Conor Kostick on Ready Player One, Epic and LitRPG

Conor Kostick, author of the brilliant sci-fi series The Avatar Chronicles, chats about imagination, online gaming and the growing popularity of LitRPG.

In 2003, I had an idea for a novel, which was inspired by a newspaper article claiming that the value of trades of virtual goods was sufficiently large (several billion dollars) that if it were a country it would rank greater than Bulgaria. What, I wondered, if this trend were to grow until your activity in virtual environments really mattered? What if the celebrities of the world were not sports stars and music stars, but gamers…?

I wrote Epic extremely quickly. In all the years and books since, I’ve never experienced anything like the same immersion in the world of my imagination. It was the summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD and I knew this free time was precious. So every evening I would write until the early hours of the morning and during the day I would edit. So intense was my involvement with the book that my dreams were filled with it and I learned the value of keeping a notebook and pen beside me.

I’d wake up with an insight, jot it down, and fall back to sleep.

In just two months the book was finished. And I hadn’t even begun to think about agents or publishers when I sold it. Michael O’Brien and I were marching side by side on the huge 2003 anti-war march. We’d just collaborated in publishing Irish Writers Against the War, a fund-raising anthology which effectively paid for the costs of the Irish Anti-War Movement’s publicity for the march. Michael asked me was I working on anything else.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,’ I replied. ‘It’s Science Fiction, about a world where everyone plays an online fantasy game. And you don’t publish that sort of thing.’

‘Send it to me. Because we’ve just made the decision to start looking for Sci-Fi.’

And within the year, Epic was published and on its way around the planet. It caught the zeitgeist of the time and sold into twelve languages, picking up lots of nominations and awards too.

One thing we didn’t do was produce an English language audio book. Back then, audio books were not so important as they are today. In Germany, Oetinger produced a beautiful 5 CD boxed set, with over twenty voice actors playing the various characters (Pic Credit: Andrew Sherman). But the English version has had to wait until today. It is just out and I love it. With a wonderful, husky, narrative voice, Samuel Hoke casts an immersive spell on the listener.

And it is timely, too. Because in the intervening years, there has been a massive growth of online gaming. Young people especially are familiar with avatar creation and having adventures with thousands of other people in environments such as those created by World of Warcraft and Minecraft. And the real world consequences of this gaming have become more evident. There are YouTube channels exploring such games with millions of views. The virtual goods economy is now at $15bn and set to grow to over $40bn by 2025.

In the wake of this gaming activity have come more and more books exploring plots where characters have to be successful within a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) to solve a crisis outside of the game. There is even a name for this type of book: LitRPG. Literature – Role Playing Game. If you are wondering why the term doesn’t take the form of the more natural RPGLit, it is because it comes to us from Russia. The giant publishing house, EKSMO began running competitions in this genre and publishing the winners from 2014, under the label LitRPG.

And this whole genre is likely to get a boost from the release of Ready Player One on 30 March 2018. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, this film is an adaptation of an excellent 2011 book by Ernest Cline. One of the great opportunities of a story in which real world and virtual world collide is that of being able to contrast your identity in both. In Cline’s case, our hero, Wade Watts, is from a poverty-stricken district in reality, but inside the virtual world of OASIS becomes a major star (and potential millionaire) on leaping up the ‘Scoreboard’.

Wade makes some very cool (well, nerdy) friends on his way up. But also some powerful enemies. I’m confident the film is going to be worth seeing, so I won’t say anything more on the subject, other than I’m very much looking forward to it.

Some Science Fiction ideas have a short life-span. Technology can run ahead or in unanticipated directions that spoil the premise of the book. Sooner or later, that will happen for Epic. But because I was thinking about how hierarchies reproduce themselves, even in virtual spaces that have the potential to deliver an anarchist utopia, it will probably always have some value. And right now, with virtual reality and online gaming blossoming, I’m glad that the release of the audiobook brings Epic a new lease of life.

Conor Kostick, March 2018

Epic is available here and in all good bookshops!

The audiobook for Epic is available on iTunes, Audible and Amazon.

A Rugby Roar at the End of a Series

Gerard Siggins, author of the Rugby Spirit series and this year’s World Book Day book Rugby Roar, chats about the coming to the end of a series that began as a one book adventure and turned it to something bigger and better!

BOOK SIX of my ‘Rugby Spirit’ series is just out, and it may just be the last of the set. I never planned it as a series – I suppose most first-time novelists don’t have the sort of confidence that your publishers will want to keep publishing them and your readers will keep reading them.

No, Rugby Spirit was a once-off, a combination of a bedtime story my son kept pestering to write down, and a historical itch that needed scratching. I was chuffed that O’Brien Press said they would like to issue it, and even more delighted that they told me immediately to go off and write a sequel.

The first book concerned a boy coming to a new sport and finding advice and fellowship in the ghost of a long-dead rugby player. That character, Brian Hanrahan, was the only person ever to die playing sport in Lansdowne Road. He helps Eoin to get better at rugby, but also helped him to solve a mystery and understand more about the past.

As I sat down to plan Book 2, I tossed around ideas such as keeping it just to Eoin and Brian again, or taking out the supernatural element. But I realised that I could take it on a bit by keeping Eoin and Brian and adding a new ghost to the story. Rugby Warrior brought in Dave Gallaher, an Irish-born player who was the first captain of New Zealand’s All Blacks and who died in World War One.

With a cover line that explained where it was coming from (‘Back in School, Back in Sport, Back in Time’) the book went down well and I had a bona-fide series up and running and ideas for at least two more sequels.

Lots of interesting people played rugby, and that allowed me to build plots around their corner of history while also seeing Eoin make progress in the sport with Brian. The next three came quickly:


  • Rugby Rebel (‘Discovering History, Uncovering Mystery’) featured Kevin Barry, who scored a try for Belvedere College at Lansdowne Road and was executed in the War of Independence.
  • Rugby Flyer (‘Haunting History, Thrilling Tries’) brought in Alex Obolensky, a Russian prince who fled that country during the October Revolution, learned rugby in England and scored two famous tries for his new home, against New Zealand before dying in the Second World War.
  • Rugby Runner (‘Ancient Roots, Modern Boots’) goes back to very birth of the sport and the man at the middle of its creation myth, William Webb Ellis.

Eoin was also working his way through school, all the time growing away from the 9-14 cohort that makes up most of my readers. I had long planned to stop the series at the Junior Cup and Junior Cert, which arrives when boys are around 15-16.

With that end-point in my head, and the first three books each covering a full school year, I was suddenly one year before the Junior Cert and still full of ideas of what I wanted for the series. I managed to stretch Eoin’s year into three books, and even a bonus story beyond that!

For this month sees the publication of Rugby Heroes, the series finale, followed one week later by a special add-on written for World Book Day called Rugby Roar. That’s definitely the shortest retirement in the history of fiction!

It was terribly hard to end the series, and to let go of a cast of characters who had been living in my head for seven years and I had loved working with. But I have other things I want to write about and so, after six and a half books, it’s the end of Eoin’s rugby career.

He’s not gone though, and he’s still up there in my head, enjoying the peace while I torment other new characters. And readers of Rugby Heroes, look carefully – and you might get a clue as to where Eoin will turn up next…

Gerard Siggins, February 2018

The Rugby Spirit series by Gerard Siggins is available here and in all good bookshops! Keep an eye out for Rugby Roar by Gerard Siggins in Bookshops this World Book Day!

We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie

Happy 2018 to everyone! To start of the New Year we at OBP chatted to author and illustrator Sarah Bowie about her upcoming picture book We’re Going to the Zoo!

What inspired you to write We’re Going to the Zoo?

I have very clear memories of going to the zoo myself when I was a little girl and I wanted to remember what it was like when you’re seeing these wild and exotic creatures for the first time in real life

What was your process for creating this book?

I started very simply, with a sketchpad and pencil. I tried to bypass my ‘front brain’ by just doodling and writing as quickly as possible. After a while I started to hear a grumpy little voice saying ‘The zoo is BORING!’, which is not what I’d been aiming for at all. However, I just went with it, kept doodling and writing and listening to what she and the other characters were saying. The important thing at the early stage is not to judge, you can always go back and fix things later. So that was how I got the original proposal written. After that I focused on page layout and pacing. It’s usually at this stage that I finalise the writing too. Once that’s nailed down, I focus on the artwork.

What materials do you use when illustrating picture books?

I usually work in traditional media, but this time I decided to work digitally. I used an iPad Pro – you can draw directly onto the screen using an Apple pencil. It made the process a lot quicker, and it helped me to loosen up and be bolder with my drawing. Don’t know if I’d use it again though … we’ll see!

Could you tell us a bit about Kitty and Clara’s relationship?

In many ways they’re typical siblings. Clara, the slightly older one, has decided she’s too grown-up for silly things like drawing and going to the zoo and hanging out with her younger sister. Meanwhile Kitty still enjoys all of those things, and actually misses having her sister around.

Do you like going to the zoo? And did you enjoy going as a child?

Yes I do. It’s good to see that the animals have plenty of space to roam about it, and the fact that it helps conserve endangered species is important too. I loved the zoo as a child, there’s something magical about seeing these beautiful animals for the first time.

What is your favourite animal?

The fruit bats. I actually didn’t discover these until I was a grown-up and they stole my heart the first time I saw them. For starters, they’re surprisingly big, so you can really see their cute furry faces and their little paws. They look like teddy bears with wings to me. And they’re so full of character. I honestly could run away with all the fruit bats.


Which illustration was your favourite to draw?

Drumroll …… The FRUIT BATS!

Was the experience of creating this book different to when you working on Let’s See Ireland?

Yes, in that I was far better prepared psychologically for how difficult it is to make a picture book well. It’s so easy to lose control of things like pacing, and for the drawing to lose its consistency. With Let’s See Ireland I went down a lot of blind alley ways before I got to the end of that book. This one was a bit more straightforward.

What was your favourite picture book growing up?

It was an Omnibus of Fairy Tales. I remember I was too young to read the words, and so I would spend what seemed like hours poring over the pictures, making up my own stories.

What’s your next project?

Currently working on a comic for grown-ups … It may be a while yet before it’s finished

Oh and there’s my daily bus sketches. I’ve started to keep a sketchbook record of the people I see on my bus commute every day. There’s an archive of them here: and I update them Mon-Fri on Instagram:

Sarah Bowie, January 2018

We’re Going to the Zoo by Sarah Bowie will be published in February 2018 and will be available here and in all good bookshops! Sarah Bowie’s first picture book, Let’s See Ireland is available here now and in all good bookshops!

It’s All About the Socks for Mr Wolf

Tatyana Feeney, author and illustrator of the wonderful picture book Socks for Mr Wolf, shares her story about where this quirky character came from and shows us the awesomeness of socks!

Poor Mr. Wolf, he is so often mistaken for a fox! And although ‘socks’ and ‘fox’ rhyme, Mr Wolf was always going to be a wolf even before he had his lovely socks …

My stories usually start with a character. I like to draw the character and think about a story that might develop around them. I had been drawing a wolf character for a while; he actually started life when I was a student at art college, and I was always hoping that he would have a story, but there was never one that seemed exactly right.

I liked the idea of the wolf being a friendly character, rather than the typical ‘big, bad wolf’, but I wasn’t able to think of something that seemed like a great, original story for him.

So, I put him aside and started thinking about other stories.


I am originally from North Carolina, where the weather is usually pretty warm, so the Irish climate was a bit of a shock. My parents, my Dad in particular, worried that I would be cold here, so every year at Christmas he sent me a pair of wool socks.

The first socks he sent were pretty normal looking, but then he found socks that were warm, woolly, soft AND colourful! My Dad is colour blind, so sometimes the socks he sent weren’t ones I would have picked for myself, but I always loved them because he had gone to the trouble to choose them.

But, because I really liked the socks, over time and with lots of wear, they started to get holes and I was at a loss about what to do. I have very basic darning skills, so my repair jobs weren’t very satisfactory – even though I watched a few You Tube videos on the subject and Googled ‘sock repair’.

So my socks weren’t too fixable, but then I looked at my wolf and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe his long legs needed socks and that maybe his socks also got a hole.

Lucky for him, he is better at knitting than I am!

And that’s how his story was born. Now that the book is out in the world I am really enjoying creating new socks for him to wear on various occasions – so far he has had breast cancer awareness socks, spooky socks and Halloween socks and many, many amazing socks of all kinds created by the school children I have visited during Bookfest.

I am really looking forward to the socks that come next…


Tatyana Feeney, November 2017

Socks for Mr Wolf, is available here and in all good bookshops!

Red Rover, Red Rover!

“England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails!” Kunak McGann, author of Red Rover, Red Rover! Games From an Irish Childhood, shares her memories of playing games as a child with her family and neighbours!

The idea for a book of childhood games has been percolating in my mind for years. Every time I had one of those ‘Remember when…?’ conversations with friends or family, I thought to myself, I really must get a move on. So it was with much excitement and no small relief that Red Rover, Red Rover – Games from an Irish Childhood has become a reality.

I grew up in Drogheda, on an estate of about forty houses, and with families of four or five children not uncommon back in the heady days of the 1980s, playmates were never in short supply. I was lucky enough to have four of the best in the form of brothers and a sister. One thing you need to know about my family is that, like most 80s kids, we were particularly snappy dressers and had fabulous haircuts (with the photographic evidence to prove it). The other is that we were nearly always up for a game of something or other.

One of our favourites was Kerbs – there was a period of a few years where the irregular thump of the ball off a kerb was to be heard most days, up and down our road. I was never really gifted with the skill set required for that game, but that never stopped me. My brothers proved more skilful, although I did eventually make up for my lack of natural ability with sheer volume of practice. My abiding memories of Kerbs, though, will always be either waiting patiently as my opponent hit kerb after kerb after kerb (how long could they keep going??), or the sheer joy on my younger brother’s face when he tried the high-scoring backward, over-the-head throw yet again and actually managed to hit the kerb. I’m pretty sure that he would have consistently scored higher if he just threw normally each time, but I was always delighted with his high-stakes gambling approach to the game.

Another surefire favourite was Elastics. Like skipping, while definitely more favoured by the girls on the street than the boys, it was by no means a unisex game. All it took was a good length of elastic, some accurate jumping, and knowledge of an appropriate song – our go-to was ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails’. We started with the elastics at ankle height, then up to knees, then thighs, bums – and on to waists, under-arms and necks for when we were feeling particularly dare-devilish. It was often easier jumping in stocking feet (without buckles or laces to catch on the elastic), and my mother will happily remind me that I ruined many a pair of socks that way. And back then, socks and sandals was a perfectly acceptable look (I swear) – so holey socks really were a problem.

And then there was that day when everyone seemed to be out on the street at the same time, kicking around and looking for something to do, and someone suggested Red Rover or Bulldog, or Rounders or a mammoth game of Forty Forty (Tip the Can). And it didn’t matter that some kids were thirteen years old and others were only five or six – hordes of us would spend the afternoon tearing about the place breaking chains, or getting home runs, or tipping the can and saving all. And when we all started getting called in for dinner, despite the hunger we went back home reluctantly, knowing that there wouldn’t be another day quite like this. Not for a while at least.

For me, Red Rover, Red Rover is a salute to those rose-tinted days, a reminder of simpler times. And it’s a thank you to all of those playmates – whether they were fellow Relievo team members, or What Time Is It, Mr Wolf? competitors, or companion Hopscotchers. I hope that they can look back and say ‘Hey, my fashion sense may have been an assault on the eyes, but at least I know for sure that we had the best fun’. I know I can, and I know my brothers and sister can. On both counts.

Kunak McGann, October 2017

Red Rover, Red Rover! is available here and in all good bookshops!

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!



A Week of Blooming Wisdom

Jamie O’Connell, editor and selector of Best-Loved Joyce, guides us through a week of Joycean quotes in the lead up to Bloomsday. Jamie also chats about James Joyce and what Bloomsday means to him.

A Week of Blooming Wisdom

All moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpday, frightday, shatterday…

Finnegans Wake

To celebrate the Bloomsday Festival that runs over the coming days (Bloomsday being Friday 16th), I’ve taken some quotes from Best-Loved Joyce that have inspired me, and I hope they inspire you. Using Joyce’s iconic days of the week in Finnegans Wake, here are seven(ish!) of my favourite Joyce quotes, which showcase some of his profound insights:


I want to see everyone… all creeds and classes… having a comfortable tidysized income… I call that patriotism.



The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What is beautiful is another question.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law, but always meeting ourselves



One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

‘The Dead’, Dubliners


She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed

‘A Mother’, Dubliners


To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher


What is it about James Joyce that you love? Is it the man himself or his work or both?

For me, Joyce is the epitome of the Oscar Wilde quote, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. Many of the personal choices he made in his life would not have been choices I would’ve made; in fact, some of them were extremely destructive (he put his poor wife Nora Barnacle, along with other members of his family, through the wringer!). However, he had great integrity and vision when it came to his art. Out of the ‘lumps of earth’ (as he called it) he created work of great beauty and integrity, unflinching in it’s descriptions of human nature. His commitment and courage when it came to his craft/art is a inspiration for any writer.

If you could meet James Joyce today what would you ask him?

You took the ‘road less traveled’. What gave you the courage to do this?

What is your favourite James Joyce book or piece of literature?

My favourite work has shifted throughout the years. It is as Marcel Proust says (I paraphrase): we don’t read books, we read ourselves. As someone who was brought up in an extremely religious environment, in my twenties I could see myself in the struggles of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Of course, Dubliners was the most accessible of his work – it’s a cliché, I know, but ‘The Dead’ is definitely a favourite! Right now, I think Ulysses is my favourite work – it’s the work that I found the most wisdom and riches in when I was compiling Best-Loved Joyce.

Do you think Bloomsday is an important celebration and if so, why?

I think anything that highlights great literature can only be a good thing. Studies have repeatedly show that people who read regularly have higher levels of empathy and, in a world where it seems like empathy is vanishing and being replaced by fear of ‘the other’, literary festivals like Bloomsday, which encourage people to pick up a book, are not simply ‘entertainment’ or a form of ‘distraction’, they are part of the movement that keeps human nature from being drawn towards it’s more dangerous instincts.

Do you celebrate Bloomsday every year and if so what do you do?

For the last couple of years, while working on this text, I’ve had a ‘Bloomsday’ experience on a regular basis! This year I’m actually delighted to be giving a talk on Bloomsday (Friday 16th June) in Rathgar on ‘How Joyce can Change Your Life.’ (giving my event a little plug there!). Ten years ago, I avoided Joyce like the plague – now I have great admiration for him as a fan – I’m no academic. I’d like to contribute to the Bloomsday celebrations by offering people like myself, non-academics, a chance to understand some of the beauty and wisdom of Joyce’s work.

Jamie O’Connell, June 2017

Best-Loved Joyce is a beautiful and accessible introduction to the writings of James Joyce. Short, entertaining quotes from his major works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, with more from his poetry & letters, and some family anecdotes handed down to grand-nephew Bob Joyce.
Best-Loved Joyce was published in May 2017 and is available here and in all good bookshops!
To celebrate Bloomsday we are offering 20% discount on all James Joyce related titles if you buy online at until Friday 23rd June –  Blooming Marvellous!

Sockies 2017 – Best Blog of an SME!

The O’Brien Press were delighted to win a Sockie last night for the Best Blog of an SME! Congratulations and a huge thank you to all of our authors who write inspirational pieces for our blog and to the OBP team for their creativity and energy!



What It’s Like To Finish A Trilogy

Matt Griffin, author of The Ayla Trilogy, chats about his experience of writing a trilogy: the inspiration, the method and his three central thoughts!

Ayla’s adventure was always envisioned as a trilogy. The sacrosanct Three Acts; beginning, middle and end; the ‘monomyth’ of the hero’s journey. Three books in which to take a character from normality to abnormality and back again, nicely tied off at the end, with everything as it should be.

But I wanted to put my own stamp on that, the same way I wanted to filter the mysticism of ancient Ireland through my own (somewhat macabre) imagination. So my first thought was:

I’m going to start with my hero already in trouble.

So on the very first page of the first book, Ayla (our hero) is trapped underground, far from home (very, very far – not in terms of distance, but in terms of time) and she has no idea how she got there. She will have to work it out herself, and while she does that, the reader does too. You will learn about the how and why just as she does, and her three best friends do too. Which brings me to my second thought:

 I want this whole thing to be about loyalty. 

The bonds of loyalty between a person and their friends and family is something I consider myself well-versed in, being blessed as I am with abundance of both. And so I wanted to see what happens to the bonds between friends when those friends are placed in lethal levels of danger, in an environment that has no relation to what they think of as reality. And what happens to the bonds of family when you realise that they are not who they say they are. Or worse, they are behaving unlike themselves – in a very unsettling way. With these ties tested under severe stress, the characters learn about themselves, and surprise themselves (and hopefully the reader) with what they are capable of. When the world you know is swiped from under your feet, and you are faced with an 80-foot ogre who wants to eat you, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your true nature comes to the surface.

My final thought was:

I do not want to tie this off neatly at the end.

Ok, the whole thing was not just based on three thoughts. There was a lot more I wanted to explore thematically – like what happens when fantasy meets reality head-on, and is ‘magic’ necessarily super- or preternatural (maybe our mundane reality is magic. I certainly like to think so). But sticking to the tidy three-acts trope, my last major consideration was that everything would not go back to normal at the end of the adventure. No story ends with everything as it was at the start –  – characters have to undergo change. Ending a story with a ‘their-lives-will-never-be-the-same-again’ sunset is hardly a first – I’m not claiming otherwise. But it was important to me that when you finish this trilogy you, the reader, might find yourself imagining what happens next, and wonder: do they all really live happily ever after? I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say the characters are equipped for more adventure.

And so that brings me to the question I was meant to address at the start: what is it like to finish it?

Before I wrote books, I admit I used to cringe slightly at authors who referred to their characters as if they were real people. How misguided I was. When you start to create these characters, they are just that: characters. They have names, some personality traits, a bit of family background. And then you throw these barely-known characters into the wringer of high adventure and they become people. You actually get to know them as you write. That may sound slightly cheesy, but it’s true. And I bet if you read a story where the writer didn’t believe his characters were real people, you didn’t like it. If the writer doesn’t believe them, why would they expect anyone else to? As the story unfolds while you write, the cast of your story reacts just as they should because you believe in them. And, I don’t mind telling you, you love them. And I don’t mind telling you more: as I wrote the last lines of The Ayla Trilogy, I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I knew I was saying goodbye to them forever. Finishing their story was both happy (the sense of achievement) and sad (the sense of loss). Bittersweet, like releasing a bird you nurtured back to health over weeks and months with a blubbering cry of: ‘Fly! Be free!’; missing it terribly, but knowing you are doing the right thing.

Of course, the hope is that they are strong enough to live on in the imagination of the reader. And in that sense, they can go on indefinitely. That is a warming thought.

Now, it’s on to the next adventure, and new characters to write and love and let fly. But I will certainly never forget Ayla, Benvy, Sean and Finny. And I hope that if you (or a young reader belonging to you) loved them too, they’ll linger a while in that vast expansive imagination of yours.

Matt Griffin, May 2017

The Ayla Trilogy is available here and in all good bookshops!


Erika McGann on Forts, Childhood Rebellion, and the Legend of Farmer Hearty

Erika McGann, author of the Demon Notebook Series, chats to us about her new Cass and the Bubble Street Gang series. The Clubhouse Mystery is the first book in this new series!

The greatest fort I’ve ever seen was one I didn’t help to build. It was built by the big kids. And it was probably a crime.

Nicknamed ‘The Tunnel’, it was a huge crater dug in the middle of a field; the crater was covered by aluminium sheeting, which was covered by soil, which was covered by branches, leaves and grass. It was entirely underground and it was awesome.

I wasn’t allowed into the Tunnel. None of the small kids were. We had to watch enviously, hidden in the hedgerows, while the big kids crawled in and out through a narrow trapdoor on one side. I’d forgotten about that bit – it had a freakin’ trapdoor.

The forts me and my friends made (or acquired) were much less impressive, but I remember the kick we got out of naming a secret camp and vowing to stash a bin bag full of sweets there (to be bought with months of saved pocket money … if we could just get around to actually saving it). That seemed to be the main function of a secret fort – somewhere to stash the loot. A limitless supply of chocolate, crisps and penny sweets was the dream. For the sake of our local shopkeeper, it’s a good thing that never came true. Spending 30p could easily take twenty minutes or more of careful consideration at the sweet counter. Choosing a bagful would have taken weeks.

There were secret forts and camps dotted all over the fields that stretched beyond the housing estate where I lived, and they were made all the more exciting and dangerous by the legend of Farmer Hearty.

Farmer Hearty was a huge man who wore a flat cap and a tweed jacket, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a shotgun over one shoulder. At his heel followed a hound of horrible ferocity – it was, depending on who told the story, a cross between a Rottweiler, an Alsatian, a pit bull and a wolf.

I’d never seen Farmer Hearty – none of my friends had seen him either – but we had heard wild tales from the older kids about being chased across the fields, bullets whizzing past their ears, the Baskerville Hound snapping at their heels as they ran, and we knew to be afraid. Because, like any good cartoon villain, Farmer Hearty hated kids. And he would shoot any he caught trespassing on his lands.

I remember sunny days, playing by the stream, crossing by the log that didn’t quite make it all the way to the other side, when my blood would suddenly run cold at the sound of the word ‘Hearty!’ echoing through the trees. I could have outrun an Olympian then. Nothing powers sprinting legs like sheer terror.

And I must have run that fast because Farmer Hearty never got me. I never so much as caught a glimpse of that huge man’s towering shadow spilling over the waves of wheat as he gave chase.

In all the years I lived there, fleeing under electric fences, through holes in hedges, wading through waist-deep water, suffering scrapes and bruises and humiliating face-plants in shallow, muddy pools, I never once saw Farmer Hearty in the flesh. None of my friends ever saw him either. Throughout those summers, the big kids taught us a valuable lesson … and the meaning of the word gullible. Thank you, big kids.

All of this stuff has been coming back to me more and more as I write the Cass and the Bubble Street Gang books; a series about a group of friends with a secret club, a secret clubhouse, and a longing for adventure.

I can still feel that spark of excitement in my belly that Cass and her friends get as they make their covert plans for a hidden fortress. Me and my friends were obsessed with having something secret, something that was just our own. I guess that comes from being a kid, and everything about your life being someone else’s business all of the time. You want your own space, your own stuff, your own adventures. Maybe it’s the very beginning of growing up – your first little rebellion. And it is a little rebellion.

A secret fort is like your very own house, and in your house you’re the boss. You decide what time you go to bed (though you’ll never actually be there at night-time), you decide what you’re going to eat (which will be junk food for as long as your pocket money lasts, but let’s face it, you’re going to go home for dinner when you’re properly hungry), and you decide who comes in and who doesn’t (through the clever use of a password, changed fortnightly – a security system that’s totally unenforceable, and you all know it, but nobody says anything).

Cass, Lex and Nicholas are in the middle of their little rebellion. They risk climbing the fence into Mr McCall’s field, braving the snorting threats of angry bulls (never that scary in cartoons but terrifying in real life) and leaping over ditches into bramble-filled hedges just to find the perfect spot for their secret clubhouse. With the hidden hideout built and packed to the paddling pool roof with muffins and cookies, they go looking for adventure. It finds them first; something I lived in very great fear of as a child – a clubhouse intruder.

In the second book they move on to entrepreneurial adventures, determined to make millions through jumble sales, ghost tours and virtual holidays. That’s also inspired by my own childhood efforts, but it would take an entire other blog post to list all the money-making ideas that never made us a bean. The dream of the bottomless bag of chocolate, crisps and penny sweets remained forever beyond our reach.

I’ve lost the desire for it anyway. I am a fan of junk food, but a black plastic bag stashed in the corner seems ridiculous. And I haven’t built a fort in years, not even a temporary indoor one with chairs and cushions and blankets (and a mop for height; it was always a killer getting height). I have grown-up adventures instead. I’ve travelled a bit, I’ve had some quirky hobbies, I’ve been scuba diving and abseiling and white water rafting, and I once slept through a hurricane. But nothing’s ever quite matched the thrill of watching someone dig a big hole in the ground and cover it up with soil and twigs.

It felt like the Tunnel existed for months – an entire summer at least – but it probably only lasted a week or two. It was a foot that did it. One single careless foot that slipped between the sheets of aluminium and ploughed right through the roof of the tunnel below. I can remember one corner of aluminium sheeting poking skywards through the soil – the beginning of the end. The big kids hadn’t the motivation to fix it, and we hadn’t the know-how. The Tunnel collapsed like a bad soufflé, but what it lacked in structural integrity it more than made up for in wow factor. It is, ironically, cemented in my mind as the greatest fort that has ever been.

Erika McGann, April 2017

The Clubhouse Mystery is available here and in all good bookshops!