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!

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:

Moanday

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

Ulysses

Tearsday

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

Wailsday

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

Ulysses

Thumpday

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

Frightday

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

‘A Mother’, Dubliners

Shatterday

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

Ulysses

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 www.obrien.ie until Friday 23rd June –  Blooming Marvellous!

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!

Natasha Mac a’Bháird on the Star Club Series

With the publication of Starring Meg nearly upon us, Natasha Mac a’Bháird talks about her inspirations for the Star Club Series. Natasha chats about her narrators and how she finds herself becoming attached to them.

When I visit schools to talk about my books, they always want to know where I get my ideas. It’s a really tough one to answer. Ideas come from all sorts of places – something I’ve read, a conversation with someone – but they rarely have a clear form, more like something vague emerging from a fog that I try to grasp on to.

My new series, Star Club, is a bit easier to explain. I can trace the roots of this idea right back to when I was the same age as the four girls in the books. At twelve the thing I was most passionate about was reading (no change there then!), but a close second was drama. I loved everything about it from creating characters to dressing up to making up stories. Like the Star Club girls, I used to put on shows, roping in my sister and brothers and sometimes friends and neighbours too to act and sing and dance with me. Hannah’s brothers, Zach and Bobby, are loosely based on my own brothers – when we wanted them to be in one of our plays, my sister and I always had to make sure there was a sword fight in it, so we could send them off to practise that scene on their own when they were starting to lose interest (or getting in our way …)

The other part of my idea for this series was the concept of a club, with all the fun of making plans, arranging meetings and the excitement of keeping secrets. I especially liked the idea of a group of girls sharing their talents and working together to achieve a goal that means a lot to all of them. I was a big fan of the Babysitters Club books growing up, and those books helped inspire me too.

I started writing the first book with new girl Meg as the narrator, but after the first three chapters I got stuck. I left it for a while, not sure why it wasn’t working for me. When I went back to it a few months later and read over what I’d written, I realised I was trying to tell the story from the wrong point of view. It would work much better to have Hannah as the narrator, allowing me to describe her sense of intrigue with the mysterious Meg moving in next door. I started all over again, and with Hannah’s voice clear in my head I was soon flying along. The second book gave me the chance to bring the story on from Meg’s perspective, and to reveal the full extent of Meg’s secret past.

It’s very exciting seeing Hannah and Meg in print, side by side, with the amazing covers designed by Rachel Corcoran. The lovely thing about writing a series is not having to let go of characters I’ve come to know and love. I’m now writing the third book, which is Laura’s story. So I have a new voice in my head, full of Laura’s feistiness and overactive imagination, as I find out what these four girls get up to next.

Starring Meg is out 6th March.

Natasha Mac a’Bháird, March 2017

Starring Meg is available here and in all good bookshops!

Gerard Siggins on Rugby and Writing

Gerard Siggins chats about his love for rugby and his passion for books ahead of the publication of the fifth book in the Rugby Spirit series – Rugby Runner!

I never really intended to write for young readers. I had enough problems making older ones engage with my weekly column on that esoteric (for Ireland) sport of cricket. But a series of coincidences and chance meetings led me to write the Rugby Spirit series, the fifth of which has just been published.

I grew up – and still live – beside Lansdowne Road, a magical site soaked in the sweat of 100,000 sportsmen and women where the dramas and delights of sport have been played out for nearly a century and a half. As boys, we used it as a playground – in those pre-security guard days we had free run of the stadium and even got to kick and run on the holy turf of the main pitch.

I grew up and became a sports journalist, and found myself returning to Lansdowne Road for big games. Every visit was special, and always brought back memories of my own and of the deeds of the past.

When it was decided to level the grand-stands and bring it back as a shiny, kidney-bowl shaped stadium, I resolved to capture those deeds in a book. With colleague Paul Howard, (later replaced by Malachy Clerkin when Paul, by then busy with Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, “couldn’t be orsed”), we put together a series of tales under the title Lansdowne Road, the Stadium, the Matches, the Greatest Days (O’Brien Press 2010).

Malachy was a youngster, so he got to do the easy work of talking to players and those who had seen action on the ground. I got the front half of the book, which involved burrowing in the Gilbert and National Libraries, and other dusty archives.

One of the stories I came across was that of Brian Hanrahan, the only player ever to die from injuries sustained in the ground. He was largely a forgotten figure, ignored in several histories of Irish rugby, so I resolved to find out as much as I could about his life and death, and it became a chapter, ‘The Fatal Scrum’, in our book.

Brian’s story stayed with me, however, and I wanted to write about him again.

I had been making up bedtime stories for my youngest son Billy, who particularly enjoyed the story of a kid who meets a ghost who helps him play soccer and become the best player in his team.

I met Joe (Little Croker and Legends Lair) O’Brien at an awards dinner and, chatting about children’s books, I told him about my story. He encouraged me to write it down and gave me a few hints. I struggled at first, but had a brainwave to turn Billy the soccer player into Eoin the rugby player – the ghost became Brian and the location Lansdowne Road.

As they had published two previous non-fiction books of mine, I sent the first draft to O’Brien Press and happily they accepted it. Since then, Eoin and Brian have gone on to have several adventures, each time being joined by a new real-life rugby-playing ghost such as All Blacks WW1 hero Dave Gallaher; Irish rebel and Belvedere winger Kevin Barry; Russian Prince and England winger Alexander Obolensky; and the man credited with inventing rugby, William Webb Ellis.

At the time of writing this blog, Rugby Runner is just hitting the shelves of the nation’s bookshops, and I’ve just finished writing the 17th chapter in book six. Looking outside, the glass-wrapped wall of the stadium fills my back window and reminds me every day of the power of sport to bring joy.

* Rugby Runner is out on February 13th.

Gerard Siggins, February 2017

The Rugby Spirit series is available here and in all good bookshops!

 

Eric Luke Looks Back

Upon the release of his photographic collection, Eric Luke looks back over forty years capturing the changing faces of Ireland.

The Garda put his two hands together to form a stirrup. I placed my foot in the hold and he hoisted me over the high wall. Shimmying down the other side, I looked for a gap in the crowd of protesters, then landed squarely on Lansdowne Road. Not a glamorous exit from the oldest rugby ground in the world, but I was on a mission. I barged my way through the mass of people and headed for Jury’s Hotel, Ballsbridge. There, a telex-operator took the Press Association copy and transmitted the breaking news directly to London.

The occasion was an international rugby match between Ireland and South Africa in 1970. A large group of anti-apartheid protesters had gathered outside Lansdowne Road, and I was delivering copy for my brother, a news reporter with the Press Association in London’s famous Fleet Street. This was my first time to experience the excitement of a hot news story, breaking before my very own eyes, and I was a part of it. A small link in the chain from eyewitness to reader. While I didn’t own a camera to capture this bit of history, I believe it was here I got my love for a great news story.

Moving from being a press messenger for one day off school to being a staff photographer with the largest newspaper group in Ireland proved as big a jump as over that stadium wall. Yet in 1973 I was offered the position of staff photographer with the Irish Press Group. Shooting pictures for the morning daily and The Evening Press, alongside excursions for The Sunday Press, saw the start of a forty-three-year journey that culminated with my current position on The Irish Times. A four-decade whirlwind, and a bit of a blur.

I photographed presidential inaugurations and state funerals, rioting on the streets and peaceful protests, everyday life in rural Ireland and a vastly changing capital city; the job was never predictable. But what was predictable was the necessity to put ‘my old negatives’ in some form of order. And so when I was invited by The O’Brien Press to publish a selection of my work, I jumped at the opportunity.

Poitín-making in Mayo shot on colour transparency film in the 1980s, Tory Island life in black & white in the 1970s, rock music by Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and U2 over three decades – it all fell into place. With a good editor and a great layout, all that was required of me was to assemble a selection of work and write some copy to accompany the images.

Everybody at The O’Brien Press came on board, and with their guidance and encouragement I managed to put my photographs in order. In many ways the experience was as much fun as taking the original pictures.

Dalkey barber Dom McClure:

Photograph: Eric Luke

It’s funny how we overlook what’s sitting on our own doorstep. Growing up in Dalkey, County Dublin, the local barber, Dom McClure, featured regularly, providing a short-back-and-sides to satisfy the demands of the local school principal. Years later in the 1980s, I went back to photograph his barber shop, and spending the day observing him at work helped to produce a small piece of local history which I now look back fondly on. The interior of his establishment looking somewhat like a theatre set, with Dom on stage in the spotlight. These pictures provided a neat selection for the chapter on Dalkey in Looking Back.

 

Photograph: Eric Luke

Martin Sheen on Main Street:

Sifting back over ‘my old negatives’ I also came across a photograph of local man Des O’Brien with the actor Martin Sheen. This was not a Hollywood-style photo shoot but a pint interrupted and a favour for a friend, recording the movie star’s appearance on Dalkey’s Main Street to film the Hugh Leonard film Da.

 

Photograph: Eric Luke

Tory Island, Donegal:

My first visit to photograph Tory Island in the 1970s was not as simple as planned. Without transport to the island, I worked my passage by helping to load a boat with turf. On arrival I was surprised to find the island didn’t support a hotel or pub, and I was eventually accommodated in a local cottage. With great hospitality the islanders welcomed me, and the selection of photographs taken over the following ten days provided the bones for a chapter in the book on Tory. Many trips since have brought this work up to date.

Looking Back has given me a platform to show photographs that otherwise would be gathering dust in my attic; the archive of forty years has now got a new lease of life. Working for newspapers, I’m used to a photograph getting great exposure on the front page only to be replaced twenty-four hours later by a new front page and a new accompanying photograph. This lovely hardback presentation by The O’Brien Press is here to stay, and I look forward to leafing through the pages for years to come.

Eric Luke, December 2016

Looking Back – The Changing Faces of Ireland is available here and in all good bookshops!

An Interview with Judi

This week The O’Brien Press chatted with the wonderful Judi Curtin about her forthcoming book Time After Time. We got down to the good stuff like time travel and friendship!

Where did you get the idea for this new book?Judi Curtin 1

It started when I thought about the regret a young girl would feel at never having the chance to know her mum. Then I had to find a way for them to be together, even though the mum had died many years earlier.

Time travel is such a cool concept, what was your inspiration for this?

Time travel has always fascinated me. Who wouldn’t want the chance to revisit the past? Who wouldn’t want to experience historical events? Who wouldn’t want to see their parents as teenagers?

If you could travel through a porthole to any decade/period in history, when would it be?

I think I’d go back to the 1920’s, when my grandparents were young. It’s an interesting era, and I’d love to see the lives my grandparents had, many years before I came along.

Is Molly based on someone in particular?

No. Except for Domino the cat, all of my characters are completely fictional. (But that doesn’t stop people saying they recognize themselves in my books!)

Did you have fun writing about the 80s?

I loved it. I know it’s ancient history to my readers, but for me I’m writing about my youth.

What is your favourite thing about the 80s?

The fashions might seem gross now, but they were wonderful too. Everything was big and loud and colourful.

When you were writing Time After Time did you miss your other characters from the Alice series or the Eva series?

I always miss my old characters, and more than once I’ve sneaked a few from one series into another.

What was your favourite part of writing Time after Time?

I loved writing the part where Beth meets her mother – the first time I’ve made myself cry. Sad, but very rewarding.

Do you read children’s books yourself?

Only rarely (which might be controversial). I read voraciously when I was a child, and as a teacher and parent, I continued that for many years. Now though, I mostly read books written for people like me.

When you write, how much do you think about the reader?

In the first draft I’m very much writing what I want to write. In later drafts, with the help of my wonderful editor, Helen, I do try to consider how the reader is going to engage with my characters and story.

How does your interaction with real children affect the way you write and what you write about?

I do very many events with young people, who can be quite transparent. They seem to like my stories about families and friendship, and as I like writing these, it’s easy to continue.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read everything you can get your hands on. Keep a diary. Enter competitions – not necessarily to win, but so you get practice at polishing your work.

Time for the mean question: What is your favourite book in the entire world?

Today I’m going to say The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis. It’s the only Narnia book I read as a child, and I’ve always loved it. (But if you ask me again next week, it could be Heidi, First Term at Malory Towers, The Great Gatsby, or even whatever book I read tonight!)

What one item would you like to banish into history and is there anything you’d like to bring back from the past?

The thing I’d like to banish into history is internet shopping – who really needs to buy a pair of shoes at three in the morning?

The thing I’d like to bring back from the past is Angel Delight dessert. The wonderful name completely made up for the fact that it tasted so terrible. It evokes such happy memories from my childhood that I had to mention it in Time After Time.

Judi Curtin, August 2016.

We will be having a launch for Time After Time at Eason O’Connell Street on Thursday 8th September. Come back in time with Judi and get ready to party 80s style this September! See your invite below:
Come to the launch of Time After Time
Time After Time is available to pre-order here and will be available in all good bookshops from 5th September 2016!

I Was a Boy in Belsen

IWasABoyInBelsenBOn the eve of the publication of the new edition of Tomi Reichantal’s powerful memoir, I Was a Boy in Belsen, Gerry Gregg, producer/director of the feature documentaries Till the Tenth Generation and Close to Evil, talks about his work with Tomi and all that has occurred since the initial publication of his incredible story.

For the past twelve years, Tomi Reichental has been on a very public voyage of personal recovery from the searing embers of the Holocaust. Six million European Jews were annihilated during World War Two; among them were most members of Tomi’s extended family. How, Tomi wondered, could so much hate take root at the heart of Europe? The thirty-five members of his family who perished were farmers, shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, mothers and children.

In 1935, the year of  Tomi’s birth, they had every reason to hope for the future. Within a decade, their neighbours and fellow countrymen would betray them and send them to a hellish death at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal killing apparatus.

The RTÉ/Irish Film Board feature documentary Till the Tenth Generation (2009) took Tomi back to the most traumatic days of his life. It was he said ‘the time of the devil’ as he retraced the last steps of his loved ones who were gassed, worked to death, starved or guillotined by reason of their race, religion and political views.

The RTÉ documentary Close To Evil (2014) took as its starting point Tomi’s quest to meet one of Hitler’s willing executioners: the convicted SS war criminal Hilde Michnia. Hilde Lisiewicz, as she was in 1945, was on duty in Bergen-Belsen during the period that Tomi, his brother Miki and his mother Judith were incarcerated and slowly starving. Tomi’s grandmother, Rosalia Scheimowitz, perished from hunger on Hilde Lisiewicz’s watch at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

In the multi-award-winning Close to Evil, Hilde Michnia made a number of incriminating statements. Frau Michnia openly admitted in interviews she gave in 2004 that she was also involved in the forced ‘evacuation’ from the Gross-Rosen network of camps in what is now Poland to the town of Guben in January 1945.

We know that the word ‘evacuation’ was a euphemism for a manic, lethal commitment to persecute and kill Jews right to the bitter end of the Third Reich on what became known as ‘death marches’. We know from the accounts of survivors such as Luba Varshavska, who spoke to Tomi in her home near Tel Aviv, that hundreds of female prisoners died on the cruel trek from Grünberg to Guben in the middle of winter. Many were shot for failing to keep up with the forced pace of the slog through snow and ice and biting winds. In her recorded testimony, Hilde Michnia claims she witnessed no ill-treatment of prisoners; indeed, she asserts that they were fed and cared for as well as could be expected by her and her SS comrades.

Now Tomi has set himself the task of bringing this unrepentant SS guard to account, not only for her complicity in war crimes but for her public distortion of the truth and denial of the Shoah.

Ironically, Tomi’s generosity of spirit has helped to heal others with a Nazi past. From Germany to Australia, those prepared to confront both the actions and the shame of their forefathers have found Tomi to be an inspiration and a source of support.

In January 2015, following a public screening of Close to Evil in Lüneburg, Hilde Michnia’s admission that she was a participant in the Grünberg to Guben ‘evacuation’ in January 1945 prompted the German authorities to open an investigation into the then 93-year-old Hamburg woman. After the German premiere, a formal complaint was filed by Hans-Jürgen Brennecke, the son of a Nazi policeman whose father had justified the slaughter of Jews on the basis that ‘it was them or us’. Brennecke is a man who has faced up to the skeletons in his family cupboard. He believes many more Germans have still to come to terms with what their fathers and mothers did during the Third Reich. In the case of Hilde Michnia, Brennecke submitted that her claims that there was no maltreatment of prisoners on her watch at either the Gross-Rosen–affiliated camp or Bergen-Belsen amounted to ‘Auschwitz Luge’ – Holocaust denial, a criminal offence in Germany.

Whether or not Hilde Michnia eventually faces trial is not the point of the process initiated by Hans-Jürgen Brennecke and supported by Tomi Reichental. Their aim is to confront the legally uncontested claims of an SS guard that under her care frightened, famished and frozen slave labourers were fed cocoa and hot soup – when those who survived this ordeal can recall only fear and loathing and the sound of gunfire directed at those who could not keep up with the pace of the retreat from the advancing Soviet Red Army.

This book, first published in 2011, is a bestseller. It is, however, not the end of the Tomi Reichental story. Anything but. In 2015, two Irish universities, NUI Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin, bestowed on Tomi honorary doctorates for his ‘mission of remembrance’. Soon Dublin City University will confer a similar honour on Tomi. But it is the affection of ordinary people that is most striking. Tomi is often stopped in the street or on trains and trams by strangers eager to shake his hand and wish him well in his work.

Every week Tomi speaks to students at schools all over Ireland. Close to 100,000 Irish second-level students have heard Tomi describe ‘the indescribable’. Wherever he goes, he is received as a valued, special citizen of the Irish Republic.

In 2014 Tomi won a Rehab People of the Year Award. A frequent contributor to high-profile TV and radio shows, Tomi’s commitment to truth and reconciliation is regularly the subject of sympathetic media coverage. He is now a national figure whose actions are reverberating beyond Irish shores.

Remarkably, in June 2015, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Tomi was invited to speak about the Holocaust to the congregation of a large Dublin mosque. The Imam of the West Dublin–based Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre, Dr Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri, pointed out that this was ‘a unique event in modern Europe, if not the world’. The Imam hopes that the example of Tomi reaching out to, and being embraced by, Irish Muslims will be a beacon for the rest of Europe to follow.

Far from putting his feet up and taking it easy, Tomi Reichental is starting a new chapter in his remarkable life. He is embarking on new adventures and taking on fresh challenges. Long may he continue to inspire with his big heart, his open mind and his generosity of spirit.

The journey continues. The man who was a boy in Belsen is still restless, and has ‘miles to go before he sleeps’.

Gerry Gregg

The Root of Inspiration

Author and award-winning illustrator Matt Griffin talks about the inspiration behind his debut novel, A Cage of Roots.

The process of writing A Cage of Roots began with a walk. This is something I do whenever I’m faced with a big illustration project or anything that requires a high degree of creativity. I need the air, the motion, the colours, and most of all I need to start the walk with a blank slate. For the first kilometre or so, I probably resemble an extra from The Walking Dead. So effective is my ability to turn off any distractions, such as thinking, that I am often in danger of forgetting that thinking is the reason I went for a walk in the first place. And so it was that I shuffled zombie-like along the paths of Lees Road Park in Ennis with a mission to create my own dark version of ancient Ireland.

As ever, when I pick up the pace, my brain follows suit and the cogs grind into action. I start to see things. Not like a movie, as such – more like the visions you have when you’re reading a book and you forget that you are actually reading. Random scenes flash before my eyes, and as I walk, they coalesce into a narrative. It may sound cheesy, but the story presents itself to me and I just watch. Then I rewind and replay, not just to refine it but to make sure I don’t forget. It’s probably quite a frightening sight for my fellow walkers. I’m sure joggers go off-piste into the undergrowth to avoid me. But in those moments I am completely and utterly lost in the story, and nothing less than a nuclear explosion would distract me. It is a happy time.

Emma Byrne, the brilliant Art Director at The O’Brien Press, was the first person to suggest that I might try writing a story of my own. She could tell from my illustration work at the time that I had a penchant for both Irish myth and the darker side of fairy tales. I had written in a journalistic capacity in my twenties, but I hadn’t written fiction since school. I did, however, keep stacks of notebooks filled with concepts for stories. I never had a shortage of ideas – but this was a real chance to show that I could bring a book from concept to finish. It was a challenge I gratefully accepted, suffered panic at the hands of, and eventually relished in. I went for my walk, dreamt up the bones of the story, and got to work.

It needed some refining.

As a first-time writer, I needed guidance. I could put nice words in the right order, but building a story, with arcs and strands and consequences, was next-level. It took hard work and the wisdom of people who know better. I had learned a lot from a friend of mine, the director/animator/puppeteer Damian Farrell, with whom I had worked on a feature film concept. But I was still wet behind the ears. Thankfully, once again, The O’Brien Press had faith, and my editor, Susan Houlden, helped me develop from a potential writer to (I hope!) a writer. Without that guidance I couldn’t have done it; it’s that simple.

Being an illustrator first, it was imperative that I have art in my book. These kind of books don’t often have illustrations, it was argued, but my dream from early childhood was to make my own world in words and then to be allowed to show glimpses of it with drawings. (As an impossibly cute young scamp, I obsessed over Tolkien’s artwork in The Hobbit as much as the story.) As it happened, I heaped incredible pressure on myself to produce my best work, and as your best work is always ahead of you (lesson there, folks!), I am already dissatisfied with it. That is my lot as an artist, though – I am never happy with my work for longer than a day.

I was also allowed to design the cover, and I would probably be dissatisfied with that too if it wasn’t for the embossing. That saves it. (Thanks, Emma!)

So now it’s on to the next story in Ayla’s adventure. I’m already knee-deep in it, having walked and dreamt on a clear day halfway up Mullaghmore in the Burren. This time, the drawings will be my best work ever. For a day at least.

Matt Griffin was born in DMattGriffinublin in 1979 and grew up in Kells, Co. Meath. After a brief attempt at third level education he spent eight years in London working in the media, before moving home to Ireland in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a fulltime illustrator. Since then he has garnered a reputation as one of the most eclectic graphic artists in contemporary illustration, collecting awards and accolades for his work in publishing, advertising and, in particular, the field of poster art. His passion for visual design was always married to one for writing. He lives in Ennis, Co. Clare, with his wife Orla and daughters Holly & Chloe.

 

Watch out for Erika McGann!

We catch up with the award-winning children’s author on all her latest projects.

This autumn sees the publication of the third book in your supernatural series, The Watching Wood. This time Grace and the girls get caught up in the Witch Trials. Tell us a bit about their adventure.

In the new book the girls get sucked into a magical world full of witches, faeries and creepy ghost children. Grace and her friends are forced to take part in the Witch Trials, a kind of supernatural Community Games, and unwittingly make enemies of a rival team. They soon discover that there are more dangerous things in this new world then a spiteful team of witch apprentices – the woods nearby are filled with faeries, magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, banished by witches and hell-bent on revenge. With the little magic they’ve learned so far, the girls must survive the Witch Trials, navigate through the faery-filled woods and pay the mysterious Ferryman’s price to make it back home.

Your next book after The Watching Wood will be a mini-adventure with Grace and her friends, The Fairytale Trap, a 2015 World Book Day Book (you can pick it up for FREE with a WBD voucher). What were the challenges you had in writing this adventure, compared to writing The Demon Notebook, or your other full-length novels?

This was a fun one to write – a little magical mishap to drop into the girls’ school year – but keeping it short was a bit of a struggle. You’re always tempted to elaborate, build up the atmosphere slowly and add a few subplots, but this was a novella, not a novel, so it had to be quick and to the point. I enjoyed that though, there was no lull in the pace. The girls leap from one scene to the next without stopping. It kept me on my toes!

So what’s next for Grace and the girls? Are there more magical adventures to come?

Yes, there’s a fourth novel in the series due out in autumn next year. I haven’t really started on the text yet (I need to get a move on!), but it’ll centre on an old-style carnival that arrives unexpectedly in Dunbridge. I love the idea of a carnival – it’s fun and exciting, with just a little bit of creepy.

Have you any other plans for books outside the magical series you’ve created?

I’d love to have a go at a few other things if I could find the time! At the moment, the Dunbridge books are keeping me busy, but maybe in a year or two …

You do lots of events up and down the country – what’s your favourite part of these readings and visits?

The Q&A that comes at the end of each session (or in the middle of the session if I’ve got a chatty group!). I like talking about books and writing and how I got started, but it’s really the conversation with the kids that’s the fun part. I’m happy to talk at a group, but talking with them is much more enjoyable.

This summer you travelled to the UK to pick up the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award 2014. How did it feel to win the award? And what did you get up to while there?

It was a wonderful couple of days in a beautiful part of England. The organisers were lovely and made sure I saw plenty of the country while I was there. I got to watch the vote for the Waverton Award for adults, which was really interesting (plenty of rivalry between the advocates of each shortlisted title!), and I did a short talk with them. I met some of the kids, of course, and they were a fantastic bunch; full of chat and enthusiasm and a real love of reading. It was a great trip and I was so delighted to win the award.

You are pretty active on Twitter and Facebook – it seems like social media is a part of a modern-day writer’s life. Is it a part of ‘the job’ you enjoy?

It’s a part of ‘the job’ I still have to master. I try to keep up-to-date as much as possible on both, but I should be posting more often. It is definitely compulsory for the modern-day writer – social media is the quickest and easiest way to reach people, and being good at it can make all the difference to your writing career. I vow to become more proficient this year!

The Demon Notebook was recently published in the USA and it is to be translated into Spanish for the Mexican market. What was it like to see the USA version of the book? Would you be worried how the book will change when it is translated?

I adore the USA edition, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I had great fun during the edit, learning what Irish phrases mean absolutely nothing outside of Ireland and why I had to change them. I actually wrote a piece for gobblefunked.com recently about that and what happens when your work is translated (this was before the Mexican deal was signed). I considered that a translator is like a co-author you never get to meet – someone who rewrites and arranges your text for a brand new audience. I’ll never get to appreciate how the book reads in Spanish, but I still can’t wait to see it.

What advice would you give to emerging authors who’d love to write a book for children?

Write what you love and what got you excited about reading as a kid. I think when you write for children you regress a bit and experience it as you would have back then. And that’s when it works best – when you read your own text and know you would have gobbled it up when you were young.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.