Following the recent announcement of her US book deal, I caught up with Middle Grade author, Sinéad O’ Hart to talk about bookish things (and purple footwear!).
KF: Welcome, Sinéad O' Hart, and thank you for doing this interview for Middle Grade Strikes Back. Can I begin by asking you about your early memories of stories or books or reading? What did you read as a child?
SOH: Hello, and thank you for having me here on Middle Grade Strikes Back! My early memories of books, stories and reading revolve around my parents, who read to my brother and me from our earliest days. I learned to read very early, prompting my parents to set me 'tests' to check whether I was actually reading, or simply memorising, which (naturally) I passed with flying colours. I had a wonderful teacher in primary school who spotted how much I loved reading and writing, and who gave me 'creative writing' projects to challenge and stretch me. It was extra homework, but I never minded! As a child, I'd read anything which stayed still long enough: newspapers, cereal packets, instruction manuals, roadsigns, and of course books, which our house was full of. I adored the Childcraft encyclopedia, and one of my favourite books was about Halley's Comet, which appeared in the sky when I was a small child. I loved The Faraway Tree and the Noddy books, and later the stories of Malory Towers and St Clare's, and I loved The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, and of course Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - in fact, anything by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton! I also loved anything about history and folklore, particularly the books of Michael Scott; I adored stories about Vikings, which is a love I still have. The most significant book I've ever read in my life was Alan Garner's Elidor, which I read when I was eight; I've never been the same since.
KF: Can you remember anything about these early "creative writing" projects?
SOH: My early writing projects were exercises in plagiarism. I think a lot of writers start out that way! I wrote 'homages', shall we say, to books I loved, without a care in the world as to copyright or originality. The first story I really remember writing was a sequel to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, complete with illustrations (which I copied directly from the original book!); I wrote this masterpiece when I was about seven. I think it was four pages long and came to an abrupt end when I ran out of plot (a problem I still have, sadly). I also started writing a diary because Anne Frank, whose diary I read at age eight, had kept one, and as a result my efforts at chronicling my daily life were often a bit overwritten and dramatic due to the influence of my particular edition of Diary of a Young Girl. I also recall a laboriously plotted 'series' entitled Grass Valley High, which was a total ripoff of Sweet Valley High - I even went to the trouble of drawing my own maps in an effort to create a fresh story world, but it never really worked. It took a long, long time for me to shake off this tendency to copy others, but it's a good way to learn how to write. I'm just glad none of my early efforts are still lying around at home!
KF: Cool! As you ventured into your teens, did this love of writing continue? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
SOH: I knew from around the age of eleven or twelve that I wanted a creative life and career - not necessarily writing, but something artistic. I love to draw, too, and I originally planned a career as a visual artist, but over the years that desire faded as my love for stories grew. In my teens I wrote a lot of (terrible) poetry, and for whatever reason I didn't focus as much on writing prose; I preferred to read instead, soaking up as many books as I could (something I still do, and something I feel is vitally important for anyone who wants to write). As my school life came to a close and college began, I got back into writing stories, and when I was twenty I wrote my first children's book. It was terrible. But I wrote it, and I finished it, and that sense of accomplishment stayed with me for a long time, even when the realities of life and career meant I didn't write again for many years. My love for children's books and MG stories began to bloom then, and has never gone away - thank goodness!
KF: What children's book(s) has had the biggest impact/influence on you?
SOH: Definitely Alan Garner's 'Elidor', as well as his other novels 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen', 'The Moon of Gomrath' and 'The Owl Service'. I also loved, and had my mind opened by, Madeleine l'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time', and I adored the strangeness of Norton Juster's 'The Phantom Tollbooth'. As well as these, I love 'The Little Prince' with a passion bordering on obsession! All these books helped to shape me as a reader and a person, and I read them all between the ages of eight and twelve.
KF: Before we talk about your forthcoming book, can you tell us a little about your journey to publication.
SOH: The book with which I got my publishing deal was the third book I'd actually completed (fourth, if you count that I'd written one of the other books twice!) It took me almost exactly a year to gain the representation of an agent, and I had a slightly unusual route to signing with her. I queried her with all the books I'd written, one after another, gradually building up a professional relationship and a sense of mutual trust. I queried other agents, too, of course, but this pre-existing relationship meant that when it came to choosing an agent (as several people were interested in signing me, by the end) I really only had one choice. Polly thought I had potential from the beginning, but it took the third manuscript (which became The Eye of the North) for her to be sure she wanted to sign me. When she did take me on as a client, we worked hard together on editing The Eye of the North before beginning the submissions process, and very quickly it sold in the United States and Canada. We haven't yet been successful in gaining a publishing deal for the UK and Commonwealth market, but we're hopeful that will happen during the course of 2015. If I could sum up my publication journey in one word, it would be persistence! Never give up. You will find the story and the deal for you, so long as you keep writing.
KF: You must be so excited about the launch of your début novel. What can you tell us about The Eye of the North?
SOH: The Eye of the North is a standalone Middle Grade fantasy adventure story about a girl named Emmeline Widget who lives in a big, crumbly old house with her scientist parents (when they're not away at conferences or exploring remote parts of the world, that is), her butler, Watt, and the housekeeper, Mrs Mitchell. She is careful and cautious and suspicious of everyone and everything, so when she receives a letter one day telling her that her parents are dead and she is to be shipped off to Paris to live with strangers, she smells a rat right away. On board the ship to France she meets a strange boy with no name (he calls himself Thing, for want of anything better!) who manages to accidentally rescue her from being kidnapped. Then, however, just as they think they're safe, the kidnappers strike again. Emmeline is taken, right from under Thing's nose, and he, along with some new allies, immediately sets off to find her. Their journey takes them into the heart of the frozen North, where an ancient and terrifying Creature, with the power to destroy the world, lies sleeping - a Creature which cannot be awoken without Emmeline. Who has taken Emmeline, and why? And can she and Thing stop the Creature from being awakened before it's too late?
The Eye of the North is set for publication by Knopf Children's Books in the US and Canada in late 2016. I'm really looking forward to seeing a printed copy in my hands!
KF: Wow! The book sounds amazing. I can't wait to read it. As a fellow writer, I'm always interested in how, when and where other authors write. Do you have a routine, a special room/pencil/furry pair of slippers etc? That sort of thing...
SOH: I have converted the smallest bedroom in my house into an 'office'; it's tiny, overcrowded and woefully messy, but it's where my writing happens. I blog three days a week, so I begin my writing day by looking after that. Then, I pick up from wherever I left off on my last writing day! It's as simple and hard as that. I start early and work for as long as I can, and then it's time for a walk, or housework, or a change of scenery. I don't have a favourite writing pen, but I do have a fabulous pair of furry purple slippers. (Actually, I think they're the brains behind my stories!)
KF: Now that you're a soon to be published author, what advice would you give to other aspiring authors (apart from the furry purple slippers)?
SOH: The best advice I could give any aspiring author is to read, widely and with an enquiring mind. Read within your own 'genre' and outside it, too, always with an eye to learning how a story works, how it's put together and why it works (or doesn't, as the case may be). Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and write primarily for yourself - write the stories you love, which mean something to you, and enjoy it as much as possible. (Remember to take breaks: sometimes, not writing is important, too!) Finish what you start, and always leave time between finishing a draft and revising it. (Always revise; nobody's first drafts are publishable!) I'd also counsel bravery. Sending your work to agents and publishers can be terrifying, but take the chance. They're looking for people like you! Take heart, and don't take it personally when you're rejected. Every rejection will teach you something, and will always be worthwhile. And finally: keep going until you hear a 'yes'. If writing professionally is what you want, don't let anything stop you.
KF: What a motivating and inspiring reply! If that doesn't give hope to the unpublished, then nothing will. An uplifting way to conclude our conversation. Almost. Because I'd like to finish up with some short, fun, questions.
In a line or two, what literary world would you most like to visit?
SOH: Argh! Just one? Earthsea. No! Lyra's Oxford. Or... wait. Maybe Ingary, with Howl and Sophie. But then that means I can't have Ancelstierre or the Old Kingdom or Middle Earth or Narnia... Can I have all of 'em?
KF: God, I'd hate to go shopping with you. If you could have dinner with ONE literary character, who would that be? Notice the way I capitalised ONE...
SOH: Charles Maxim from 'Rooftoppers', for reasons which are not entirely literary. :-)
KF: You've just sold the movie rights of your book for a large bag of cash. What's the first thing you will buy?
SOH: A pair of purple Doc Marten boots. I have a thing for purple footwear!
KF: In a word, paper or electronic?
SOH: Paper! No question. I do see the benefits of electronic media but I'm a paper enthusiast all the way.(Sorry - that was more than one word).
KF: Lions, witches or wardrobes?
SOH: I reckon wardrobes, because you just never know where you're going to end up when you open that door...
KF: And let's go parochial for the last one: Tayto or King?
SOH: King, all the way!
KF: Apologies to our UK readers for the "secret-Irish-handshake" nature of that last question, but those who need to know, will know. Thank you so much, Sinéad, for the wonderful interview. You've certainly whetted all our appetites for The Eye of the North. I for one, am very much looking forward to reading it. We wish you every success with it, and all future titles.
SOH: Thanks for a fantastic interview!