Pat O’Shea recalls the process of writing The Hounds of The Morrigan, her first fantasy novel for children.
It began with a dream. I dreamt that my six-year-old son killed a terrible giant. The giant had been terrorising a whole countryside – a place of trees, rocks, fields and lakes – and the truly terrible thing about him was that he could not be killed. Many giant-killers had tried and apparently succeeded, but each time, after the giant had fallen to the ground, the hundreds of pieces of his broken shadow would move and come together and, when his shadow was whole, the giant was once more horribly alive – and laughing. Next morning I realized that I had dreamt a fairy tale, that the countryside in the dream was Tir-na-nOg – the Land of Youth in Irish mythology – and thought that one day I would write it.
From childhood I had always known somehow I was a writer. But at the time of the dream the form of writing that interested me most was for the theatre and ten years passed before I thought seriously again of my dream fairy story. I was by then disillusioned with the theatre (in spite of having some success), a rejected comic novel for adults had died on me and I couldn’t face re-writing it. That’s it! I felt – who needs recognition?
So in 1970 I began the book in a state of complete freedom, not worrying about what I could or could not do, conventions in literature or drama, budgets that could limit numbers of characters; there were no more constraints. Off came the mental corsets. I was totally happy. I settled down to the first chapter and made a rough blueprint to pin on the wall. In the intervening years I had made thousands of notes and now I was to try to make sense of them.
As I worked it very soon dawned on me that I was laying down in the first few chapters the foundations of a long and complicated story. I decided to give it all the time it needed and worked on the happy assumption that the end would justify the means. The story became my constant companion for the next 13 years. (The original dream was now only one episode – I dreamt a second episode much later when I needed to.)
I have no real idea of exactly how long it took me. Once I left it for 18 months, once for 13 months and on many occasions I would break off for a few months at a time. I always came back to it refreshed and with better ideas. The story kept growing. I knew it in my head and could run it like a film.
I could select a section or episode from near the end or in the middle, write these pieces and then have definite points towards which to work, to be revised in the light of any new ideas that had occurred to me in the writing of the main body of the narrative. The blueprint kept control of the form. Sometimes I experienced writers’ block. I learned to treat this as part of the creative process and I stopped worrying about it. Sometimes I just didn’t feel in the mood in the way I might not feel in the mood for cooking or any other job. To help overcome that feeling I would re-type my last few pages of work and re-introduce the rhythm of writing into my system. In no time at all I’d be enjoying it again. I’d learned a hard lesson from the comic novel that I’d written in one go, so I revised and re-wrote constantly. Every word in the book has been written at least four times and some pieces eight or ten. That’s the craft side of it and maybe it’s no accident that craft rhymes with graft!
The children’s writer that I love most is John Masefield. When I got stuck I used to pray to him and to others: to Flann O’Brien, James Stephens and Sam Johnson and I made up my own calendar of saints including Harpo Marx.
I found someone else to admire when I was a couple of years into my story. I was amazed and delighted by a film on television, The Master and Margarita, and discovered that it was from a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. I borrowed a copy from the library and the book was even better than the film. Apart from the tremendous pleasure I found in reading the book, Bulgakov was saying to me – keep going as you are, there are no limitations in fiction. Later, when my editor at O.U.P. expressed misgivings about mixing comedy with fantasy, I could say: `Have you read The Master and Margarita?’ and when he said: `Yes’ – all I had to say was: `Well, then!’ I’ll always be thankful to that book for keeping my traffic signal on green.
Another enrichment was the gradual awareness that I could trust in my subconscious. If I had an `insoluble’ technical problem I’d leave it to be sorted out by some process not apparently connected with deliberate thought. The answer always presented itself, sometimes as I was drifting into sleep and I would be immediately alert, out of bed and writing. When the time came for me to underline once again the threat to the planet that The Morrigan represented I had the second dream – within days. I dreamt of a ploughed field where two huge figures of earth and mud rose from the earth and became symbols of the world’s fertility. It just added to my conviction that the mind never stops working even when we’re snoring! Imagine how pleased I was to discover after about six years’ involvement with my story that Mark Twain felt much the same way. I found that it had taken Mark Twain 11 years to write Huckleberry Finn, that he had a theory of unconscious composition and believed that a book must write itself. He had pigeon-holed his story for as long as four years before going back to it. After the four years he took it out and carried it forward only a little because his heart just wasn’t in it. No prizes for guessing who was the subject of immediate canonization.
To those of you who want to write but feel inhibited or tired or whatever, I would say simply go about it in your own way; make up your own rules. Remember how creative the whole human race is; just know that you have the right and the built-in genetic ability.
So – find your first thing. With me it was the dream, followed by an environment that I knew and loved, the stories I was told as a child, my fascination with the bottomless well of Celtic mythology. With writing, you are in competition with no one, we are each as individual and as alike as snow crystals. The alikeness is our common humanity and the tool of language; the individuality is in our use of that language and our separate imaginations.
When you do something like walking up to the counter in your local grocery and asking for: `Half a dozen hard-boiled eggs, please,’ because you are writing a bit with hard-boiled eggs in it, you’ll know that your story is really living with you – you haven’t gone nuts! And be prepared for the end … For me it all ended in tears. When the day finally came to wrap my story up and post it, I could hardly bear to say goodbye.
The Hounds of The Morrigan is published in hardback by Oxford University Press (019 271506 2, £9.95) and in paperback by Puffin (0 14 03.2207 8, £2.95).