I had a lovely chat with debut children’s author, Alex Dunne, all about her first children’s book, her inspiration and her writing process.
Could you describe The Book of Secrets in five words?
‘Labyrinth meets Irish folklore’ oh wait, that’s four … how about ‘fairies return and hijinks ensue’?
What inspired you to write The Book of Secrets?
I’ve always loved Irish mythology and folklore and am particularly fascinated by fairies as they exist in the Irish tradition – the stories they feature in are often quite dark and scary – so I always knew that one day I would write something where they featured prominently. In 2018, I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo (a month-long challenge held every November where writers from around the world attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel). Not knowing what to write, I took a look through my ‘Dump Sheet’ (the very sophisticated Google Doc where I collect random ideas that have yet to find a home in one of my stories) and two things jumped out at me – a picture I had taken of a Bronze Age ringfort called Mooghaun, which sits just outside the town of Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, and a snippet I had written a few years prior about what to do if you hear the fairy music. That’s when the idea for The Book of Secrets was born.
The Irish mythology in this book is so cleverly written and so chilling, did you research Irish myths and legends for this book?
I did quite a bit of research for the book because I wanted to ensure that everything I included had some basis in Irish myth and folklore (even if I did occasionally invoke my artistic licence here and there!). I read a lot of books by prominent folklorists and storytellers, such as Eddie Lenihan and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, but one of my main sources of research was duchas.ie, the website of the Irish Folklore Commission. It’s such a wonderful resource for anyone looking to research or write about Irish history and folklore because it collects first-hand accounts from people who lived and breathed these stories.
Who was your favourite character to write in The Book of Secrets?
Of the fantastical characters, I loved the Pooka because I’m a sucker for trickster characters. I love villains who are morally grey – he’s not strictly evil, but he cares so little for humanity that he’s happy to use them for his own entertainment. Of the human characters, I loved Granny. She’s not based on anyone I know in real life but is more of an aspirational character. She’s the kind of old woman I hope to be some day – fiercely independent and still believing in magic.
Leading on from that, who was your least favourite character to write?
I don’t think there were any! If I can’t connect to a character and empathise with them at least a little bit, I just can’t write them.
What was your favourite moment in The Book of Secrets?
Not to spoil anything, but I do like the climax because it was satisfying for me to write. I was able to bring in elements from earlier in the story and weave them all together in a way that I hope was satisfying to read.
What is your writing process like? Do you write 9-5, evenings, weekends or whenever inspiration strikes?
I would love to be someone who writes every day but I can’t, unfortunately. Instead, I tend to write in big chunks of time, 2-3 times per week – usually on Wednesdays and Sundays. Of course, if inspiration strikes, I’ll often grab a pen or the notes app on my phone and jot a few things down!
The cover for The Book of Secrets by Shona Shirley Macdonald is so wonderfully magical, what did you think of the cover when you first saw it?
My jaw genuinely dropped. It wasn’t the direction I thought The O’Brien Press would go in but as soon as I saw it I thought, ‘Of course! How could it be anything else?’ It fits the tone so perfectly and I never get tired of staring at it. It’s actually the background of my phone now.
If you could meet one character from the book for a coffee, who would you choose and why?
Oh, Granny, for SURE! I’d love to hear some of her stories and maybe gain a few pearls of wisdom.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
The first draft is just for you – don’t worry about making it perfect at this stage, just get the story out of your brain and on the paper. For so long I was trapped in an endless cycle of trying to make everything ‘perfect’ and would end up rewriting the same chapter over and over again. Once you have the bones of a story, you can work on making it better but, as clichéd as it sounds, you really can’t edit a blank page.
Alex Dunne, November 2022
The Books of Secrets is out now and available from your local bookshop or here.