Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The Children of Lir for #IndieApril

Here's the last book in my #IndieApril book tour.

This is my latest release, The Children of Lir, which came out last year.

It's actually one of the oldest stories I wrote. I've always loved the original Irish folktale. I first read it in the Irish Folk and Fairy Tales Omnibus Edition by Michael Scott, which I picked up on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with family as a teenager. That book was a great influence as it showed  how quite straightforward characters in fairytales could be brought to life and made relatable. I spoke a bit about this with The Tangled Forest. On a more basic level, it showed me that you could retell a fairytale. That those stories belong to all of us and are there to be interpreted, reinterpreted and retold through the ages.

I first attempted to write my own version of The Children of Lir as a script, back in the days when I was an avid Celtx community member. The earliest version I've still got dates to around 2007, so a little before I wrote my first novel, Lucid.

After the prologue, the first chapter begins with the first lines of that script:

Some say my father was the god of the sea, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann who walked these green shores before the age of man. Some say he shaped destinies and carried the dead to their final resting place...

I've always felt it's an incredibly cinematic story with sweeping landscape and mythical beings. 

As with novellas, I soon discovered that scripts just aren't something you write unless you've been specifically invited to do so. There's really not a market for something like that on spec. However, I loved the story so much that I thought, If no one will read a script, I'll write a novel.

It is by far the longest I've ever written, resting at 119,000 words and over 450 pages.

Ghostwoods originally took the rights, offering my first ever advance and developing some cover art, but unfortunately they hit problems and had to stop most of their projects for a while. They asked whether I'd like to hold out for better times, but I decided, having spent so many years developing the story, that I wanted to go ahead and produce it myself.

Alongside Rosy Hours, I consider it to be my best work, though the two books are very different. It's one of the few novels I've written that isn't particularly dark, although there are some dark characters in there. It's strongly founded on the original translation, The Fate of the Children of Lir, by Lady Gregory. It was very important to me that the story followed the structure of the original legend as much as possible, but, within that, there was huge scope for creative license.

You already start out with a few glaring gaps, especially the timeframe. The children were supposedly Tuatha Dé Danann, turned to swans for 900 years, and turned back in the early days of Christianity. The problem here is that the Tuatha Dé Danann are thought to have left Ireland by around 1,700-1,477 BC. Even if the children were turned to swans by the very latest estimate, the curse would not have seen them to the age of Saint Patrick and the dawn of Christianity.

So, already we have to take some liberties.

Another liberty I took was with the ending. The tale was recorded by Christian scribes who had a bit of a habit of repurposing old pagan tales and festivals to promote the new faith. In some versions of the story the children are converted or baptised after they turn back. Having followed their story for so many thousands of words, that just didn't sit entirely right with me. So, I gave it a bit of a different ending. One I felt might be more true to the characters. As everyone else has written an ending to suit their tastes, I didn't feel that was much of a liberty.

For me, it's very much a story of two rivers converging: the old gods and the new. To live a lifetime which sees everything you ever knew replaced by something different, and to see how small we are in the vastness of time. It's very interesting subject matter to me, and the same sort of melancholic appeal that vampire stories tend to have. To outlive all those you love yet be unable to die. Does that make immortality a blessing or a curse? None of us particularly want to die, but what price would we pay to live?

There are also a lot of interesting relationships I stumbled across whilst researching. The original script was only about 77 pages, about 14,000 words including scene tags. To fill a novel, I really needed to go a lot deeper into the mythology. The gods of Ireland don't obey timelines. This is common in most ancient mythologies that predate the written word. Characters crop up at strange intervals and constantly change places, so it's hard to keep track of them. However, if 'mac' indicates a son, then Manannán mac Lir, god of the underworld, can reasonably be presumed to be Lir's son alongside his four children turned to swans. This opened up several interesting possibilities that I explored within the story. It became particularly useful during the 300 years they were stuck in the North Sea. The first half of the book was very easy to write, because it was about their life as humans, in a very tribal Iron Age world. The end was fairly easy too, ushering in the Christian era, which is well documented. But that lump of time in the middle was tricky. 'They sat on the ocean for three-hundred years,' just doesn't make for a gripping tale.

The more I investigated the family bonds, the more pages started to fill. One of my favourite characters is Bé Chuille, Witch of Lámhfada and Manannán sister-in-law, whose name I still can't pronounce. She's since become my favourite character, alongside Joe in Angorichina.  A very complex creature and a bit of a rough diamond - or demon.

I was a bit uncertain how this story would be received, as there have been many retellings of The Children of Lir over the years. However, most of them tend to be short and beautifully illustrated children's books, such as the gorgeous work of Alexandra Soranescu, whereas I really wanted to go for the epic adult retelling. I do feel that's what I've managed to achieve.

It's dedicated to my Irish (naturally) friend Cathryn, her husband Danny and their son Dara. Cathryn and I were VSO together in  Rwanda from 2007-09. We spent a lot of time drinking and talking. I originally wanted to publish this for their wedding, but by the time it finally came out they'd been married a couple of years and had a kid. Like the gods of Ireland, the publishing industry does not run to schedule.

As a slightly sad aside, I had a very good friend called Christiane Desrosiers who died of cancer here in Rwanda in 2015, after just gaining Rwandan nationality. We had also been VSO together. She arrived a year after I did. She was still here when I returned in 2014 and was building an ecolodge in Kibuye, beside Lake Kivu. We shared a love of books, and she was incredibly supportive of my writing. She really believed I should pursue it. Shortly before she died, I visited her in hospital to take her food and books. I also gave her a draft of this one. I know she was reading it, but I have no idea how far through she got before she died, and that stings a little bit. I hope it was a peaceful part, as the story is entirely about time, and death, and loss. I know it's a story that ordinarily she would have loved, but part of me hopes she didn't start it.

When I was editing the final copy, I did some of that on Lake Kivu, just over the water from her lodge. It is an extremely beautiful part of the country, though I don't think there are any swans there.

The cover was designed by Valdas Miskinids, and there was quite a bit of debate about the colour. It was originally in red, then he gave me a couple of other options in green and blue and it was put to a public vote, with green narrowly winning out over blue, though everyone seems to have their favourite.

On release day, my dad bought me some chocolates. Apparently there's a Lir Chocolate Company. They're very yummy.

And, in a strange turn of events, whilst I was writing the book, I visited Cathryn and Danny in London. Walking back to their house from the train station one night, I happened to see this on the wall of a house. Rather fitting.

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