Author and illustrator Alan Nolan chats about writing, illustrating and the inspiration for Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week!
Sam Hannigan began life in one of my battered sketchbooks as a sketch of a young girl with freckles, playing an oversized guitar and wearing a cowboy hat. As with most of my characters, she came into my head in the middle of the night, cowboy hat and all, and I scrambled at the side of my bed for a sketchpad and a pencil to get her down on paper before she pulled up the bedroom window blind and escaped. As usual, to avoid waking my wife, this was drawn almost completely in the dark – when I woke up in the morning I had to make sense of the manic, spidery scribble, which I’d jammed into my shoe so I’d remember I’d done it in the first place.
Beside the sketch I had written ‘Brianna Buckley, plays guitar, eats dog biscuits, best friend is a boy, bully brother, parents country music fans = Dolly and Kenny, big dog, brain swap’.
I pitched the idea to The O’Brien Press. They loved the character of Brianna Buckley, but didn’t much like the name Brianna. They also thought the storyline – with Brianna as an X-Factor-like contestant brain-swapping with a dog and competing in the TV programme against her parents, Derek and Dodo, whilst trying to save (a) her house from being repossessed and (b) an international Russian supermodel and an emperor penguin from the clutches of a gangster called Terry the Thump – was a little convoluted and not overly child-friendly. ‘Think about who you are writing for,’ said Ivan. ‘Are you writing for children or for yourself?’
Aha! I thought. He’s completely right. But the child I wanted to write for was the child I was when I was ten. So the main character in the book became Sam Hannigan. She’s an animal lover (just like the ten-year-old me), who lives in a ramshackle house with a crackers-crazy granny (also just like the ten-year-old me). Actually, my granny, Lizzie-Bun, wasn’t that bad; she was only lightly loopy. It was her mother, Nanny Gigg, who was the certifiable one, and I ended up working some of Gigg’s true-life fruitcake antics into the story. When I was ten, and wasn’t busy reading comics or Roald Dahl or Agaton Sax adventures or Tintin books, I’d spend hours imagining what it would be like to suddenly and without warning be turned into a dog – to arrive into class one morning ignoring the stares and cat-calls of my classmates; to answer the teacher with a woof instead of an anseo when she called the roll. To aid my imagination, I’d spend hours walking around the house and scrubby garden on all fours. I’d sneak dog biscuits out from under the sink, and then, at dinner times, demand that my granny put my spuds and fish fingers in a bowl on the lino-covered floor. So I suppose I’ve been preparing to tell the story of Sam Hannigan, the human dog, for my whole life.
The revised storyline, once I started listening to my inner, female, ginger ten-year-old self, flowed quite easily. Brianna Buckley became Sam Hannigan, named after my beloved Third Class school teacher Miss Hannigan, who read Anne Holm’s I Am David aloud in class and made all of the thirty-two hardy boys under her care cry. Sam’s BFF became Ajay Patel and her arch-enemy became ‘Jolly’ Roger Fitzmaurice, the dog biscuit king. Much simpler.
To maintain style continuity with my other books, Fintan’s Fifteen and Conor’s Caveman, I added several pages of comic strip. These illustrated pages help to break up the text, as well as adding background and an extra narrative voice, which I find enhances the storytelling. Plus, I’m a huge comic nerd. For story continuity, I set the story of Woof Week in Clobberstown, the same fictional suburb of Dublin 24 that features in Conor’s Caveman. On the prompting of one of my lovely editors at The O’Brien Press, Nicola Reddy, Conor’s Caveman himself, Ogg, makes a cameo appearance. (Aoife Walsh, my other editor, also made some sterling observations!)
As I not only write, but also illustrate and design the books myself, a new book can be a mammoth task. But working on this book really was a labour of love: I love the town of Clobberstown, and I love the Nolan family stories that have now become Hannigan family stories too. But most of all, I love the chirpy, feisty, fearless figment of my imagination, Sam Hannigan. I hope you enjoy her story, and I can’t wait to take her on more adventures.
Alan Nolan, September 2017
Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week is available here and in all good bookshops!