Love in a Time of War

WhiteFeathersDebut novelist Susan Lanigan talks about the inspirations behind White Feathers.

In my diary dated 22nd February 2009, I have a list of short story ideas. One appears at the top, for the first time: “World War I – White Feathers”. Unknown to myself, I had found the story that I would start writing in October 2010 and that would consume me for the next three and a half years. The one that felt different from all the others. The one that would lead me on a tour of the battlefields of France, and would then have me schlepping around war museums in London and Paris. The one that would bring me to: the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, the attention of an agent and a publisher, and a finished book – whose devastatingly simple cover of a red poppy and background of rough sacking is so redolent of much of the devastated front of World War I.

This cover was designed by the wonderfully talented Emma Byrne, along with input from the marketing folk at O’Brien Press. My involvement at that stage was peripheral; author gets input but not a veto, that’s what my agreement said. But I did have one stipulation which I conveyed to Emma:

White Feathers is about an act of betrayal – a girl gives the man she loves a white feather, effectively publicly stigmatising him. That’s an act of such emotional violence I think it needs to be hinted at on the cover. This I think is important whether the cover be abstract or concrete.

Emotional Violence

I had long been fascinated by the First World War custom of a woman’s giving a man out of uniform a white feather to condemn him as a coward and coerce him to enlist. This government-backed movement carried enormous social pressure along with it. One man, a Mr Brookes who worked at the train station, received a letter from some thundering harridan which is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London: Since you cannot be a man not to [sic] join the army, we offer you an invitation to join our Girl Scouts Membership as a washer-up. Yours sincerely, Bath Girls Scoutmistress.

I wanted to capture what it would be like, this relentless pressure, the cruelty of it. And in the context of the novel, to have a family pushing you to give that abominable thing to someone you truly love. The seething consequences of undeclared sex warfare. As I said to Emma, the emotional violence of it. That is the internal conflict which Eva, our young protagonist, has to deal with when she is catapulted into making a choice “between Scylla and Charybdis”.

Because I learned recently that violence is not just a bayonet in the stomach or a shrapnel injury. There is a second kind, structural, which I only learned about relatively recently and which opened my eyes. This is the kind of violence that can be read in the note to Mr Brookes above, and this is the kind of violence with which White Feathers concerns itself.

When women are treated as subjects, not citizens, that is violence. When the mentally ill are cast in newspapers and books as weak, worthless, second-class folk, because they break down under intolerable pressure and cannot go on – that is violence. When the old and comfortable condemn the young to struggle with old men’s battles, as they sit by a roaring fire with the finest amontillado – that is violence of generations. When powerful interests work with gloved hands, silencing the truth, muzzling its witnesses, so that the fine feelings of the power élite are not affronted – that is entrenched violence.

Lives are destroyed at the issuing of a letter, a whimsical command, the widening of a yawn of deep inertia, the first scornful giggle. Lives are destroyed, and not a drop of blood is shed.

Such things happened through the course of World War I. Such things continue to happen today. And the white feather, itself a traduced symbol of peace, pinned to a man out of uniform in all its fey, false innocence, damning him as a coward – that is the most violent act of all.

But White Feathers is also a love story. Two people who build a slow intimacy and fall in love, fighting to keep the flame alight even under such unbearable pressure. It’s a story older than Shakespeare, but constantly renewed – why? Because, incredibly, love will continue to fight the powers that be. Even in a hostile, belligerent world that cleaves to nothing but blind greed and unearned privilege, that creates nothing but eats its young, almost an entire generation lost in its jaws, love will still fight.

On that finished cover, I see the violence, and the anger – but I also see the love, written on the poppy’s blood-red petals. And there is the heart of the story. Emma could not have fulfilled her brief more effectively.

Susan Lanigan

*

In 2003, Susan Lanigan graduated from a Masters in Creative Writing in NUI Galway. Since then, she has had short stories published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Nature, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been thrice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and longlisted and shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Contest, the Bristol Prize, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award and other competitions.

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Finding a Voice in Fiction

FindingAVoiceDebut author Kim Hood talks about her journey to writing Finding a Voice

Finding a Voice wasn’t the book I set out to write. When I arrived in Doolin, County Clare one January morning, with my backpack, my bicycle and my laptop, in search of a cottage to hole up in for the winter, I had an entirely different novel in mind. It was time to change direction—step away from my work with kids with complex disabilities. I was going to write a ‘literary novel’ – all character and profound things and well … no story at all.

It didn’t go well.

I blamed my lack of progress on life getting in the way. Doolin, until the Celtic Tiger took a swipe at it, had a way of making time disappear in days spent wandering along sea and rock, and nights in a whirlwind of music and madness. And then there was the REAL truth of why I’d returned to Clare ten years after first stepping foot in the county: missing the west of Ireland with a physical ache, and perhaps a little bit of missing a certain previous love I’d never gotten over (don’t tell him that though).

It all lead to a job, and a house, and a dog, and a baby (not necessarily in that order). But no book. No finished book.

It was eating me though. I’d upturned my life to finally write, and I wasn’t doing that. Oh sure, a few pages here, a bunch of rewrites there—but not a finished book. And while I kept trying to find a way through The Literary Novel I’d started, what was creeping into my head instead was a line: ‘One, two, three, four. I started counting the steps as soon as my feet left the drive’, and a girl named Jo who was keeping such control, but needed to let go. I wanted to tell her story.

I dabbled. Over about a year I wrote a few chapters.

Another character started talking to me—a boy who happened to have a disability. Having spent a large part of my life working with people with various challenges, that was hardly surprising, yet I had always shied away from writing characters with any disability. There are far too many people who don’t know someone with a disability thinking ‘Ah, the poor craters’, without me unwittingly contributing to that. But from the moment he came to me, I knew that if I could just get him right, nobody would mistake Chris for a ‘poor crater’. He was strong, and I knew he was going to be the one to show Jo what she needed to be happy.

A story was beginning to form.

It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t until I let go and allowed myself write a story—no big message, no profound observations, just story—that I rediscovered what I had always loved about writing. I loved getting lost in characters and writing from my heart—not my head.

Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to write.

So I decided I’d put The Literary Novel aside and commit one month to finishing this story. I mapped it out. 15,000 words a week. I’d work on it from 7pm to 1am every work night and six hours on Sundays. We’d eat instant noodles for the month, bedtime stories would be the shortest I could find, all housecleaning and laundry would be on hold for the month.

One month turned into three. Some weeks flew in a whirl of words; some weeks I paced the floor trying to figure out a plot problem I couldn’t seem to get past, and wrote nothing.   It was hard. But I didn’t want to stop. Not even when I was falling down exhausted, not even when I had a huge row with my significant other (‘But you said it would be one month!’ he said from the midst of a pile of dirty laundry, holding the four year old who no longer recognised her mother), not even when I thought it would never be finished. I was obsessed.

There was no turning back.

I was learning to write a novel. I was doing what I had wanted to do all of my life and never really believed I could. And I loved, loved, loved the story. Not all of the time, mind you, but lots of the time.

Those months before I wrote ‘The End’ for the first time seem so long ago now. I didn’t know then that The End was only The Beginning. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have found a wonderful agent and a warm, supportive publishing house. There are so many people who have helped make this book.

And guess what? It turns out there were some themes lurking ; nothing earthshattering, but thoughts that I hope may help even a few kids navigate their way through the murkiness of being a teen. Those themes just needed a story to grow from!

KimHoodKIM HOOD grew up in British Columbia, Canada. After earning degrees in psychology, history and education, she wandered through a few countries before making the west coast of Ireland home. Her eclectic work experience in education, therapy and community services has presented endless opportunity to observe a world of interesting characters. She has always had a passion for trying to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society.

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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.

TheMammyCover1

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!

F15_0_web

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.

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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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