing it in book groups or elsewhere as preferred. A supporting programme of events also takes place during the month to facilitate this.
This year however, as part of the Ireland 2016 commemoration programme, the cities have joined for the first time to create Two Cities One Book. The collaborative project is between Libraries NI and Dublin City Libraries, in association with Penguin Random House Ireland, and the novel of choice for 2016 is Fallen by Lia Mills.
Set in Dublin against the backdrop of the Easter Rising and the First World War, Fallen tells the story of Katie Crilly and how she 'finds life and independence amid a backdrop of death, destruction and grief.' It’s a love story which explores a range of social issues and is sure to provoke much discussion from readers.
'I love the principle of the One City One Book – and in this case Two Cities One Book – festival, because it’s all about celebrating books and reading and the vital work that libraries do,' says Mills. 'Everything that promotes reading – the joy of it and its mind-expanding power – is important.
'Festivals have a way of bringing books out into the open and exploring the links between literature, and the arts more generally, with other interests like history. We all know that libraries are under threat because of budget cuts; events like this reminds us how valuable and necessary they are.'
Born in Dublin, Mills previously lived in London and the US, but has been based back in the city of her birth since 1990. Fallen is her third novel but fourth book – the previous (In Your Face) a memoir about her experience of being diagnosed with and treated for mouth cancer.
Mills also writes short stories, essays and an occasional blog and is a keen subscriber to several literary journals. An avid reader, she says her 'first strong memory' is actually the moment she realised she could read.
'I remember the absolute thrill of it, feeling like I’d been given the keys to the universe, or initiated into magic – which I had, come to think of it,' she says. 'That’s what reading does. I’ll read anything. Fiction was my first love, but also mythology and fairy tales and poetry.
'I’ll read anything at all to do with literature and writing: academic and mainstream criticism; biographies, letters and diaries – especially of writers; and books on the craft of writing too. I teach creative writing, so I’m always on the lookout for tips I can pass on to students, or for good examples to show them.'
Inspired by books from an early age, Mills was crafting stories before she could even write, drawing maps of imaginary worlds or acting out the stories she’d read or imagined. And at just nine years old, she wrote her first novel, as well as enjoying writing with her school friends in their mini writing group. It was at school of course, that Mills learned about the Easter Rising, and it hooked her interest from the start.
'It has all the elements of great fiction: characters larger than life, a strong plot, romance, betrayal, hopeless odds, the surprise twist at the end that changes everything; new life in the ruins of the old world,' she says. 'I knew it by heart. But I used to be puzzled – and defensive – about the received notion that Dubliners were hostile to it. Dublin was where it happened, after all – and weren’t those Dubliners, taking part?
'I never thought that my parents' families were involved in any way, but one day it suddenly struck me that if you were to draw a line around the area where the fighting was most intense, both sets of grandparents lived on the circumference of that circle. I began to wonder what it might have been like to live through those violent days if you didn’t know who the people behind the Rising were, or what they wanted, or what the eventual outcome would be.
'Stories often come from that kind of shift, where the angle of light changes and you see a different way in behind the lines of a story you thought you knew. That’s where the story and setting for Fallen came from – but as I wrote the novel, events in the Ukraine and in the Middle East made me realise how relevant and contemporary the question is. Supposing we woke up one morning and found our city taken over by forces we couldn’t control?'
When creating Katie Crilly, Mills says she was conscious of making sure her own knowledge of the events she was detailing didn’t influence the character. She adds, however, that Crilly 'knows things I don’t, too.'
'Her story and her character really developed out of a thing I never expected to write about - the Great War,' she says. 'Very early on I decided that someone in Katie’s family would be away fighting at the Front. That was almost a casual and certainly an obvious choice, so that her loyalties could be conflicted.
'I never meant to write about the war, but I found that I couldn’t write about the Rising without writing about the war as well. Katie’s story is important to me because I think she gives us a new way to think about those conflicts. To me, the value of reading is that it breaks those silences and removes the blinkers so we see ourselves and the world in a fresh light.
'I once heard Barbara Kingsolver say that fiction is the opposite of racism, the opposite of war. And that, right there, is why reading matters.'
For full details of the programme of events taking place throughout April visit www.librariesni.org.uk/twocitiesonebook. Copies of Fallen can be borrowed from local libraries or downloaded as a digital eBook free at www.librariesni.org.uk. Stay up to date with #2cities1book on Twitter.