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 …) Continue reading “Natasha Mac a’Bháird on the Star Club Series”

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). Continue reading “Gerard Siggins on Rugby and Writing”

The Making of The Making of Mollie!

Anna Carey tells us about the compelling research process for her latest novel The Making of Mollie!

When I started writing my book The Making of Mollie, the story of a would-be teenage suffragette in 1912 Dublin, I didn’t have to think long about where to set it. When it was founded back in 1883, my old school, Dominican College, was at the forefront of girls’ education in Ireland, and it was known for its progressive ethos – its old girls include the famous suffragette leader Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Since 1984, the school has been on Griffith Avenue in Drumcondra, but for just over 100 years it was in Eccles Street in Dublin (when I was there, from 1988 to 1993, lots of people still referred to the school simply as ‘Eccles Street’). As my fictional heroine, Mollie, was a middle-class girl living in Drumcondra, it made sense that she would have gone to Eccles Street – which was handy for me, because I live down the road from the school’s current location.

And so a rainy day in February, I went back to school, thanks to Sr Catherine Gibson, the nun (and former teacher at the school) who looks after the archive. In a cosy room in the convent next to the school building (I’d walked past it every day for five years but never entered it before), I ate biscuits, drank a particularly delicious pot of tea, and immersed myself in the past. Dominican College began producing a yearbook called The Lanthorn in 1913, and there was a complete collection in the archive. I was able to pore through the pages for several hours, taking copious notes and photographs and finally photographing entire pages.

The Lanthorn was an incredible source of information. It told me what subjects the girls studied at school, some of which were mystifying over a century later (historical geography?). It showed me that the girls called their lay teachers “professor” (the historian Dr Senia Paseta later told me this wasn’t unusual). In the school class lists, it gave me dozens of authentic girls’ names of the period which inspired the names of many characters in the book (there were several Mollies, a LOT of Noras – and yes, at least one Grace and Stella and a few Gerties). There were accounts of “a year in Eccles Street” which told me when the girls had exams and when they put on plays (which they seemed to do surprisingly often). Best of all were the short stories about school life by the girls themselves, which were often very funny and which provided me with a lot of authentic contemporary slang. They were the parts I enjoyed the most.

The Making of Mollie is my first historical novel, and I cared a lot about making it as authentic as possible while still being entertaining. So it’s a good thing that I turned out to love the research. In fact, in an ideal world I’d have spent even longer on it. And no part of the research was more fun than throwing myself into the world of the girls who’d gone to my school 75 years before I did – and seeing they weren’t always so different from me and my friends after all.

Anna Carey, December 2016

The Making of Mollie 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!

Three Things About a Trilogy by Ruth Frances Long

ruthfranceslong

“When I finished A Crack in Everything, I thought that was that, to be honest. I had finished the story. But the story hadn’t finished with me.”

With the recent release of A Darkness at the End, the third and final instalment in her contemporary fantasy series, Ruth Frances Long chats to us about beginning, continuing and completing a trilogy.

I started A Crack in Everything, the first in my series of Dubh Linn books, after seeing a piece of graffiti on a door in Dublin. It was like the first breadcrumb in a trail that led me a very long way, down some unexpected paths, and took up several years altogether. Of course it didn’t all happen at once. Stories sometimes tease themselves out of the writer’s brain; they are tricky like that, waiting for the writer to discover the relevant pieces that will slot into place.

Dublin is an amazing place in which to set an urban fantasy. It’s been here for over a thousand years, and the oldest parts still peek through the various modernisations. It has been home to so many writers, it seems to be made of stories. Every street, every building, every corner … You never know what might be embedded in those stones. It is easy to trace the original Black Pool after which Dublin (and indeed Dubh Linn) is named, to walk around the park where it is said to have been. We can climb the hills surrounding the city, wander down alleyways that could lead anywhere, visit libraries that are like slices of another time. Research comes easy when the stories are right there, waiting to be read. It’s not just the big important buildings either: it’s the streets, the lanes, the public parks, even the basement of a coffee shop. They’re all in there. Even the fantastical elements of Dubh Linn, while fictional creations, are composed of elements found in the city and surrounding hills. Perhaps the stories seep up from the land itself.

The second thing was the legend of how the Sídhe – angels who refused to take part in the war in heaven and were expelled to earth, to Ireland, instead – came to be. The blend of Celtic and Judeo-Christian stories shouldn’t have really worked. But somehow it did. I’m always amazed at the wealth of stories in the Irish Celtic tradition. From the earliest to the medieval, from un-dateable folklore to its descendants, the modern urban legends we all know so well, the stories link together. Sometimes I didn’t even expect them to, but on some fundamental level I found links, similarities and shared themes, a way for stories to just lock together and work.

And finally: Izzy and Jinx. And Dylan and Silver. Clodagh, Ash and Marianne … All of these characters who started off as ideas and became something more, people that seem so very real to me now that they have a habit of wandering around elsewhere when I try to make them follow what I laughingly call ‘the plot’.

Setting, folklore and characters: three things which came together to make a story of three parts. It was an exhilarating and exciting adventure, telling this story. When I finished A Crack in Everything, I thought that was that, to be honest. I had finished the story.

But the story hadn’t finished with me. When the idea of a trilogy was suggested, my poor brain immediately started coming up with ideas, with myths that would work, monsters that would slot into that world. Places in Dublin suddenly jumped to mind, places that would make wonderful, eerie settings. New characters started to form, ready to help continue the tale.

Of course it wasn’t that easy, because my characters were my characters and my brain doesn’t work that way. I had a plan. I was going to take them all over Ireland this time. We were going to visit ancient sites and wonderful, different locations. If A Crack in Everything had explored Dublin, I wanted A Hollow in the Hills and A Darkness at the End to do the same thing with Ireland. I started into the research – the Giant’s Causeway, the Dunmore Caves, the Poulnabrón Dolmen and Newgrange.

But no. Not my characters. They were not going to leave their city, no matter what I thought. The furthest I could get them was Bray Head. A Hollow in the Hills turned out to be hard work. At one point I cut over 30,000 words, leaving me with only 8,000 – but those 8,000 words were still the beginning. They were solid. Once I gave up trying to explore further afield, I decided to go deeper into the city, just like before, and suddenly it all clicked. It worked. Once that happened, the book just flowed.

I approached the third book with a bit more trepidation. I thought, well, if book two was hard, book three might actually kill me. And with my characters, anything was possible.

In another twist of fate, this didn’t happen at all. I spent a wonderful summer and autumn writing A Darkness at the End. Things just slotted into place. The story took on a life of its own, and those characters who had been so stubborn and difficult the year before just let the story unfold for me. Things I had never planned fitted into place and made the story so much stronger.

I’d love to say I had intricately mapped it all out after the beginning, with charts and spreadsheets … I didn’t. I was as surprised as anyone.

This is part of the real magic of writing, the way stories wind themselves around the places and the people we create. The way they draw in all the unexpected items that you come across – the stories, the places, the little details – and use them to create a whole new world. The way the mind keeps track of all those threads, subconsciously of course (no, I don’t really believe that my characters have minds of their own, honestly).

I never meant to write a trilogy. It just kind of happened.

Ruth Frances Long, October 2016

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!

Kim Hood on writing Plain Jane

Kim Hood

This month the wonderful Kim Hood shares her experience of writing her most recent Young Adult novel Plain Jane and describes what it means to be an author.

Authors are a strange breed of people. Most of the time you might not notice how strange we are. We learn how to adapt; how to hide what we do.

What we do is spend most of our lives cataloguing observations into a vast storehouse of senses and feelings. We are always noticing and noting: a smell that defines a place, that snippet of conversation that sums up a relationship, the fleeting look of pain on an otherwise happy face. Anything at all. Authors are never bored. We are happy to sit in a corner and soak up every mundane detail.

Then there is this other part of our brain that is always asking questions. I wonder why? What if? What does it all mean?

At some point mixed up bits of stored observation and something we wonder about collide – and the seed of a story is born. In my case, the catalyst of this birth is almost always character.

So it was with Plain Jane.

Years ago, I had one glorious year of university when I didn’t have to work at the same time. With time to spare I decided to volunteer on the children’s ward of a hospital, doing arts and crafts with kids one afternoon each week. This particular hospital was the hub of treating childhood cancer for towns and villages in a huge radius.

I got to know a lot of the kids, many of whom were there for weeks and months at a time, and some of whom were very ill. They were amazing kids, who almost always took their illness in their strides, dragging IV poles behind them. The nurses and doctors doted on them and volunteers like me came in to make their days more joyful. A weary parent was by their side day and night.

While it was very sad when some of these kids died, and while I did store up details of what a hospital setting is like, it wasn’t the kids in hospital that interested me. Not in an ‘I-must-write-a-story-about-this’ sort of way, in any case.

It was the kids in the corner that had me wondering. What about the brothers and sisters of these terribly ill children? Many families travelled from towns and villages miles away to access treatment. What was it like for the siblings who didn’t see their mum or their dad most of the time? At a time when you are searching for who you are, and want to be, what is it like to be in the shadow of a sibling who – by necessity – takes a whole family’s focus?

That wondering stayed with me for a very long time. I needed the right character to answer the questions I had, though. I’m learning that, for me, starting to write before I have a character to guide me, will just not work. I can wonder all I want, but until I have someone in my head to have a dialogue with, my questions will remain vague and hard to pin down.

Eventually, the right character did come along. Jane. One day she appeared in my head, sat down and wouldn’t leave me. That was when the work of writing her story started. Perhaps I would not have started had I known just how hard it would be.

With a sister being treated for cancer over many years, Jane was the right person, but that didn’t mean she was going to answer my questions easily. I have to say that she was the most uncooperative character I have imagined yet. I spent many months in front of a computer screen with very little coming from her – until finally her story poured out in torrents over a few weeks. Thank god, as I was writing to a deadline.

Still, when I got to the end of her story I had to forgive her for being so difficult. There was much more to her than I first saw. (Stuff I can’t tell you about without giving away spoilers!) We have been through a lot, Jane and I, and I am really fond of her at this point. I hope you will be too!

Kim Hood, June 2016

Both of Kim Hood’s books, Plain Jane and Finding a Voice are 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 www.nicolacolton.com.

The Rock Boy

Author Jan Michael writes about her inspirations for writing The Rock Boy in 2001, the story of a Albanian refugee boy finding shelter in Malta:

I have visited the Mediterranean island of Malta ever since my parents moved there some forty years ago. I love the island’s quirkiness, its rich history and buildings, its country walks, and I love swimming from rocks into the sea. The language is Semitic, so even though the island is Catholic, God is ‘Alla’ (pronounced ‘Allah’). That’s because Malta was first inhabited by Phoenicians, who came from present-day Syria, and later governed by the Arabs. Now Syrians are one of the largest groups of people who come to Malta after fleeing their country because of war. Many other refugees come from Albania. They have been escaping since the 1990s, and even today, Albanian children are still being trafficked into Western Europe.

When I wrote The Rock Boy, many Albanians were fleeing their country, coming across the Mediterranean, and landing in southern Italy and Malta. In the book, I write about one boy called Artan, who is discovered washed up in a rocky cove by young Jo. He is battered and bruised and barely conscious. Jo, along with her friend Andreas, shelters him, feeds him – and hides him from her family, and from the police. Eventually her family does find out, but fortunately, through sponsorship, Artan is allowed to stay.

I didn’t set out to write a book about boat refugees, but that’s how it turned out. As I started the story of Jo and her adventures, I was reading in the local paper about refugees arriving in Malta by boat. I went to see the woman who had opened the refugee centre, and what I heard from her – and what I went on to read about – became the major part of Jo’s story.

Malta is a small island and pretty crowded, but I was impressed by the Maltese kindness and generosity to the desperate people arriving on their shores from Albania, and more recently, from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. I knew, though, that not everyone feels so welcoming, and that’s why Jo shelters Artan in secret.

Around the same time, in a British newspaper, I read about two brothers who escaped from political thugs in Kashmir, India, by stowing away over the wheel casing of an aeroplane. When the plane landed at Cairo Airport, the older boy had frozen to death on top of his brother and had to be peeled off. His protection had saved the life of his younger brother. Their story burrowed its way into my mind, and that younger brother somehow merged into an Albanian boy I called Artan.

Whenever I read or hear of such stories, I think of the hospitality, always warm and generous, that I have witnessed in the many countries I have lived in and visited. I think of the kindness of strangers and hope that I, too, if called upon, would be as warm and welcoming as they.

Born in the Yorkshire Dales, Jan Michael spent an idyllic childhood there and in the Seychelles, also living in Lesotho and Pakistan. Since university, she has worked as an editor and literary agent in London, Amsterdam and Yorkshire. She has written thirteen books which have been published in several languages, including the children’s novels Hill of Darkness, The Rock Boy (also performed as children’s opera in Germany), Just Joshua (winner: Dutch Vlag en Wimpel prize), Leaving Home (winner: Dutch Silver Slate Pencil and the Jenny Smelik-IBBY Prize) and Moorside Boy.

View From a Debut…

Debut author Maureen White talks about what inspired her to write The Butterfly Shell.

My first novel The Butterfly Shell was recently published by The O’Brien Press and the first time I held the actual book was an exciting and strange experience.

Exciting – because it was actually finished and existed outside of me.

And strange – because I felt like I was holding in my hands a kind of transformation. An idea somewhere had taken hold and that idea evolved into a story and then along the way other people become involved and here it was. And, of course, the beautiful cover by artist Emma Byrne heightened the feeling that this was bigger than just my story.

The experience of writing a novel was a new one for me. Theatre is my background. Theatre I understand. I have written plays, but that always feels like a communal act. The play changes once the actors get a hold of it, then there follows intense, collaborative rehearsals leading up to Opening Night and a real, live audience.

Books are different.

With books the intense writing period is followed by collaboration with the editor and publisher leading up to – Publication Day! But the difference here is the audience is invisible. Writing is an act of faith and while you are writing you make an invisible pact with the future reader – you will give them your all and, in turn, this as-yet-only-imagined reader, will give their all in reading. But you will never know if that is the case or, indeed, if there will be any readers.

I didn’t set out to write a book for young audiences, though right from the start I was interested in telling a young girl’s story. Armed with a germ of a story and a memory of being 12, I started. I have worked for years as a Dramaturg, helping playwrights develop new plays. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you look for in a script?’ I have one answer – one that makes me want to turn the page.

And so I tried to remember that and write something that might make someone want to turn the page. As it turned out with The Butterfly Shell, that someone was a young reader, probably someone who could relate to Marie’s age, if not her experiences. People have asked me where the idea for The Butterfly Shell came from – was it based on my experiences? Was it about my daughter? ‘No’ to the last two questions and to the first all I can say is, ‘I don’t know where ideas come from or what gives them their pull.’ Perhaps the stories we hear as children stay with us. Or maybe unexpected gifts are the key. A few years ago my sister gave me a gift for no reason at all (definitely the best kind of present). It was a butterfly made of abalone and I was fascinated- by the shell, by the shape, by the gift. And when I started writing I was confident that it would find its way in some form into the story.

I am delighted that what I was writing turned out to be for young readers. Kids’ books matter. I thought that long before I wrote one. And it is important we feed our kids a varied diet – adventurous, comic, serious, worthy, not so worthy, long, short and the whole range of books that defy definition. The young reader (and indeed the adult reader as well) needs to be exposed to a variety of experiences and imaginations because literature helps us make sense of the world around us.

As I approach the launch date for The Butterfly Shell I realise I have learned a lot about this book business on the way.

Patience was the biggest lesson – It is so easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of books out there (why on earth did I start this book??) and very intimidating to read articles about how someone or other wrote their debut novel on a bus in one month while she baked bread and raised 9 children and held down 2 jobs. (My advice is if you are a writer never ever read inspirational articles on very successful writers).

The Butterfly Shell took a very long time to write. Many walks on the beach which of course in retrospect I say were a necessary part of the process but in fact probably had more to do with procrastination. Many times I put it away -probably because I didn’t know where it was going but again, in retrospect is no bad thing to do every now and then- you sometimes come back to it with fresh eyes and energy which is all you need to keep going. Once I left it for a year as my house was flooded and we had to move and family events made writing very low on my agenda. I think each story takes whatever time it takes to write. I had to be patient that mine was taking this long but its timing also meant I ran into the right people on the way. People who would make a difference.

I am still amazed at the difference an editor can make. The collaboration with Liz Hudson and its energetic examination of details resulted in the kind of shifts I couldn’t have imagined on my own. And so the book transformed and I am convinced a kind of alchemy oversees the entire process so when I look at The Butterfly Shell I see more than just my story. I see the imprint of everyone who helped and the possibility of everyone who might read.

A debut is exciting. By very definition it can only happen once. But it is that excitement that fuels you on to the next book. I look forward to the lessons I will learn with that one …

Maureen White is a playwright, teacher at the Gaiety School of Acting and dramaturg for Rough Magic Theatre Company. This is her first novel for young adults.