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!

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!



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!



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!

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!


A Publishing Fairytale

This month we catch up with Nicola Colton. She tells the story behind the creation of her critically acclaimed picture book, A Dublin Fairytale:

A Dublin Fairytale began as a daydream on the bus; I imagined archetypal fairytale characters inhabiting famous landmarks and places in Dublin. The idea’s first application came in the form of a ‘promotional pack’ comprised of five postcards featuring characters like a troll at the ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ and a dragon at the ‘Spire’. I also created an illustrated map of the city, featuring famous landmarks like Trinity College, which became ‘Trinity College of Sorcery’ and different characters like mermaids inhabiting the River Liffey. I sent the promotional pack off to prospective clients and Emma, the art director from The O’Brien Press, saw potential in the idea as a picture book.

I began to look at bringing the characters together to form a story. I wanted the narrative to follow a fairytale-type structure and also allow the reader to explore Dublin. I worked out a route for Fiona, the main character, to take and began the story from there. Helen, my editor, was very helpful and encouraging during this process. I was really excited to feature Dublin in a picture book and to illustrate places that were familiar to me and to bring them to life in a magical way. I didn’t grow up in Dublin, but I lived there for eleven years and it’s a second home to me. I always found it to be a very vibrant city and no matter how long I’d lived there, there was always something new to discover. I wanted that sense of discovery and enchantment that I felt about Dublin to come through in the book.

Shortly after I signed the contract to write and illustrate the book I moved to Bristol. I began work on the book in a new city; which was strange at first. In hindsight I think it was a good thing as I was really missing Dublin and I put a lot of extra love into the illustrations as it was a way for me to revisit the city. Being away from Dublin meant it now held a sense of nostalgia for me and I reflected this in the muted and dreamy colour tones I used throughout the artwork in A Dublin Fairytale.

I’ve always loved fairytales and Red Riding Hood was a particular favourite as my granny

gave me a storytelling doll based on it when I was six. My granny died shortly after; so reading fairytales always made me feel close to her. It was nice to feature a Red Riding Hood-type character in the book – the main character Fiona, who sets off on the fourth page in her favourite red raincoat. As Fiona is on a journey through the city to her granny’s house via the Witches’ Market on Moore Street. it was also a way for me to visit my granny again through the story. Creating this book was an opportunity to combine my love of fairytales with a city that I love.

Picture 1I felt a responsibility to reflect Dublin and its beautiful buildings and landmarks to the best of my ability so I wanted the artwork in the book to be very detailed and carefully executed. I spent a long time working on the ‘Trinity College’ spread, in particular, as it such an impressive and iconic building and I wanted to get the details right. I enjoyed adding my own fairytale tweaks like turning the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a wizard and witch to reflect the sorcery theme. I also liked adding lots of things happening in the background like a ‘spell cloud’ billowing from one of the chimneys and some sorcery students chatting in the background.

Picture 2I spent a long time on the Witches’ Market spread as well as I wanted to add lots of little details for children to pore over. I loved Halloween as a kid (I still do!) and one of my favourite things around that time was to draw witches with lots of potions and bottles of curious things in the background. My dad used to collect old apothecary glass bottles and they always held a fascination for me and looked like something a practitioner of magic would use. I really enjoyed designing bottles and coming up with silly ingredients and labels for the spread. As Moore Street is full of colourful characters and is Dublin’s oldest food market it seemed like the perfect setting for a Witches’ Market.

Picture 3The spread where Fiona is walking through St Stephen’s Green Forest and mistakes the giant’s legs for trees is based on the perspective I had as a three- to five-year-old. I was very shy back then and remember hiding behind my dad’s legs any time I was introduced to a grown up I didn’t know. I remember thinking they were like trees and feeling very small, but safe behind them.

Adobe Photoshop PDFIt’s been really exciting and surreal to see the book published and out on the shelves in bookshops. When I received my first copies in the post I was very impressed with the printing; the uncoated offset paper really works with the soft colour palette and textures I chose.

I was also excited that it’s a hardback book, which makes it that little bit extra special.

The O’Brien Press team did a fantastic job on the production and design. The book launch in Dubray Books was fantastic and little touches like cookies featuring characters from the book (baked by The Cake Café) really made the event. Geraldine and Ruth in the Marketing Department did an amazing job organizing the launch.

Picture 5Another highlight was being asked to paint a scene from the book in Dublin’s iconic Hodges Figgis bookshop window. It was a wonderful experience and also afforded me the opportunity to meet people who bought the book and to hear their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised that about half the people buying the book that day were tourists. It really made me happy that people from outside of Dublin and Ireland are interested in the book too.

Picture 6The most important thing for me, though, has been the response from children. I’m really thrilled when parents tell me that the book is now part of their bedtime routine and when I hear about children’s favourite characters or parts of the book. I created the book with young children in mind so it’s wonderful to hear when it resonates with them.

Picture 7Nicola Colton is an illustrator based in Dublin. Her style is playful and colourful and very much influenced by folktales/folk art, scenes in nature and children’s picture books.

Her website is

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.


Under the Spell of the Hawthorn Tree

Earlier this month, Today FM posted on their Facebook page an original copy of Under the Hawthorn Tree, which got a phenomenal response (over 25k likes in a couple of hours!). Michael O’Brien, The O’Brien Press Publisher, talks about how the bestselling book and its iconic cover came to be.

Looking back on 1989, when I introduced artist Donald Teskey to Marita Conlon-McKenna, she was virtually unknown and he was in the early stages of his career as a painter.

Marita had submitted Under the Hawthorn Tree, a brutal yet brilliant story based around the Irish Famine, the question raised was, would parents want their children reading about starvation and death in 1840s Ireland. This made the illustrating of the novel critical, to set the right tone when capturing the tragedy which caused one million deaths and one million to leave Ireland’s shores. It needed an illustrator who could capture the drama and action of the three children fleeing across Ireland to save their lives, yet in a style that would encourage them to read and enjoy the book, rather than be scared by the hardship depicted by Marita.

My first experience of Donald Teskey was through the café his wife Kim Bloom ran in Terenure; on the walls she displayed wonderful drawings by him showing the urban life of Dublin at the time – gritty yet beautiful. I was greatly impressed! This was before Donald’s exhibitions in the early nineties, which launched his stellar career as a landscape painter. When Kim introduced me to Donald and I saw his portfolio, I was blown away and I asked him to illustrate some O’Brien Press children’s books, including Under the Hawthorn Tree.

Recently, I asked Donald about illustrating Marita’s books, and he said he was influenced by Louis Le Brocquy’s Táin illustrations. He said: ‘I wished to give the reader an inkling of what was going to happen – to capture the humanity of the story.’

Donald went on to create similar illustrations for Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home to complete the trilogy.

Since those days, Donald Teskey’s reputation and work has spread internationally to major centres of art: Paris, London and New York. He elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy and is represented in major collections including the Arts Council, Irish Museum of Modern Art, AIB, Limerick City Gallery of Art, KPMG, Butler Gallery, The Ulster Bank, OPW and The Ballinglen Arts Foundation.

O’Brien Press is printing a limited edition of Under the Hawthorn Tree with the original cover. Check it out here.