Are you a bit of a local history/mythology buff? My knowledge starts and stops with Finn McCool and the Giants Causeway.
As a (very bookish, very geeky) kid I devoured books on myths and legends – my favourites were the Greek pantheon although I read a fair bit of Russian and Indian, Norse, Native American, etc.
Like most people I knew the legends of Setanta / Cú Chulainn and the story of Finn McCool, but I must admit compared to the richness of the Greek legends, I thought our own were a bit lacking. I think Tolkien felt the same about English myth, that it was a bit scant, he didn’t count the Arthurian legends as they were post-Christian.
So when I decided to write Folk’d and to have a mythological slant to proceedings, I went and did a fair bit of research – not exhaustive amounts, I’ll admit, so my apologies to any real Celtic mythology buffs out there!
I knew I wanted to use the Morrigan because there was just something so epic about a Goddess of War, I knew she would make a fantastic mentor figure for Danny. But it wasn’t until I stumbled across Carman and her three sons that it clicked into place – here was a worthy adversary for my Goddess, and the fact that her three sons had three very clearly defined roles – Darkness, Evil, and Violence – gave me her henchmen.
How much of Folk’d is rooted in those myths and legends? Have you given yourself free reign to rejig certain things or did you keep to the ‘facts’ as much as possible?
I stuck to the ‘facts’ wherever it suited me to do so, I think is the short answer. I thought it would be fun for people if they enjoyed reading the books to go and find out that there was a mythological basis for the battle of Mag Tuired, for example, or for the origins of Sarah in the 1798 Rebellion – the real-life battle on the Hill of Tara just seemed so perfect. I had lots of examples where with a little digging I uncovered a historical or mythological basis that just seemed to dovetail beautifully with what I needed for the plot.
There are plenty of incidences, by the same token, of where I took the ball and ran with it in a completely different direction. That’s the best thing about myth; you can cherrypick the best bits and leave out the other bits and no-one’s going to sue you for defamation of character…
It’s refreshing to read a Northern Ireland based story that doesn’t explicitly reference The Troubles or include local politics. I find it informs a lot, maybe too much, of Irish literature to the extent that it’s inescapable. Was that something you actively tried to avoid?
Absolutely. I went to school in the late 80s and all through the 90s and those were some pretty grim times in Northern Ireland until the ceasefires in 1995. I remember vividly being given these awful, awful, awful ‘cross-community’ things to do and even as a child cringing at how clumsy they were. To someone like me, who was lucky enough to grow up in a non-sectarian household, the first time I ever even considered that the ‘Other Side’ could be different was reading these hammer-subtle role plays that told me very patronisingly that ‘just because someone is a different religion to you, doesn’t mean they can’t be your friend’ and I was going ‘huh? Was I meant to think that? Am I missing something?’
As Danny Morrigan would probably say, no harm like but the Troubles are boring as f**k. And they’ve been done. To. Death. We’ve got a lovely wee country here, daft and mad and funny and acidic in its cynicism of all things authority, and I wanted to bring that out.
Danny Morrigan, and I’m not just brown nosing here, is one of the most well drawn and relatable characters I’ve read in fantasy fiction in a long time, even when he’s incorporeal and talking to a crow. Do you feel his (and, by extension, your) experiences of Belfast living helps keep the character grounded and believable whilst all this otherworldliness is going on?
Danny’s kind of my response to every time you’ve watched a character in a movie or on TV make a really dopey decision or react in a way that no person in their right mind possibly would. Hear a creepy noise in a creepy place? Oh, I think I’ll investigate that dark cellar, yeah, why not. Yeah, let’s split up to find this killer, sounds like a great plan. Wow this terrible romantic misunderstanding could be cleared up if only I said another three words, but I tell you what, I’m not going to because the movie would be over then.
I’ve lived in Belfast my whole life, and last I checked, I was a relatively real person, so I wanted Danny to be as real a person as possible even as the world around him gets progressively more ridiculous. Every few lines I would stop and run what had just happened to him over in my head and think – right okay, strip away what has to happen for the plot to move forward, what would actually happen to a normal person if they encountered this? What would they really say?
That’s what also informed the swearing, to be honest. You can’t try to portray an authentic young Belfast fella going through Hell and not have him swear like a trooper. It would seem inauthentic. Plus, we swear funnier than anywhere else.
Do you have a favourite character across the trilogy? I found that my favourite character switched about five or six times throughout.
Firstly that’s a huge compliment, so thank you. I tend to get a lot of men telling me Steve is their favourite character and quite a few girls split between Sarah and Ellie and the Morrigan herself. I think the fact that some people consider a huge monstrous man-eating spider to be their favourite character is interesting in itself…!
I have a theory that protagonists often get the short end of the stick because the plot pivots around them; there are probably people much smarter than me who could draw diagrams to prove this in countless novels and films. Your central character has to shoulder a lot of responsibility, which frees characters a little to the side of him to comment on the plot and have a bit more fun. I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Niles Crane effect’ after probably the best supporting character I’ve ever seen.
I don’t think I could pick a favourite, but I do have a fondness for Steve. His journey runs parallel and yet counter to Danny for much of the trilogy so he makes a hugely effective counterpoint, and because he has that little bit of distance he gets to call things out as being ludicrous. I was surprised, and pleased, at how many people said Tony Morrigan almost stole the show in the second book too.
As well as all the mythology there’s also a lot of humour and horror in Folk’d. [As the father of an eight month old boy, a certain moment in Folk’d Up sent shivers down my spine] How do you keep the balance from tipping too far one way? Make too many gags and the stakes feel lower, get into too much horror and the humanity can be stripped away.
I think you just try and avoid being consciously trapped into one ‘genre’ or another, because the more you try and make your books like a wee exaggerated slice of real life the more authentic they seem, and real life doesn’t have a genre. You can see something that makes you cry with laughter and then an hour later you stub your toe, and that night you hear some bad news, etc etc.
The humour is essential, especially in dialogue. Nothing tells me quicker if I’m going to like a book than reading a snippet of dialogue – if it’s dull and lifeless, you could have the best plot in the world and I’m going to be struggling to go on, whereas you could have two people trapped in a cardboard box and so long as the dialogue is good and fun it could make for a good read.
The humour also makes you care for the characters. I’ve had comments that the first part of book one – before the disappearance – is a bit slow, and I suppose re-reading it I would maybe agree, but I’m not sure I would change that much; I think in order to give a crap what happens to the characters, you’ve got to start to admire them in some way, and for that you need to see them being real people.
When writing the first draft of Folk’d – as a screenplay, back then – my own son was the same age as Luke in the novel, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than not knowing where he was, or if he was safe. Introducing that element brings all the horror you need, without resorting to gore or anything silly like that.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process?
I always have this fear that this is the time I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and my fingers are going to stay poised above the keys because there’s nothing coming out. And every time, thank God, it turns out to be a baseless fear because every time I sit down and things start coming out – they may be crap, they may need rewriting multiple times, but they come out, and that’s the most vital thing you can have as a writer.
That’s not my favourite part, though. My favourite part is when you have the next bit of plot mapped out and all of a sudden, whilst sitting there typing away, your brain suddenly goes but wait, what if instead…? and suddenly the pieces rearrange themselves from something good to something great and you’re off, running with this new idea, rearranging past paragraphs to make way for it, adding dialogue, dropping scenes. That sudden ‘eureka!’ moment and the excitement that comes with it is absolutely breathtaking.
How long had Folk’d been bouncing around your head before you put pen to paper? And does it feel strange now that the third and final book is out there now?
The germ of the idea came to me going home from work one day and I thought, what if I walk into the house and my girlfriend [now wife!] and the wee fella [now 11!] are gone, but just gone, like the microwave is still counting down and the bath water is still running, like the Marie Celeste? It was actually a really unpleasant thought, so much so that when I walked into the house I was relieved to find them still in there!
But I couldn’t shake the idea. How would I even begin to deal with that? How would anyone? So that kept bouncing around in there and at the same time I knew I wanted to do a fantasy book that was definitely, squarely, unmistakably shot through with a sense of Northern Irish-ness. No offence to Harry Potter, but if Hogwarts had been in Belfast he’d have had the shit kicked out of him, if you know what I mean. There was something very middle class, very boarding school, about a lot of fantasy. I wanted something gritty, working-class, a bit sweary.
I was once asked to describe Folk’d in one sentence and the best I could do was ‘Roddy Doyle meets Terry Pratchett’. I don’t claim to be a hundredth as good as either, though!
Do you get a buzz seeing your name on your book on bookshop shelves? I get giddy when my name is on an internet article.
It is quite literally a childhood dream come true. I don’t know how else to put it. I would have been happy to have achieved seeing my name on a bookshop shelf at the age of 73 never mind 33, so I constantly have to keep pinching myself.
If the books were ever optioned for a film or TV series (although once imagines the budget for book 3 would be astronomical), who would your dream cast be, local or otherwise? I reckon Gillian Anderson would be great as the Morrigan.
Yeah but book 1 would be cheap…!
I’ve been asked this a few times and I keep changing my mind. I quite like him as an actor but Jamie Dornan is much too pretty (I’m sure he hates hearing that) for Danny, who I think is much more of an everyman. Robert Sheehan, peerless in Misfits, would be quite good for Steve so long – hugely important! – as the accent was flawless, because there is literally nothing worse than someone mangling our Norn Iron tones as we’ve found out to our cost countless bloody times down the years (Tommy Lee Jones, I’m looking at you).
Michael McElhatton (the villainous Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones) would be a good Dother I think. Michael Smiley – who was brilliant in Spaced and popped up in the last season of Doctor Who – could do a great job as Tony Morrigan, he has a very approachable quality to him and he’s fantastic with making dialogue sound natural. As for the Morrigan, I hadn’t considered Gillian Anderson to be honest, but I think the height thing (or lack of height thing!) is kinda putting me off, I’d always pictured the Morrigan as a very tall, Amazonian figure. Someone like Gemma Arterton would do the job excellently, but again the accent would have to be there.
I think the hardest person to cast would be Ellie to be honest – I suspect this would probably be an open casting call to young NI hopefuls, and I’m sure there are plenty of really talented young actresses who could inhabit the role.
It makes me laugh when people say to me ‘why don’t you get them to make a movie or a TV show out of it?’ as if this is somehow my decision and I’m holding back on it. I think visually and apparently I write visually, so it’s great so many people say to me they could really see the trilogy on the screen. I only hope someone with some actual clout – i.e. not a writer! – agrees somewhere. HBO? BBC? I’m waiting for your call!
How do you feel about the current cuts to the Arts funding in Northern Ireland? It seems as though any up and coming talent will find it harder and harder to get anything out there into the world at present.
I agree and I tweeted on the day the cut became public knowledge that I suspected Blackstaff wouldn’t be able to take a chance on an unknown writer the way they did with me going forward, which was then confirmed on the news that night.
It’s a strange industry, the publishing industry, it really is. I remember vividly my days of being a wannabe writer and finding it relentlessly daunting to go to websites and be told time and again ‘we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts’ or ‘we don’t accept sci-fi or fantasy’. There are so many closed doors.
And then you’re told – ‘go get an agent’ but people always seem to forget one thing about writers, which is – we’re not actors. We don’t have that natural showmanship (or showwomanwhip!) gene that compels us to perform. Some of us are terminally shy people, so asking us to go tout ourselves to agents is tantamount to asking us to run naked down Royal Avenue covered in jam.
Having said all that, if writing is your dream and if seeing your name in print is your ambition, you’ve got to do a few things.
The first thing is, you’ve got to actually write. No one’s going to read the World’s Greatest Novel that only exists inside your head or on scribbed notes or dog-earned notebooks. Get something written, get it edited by friends or through favours or even pay an editor to do it freelance, get it polished. You need something to sell, something as good as you can make it.
The second thing is, consider publishing it yourself as an ebook. Nag friends and family to download it for peanuts, and try your damndest to promote it in any free time you may have. Going to a publisher with an anonymous manuscript versus going to them with an ebook that’s already been published and has 20-odd 4 or 5 star Amazon reviews and a few hundred downloads is a far different prospect.
The third thing is, cliché and all as it may be, don’t give up. If you stop trying, you’re definitely not going to get published. Chances are even if you do get published you’re not going to be able to give up the day job, so moaning about having to work in an office and promote your manscript is pointless, because sorry to break it to you, but you’re still going to have to do that even as a published writer…
Your bio says you were a geek ‘before geek chic was chic,’ so what are currently your favourite geeky properties? Thrones fan? Excited for Avengers?
As a family we’re currently 50% of the way through our pre-Age of Ultron Marvel movie catch-up, where we’re watching all 10 (!) Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in production order before the big day.
I think as a ‘geek’ – although I’m not tremendously fond of that word, I must say – we’re living in a blessed age where it’s never been more mainstream and there’s never been more quality genre properties in all mediums to choose from. The very fact that Avengers movies alone exist is cause for celebration.
I adore Game of Thrones, really looking forward to the next series and seeing the Northern Ireland locations looking so gorgeous is an extra thrill.
My favourite TV shows of all time though are probably Joss Whedon’s masterpieces, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. Not only did they help to mould me as a writer, not only were they by turns heartbreaking and hilarious and true, but I met my wife because we were both fans of the show – she was coming to Belfast to stay with a friend of hers and we decided to meet up. So I owe geek culture not only my writing career but also my family life!
I firmly believe that everyone is a nerd/geek, whatever you want to call it, about something. I know plenty of fellas who have slegged me off down the years for watching Star Trek and the rest, but who could identify a car by the sound its exhaust makes. What are ‘petrolheads’ if not car geeks?
Now that, as a society, we’ve mastered the art of not shitting out of a window and we’ve invented penicillin and the rest, in the words of the great Karl Pilkington we’re just ‘messin about’ and the rise of geek culture is a perfect example of the fact that a lot of us are now blessed with leisure time and disposable income enough to indulge our interests, whatever they may be.
Your Twitter account (@LarboIreland) reveals you to be a bit of a gamer as well. What’s tickled your gaming fancy lately?
I’m not much of a multi-tasker when it comes to games; I tend to concentrate on one game at a time and plough through it until I either complete it or I get bored and decide I’m not going to bother.
I’m a big RPG fan – Skyrim was a masterpiece, I love me some Assassin’s Creed – and not much of an FPS fan; I tend to find FPS are too weighted toward assuming everyone loves multiplayer these days, and I personally abhor it. If I wanted to be called horrendous names by a thirteen year old boy screaming into my ear, I’d…actually I would never, ever, ever want that to happen, hence why you’re unlikely to see me in a Call of Duty lobby anytime ever.
Recently, I’ve been loving Dying Light which was the first game in the next-gen consoles to properly feel like something last-gen consoles simply couldn’t have coped with. Also can’t wait for the remastered editions of Borderlands 2 and Borderlands The Pre-Sequel – we play them as a family and it’s hilarious and strangely touching to see two young boys rush to revive their fallen Mummy on the battlefield.
And finally, have you any other ideas in your head for new novels? Do you think you’d remain local or take the Folk’d story global?
I’m working over an idea in my mind which is a novel comprised of a framing story and then a series of short stories in the middle which introduces each of the main characters, each of whom has some sort of superpower but each of whom is also a damaged individual in some way. If Folk’d was my take on fantasy, this would be my take on the Avengers I guess…
I certainly wouldn’t rule out going back to the Folk’d-verse someday. What’s lovely is that when I wrote fanfiction I loved the feeling of being able to settle into someone else’s toybox and not having to worry about inventing a world and characters and rules. And now, I could get to do that with my own toybox…
Laurence Donaghy, thank you very much.
Completely Folk’d launches this Thursday 26th of March at 6PM at Forbidden Planet, Belfast, where you’ll be able to meet with the author himself (@LarboIreland) and pick up all the books in the trilogy. Hope to see you there.