Alan Nolan on Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week

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!

 

 

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.

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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!

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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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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.

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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.