‘For forty odd years in this noble profession
I’ve harboured a guilt and my conscience is smitten
So here is my slightly embarrassed confession
I don’t like to write but I love to have written.’ – Michael Kanin
While I can absolutely empathise – there is something so satisfying to finish a piece of writing, my confessions are more mundane: I can’t write until I’ve had my morning coffee – I did try but it was a doomed experiment; I will hide the last packet of crisps from everyone and even lie about their existence to make sure I have a packet when I need them – and I never thought I’d write for children.
It’s one of the main reasons my mother’s voice haunts me as I write.
Not in a critical way – I have a hyperactive inner critic for that and boy is she good! She can lecture me on how little writing even while knowing that she is the one who has lured my mojo under the rug with some sort of treat loaded with a sleeping draught or depressing thoughts. No, my mother’s voice is more of an ‘I told you so’ haunting.
And it’s definitely an improvement on how my grandmother haunted her. She appeared on my mother’s shoulder to criticise the quality of her dusting.
My own attitude to housework is similar to that of Quentin Crisp: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” In any battle between housework and writing, writing has to win. Hands down. Every time. It’s the only way to stay sane. Or slightly sane.
Okay, sane enough to get away with being eccentric. An eccentric writer living in an untidy house is, let’s face it, not the worst way to live. (Though I have to admit, when I’m avoiding work, the house is definitely tidier!)
So you’d think my mother would be straddling my shoulders, maintaining the maternal tradition, since she definitely disagreed with Crisp and me and worried all her life about my inability to throw anything out that was old, interesting, colourful. She thought she’d arrive to my house some day to find me on a chair in a room filled with clutter, notebook in hand, unable to move and oblivious of the chaos.
Then she watched a documentary about JK Rowling. JK said she had three priorities in life: caring for her child, writing and housework, but she only had time to do two of them well. My mother rang me as soon as it ended and said now she understood why I was so bad at the latter! Thanks JK!
It’s my mother’s fault I’m a writer and never wanted to be anything else. I’m absolutely certain of that. She brought me to the lunchtime plays in the Peacock Theatre when I was six and I was writing my first book by the age of nine. One of TCD’s first female scholars in the late 30s, my mother Kathleen was an incredible reader with a photographic memory who steered me into journalism as the only conceivable way of making a living from words at that time. (My father, likening journalism to prostitution, was less enthusiastic.)
So I was a freelance journalist for 13 years, writing plays on the side, and my first TV scripts (Fair City, Scratch Saturday) from 1990. My sister Jill died in 1993 and, long story short, I gave up journalism to pursue writing.
Still not writing for kids though.
And my mother was still telling me I’d be good at it. I was in my 30s now, with a child of my own. Writing thrillers and psychological horror and my only attempt to write a teen pilot involved a near-rape scene.
Wulfie appeared in bed time stories I was making up for my daughter, but had put aside for other work when my mother died suddenly. Four months later, for Christmas, my father gave each of his children gifts he’d found in her red suitcase under the bed. (She would buy various things that were on special or good value that she thought would make good presents. When you have 8 kids and 21 grandchildren, you need to be ahead of the game!)
My gift was a beautiful embossed notebook, so pretty that I would normally hide it away for something special; too good for just writing in.
This time I made myself use it. Every night before I went to bed, I’d fill four or five pages. I let characters grow, didn’t look back, went as mad and inventive and creative as I could be and didn’t worry about it turning into anything. I’d love to say that turned into the Wulfie books, but those pages were the germs of a fantasy book called Candlemist that I return to every few years and rework. There are 100,000 words there, and so many characters and threads but someday, when I’m a little more experienced as a storyteller and have time to only work on it, I will get it right.
But what that writing did was kick start my imagination and allow it to breathe. Within a year I was developing two animation series for children – one got made by Geronimo Productions (Punky, RTE 2011, 2014); the other was Wulfie and when the option ran out five years later, I wrote my first Wulfie book and sent it to Little Island. They loved the idea but felt it was a little too grown up for the audience.
That book belonged in the middle of a series and I knew deep down that what I needed to do was write the genesis story. Wulfie was found in the trunk, sure, but I hadn’t a story to go with that and I wanted it to be an exciting one that established the world, the fun, the characters… Also, I needed to write that first book to have the confidence that I could write a series.
So I sat down with my box of notes and scripts, pulled out one story I liked and began to play… I gave it to friends to read, I put it aside, I polished and rewrote (and seriously pruned!) many times.
This time the response was within weeks, with a smiley face on the subject heading from Siobhán Parkinson. We met in December 2018 and I told them about the second Wulfie book. Then Little Island they did something they said they weren’t sure they’d ever done before – they commissioned both. Not only that but four months before the first book (Wulfie: Stage Fright) came out in Sept 2020, they commissioned another two. (Wulfie: Beast in Show came out last March and Wulfie Saves The Planet is out today. Wulfie: A Ghostly Tail comes out next Spring.)
So, a few bits of advice:
Use those beautiful notebooks and don’t worry about what you write…
However scary or tricky it might seem, write the first book of your series, but make sure there’s a great story in there…
And, maybe, listen to your mother?
Thank you, Lindsay, for this great article. I loved learning more about Wulfie’s origin, and plenty of good advice too!