Sinéad O'Hart's debut middle-grade, the fantastic, fantastical THE EYE OF THE NORTH was published in August 2017 by Knopf Children’s Books in North America and February 2018 by Stripes in the UK. Her terrific second novel THE STAR SPUN WEB is published in both countries in 2019 (Feb in the UK; Fall in the US.)
Sinéad O’Hart lives in the Irish midlands with her husband and young child. She has done many things in her life, including working as a butcher and a proofreader (not at the same time, we hope) but could never quite shake the small voice whispering ‘write ‘ in her ear. Following a degree in medieval studies (an experience that has given her a rich seam to mine for inspiration), she finally gave into the voice, something that will delight middle-grade readers everywhere. Sinéad quotes Alan Garner’s ELIDOR as a huge influence on her and says that reading it aged eight changed her and made her the writer she is.
When and how did you start writing?
I have one brother who is as bookish and wordy as I am, and we blame our parents! Our house was always filled to the brim with books, and they read to us right from the start. I learned to read very young – my father says scarily young – and I loved stories from day one. I was encouraged to write stories, rather than just read them, by a wonderful primary school teacher who took extra time to encourage me, and my first ‘book’ (sadly, no longer extant!) was a sequel to THE LITTLE PRINCE , complete with illustrations by the author, which I created aged about seven. I kept a diary from about the age of eight, inspired by Anne Frank, which was a regular thing for me right up until my late twenties. My first proper attempt to write a novel for children happened when I was about twenty or twenty-one; it was a total L.M Montgomery/Enid Blyton pastiche, full of clichés and red-headed heroines, but I loved it anyway. It proved to me for the first time that I could have an idea and make a proper story out of it. Even though I didn’t write again for over ten years, because life kept getting in the way, I never forgot that feeling.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
Yes – and it’s a book I still read at least once a year. When I was about eight, my older cousin gave me her copy of Alan Garner’s ELIDOR. I will never forget the feeling I got from that book. I didn’t read it; I lived it. My entire life went on hold while I absorbed the story, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so gripped by a piece of fiction, before or since. When I finished, I went right back to the start and began again. That book shaped my life in so many ways, not only in terms of whetting my appetite as a reader and a writer, but also giving me a passion for folklore, mythology and history, which I still have.
Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
Roald Dahl, of course! Enid Blyton. Alan Garner. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Ann M. Martin (I loved the 'Babysitters Club' books) and Francine Pascal, the mastermind behind the 'Sweet Valley' phenomenon. I also loved MY FRIEND FLICKA, by Mary O’Hara, and THE HOUNDS OF THE MORRIGAN by Pat O’Shea, another book which shaped my mind. I was also a huge fan of Orla Melling and Michael Scott. I’m sure there were more, but I’ve actually read more children’s authors as an adult than I ever did as a child.
Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?
I’ve had many careers! I’ve been a butcher, a tourism assistant, an office worker, a researcher, a university tutor and lecturer, a bookseller . . . you name it. One of the highlights was gaining my PhD in Old and Middle English Language and Literature in 2008. Besides writing THE EYE OF THE NORTH, completing my doctoral thesis, defending it, and being conferred with my doctoral degree was the highlight of my professional life. I worked as a tutor for several years and I had the privilege of teaching some of the brightest students I’d ever encountered, and I loved my subject. Also, completing the thesis showed me I had the drive and motivation to complete a novel. I drew on that grit a lot when writing fiction.
Can you talk us through writing your first novel? What were the key moments?
The first novel I wrote which sold began life as a NaNoWriMo project. I sat down one afternoon – it was October 31st, to be exact – with an idea in mind for a book I was going to tackle over the month of November. I sketched out a vague plan for this book, and, feeling rather pleased with myself, sat back and let it settle. As I was doing this, a voice started ‘speaking’ to me – a small, slightly put-upon, rather world-weary voice – and it began with the most memorable opening line: ‘For as long as she could remember, Emmeline Widget had been sure her parents were trying to kill her.’ So, after that, I was hooked. I picked up a pen and wrote out, longhand, everything this voice said, until I had four printer pages’ worth of story, front and back. Those pages remained largely the same through fourteen edits! Over the course of that November I reached 50,000 words on this book, which became THE EYE OF THE NORTH, but I realised I still had loads more story to tell. By the following January, I had a finished first draft. I felt inspired the whole way through, and I hope to have that feeling again on a future project. Writing this book was a pure pleasure, start to finish.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
It wasn’t hard, but it did take some time! As it turned out, the agent who eventually signed me (the wonderful Polly Nolan) was one of the first I ever queried. She saw potential in the book I first queried her with, and was interested enough to keep in touch with me even though, ultimately, it wasn’t for her. The same thing happened with the next book I sent her; she saw more potential that time, but again it wasn’t quite right. The third book was the one which interested her enough to grab me. I’d queried several agents besides Polly, of course, with all my books, and I’d had a variety of responses (from total silence to requests for full MS), but when I started sending out THE EYE OF THE NORTH there was interest from several agents. However, I went with Polly because she’d been invested in me from the start (and, as well as that, we get on very well – that’s important!) All told, it was a year between beginning the querying process to eventually signing with Polly, and I learned a lot during that time.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I don't have a 'writing day', as such - at least, not any more! Before my baby was born I had the luxury of writing days, when I could block off time to focus on my work. Since becoming a parent, however, I now write whenever and wherever I can manage to get two seconds together. I work during naptimes and after the baby goes to bed, mainly, but I'm always thinking of ideas and - typically - I get a burst of inspiration at the most inappropriate time, like mid-nappy change or when we're trying to wrestle Junior into the bath. As for inspiration - it can come from anywhere, and normally (for me, at least) I find throwaway remarks, puns, newspaper headlines and interesting or unusual words very useful places to start picking away at a story. Always keep your ears tuned and your eyes peeled and take in everything you can about the world around you; stories are all around us, just waiting to be found.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Read, read, read. Did I say ‘read’? There’s nothing more important. Read to learn how stories work; read to know what sort of books are being read by your target market; read because you love words and you want to learn how to use them in ways that will be pleasing and effective. Read as much as you can within your own area of interest, but make sure to read outside it, too. Read to find out how others have done it before you, and learn from the masters. Read, too, to learn what to avoid!
Then, have a notebook with you at all times. And a working pen, of course. Wherever you are, when an idea strikes, write it down. Don’t just look at it in your mind, examining it from all angles, going ‘isn’t that pretty? I must make a note of that, when I get a chance.’ The moment you get the idea is your chance. Write it down then and there. If an idea comes to you when you’re falling asleep, get up and write it down. You think you’ll remember in the morning; you won’t.
Write. Write loads. Write without expectation. Write for fun. Write as exercise, like stretching your muscles. I wrote a whole book knowing that it was only ever going to be a practice run! Write every day, or at least every other day. Write as much and as often as you can. Write what you love, the story you want to read, and then put it away for as long as possible. Months, even.
Read what you’ve written, and allow yourself a little cry.
Fix what’s wrong with what you’ve written (show it to someone else if you’re brave enough – not your spouse or partner or parent, because that doesn’t work), and take their advice. With a large pinch of salt, if needed.
Submit your work to your dream agent, and wait. Whatever happens – even if it’s a ‘no’ – you’ll have learned something, and you’ll have shown yourself that you can finish a book, send it to a professional, and live to tell the tale.
If it doesn’t work first time out, then start again from scratch – and keep doing it until you get a ‘yes’. Don’t ever give up, if it’s what you want.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Learning that, when someone critiques a piece of writing I’ve done, they’re not critiquing me. They’re trying to help me be the best writer I can be, and that’s the spirit that all critique should be taken in. I find it hard to separate myself from my work, and so exposing myself to critique was, and continues to be, very challenging. If a writer can learn early on that critiques are incredibly useful and not something to be feared, that can only be a good thing.
Learning that I don’t have to get things ‘right’ first time around. I still struggle with this. Allow your first drafts to be a bit rubbish; don’t overburden yourself with expectation right out of the gate. Learning to take it easy on myself is another difficult lesson – and not one I’ve entirely mastered – but being overly self-critical is a real block to creativity.
Learning that nothing replaces writing every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time. Writing is, in large part, about discipline, and it’s important to strike the right balance between commitment to your craft and self-punishment. Again, I haven’t quite mastered the fine balance, but I’m working on it!
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party?
Alan Garner. Susan Cooper. Jenny Nimmo. Ursula le Guin. Diana Wynne Jones. Eva Ibbotson. Catherine Fisher. Catherine Webb. Frances Hardinge. Neil Gaiman. Jeanette Winterson. (I’d have to buy a bigger dinner table, but it’d be so worth it.)
Which fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
There are so many! Gowther Mossock, from THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN and THE MOON OF GOMRATH is the first to spring to mind. I adore the Dog Woman, from Jeanette Winterson’s SEXING THE CHERRY. Calcifer the fire-demon from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is one of the best characters I’ve ever read, as well as Howl and Sophie themselves, of course. The Disreputable Dog from LIRAEL. Lyra Silvertongue, Lee Scoresby (and Hester, of course), and Serafina Pekkala from the His Dark Materials books. Triss from CUCKOO SONG, I could answer this question for the rest of my life!