What It’s Like To Finish A Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

 I want this whole thing to be about loyalty. 

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

My final thought was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Griffin, May 2017

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

 

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.