An Interview with Jerry Mulvihill

Other than your passion for adventure, magic and literature, what led you to writing children’s books? Was the journey what you expected?

I was always an avid reader with a big imagination. English was my favourite subject in school alongside Art. It felt effortless creating stories and writing essays, it was a pleasure as oppose to work. I was a huge fan of Enid Blython when I was very young. I remember my parents and grandmother reading me bedtime stories. I was riveted by the tales and always wanted to hear more. As I got a little older, I was immersed in the entire Goosebumps collection by R.L Stine.

I will never forget reading ‘Night of The Living Dummy’ by R.L Stine. Every creak of a floorboard or shadow cascaded from that living doll has been imprinted in my mind, as if it really took place. When you are a child, you are in a very unique time of your life, where you see and experience things in a very clear and sensory way. Scary stories are all the more frightening and funny moments are all the more hilarious. Stories at this phase of your life stay with you for life.

I always fantasised about writing a book and was quietly confident that it would happen one day. I was writing poetry and building up to the project of writing a book. I spent six months in Canada in 2010, and when I returned to Kerry it seemed like the perfect time to start.  It was a white winter, and I had the time and ideas to commence my first book; ‘Let’s Read a Story’.

Despite being an artist, your debut book Let’s Read a Story was illustrated by Gerardine Cooper Sheridan. How did this partnership form and how did you make it work harmoniously? Are you tempted to illustrate your own books in the future?

I love sketching and painting. It is a completely different experience and process to writing but I enjoy both equally. Like writing, I have been painting since I was very young. I entered competitions and won a few prizes. As I got older, I started to frame and sell my work. My parents encouraged me to paint and nurtured my talent. I enjoy painting in; Pastels and Acrylics. I enjoy variation and paint landscapes, portraits and abstracts.

Gerardine Cooper Sheridan from Co. Kildare is a very gifted artist whom I have been very fortunate to work with. She worked on a book called ‘Breaking the Silence’ with my father; John Mulvihill and Mary Denis Reidy about the Kerry Bog Ponies. I loved her artwork in the book and thought she would be perfect to collaborate with on my children’s book. I got in touch and soon after we started work on ‘Let’s Read a Story’.

Gerardine and I meet regularly to discuss the artwork for the stories. We always start with the cover and then commence with the illustrations.  We correspond through e-mail to finalise the sketches then we discuss the colours and treatment. We worked on my first book ‘Let’s Read a Story’ and my second ‘The Wise Owl Storybook’ which will be out early July 2012.  We work really well as a team, she is patient and takes the time to execute my visions for each story. She also contributes invaluable insights into each scene. She is a pleasure to work with.

I did think about illustrating ‘Let’s Read a Story’ myself. However, the writing process is already quiet time consuming. I also discovered that illustrating is a unique skill, re-creating a character in different scenes is very difficult. One off paintings and illustrations are very different.

I would love to include my artwork in a book in the future or perhaps just do the cover art. We will see…

Your book, Let’s Read a Story, was classic in style, despite the current trend for gritty children’s fiction; what made you choose a more classic route? Did you encounter any issues as a result and how did you overcome them?

Some people say it can be restricting writing children’s books, as a lot of topics and language are off limits. However, writing for children can also give the writer a lot of freedom, with subjects such as; magic, animals and adventure that can only be appreciated through a child’s eyes. When writing it is important to think back to when you were a child and remember what made you laugh, cry, shocked you, and what you sympathised with.

For me, a good children’s story should have a sense of adventure and empathy with the characters. Children must be able to relate their young lives to the characters in the story. Children love thrills, so a good twist to a story or scary moment is always appreciated. Kids are mini adults so to speak, they enjoy their own version of a thriller.

When I was a child, I loved the classic stories. They have important moral lessons and there is a clear definition of right and wrong. Classics are classics because they are great and have stood the test of time. I was inspired to write the stories for ‘Let’s Read a Story’ as an ode to traditional style stories, but perhaps in future works I will choose a different style.

Writers often say that writing their first book was difficult, but writing their second was even harder. Has writing your second book, The Wise Owl Storybook, led you down any unexpected avenues or thrown up any unexpected challenges?

There is definitely a big difference between writing your first and second book. ‘Let’s Read a Story’ was a learning experience. I enjoyed the journey. There were some tricky moments agreeing on certain things, but it all turned out very well. I had all the stories planned out first before writing. Then I wrote out illustration directions for Gerardine. It took time with the design, fonts, colouring, cover editing etc. The first book paved the way for the second and there was a lot of transferable knowledge learned.

Starting the ‘The Wise Owl Storybook’ I knew what to expect, i.e. the importance of concentration and discipline during the writing process. The second book makes you want to push the boundaries of the first. I wanted the stories to be more complex, the illustrations to be larger and more detailed, and the cover to be even more memorable. For me, a new project means raising the bar. Never duplicating but bettering. I am extremely proud of ‘Let’s Read a Story’ but with each new book you want to outdo yourself. As you grow as a person so does your work.

Fellow children’s authors, Jeremy Strong and Sarah Webb (also at Writers’ Week) say that writing for children is the best job in the world. What makes writing for children so special and what’s been the highlight for you so far?

I happily agree with this statement. I really enjoy what I do. Children’s literature is a unique genre which requires a certain creativity and a certain style. Children are a fantastic audience. They are positive, energetic and enthusiastic. Their reactions and curious questions are priceless. They want to be entertained and the writer has to rise to that challenge with each story. It is very rewarding writing for children but it comes with  responsibility. Moral lessons, right and wrong, manners and etiquette are all hugely important in children’s stories. Children are highly impressionable so it is imperative to write carefully and act as a role model when doing so.

One of the best feelings in the world for an author is when the writing, editing, illustrating and directing is complete, and you get to hold the very first copy of your work. It is the final chapter of one phase, and a new chapter of; promoting, selling and interacting with the readers and fans. Holding that first copy is a thrill to say the least. It feels like an award for the work you have done, in a way it is.

Reading to people and getting positive feedback is also a tremendous feeling. To hear people discuss characters and places that were once only a figment of my imagination is a wonderful feeling. Touring and reading stories from the book can sometimes be nerve racking but it is well worth it.

What does Writers’ Week mean to you and what can the children attending expect from your sessions?

I have been going to Listowel Writers Week for many years. This year will be my first time attending in an official capacity. I am truly honoured and proud to be a part of the festival this year, and hopefully many more to come. My parents were raised in north Kerry and I have lots of family in Listowel. I was raised in Ballintcleave, Glenbeigh, so it feels great to have such a celebrated annual event in Kerry. My father’s primary school teacher was the great Brian McMahon. He instilled a love of writing and the arts in my father. I am also proud to mention that I am related to the legendary John B. Keane, even if it is a distant connection. It is always a pleasure to return to the beautiful town of Listowel.

I am looking forward to meeting my fellow writers and attending all the events over the week. I am also very excited to meet all the children that come to my sessions. They will be hearing some stories from my debut book ‘Let’s Read a Story’ and perhaps a few from my upcoming book ‘The Wise Owl Storybook’.  I will be happy to answer any questions that the children may have about the stories or on the profession of writing. I will bring lots of copies for the children to share during the readings, and for anyone who would like to buy a signed copy afterwards.

If you’d like to meet Jerry and listen to his stories, he will be reading in the Listowel Library on Thursday, May 30th, at 10.00am to 10.45am  and  11.15 to 12.00 noon, as well as in Wolfe’s Bookshop on Saturday, June 2nd, from 12.00 noon.

Let’s Read a Story: €12 per copy

The Wise Owl Storybook released:  July – 2012

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