Today, we’re pretty chuffed to welcome one of our all-time favourite children’s authors to Gobblefunked, Marita Conlon McKenna!
Author of Under the Hawthorn Tree – a firm favourite with Irish and international children (it has been translated into over a dozen languages!) since it was first published in 1990 – amongst other things Marita has won the Bisto Book of the Year Award, the International Reading Association Award and the Osterreichischer Kinder. Enjoy!
1. Marita, your first book was published in 1990 and became phenomenally successful (more about that later!), but had you been writing before this, was it something you were interested in as a child? And what made you decide to become a writer?
I think practically from the minute I began to read I also began to write and make up stories … I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I had brilliant teachers in my school that encouraged me to write and I was obsessed with making up stories and imagining them … whether it was on paper or actually chasing around my garden pretending to be a pirate or a mermaid or a cowboy on the wagon train!
It was something I always did and even in school I started to get things published. After I left school I was doing a bit of freelance journalism and getting things into newspapers and magazines. When I was about 21, I did a creative writing course with John F. Deane, and I still remember him getting the class to write a children’s story one week. I loved it and then found myself writing another.
I studied Children’s Literature in UCD at night and I guess that really opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s books. Dr Pat Donlon, our lecturer, was amazing and I began to show her books I was making at home. She was so encouraging and helped me to get a picture book published. I remember telling her about Under the Hawthorn Tree and showing it to her and she persuaded me to send it to publisher, and I guess that was the start of it all!
2. Speaking of childhood, at Gobblefunked we love hearing about people’s favourite books as children. Did you have a favourite and any one that sticks out in your memory?
I was such a bookworm and read so many books it’s really hard to choose. The first really big proper book I owned was an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson stories. It was a very special book – and his work still inspires me. I loved Laura Ingalls’ Wilders Little House books and read them over and over again. I also loved Eve Garnett’s Family from One End Street series and of course read lots of Enid Blyton’s stories. I always loved adventure so my favourite was The Secret Island.
3. Every author we speak to seems to have a different writing process. What works for you to get those creative juices flowing? Do you have a strict routine when it comes to writing?
I started writing when my children were very young, so often when they were at school or at playgroup or having a nap, then again later at night when they were gone to bed.
It’s weird that even though they are all grown up now, mornings and night-time are still my best times for writing. Afternoons are not good for me. I’m a late owl and when I am deep into a book I can write until 2 or even 3am. I tend not to notice time when I am writing; and I drink lots of tea.
4. As I’ve mentioned, Under the Hawthorn Tree was a phenomenal success for you, particularly as it was your first published book. Did you find it difficult to cope with all the attention it received, and at the time, did it make it difficult for you to sit down and write a second book?
Under the Hawthorn Tree is a very special book, it was written for my daughter and I suppose that is the best kind of book, one that is written for a child.
I was nervous, and my publisher was nervous, when it was due to come out as it was so different to anything else that had been published. Once the book came out it just began to take off, the reviews were great, but more important kids loved it and wanted to read it and not just kids in Ireland abut kids around the world too.
It was pretty amazing as so many nice things were happening with the book, but I had already started work on my next one which was Wildflower Girl. I constantly write and it may not seem very glamorous but usually as I finish one book my head is filling up with a new story and I begin writing, I try not to take a gap or a break.
5. I don’t think there is a child under the age of 30 in Ireland today that hasn’t read and loved Under the Hawthorn Tree, what inspired you to write the story of Eily, Michael and Peggy?
Under the Hawthorn Tree was inspired by a number of factors. First of all my love of history and my curiosity about the Great Irish Famine, also I wanted to write a book for my daughter.
Then of course the lucky coincidence of hearing a story about the skeletons of three children from the famine times found buried under a hawthorn tree in a field beside a primary school. So I had a story …
6. Which of the characters you have created in your books is your favourite and why?
I love all my characters and as I create them they become very real to me so I get totally embroiled in their lives and situation. I hate finishing off a last chapter and tend to leave open endings so my character still continues to live – not just on the page but in the mind too. Asking me to choose a favourite would be disloyal to all of them.
7. You’ve written books for both children and adults, do you find it easier to write for one group over the other and do you find it difficult to change your ‘voice’ to suit the readership?
I love writing and tend to trust my instincts about what I write. Sometimes it’s for children, sometimes it’s for adults and sometimes for very young children. I am not aware of changing my voice and am very lucky that my books have a very large cross generational readership.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is a very special book, it was written for my daughter and I suppose that is the best kind of book, one that is written for a child.”
8. What’s your favourite part of being a children’s author?
I suppose the best thing about being a children’s writer is the fun!
It is amazing to have a big blank page or screen in front of you and to be able to just run and dive into it and put that story you have running over and over again in your head down on the page and have the chance of making it into a book! It is definitely like some kind of magic.
Also visiting schools and libraries and doing book festivals, I get to meet lots of great kids, which is wonderful.
9. You have won numerous awards for you writing, including the International Reading Association Award, the Reading Association of Ireland Award and the Bisto Book of the Year Award, is there any one that was sweeter to win than the others?
It was a very great honour to win the International Reading Award in America as it is such a prestigious book award.
American author Lois Lowry, the previous year’s winner, presented me with the award at a massive function in Las Vegas, so that is special. However, one of my favourite Awards is called The Kalbacher Klapperschalanger Book Award which is the The Children’s Choice Book Award in Germany where German kids vote for their favourite book of the year. There is no money or medals just a little wooden toy rattlesnake but I am very proud and honoured to have won it.
10. Last year you helped to break a Guinness World Record for ‘the most authors reading consecutively from their own work’, can you tell us a little bit about that?
I am not one bit sporty so the chance of me ever being a Guinness World Record Breaker was never likely to happen! Then I heard about trying to break a record for reading from your own book in The Writer’s Centre in Dublin; that sounded more like my kind of thing and it was an honour to be involved with so many great Irish writers and take part in it.
We each read a bit from one of our books. I was lucky I got to read in the morning not in the middle of the night. The massive reading session was shown all over the world and made me realise just how important books and writing are to us here in Ireland.
11. What is your opinion of the future of children’s literature, both nationally and internationally?
There are huge changes going on at present in terms of children’s literature but the one good thing is that the internet and translation enables everyone to read some of the best children’s books from around the world.
Hopefully there will always be the book that you can cuddle up with in bed, but the world of eBooks is very important and growing and growing. Most of my own books are now available in eBook format so readers from all around the world can order them and read them on their Kindles etc.
I was in China recently and visited a large school there. They proudly showed me their library but then brought me into their eLibrary, this was where most of their students could either read books on a screen or upload them on to their iPads and Kindle readers.
However no matter what way people read the most important thing is to be able to find a good book and read it!
12. What’s next for you?
As usual I am busy working on a new book.
“Hopefully there will always be the book that you can cuddle up with in bed, but the world of eBooks is very important and growing and growing.”
13. The children’s book world is booming with talent right now. Do you have a favourite author these days?
I loved The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I always have fun reading aloud Julia Donaldson marvellous rhyming picture books. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is a truly unforgettable book.