About Nigel: Nigel Quinlan is the author of The Cloak of Feathers and The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox. He lives in Tipperary with his family and a dog and lots of books.
SK: Hi Nigel, thanks for giving us an interview. Your most recent book The Cloak of Feathers is one of our books of the year so far, so it is a real treat to get to pick your brains today.
NQ: I’m looking forward to it.
SK: The Cloak of Feathers is very much a modern day Irish fairy tale. Where did the idea for the book come from?
NQ: When I was writing The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox I had a terrible crisis of confidence. I decided the whole book was a terrible idea and needed to be rewritten completely from the start. I reconceived the story, setting it around a Festival Of Seasons where various weather avatars and would mingle with ordinary folk in honour of incarnations of the four seasons. Fortunately I came to my senses and went back to the already half-written first version of the book, but the idea of the magical festival stayed with me, particularly the picture I had of a small group of dedicated stalwarts thanklessly organising one every year, with no money and little support, plagued by disaster and misfortune, with the action centering around some put-upon kids more or less forced to help out and ultimately save the day. Somehow the addition of the fairies, the Other Folk seemed entirely logical, and the whole thing was put away in the back of my brain while I worked on Weatherbox, ready to burst out when I finally sat down to write again.
SK: The Cluaracan is one of the best baddies I’ve read in a long time. He is bad, with a smile and oodles of charm, but also there is a reason he’s so bad. How did you come up with him?
NQ: I read a lot of Irish folklore by way of research. I’d grown up with these stories, but when I examined my memories of them they proved to be fragmentary and so intimately connected with the landscape that they were actually quite difficult to pin down. If you read any little bit of folklore you’ll encounter the work of Thomas Crofton Croker, who published a collection of Irish folklore in 1825 and was responsible for popularising Irish folklore – his book was translated into German by the Grimm brothers and was much admired by Walter Scott. His stories are full of vividly drawn, charming and loquacious Irish characters, human and supernatural, combining that strange mix of down-to earth pragmatism and wild flights of fancy and belief. The Cluaracan came out of my reading of Croker, and my sense that there is a dark side to that kind of thing, and all that charm and wit and earthy charisma can be used to bamboozle and corrupt.
SK: The town of Knockmealldown really has the most terrible festival. It is a brilliant situation to base a funny story. What made you want to write about a festival?
NQ: I love Irish festivals, small local parish festivals with no resources and a bare handful of volunteers who are nonetheless committed to working themselves to the bone to do something for their community, even if it’s organising milk-churn races or welly-throwing or putting some hapless animal up on top of a tall tower. The ideas for the book were piling up in the wake of the economic crash of 2007, so an air of misfortune hung over it and the sense of a cyclical boom and bust became part of its DNA. A festival that endured down through history, even though shrunk to a tiny long-lost fragment of an echo of its former self, existing solely through dogged determination and bloody-minded stubbornness and utterly groundless optimism – that summed up the festivals I remembered as a boy, and it seemed the right time to invoke that spirit.
Also, structuring the book’s epic set-pieces around a typical small Irish village festival program allowed me to go pure wild mixing the mundane and the magical, which I love doing.
SK: There seems to be a eco-friendly message in the book, though not one that’s too preachy. Was that something you had in mind when writing?
NQ: I’ve been a wannabe eco-warrior since I was five or six when I discovered a pond in a nearby field and spent hours of every day studying the pond skaters and the water-boatman and the dragonflies. What I didn’t know was that it was merely a site on a field that had been dug up to build a house that had filled with rain, and when the diggers moved in I was devastated.
This stuff to me is part of the world. it’s like your characters eat and sleep and drink, go in and out of houses, travel on roads – any invocation of their world will inevitably touch on environmental issues. They’re a big concern of mine, so they’re an important part of the story, and the story, after all, is about a bunch of kids having to clean up a mess made by grown-ups.
SK: The Cloak of Feathers really reminded me of Neil Gaiman in its parallel worlds like Coraline and Stardust, the ordinary boring world and the magical chaotic one. You also have a brilliant short story published with us here at Storgy Kids, ‘The Mushephant’, which has an Irish fairy tale twist. I’m an Englishman living in the North of Ireland, and your book made me feel there is a whole world of myths and legends I’m only very weakly aware off. Are there any particular Irish myths that you’d recommend to start with?
NQ: Ireland is packed with myth and legend – where to even start? To become familiar with the basics – the fairy court, the leprechauns and pucas and the banshees and the merrow and the changelings – Eddie Lenihan is Ireland’s greatest living seanchai, and his book Meeting The Other Crowd was the very first book I read as research, and in many ways still the best. Then perhaps try the WB Yeats collection, Fairy And Folk Tales Of Ireland, which includes stories collected and/or retold by Crofton Croker, Lady Wilde, Gerald Griffin, Douglas Hyde and other great early folklorists. For more epic mythic adventure cycles, try Fionn MacCumhal and also the story of Cuchulain. Then there are all the great tragedies, such as Deirdre Of the Sorrows, The Wooing of Etain and The Children Of Lir. Beyond those, there are a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of stories, about ghosts, the devil, lake monsters, river monsters, monks, saints and giants with multiple heads.
SK: If books had parents, who are The Clock of Heathers mum and dad (or extended family too)?
NQ: Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey Goes Visiting, which I think was the first Irish book by an Irish writer set in Ireland where children had adventures with Irish heroes and myths and creatures, even though I mostly remember the book because at one point the brother and sister in the book are replaced by changelings who get up to mischief and make trouble for everyone, then the brother and sister come back, but we never find out where they went, and that made me get angry at a book for the very first time. Still, what kid doesn’t get mad at their Mum and Dad on a regular basis? Patricia Lynch was a great children’s writer and deserves to be better remembered, and see also Pat O’Shea’s Hounds Of The Morrigan for another classic of Irish children’s fantasy
The other parent would be John Allison’s Bad Machinery graphic novels, though at the time I was following his comics online before they were collected. A group of kids solving strange mysteries in a strange British town, an updating of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven to a modern, weirder but also brighter and funnier setting. They brought me back to those books I loved so much where a gang of kids would set out to solve problems, uncover secrets, foil evil schemes. They’re bright and smart, the kids are lovable, and they made me want to do something similar.
SK: There are so many funny bits your novel. The Banshee’s were a particular favourite of mine. Do you always like to use funny bits in your stories, or did it just work for this one?
NQ: I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything that doesn’t have some attempt at humour, especially writing for and about kids – kids are hilarious. The Cloak Of Feathers was always going to be about things going terribly wrong, so there was always going to be a lot of dangerous silliness, and the three central characters are so mismatched the sparks flew all by themselves.
Half the fun of festival organising is sitting around with other survivors later and cracking up over the sheer farcical breakdowns and misfortunes. I wanted the Knockmealldown Summer Festival to leave enough stories to be shared and passed down and around for a hundred years. They’ll be talking about Brian and the Banshees from one end of the country to the other, or so I hope.
SK: Do you mind if we follow up with some quick fire questions? Your answers don’t need to be quick.
NQ: Go for it.
SK: Is there a book or books that changed your life?
NQ: The Hobbit. My Dad got it for me one Christmas and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
SK: What are you reading at the moment?
NQ: The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, a very dark modern fairy story set in new York.
SK: If you could have written any other children’s novel what would it be and why?
NQ: To cheat slightly, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur Trilogy. I really want to right some children’s historical fiction at some point, and this is a pure masterpiece, managing to evoke and describe coming of age and everyday life in a particular place and period, while also managing to bring in through a tiny touch of magic the glories and tragedies of Arthurian myth.
SK: Have you ever been asked to do something strange to promote a book?
NQ: My local bookshop got the local circus club and a professional dancer together for the launch of The Weatherbox and we all stood in front of a crowd and danced a special Dance Of The Shieldsmen while the circus kids went into acrobatic displays of their Shieldsmen Training. I can’t blame anyone but myself for it, but at the same time it was awesome.
SK: What inspired you to start writing?
NQ: If I couldn’t take part in stories about exploring caves and foiling smugglers and thieves and spies, writing my own was the next best thing.
SK: What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
NQ: Being my own boss. I’m a terrible boss. I’ll do nothing but skive off to read, leaving all the work to my sole employee, myself, who is, frankly, a bit lazy and clueless.
SK: If you were stranded at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine with two other authors, who would they be and why?
NQ: Ann Halam, AKA science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones because I reckon fixing a submarine would be well within her skill set, and Phillip Pullman, because I’d want to keep myself together and not go into a panic as I’d rather die than embarrass myself in front of Philip Pullman.
SK: If an aspiring writer was trapped in a lift with you and had time to ask you only one question, what should they ask, and what would be the answer?
NQ: ‘Why didn’t you go to elevator engineering school instead of becoming a writer?’
To which the answer is: ‘I once wrecked a car just by trying to change the oil, you don’t want me messing about with anything mechanical.’
SK: What does a normal day of writing look like for you?
NQ: My ideal day is I get up, make breakfast, sit down to write 1,000 new words, take a break, then the rest of the morning revising and rewriting completed stuff, then lunch, then research and admin stuff in the afternoon. My average day bears about as much resemblance to this as the average Knockmealldown Summer Festival bears to its planned program of events.
SK: If you could give those writers one piece of homework, what would it be?
NQ: Read non-fiction. Read fiction outside your comfort zone or chosen genre.
SK: If you could put a giant sign in the middle of every festival with a piece of advice or a message, what would it say?
NQ: THANK THE ORGANISERS YOU UNGRATEFUL SODS.
SK: What is coming up next for you?
NQ: I’m writing stuff at a furious rate, but it all has to meet the stern but loving approval of my agent before the next stage, so writing and worrying loom large in my immediate future.
SK: Thanks for taking time to talk to us. Do you have anything else to tell our readers? Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
NQ: Read my books! They’re fun! If you like them, rate them on Amazon and Goodreads, that’s very helpful! Read more about me at nigelquinlan.tumblr.com, which badly needs an update which will happen as soon as I get a computer that doesn’t go on fire when I try to do anything on that site. I’m also on Twitter @Nigellicus and recently parachuted into Instagram under the clever alias nigelquinlan
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