Our visitors from the East!

Russian visitors

Our visitors from Khabarovsk with author Nicola Pierce (centre) and Peter Heaney (second from left)

On Monday we had a truly original set of visitors to the office: a school group from the Russian city of Khabarovsk. These students, growing up a stone’s throw from China and about as far east as you can go before hitting the Pacific Ocean, have struck up a remarkable interest in Ireland and all things Irish. One of them is even learning Irish dancing. So how did this happen?

Peter Heaney, a wonderful (former) teacher and great friend to The O’Brien Press, has been working on clever multinational education projects for years: he also set up a collaboration between schools in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa to explore Aubrey Flegg‘s book The Cinnamon Tree. This work has all been supported by The Pushkin Trust, which has been promoting all-Ireland collaboration through the arts for children for twenty-five years. The Russian connection was a remote one until the growth of the internet: there are now nine schools from Northern Ireland, eight from Russia and two from the Republic of Ireland involved in regular online collaboration. Modern technology can facilitate so much that would have been a dream previously!

Peter has been working with the Polytechnical Lyceum Khabarovsk for three years now, from his home in Derry. A year ago he called me and told me that the class were particularly interested in Nicola Pierce‘s remarkable novel Spirit of the Titanic – they had even translated chapters into Russian and entered these translations into Russian national competitions! Of course, at that point Peter did not know that our next book with Nicola, City of Fate, was set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II (or The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). The coincidence of their favourite author writing a novel that was set in their own country was simply too much; they had to visit!

CityofFateAnd so today a tour of the office, interspersed with many questions, was followed by a presentation by Nicola about City of Fate; she undertook a huge amount of research when writing the book and now spends a lot of time in schools and libraries showing children the world of Stalingrad that inspired it. We also showed our visitors the wide range of our books that have been translated into other languages. They were impressed, but much more interested in reading books in the original English, a result of their inspirational teacher Olga’s belief that no translation (and particularly not dumbed-down educational adaptations) can capture the spirit of a real book!

Clearly all book lovers to their fingertips, these remarkable young people are an example of how children’s books truly can unite people across the world.

Thanks to Peter Heaney, author Nicola Pierce, teacher Olga Ilina and all the students for an amazing day!

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Three no.1 Bestsellers – Thanks Mrs Browne!

O’Brien Press Publisher Michael O’Brien talks about the rise and rise of Mrs Browne!

When Pat Egan, acclaimed entertainment agent, approached me in 1993 with a comic book proposal based on the characters in Brendan O’Carroll’s RTE 2FM radio series Mrs Browne’s Boys, I was hooked. They radio segments were only five minutes long, but the characters were vibrant and funny: we all realised they had all had rich lives that were worth exploring and telling.

Brendan’s career then took a major lift with his first appearance (of many!) on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show on RTE TV – hugely entertaining and memorable.

Brendan and I pledged together that we would make The Mammy a bestseller and take Agnes Browne to number 1 in the charts: to do this took nerve, belief and a lot of creative thinking! We did everything: a striking 36 copy display for every bookshop in Ireland, posters, radio adverts and a big launch in the Tivoli Theatre.

The Mammy was published on 4 September 1994 – we printed 10,000 copies – it reprinted another 10,000 a month later and another 10,000 in December, hitting the no.1 slot and holding it for 36 weeks.

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Angelica Huston loved the books and characters and made her directorial debut with Agnes Browne. The film set was Ringsend Village and I met Angelica there with her three ‘accent advisors’ from Moore Street: the real McCoy! It was really colourful and exciting. In November 1999, we added a film tie-in cover – freaturing Angelica Huston playing Agnes Browne – for an amazing ninth printing: another 10,000 copies. At the star-studded premiere in The Savoy and Angelica insisted on having a photo taken with the book publisher (me!).

TheMammyCover3

We encouraged Brendan to tell more of Agnes’ story: the story continued with The Chisellers (October 1995: 25,000 first printing) and The Granny (October 1996: 25,000 first printing. All three books were no.1 bestsellers.

Brendan recorded audio versions of both The Mammy and The Chisellers. Originally on audio cassettes, they are now available on CD and as audio download.

But that’s not all! Through our attending major book fairs – Frankfurt, London, NY – in tandem with our international rights agents –a we sold the trilogy globally: USA, Australia, Spain, Belgium, Czech, France, Denmark, Poland, China, etc but the crowning glory is Italy, where The Mammy sold over 100,000 copies.

And then, of course, came Mrs Brown’s Boys, a hugely popular, multi-BAFTA Award Winning TV series. One of the most popular series on the BBC, it has brought Agnes and her family across the English-speaking world, leading to the recent Australia and New Zealand publication of the trilogy by to Hardy Grant, who are promoting the trilogy.

Brendan is a huge popular success that the critics love to hate. His play The Course was rejected by the Dublin Theatre Festival, so he produced it himself in the Tivoli: it ran for months. Mrs Brown’s Boys was derided before the public made it clear that they loved it: and who knows what the critics will say about D’Movie, coming to a big screen near you soon? It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the first publication of The Mammy and O’Brien Press’s 40th Anniversary, and we know it will be a massive hit with the public.

Congratulations Brendan, you deserve all your success!

Michael O’Brien

The Mrs. Browne Trilogy

 

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Writing Anyush

Debut author Martine Madden talks about what inspired her to write Anyush.

It was a quiet afternoon in the X-Ray department of Tawam Hospital, a government run facility in the oasis town of Al-Ain, in the emirate of Abu-Dhabi. The staff, a mix of English, Irish, Jordanian, Maltese, Egyptian, Scottish, South African and Lebanese, was gathered in the viewing room when a mouse ran across the floor. Several people ran from the room and others hopped onto the counter tops; only my Lebanese Armenian friend, Houry Belian, remained where she was. Short, thin and with the nickname ‘the milk bottle’ because of the whiteness of her skin and her obsession with staying out of the sun, Houry regarded the mouse with a dispassionate eye before pouncing on it, catching it in both hands and wringing its neck. This incident compounded the enigma of ‘Houry’, a girl who in 1978 had emerged from a Beiruti bomb shelter after fifteen days of heavy artillery fire and described herself as ‘not normal.’

Some time later, I decided to visit pay Houry a visit. The single women’s compound was located within the hospital grounds, covering approximately an acre of dusty terrain bordering the main Al-Ain road. The accommodation consisted of wooden huts, not unlike the sheds found in many suburban back gardens, and had two small bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom. Walking through the women’s compound was like passing through a field of beehives with the constant drip and drone of air conditioners. In forty degrees of heat, they made living in a wooden box just about bearable. As I approached Houry’s hut, I became aware of another sound, a shrill, hysterical screaming coming from inside. Her door was open but there was no sign of her in the living room. She was in the bathroom, pressed against the wall and rigid with fear. The look on her face was so pathetically terrified that I thought there had been a break-in or worse. Until she pointed with a trembling finger to the bath.  Near the plughole was a perfect specimen of Blatta Orientalis. I never expected the civil war survivor and mouse killer to have a pathological fear of cockroaches.

Years later, in 2006, John and I were settled back home and I hadn’t thought of Houry in a very long time. Because the Middle East was as topical then as it is now, I was writing a piece about our time there and a conversation with Houry came to mind. Knowing that John and I were just married she had asked me about our wedding, and I had innocently mentioned that we’d honeymooned in Turkey. Her reaction was almost comical, her black eyebrows disappearing below the frames of her glasses and her small hands clenching into fists.

‘Are you not knowing about the Armenian Genocide?’

I didn’t know the first thing about it so she told me some of the details and, after uttering some platitudinous expressions of sympathy, I forgot about it. Or thought I had. Sitting at my laptop, I began to wonder what exactly she’d been trying to tell me and decided to Google it. The first website I came across had a photograph of a young German soldier in uniform and wearing an Arabic ghutra and egal on his head. His name was Armin Wegner and he had disobeyed orders to photograph extensively the death marches and massacre of Turkey’s Armenians during the genocide in 1915. I clicked on the link to his photographs and it is no exaggeration to say that those pictures changed everything.

I find it difficult to explain the effect Armin Wegner’s photographs had on me except to say it had much to do with where my own life was at the time. In the first picture there was a woman’s naked, emaciated body lying by the road with the corpses of her two children on either side of her. In 2006, my five children were young and I was at that stage where my world view was governed by their needs and the necessity of keeping them safe.  Wegner’s picture was like a scene from every mother’s worst nightmare, a dystopian vision of hell. And it was only one of many. I went on to research the Armenian Genocide in detail, and from this came my novel, Anyush. I also began to realise that Houry’s family had survived not only the civil war in Lebanon, but a much older conflict.

A card arrived from California just after Christmas in 2012. I opened it and read ; ‘To Martine and John, Happy Christmas, from Houry.’ Eight short words spanning a continent, an ocean and perhaps more than just twenty years.

Martine MaddenMartine Madden was born in Limerick, worked in Dublin and later moved to the United Arab Emirates with her husband John. The stories recounted to her by the Armenian diaspora there prompted her interest in Armenian history and formed the basis of the novel Anyush. Martine returned to Ireland in 1990 and now lives in the Midlands with her husband and five children.

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Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014

The O’Brien Press is delighted that Sheila Agnew, author of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, will be part of the Debut Writers’ Panel at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014. She’ll be joining Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Back to Blackbrick) and Leslye Walton (The Strange & Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender) to talk about the exciting, and sometimes painful, learning experience of publishing a first novel! This session is at 1.30pm on 24 May and is chaired by Bob Johnson of The Gutter Bookshop. If you’d like to attend, check out the official conference page and booking form here.

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The Best Thing Since…

Guinness treacle & walnut breadThis month’s blog spot is by food writer and cook Valerie O’Connor, author of Bread on the Table. Why not try out one on of her fantastic recipes for Guinness, Treacle and Walnut Bread?

A chef friend, Paul Cosgrove, gave me this recipe; I’d tried many times to get a recipe that highlighted the characteristics of our favourite pint, and this is a great one. Guinness works best in a yeast bread, making the most of the malted flavours and the brewer’s yeast that make up this wonderful stout. The treacle brings out the typical burnt-barley taste of the brew and the walnuts give a lovely sweet little crunch. This bread tastes great with a big slab of mature cheddar and a pint of Guinness, naturally!

Makes one large loaf

Ingredients:

200g/7oz coarse ground wholemeal flour (I like Ballybrado best)

300g/10oz strong white flour

5g/1tsp salt

15g fresh yeast/7g fast-action yeast

2 tbsp treacle

300ml/10floz Guinness – from a can, bottle or draught

50g/2oz walnuts, chopped

Oven 200C/390F/Gas 6

1. Put the flours and salt in a large bowl and either rub in the fresh yeast or sprinkle over the fast-action yeast. Then add the treacle and Guinness and begin to bring all the ingredients together with your hand, or a dough scraper.

2. When you have a craggy dough, tip it out onto an oiled surface and knead it for 10-12 minutes, or do the kneading in a mixer, but finish it by hand so you know the feel of your dough. Sprinkle over the walnuts and keep kneading until they are fully incorporated.

3. Put the dough in a bowl, cover it with clingfilm or a tea towel and allow it to double in size for at least an hour.

4. Knock back the dough by punching it down and folding it over a few times. Shape it into a round and lay it on a floured or oiled baking tray, covered with a cloth. Leave to rise again for 50-60 minutes, meanwhile preheat the oven for 30 minutes before baking.

5. Slice a few long cuts into the loaf with a bread knife or blade. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn the oven down to 180C/350F/Gas 5 for a further 20-30 minutes, checking to see if the loaf is baked by tapping it on its bottom, if it sounds hollow, it’s cooked.

6. This bread has a lovely robustness and is very satisfying to bake.

Val O'Connor plants

Valerie O’Connor is a cook, food writer and photographer; she has cooked in professional kitchens from Brussels to Malaysia. She is a qualified organic horticulturalist and tutors in food growing, cooking and baking. She is widely published in the press and has appeared as a guest critic on Masterchef Ireland.

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How I wrote Fintan’s Fifteen

AlanNolanAuthor Alan Nolan talks about how he wrote and illustrated Fintan’s Fifteen, the first illustrated novel about hurling.

The Idea

A couple of years ago I pitched some book ideas to O’Brien Press head honcho Michael O’Brien and their in-house graphic designer Emma Byrne. They were mostly ideas for detective or murder mystery books for younger readers, and these became the ‘Murder Can Be Fatal’ series and The Big Break Detectives Casebook. I was always interested in detective novels – Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the Agaton Sax books by Nils-Olof Franzén and the incomparable Tintin series by Hergé were some of my favourites – and I had a background in comic strip illustration from writing and drawing my own self published comic book, Sancho, so the most natural way to approach these books was as graphic novels.

At that meeting I also pitched an idea for a sports book – it was to be the story of an U12s hurling team, the Ballybreen Terriers, who were on their uppers, languishing at the bottom of the league, with half their players walking out. The idea would be that they would convince an inspiring child bainisteoir to come out of self-imposed retirement and back to hurling. This new manager would recruit players from different sports, each of which would bring their own particular skills to the hurling team, and this would bring a sense of fun back into the team and allow them to slowly climb back up the league. Being such a fan of detective books, I also had to get a bit of intrigue into the story involving some long-lost priceless emeralds and a stolen trophy! This book became Fintan’s Fifteen.

F15_original_sketch

The Characters

I had previously done a two page cartoon strip for the Irish Times soccer World Cup supplement, featuring a young Brazilian-Irish boy who goes to the World Cup and ends up playing for Brazil. This character’s name was Ray ‘Rusty’ Arantes and I thought he would make a fantastic narrator for the book – he was a great soccer player, there was no reason he wouldn’t be a great hurler too.

PELEThe other main characters were the titular Fintan, a couch potato ex-hurler, washed up at 12 years of age, who discovers his mission in life is to resurrect the good name of the Ballybreen Terriers and to turn their fortunes around, and Katie ‘Dinger’ Bell, the Terrier’s number one fan and an accomplished majorette who becomes Fintan’s right-hand girl.

The remaining characters who make up the Fifteen include golfing prodigy Rory Sweeney, acrobat Liam Chang and Dominic ‘Mansize’ McLean, a wresteler and Scottish Highland Games enthusiast.

But my favourite character is Ollie the dog, the team mascot and the original Ballybreen Terrier. Ollie has the role of assistant narrator, giving a dog’s view of the action, and bringing the narration into places that Rusty physically can’t go! As well as that, we can have fun with him as he chases cats, sniffs other dogs’ bottoms, and generally behaves like… well, like a dog!

ollie_JUMP_sml

The Book

I started the book with a back-of-the-book type blurb and some character sketches, which I pitched at the initial meeting. (Both this brief synopsis and the sketches would change considerably in the writing!) Michael liked the idea, so I developed the blurb into a storyline which I submitted a couple of weeks later. Once I got the go-ahead on this, I started to try to figure out how I would go about writing the book.

I decided that Rusty would be a great narrator, as he would give a straightforward and honest account of what was going on, almost like he was keeping a diary.

Then, to add some fun to it, I came up with the character of Ollie the dog, named, incidentally, for my brother’s dog who had sadly passed away. Ollie would tell his side of the story in a witty, somewhat world-weary voice, and best of all, he would tell it in a cartoon strip – I knew I wanted to have plenty of illustrations in the book, but I also wanted to have cartoon strips, and it was the character of Ollie gave me the perfect opportunity to do that! While Rusty and the team were concentrating on having fun and trying to win the cup, super-canine-sleuth Ollie would be unraveling rival bainisteoir Séaneen Brannigan’s plans to steal the same trophy. The cartoon strips were great fun to do – I simplified my usual style to make it look like Ollie had drawn them himself!

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F15_1_web

As well as all that I decided to add pages from Séaneen’s diary outlining his evil plans, and cut-out sports reports detailing the Terrier’s amazing comeback. I used photographs of actual torn out pieces of paper for these parts, using a handwriting script to simulate Séaneen’s diary pages, and replicating newspaper layouts for the news reports.

F15_3_web

When I had the book written and the illustrations and cartoon strips penciled out, I sent them to my editor Mary Webb. While she was going through it with a fine-tooth comb, I started inking the illustrations, and by the time I was finished, so was she! The book was approved and went off to print early this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I got my advance copy in the post. This is a worrying time for an author, as if we spot any mistakes, it’s too late to change them! Happily, the book was exactly as it should be and I am delighted with it. Now I can’t wait for you to read it too!

book_stackAlan Nolan is a comics writer, graphic designer, artist and co-creator of the horror series Sancho. He is the creator of The Big Break Detectives Casebook, a graphic novel for younger readers, and the ‘Murder Can Be Fatal’ mysteries. Born in Dublin, he studied at the National College of Art and Design. He lives in Bray, County Wicklow, with his wife and three sons.

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16 Lives – So Far So Good.

16Lives Co-Editor Lorcan Collins talks about reaching the halfway point in this groundbreaking series.

Throughout my life, I have tried to maintain an optimistic view of everything. I’ve always been a fan of the guy who falls out the window of the top floor of a skyscraper and, as he hurtles towards the ground, he keeps saying to himself “so far, so good.” The past few years have been a little like a free-fall and the ground is 2016, the Centenary of the Easter Rising.

As co-editor of the 16 Lives series with my esteemed colleague Ruan O’Donnell, it has been our responsibility to ensure that each volume in the collection is accurate and that there is consistency between all the books. It is incumbent upon us to carefully read each book a couple of times and make any suggestions where necessary. There are “in-house” editors but I guess we act as supplementary eyes looking to catch something. In addition, one of my tasks is to gather images for each book, make sure they are not repeated in the series and to ensure that they are properly captioned.  On average, so far, there have been four books published each year – so it seems that once one book is ready, just as you exhale, in comes another one! But it’s wonderful, exciting and really great to be immersed in something that I’m interested in.

It is imperative in the 16 Lives series that each book should be accessible to everyone. That’s not to say that each one should be the exact same style but the general hope is that each book will be, above all, entertaining and readable. There are far too many books being written on Irish history and in fact on World history which seem to want to make history boring, unreachable and incomprehensible. History is not just for crusty old farts sitting in dusty rooms smelling of rotting hardbacks. History is for everyone, it is alive, it’s about people like us, what they did, what they saw, how they lived and how they died. We all make history everyday, some in a small way and others in extraordinary ways. Often the most benign event can be the most interesting. How wonderful to discover that James Connolly enjoyed sledge riding with his family for a time in New York or that Joseph Plunkett often went roller skating in the Rotunda Rink. These kind of stories serve to humanise the revolutionaries of 1916 and help to prove that they were just regular people who were brave enough to step over the line to create change. They had wives and children, they had jobs, homes and security yet they were willing to risk it all and indeed, paid the ultimate price.

The importance of the intricacies and machinations behind the planning of the Rising is also of great importance in the series. When all the books are done there will be a complete picture of the role everyone played in the build up to Easter Week. Whether it’s the role that Seán Heuston played in developing Na Fianna, Seán MacDiarmada’s organizational skills in the IRB or Connolly’s working class hero’s the Irish Citizen Army – each and everyone had a significant role.

Myself and Ruan O’Donnell spoke at a 16 Lives evening in New York’s American Irish Historical Association in October last year. A question came from the floor as to why all the books were about men. As gently as possible I explained that the idea was to record the lives of the 16 people who were executed in 1916 and that they just happened to all be men. This was an insufficient answer apparently and seemed to annoy the questioner who insisted that a few women should have been included in the series. I explained that if we were writing a series of books on the Presidents of the USA that they would (unfortunately) be all men! However, I did explain that women would feature in all the books and that the women’s role in 1916 and afterwards was well documented. We have, after all, two commandant’s in 1916 who were women. Second in command in Stephen’s Green was Countess Markievicz and when Seán Connolly and Seán O’Reilly were killed in action in City Hall it was the respected figure of Dr. Kathleen Lynn who took over command of that garrison. Another feature that seems to stand out in the series is the strength of the women who stood beside the revolutionaries. Helen Litton who penned the wonderful biography of Edward Daly also wrote the book on Tom Clarke. She shows throughout the book the huge role that his wife Kathleen plays in the build up to the Rising and in the aftermath. Honor O’Brolchain traces the role Grace Gifford played in the life of Joseph Plunkett and a reading of the James Connolly book will enlighten the reader on the strong character of his wife Lillie and the support he received from his radical daughter Nora.

When we announced the series so many years ago, many people approached me and said there would not be enough information on some of the lesser know characters such as Con Colbert or Michael O’Hanrahan. Well, John Gibney’s excellent work on Seán Heuston and the inspiring work and research carried out by Brian Hughes on Michael Mallin have both proven that there is a wealth of biographical material to be plundered. The important thing is that it has to be done now. We are in the third generation…that is to say it was our grandparents who were around in 1916…if we did not undertake this series now the task would be even greater if it were left to the next generation. And yet if it had been done in the previous generation I don’t think it would have been ideal. I think people were too close to it all then and were often over romantic and disinclined to be critical where necessary.

With the release of Angus Mitchell’s authoritative account of Roger Casement in November 2013 we reached six books in total. Now in March 2014 with the release of Thomas Clarke by Helen Litton and Seán MacDiarmada by Brian Feeney the half-way point has been reached. There is a certain serendipity about these great friends, Clarke and MacDiaramada being released at the same time. I’d like to say it was planned but truthfully it just happened that way. That’s a total of eight books between March 2012 (when the first three volumes were released) and March 2014. With the continued hard work of the internal editors Mary Webb, Susan Holden, Ide ní Laoghaire and Helen Carr (who have become experts on 1916 themselves) alongside the research and writing that the final eight authors are undertaking and with the continued support of Michael and Ivan O’Brien who metaphorically risked leaping out the window of a skyscraper for this series it looks like a case of “so far, so good” as the “concrete pavement” of 2016 comes hurtling towards us!

LORCAN COLLINS co-author, with Conor Kostick, of The Easter Rising: A Guide to Dublin in 1916; founder of the 1916 Walking Tour of Dublin; lectures on Easter 1916 in the United States, and a regular contributor to radio, television and historical journals. 16 Lives is Lorcan’s concept and he is the author of the first book in the series, a biography of James Connolly.

                                                          16Lives Titles Currently Available

 

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A War Story

Best-selling author Nicola Pierce, talks about her time researching and writing City of Fate.

I am addicted to reading and have spent a lot of money on my book-buying habit, one book always leading on to another. For years, I limited myself to fiction until somewhere along the way, I began to buy and read books about writers: biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, essays, diaries and letters. At one point, I bought a second-hand book about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Anna of all the Russias by Elaine Feinstein. As much as I’d like to admit to a deep appreciation for poetry, it just wouldn’t be true. However, I love to read about poets and their writing, even if I don’t ‘get’ their work.

Halfway through the biography, it struck me that I was revelling in reading about Russia. I was unaware of what the Russians had endured, before, during and after World War II. I’d no idea Stalin behaved as he did, killing more of his own people than anyone else.

Next I discovered A Writer’s War, a biography about Russian journalist and writer Vasily Grossman. This book not only introduced me to Grossman but also to the British historian, Anthony Beevoir, who wrote it. Grossman joined the Red Army to behold the fight against the invading Germans. This is where I first read about the Battle of Stalingrad. After finishing this biography, I read Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate about the battle and civilian life under Stalin. Inevitably, I bought Beevoir’s best-selling Stalingrad and by this stage was hooked on history and war. My library was expanding, as any decent library should.

There were two stories in Beevoir’s book that jumped out at me. Firstly, how a Russian teacher was ordered by the NKVD to enrol his class of thirty sixteen-year-old boys in the army to fight at Stalingrad. By the time he reached the registry office, half the class had vanished. Beevoir could not confirm the teacher’s fate but thought it highly probable that the man paid for this ‘infraction’ with his life. The second story concerned a massacre of a small Jewish village in rural Russia. The parents were shot first and then, following some debate, so were the children, aged seven right down to toddlers … even babies. This second story also appeared in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates (much, much better than the film) and in a documentary I watched on The History Channel. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily forget. I’d absolutely no idea how I would incorporate it into a children’s novel but I was determined to include it somehow, though even now I can’t explain why. Perhaps I will be criticised for this because, well, I won’t make it too easy! In any case, it’s just a small mention but I stand by it.

From the very beginning, I had two boys in mind. I didn’t know who they were but they kept turning up in my mind’s eye, walking through the ruined streets of Stalingrad, mostly oblivious to the two warring armies around them.

I wanted the story of the teacher and the fifteen pupils who stood by him. What is it like to be a schoolboy one minute and then an inexperienced soldier in the midst of a deadly battle? I tried to imagine the fear and confusion, especially when it came to actually having to kill another human being who was trying to kill you.

The story grew thanks to the characters. I don’t plan my books and generally have little or no idea what I will write, from day to day. This can be quite scary but I can’t seem to break the habit.

All I knew was that I wanted to include as much fact as I could, as I did in Spirit of the Titanic. Also, I wanted to show that there could still be beauty in wartime, whether it’s a solo rendition of Beethoven or a charcoal drawing of Mary and baby Jesus. Art might not change your life in such situations but it can help, even momentarily, to lift your spirits.

I wanted to explore what motivates a person to fight and keep fighting when all seems lost. I think I managed to work it out: I think it’s about the importance of “home”.

Just before City of Fate went to the printers, I unexpectedly received the new sixth edition of Spirit of the Titanic. I am writing this essay a month before City of Fate reaches the book shelves and – there’s no denying it – I am nervous. Recent sleepless nights have been spent trying to distract myself from visions of readers finishing the new book and finding it inferior to my Titanic story.

However, I have to remind myself that no matter what the reception is or what anyone else says about City of Fate, I did it. I wrote a second novel. And it’s a book that I would like to read.

I simply have to accept that I have no control over what happens next!

Nicola Pierce

City of Fate is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.

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A Taste of McGuinness

Writer and O’Brien Press Sales Administrator, Jamie O’Connell, writes about his experiences at University College Dublin under the tutelage of Frank McGuinness and how it impacted his reading of Arimathea.

In late January 2009, I sat in Room 207 of the Newman Building in University College Dublin. It’d been a particularly cold winter, but this cold Monday morning was an exciting one. It was my first class with Frank McGuinness, as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I’d heard of Frank McGuinness many times before this first meeting. His plays, like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls, have left their mark both within Ireland and internationally. And when Frank did appear, his passion for writing was immediately evident. The books he enjoyed, he examined with zeal.

We studied Albert Camus’s The Fall in great detail. At the time, I remember finding the book a difficult read and the assigned reading each week was put on the long finger by me, generally until 11pm the night before class. However, in the years that have followed, as various events happened in my life, wisdom from that book, words and quotes, have spontaneously come into my thoughts, making life more understandable. It has given me ‘new eyes’ – something that Marcel Proust described as the fundamental role of fiction. I am grateful that Frank challenged my classmates and me to read it.

Last September, I returned to University College Dublin to complete an MFA in Creative Writing. Frank teaches a seminar on this course too; this time we studied the work of Jane Austen, notably Emma. Throughout our seven seminars, Frank’s love of Austen’s prose, her creation of the small town of Highbury with all its intrigues and dangers, has been an eye opener. His examination of the inner lives of Austen’s protagonists and the dangers lurking in this community, has rekindled my love of this eighteenth century novelist. Those who attended Sean Rocks’ interview with Frank at the Dublin Book Festival on 14 November heard him likewise speak passionately about Austen’s writing (the full interview is available on the RTE Player).

Over the last year, I have encountered Frank and his work through a different avenue again: The O’Brien Press’s publication of his debut novel Arimathea. Nominated for Book of the Year at the The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, the novel has lived up to anticipation. Reviews in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times have all been stellar.

Amongst all this, I’ve read the novel. The two semesters with Frank, studying Emma and The Fall, has given me a view of the novel different than most. In the social snobberies, the secret worlds, the intrigues of the Donegal town in Arimathea, I found myself thinking of Austen’s Highbury, with all its social complexities. Rural life is not as simple as impressions would appear. Both Austen and Frank have clear tight prose that drives the novel forward. One glides over the well-crafted sentences. There is nothing sluggish in either.

However, in Arimathea, elements of The Fall also appear. In each character’s monologue truths appear which don’t always show humanity in a favourable light. Yet, there is a departure from The Fall at this point; in the conclusion of Arimathea, humanity is offered a sort of redemption. An act of kindness occurs and the reason for the choice of ‘Arimathea’ as the title becomes evident.

The Sunday Business Post summed it up well: ‘a beautifully bleak first novel’. Humour mixes with pathos, as The Irish Examiner wrote: ‘deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour’. Both as a student of Frank’s and as an avid reader, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Arimathea is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.

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Christmas Reading

Happy Christmas from OBP!

So it’s that time of year when we’re all planning on settling down for a long winter’s nap or rather a long holiday with lots of books by a warm fire! This time of year always seems tinged with nostalgia and having just published a collection of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde (Stories for Children), here at OBP we’ve been thinking about our childhood memories of reading and our favourite stories at Christmas …

 

OscarWildeStoriesforChildren

Jamie O’Connell, sales administrator:

“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943

I was the kind of child that read everything I could lay my hands on: the cereal boxes while eating breakfast, the shampoo bottle’s promises of glossy hair while having a bath, the labels on the cleaning products under the sink; the RTE Guide on the sofa; my mother’s Hello! magazine stuffed down the side of the couch.

Each week, my grandparents took my sisters and I to Fermoy and stuff us full of sweets: Refreshers, Stingers, Desperate Dans, and Sherbit Dips. This trip would always include a trip to the library. Roald Dahl’s books were a firm favourite, as were Enid Blyton’s. Later on, my appetite for Point Horrors was insatiable. Often, I’d have one of my six library books read before my grandparent’s Morris Minor pulled up outside our bungalow in Ballydeague.

However, though I loved contemporary authors, I had a great love of legends, myths and fairy tales also. Irish legends were a particular favourite, as were the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, notably the story of The Wild Swans and the poor sister who’s hands got stung as she sewed jumpers made out of nettles. The Wild Swans, like most of those fairy tales, had dark elements. Protagonists were not guaranteed to survive the stories unscathed. But this made the stories all the more thrilling, even if took a little longer to get to sleep at night!

Five years ago, I had the good fortune to study ‘Archive of the Imagination’ under the tutelage of Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne in Unversity College Dublin as part of my MA in Creative Writing. The module involved the examination of fairy tales, raising the question, why have they have survived over the millennia? It’s often theorised that they remain because they are not simply ‘stories for kids’, rather they tap into our unconscious on a deep level, challenging our fears and expectations of life. In fact, many of the great children’s fiction of the last one hundred years draws on these fairy tales, be it the tales of J. K. Rowling or Roald Dahl, where heroes and heroines are forced to face darkness and cruelty in a very real way.

This autumn I’ve had the chance to dip back into the fairy tales of my childhood as we published a new illustrated version of Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde. Like the Hans Christian Andersen tales, they contain all the bleakness and magic that I remember from the days when I ate sticky Refresher bars and read books in the back of my grandparent’s Morris Minor (while they warned me that I’d be as ‘sick as a dog’ from reading in a moving car).

Last September, I visited my eldest sister’s home and was woken up at dawn by my six and four-year-old nephews. As I made them breakfast, I watched my nephews fight over who could read the cereal boxes, proof that nothing changes. It makes me confident that the fairy tales that I once read and loved, and millenniums of children did before me, will find an audience in a whole new generation.

Helen Carr, Editor:

As a child I was an avid reader. Books always featured on my Christmas list, and I was delighted to unwrap books (alongside other less erudite, but equally memorable, presents like a large plastic unicorn we called ‘Mighty One’, ‘Cluedo’, My Little Pony, an ‘Irish’ Care Bear, ‘Operation!’ and other beloved toys of the 1980s). In truth, I remember my first introduction to some of my favourite childhood authors being connected to hospital visits rather than Christmas – a big haul of second-hand books bought for me when going in to hospital for an eye operation, aged six, included Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s The School at the Chalet and Noel Streatfeild’s White Boots and began a long relationship with both authors’ books. I discovered Antonia Forest, Meindert de Jong, Philippa Pearce and Nina Bawden in my classroom library at school, while my local library had lots of L.M. Montgomerys and Laura Ingalls Wilders.

Some authors, though, are really linked to Christmas in my mind – one Christmas when I was about nine or ten I got ‘A Box of Enchantment’ by Nina Beachcroft for Christmas. It might have been the novelty of the box, and the four books sitting so tidily inside it, that made me remember it so well, but I think it was also the stories – I’d never read Nina Beachcroft before then, and there was a real – and quite frightening – magic to her stories. Set in England in the eighties, they were about ordinary children stumbling into magical situations. Even today, I remember her description of the heavy air and oppressive silence in an English forest as the children find themselves transported back in time in Under the Enchanter. Another author who always seemed connected to Christmas is J.R.R. Tolkien. I can’t remember when I first read his books. I borrowed The Lord of the Rings from an older friend when I was in primary school, and read The Hobbit after, but it wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that I really grew to love Middle Earth, but from then until almost the end of secondary school my dad bought me a Tolkien calendar for Christmas every year.

Ironically, some of the books that I loved to re-read around Christmas as a child were about an American-Jewish family – Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. These stories about a big, New-York-Jewish family in the early part of the twentieth century really captured my imagination with their stories of apartment buildings and trips to the soda fountain and the big public library. Even though they were celebrating Hanukkah rather than Christmas, the descriptions of their big family celebration dinners always made me feel particularly festive. I used to reread The Snow Queen and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe quite often too – though as my sister recently reminded me, I only really liked the snowy section at the beginning of the book, with Mr Tumnus, and the iconic streetlight in the snow illustration; I never liked Aslan, and enjoyed the book less once he came on the scene.

By the time I was fifteen, I was godmother to my youngest cousin, and I continued the tradition of books as presents with her. Happily, her childhood and teenage birthdays often coincided with the release of a new Harry Potter book – the age gap between us melted away as we both read them for the first time and compared theories of what might happen next.  I now have a twenty-month old niece and a one-year-old nephew, and they’ll both be receiving books (among other things!) this Christmas. (I don’t want to spoil their surprises, but Chris Judge and Dick Bruna will be featuring). Long may the Christmas-book tradition continue!

Jamie O’Connell is sales administrator at The O’Brien Press and Committee Member of Dublin Book Festival. He is the author of a short story collection, Some Sort of Beauty (Bradshaw Books, 2012). He was awarded an Artist’s Bursary from Dublin City Council in June 2013 and completing an MFA in University College Dublin. More information can be found on www.jamieoconnellwriter.com

Helen Carr is an editor at The O’Brien Press and children’s books enthusiast.

Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde is available now in all good bookshops and at www.obrien.ie

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