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.

 

Weaving a Spell for World Book Day 2015

Erika McGann catches up with us about what it was like to write her first novella, The Fairytale Trap, for World Book Day 2015, as part of her award-winning magical series.

I had an inkling of an idea for a fourth novel when the possibility TheFairytaleTrapcame up to write a short book especially for World Book Day. I didn’t know yet if a fourth novel was wanted, or if I wanted to write it, but when I was asked to do a novella for WBD in March it seemed the sensible thing to follow it with a new book in September.

So I sat down to write the novella – about 10,000 words – thinking it would take no time at all. But I had a problem with the story almost right away. I liked it, and the more I jotted down notes and possible twists in the plot, the more I thought that this story would do better as a novel. Having my school in Dunbridge engulfed by a real-life fairytale had loads of scope for subplots, character development, funny scenes and scary moments; but I couldn’t do that in 10,000 words. So I switched storylines. The fairytale plot became the fourth novel, and the fourth novel plot became the WBD novella.

So I sat down to write the novella, thinking it would be dead easy. Until I hit a problem with the story. I liked it. A 1930s-style carnival arriving unexpectedly in the dead of night – withered and fading tents, a creaking ferris wheel, a sinister ringmaster, a bearded ballerina, a haunted music box and a wicked hex – had lots of room to take the storyline wherever I felt like taking it. And the more notes and ideas I scrawled in my notebook, the more I realised I couldn’t fit it all into 10,000 words.

So I switched storylines. Again. The fairytale went back to being the novella, the carnival the novel. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say I switched again, more than once. I remember sitting outside in the sunshine, the cursor on my laptop flashing impatiently, worried that whichever story I picked to be the shorter, I’d regret it.

In the end, I realised I had to be sensible about it. The carnival was on Dunbridge Green, so the carnival story would feature the town, the school and probably the girls’ homes. The fairytale story trapped the girls in school – although it would take on the appearance of a medieval village, the school grounds would be the only setting. The carnival had to feature an array of new and strange characters. The fairytale plot would include references to Red Riding Hood – the granny, the wolf, Red Riding Hood herself – but it had to be limited in terms of new characters. In the carnival story the girls’ magic lessons would continue, meaning the introduction of new spells and skills. In the fairytale story their powers would be bound, and they would have to escape their predicament without the help of their usual repertoire of magic tricks.

It was obvious the fairytale story lent itself better to a novella.

So I sat down to write this short book, presuming that any challenges were now overcome. I hit the first problem a couple of chapters in. There was a clear opening for a lovely little subplot, so I began writing it and, after a few hundred words, realised it was eating into my word count. So, pained, I deleted the subplot. The next issue arose barely a chapter later, when a new character caught my fancy and I decided to expand on him. Until he started chomping through my word count. I deleted him too.

I determined that writing a short book is constrictive and terrible, and no-one should ever do it ever. Like a sulky teenager I slaved away on this cruel project, adding nothing extra, allowing no superfluous words, sticking only to the main storyline. Embracing my inner angsty teenager, I decided I was a literary martyr.

About halfway through, I began to enjoy my martyrdom. Without distractions and subplots, I had to rocket through the story, my characters leaping from one scene to the next like action heroes. What had been frustrating became a bit like a rollercoaster ride – I moved so quickly through the plot that I was tired but content every time I closed my laptop.

My writing got neater too. Keeping the number of words to a minimum meant my descriptions had to be clear and to the point, no waffling on and getting caught up in the moment when describing a pencil. I abandoned those naughty little adverbs that you know you don’t need, and cut out incidental characters that added nothing to the story.

I’ve since determined that completing a novella is binding and difficult, and everyone should try it. It is excellent practice, and guaranteed to show you where you’re liable to veer off the point and get a little sloppy. In short, it was a great writing experience.

The book was humbling, and took some getting used to, but The Fairytale Trap was a joy to write. And I hope that makes it a joy to read.

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.

Viva Judi Curtin!

This month we catch up with the bestselling children’s author on all her latest projects.

1)          You’re the author of the ‘Alice & Megan’ series and the ‘Eva’ series (among other books). After a break from writing about Alice & Megan (during which you wrote four books about Eva and her friends), you returned to the world of Alice & Megan this year with Viva Alice. How did it feel to return to these characters after a break, and what inspired you to do so?

Alice and Megan were my first child characters, so they will always be special to me. I know this sounds sad, but I returned to them because I missed them. I felt as if their lives were suspended, while they waited for me to return. Writing about them again was like spending time with old friends.

2)          Though each of your books stand alone and can be read independently of each other, the characters grow and develop from book to book, and there are threads that run through the whole series. One of them is Megan’s relationship with ‘mean girl’ Melissa. Tell us a bit about how that relationship develops in this book.

In Alice Next Door, I created Melissa to show how vulnerable Megan was when Alice moved away. As time went on though, I found myself wondering about Melissa and her motivation. Does she have any good points? Why is she so mean to Megan? In Viva Alice, I tried to answer both of these questions.

3)          Viva Alice is your eighth novel about Alice & Megan. Has the experience of writing them changed over the years? From meeting readers, do you think the interest and preoccupations of your readers have changed in this time?

The writing experience hasn’t changed in any big ways. I think young people still enjoy reading about school, family and friendship. The only changes are minor ones – especially anything related to technology, which has changed greatly over the years.

4)          The ‘Alice & Megan’ series has always had a very distinctive ‘look’. With the release of Viva Alice, the whole series has been repackaged with new covers by Nicola Colton. Do you have a favourite cover from the new-look series?

In the older versions, Alice in the Middle was my definite favourite. This time around, I love them all, with maybe a slight preference for Don’t Ask Alice. (The squirrel is very cute.)

5)          I know writers can’t choose favourites from their books – but do you have any favourite characters from your two series? Who are your favourite major and minor characters from each series and why?

This is a cruel question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I definitely can’t choose a favourite major character, as that would be like choosing between my children. Some minor characters I particularly like are Maggie from the Eva series and Kellie from the Alice series.

6      Have you ever created a character who started out with a minor role, but ended up taking on a life of their own and playing a bigger part in the series than you’d planned?

Domino is probably the best example of this. She strayed into Megan’s life when she was very sad and upset, and she never left. In Alice to the Rescue, she is a huge part of the story.

8)      What are you working on at the moment? Any new books planned?

At the moment I am working on a new Eva book, which hasn’t got a title yet. As always, Eva works hard to help people who are in trouble. This time, with Ella’s help, she has to sort things out for Ella’s granny, and a Nigerian girl called Aretta.

Judi Curtin is the best-selling author of the ‘Alice and Megan’ series. She is also the author of the smash-hit Eva series: Eva’s Journey, Eva’s Holiday, Leave it to Eva and Eva and the Hidden Diary. With Roisin Meaney she has written See If I Care. Judi has also written three novels, Sorry, Walter, From Claire to Here and Almost Perfect.