County Down native Máire Zepf is one of Ireland’s most impressive authors. Her incredible work has garnered her critical acclaim, earning her the title of Northern Ireland’s first Children’s Writing Fellow and more recently she was the winner of the Book of the Year Award at the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards for Nóinín.
The Irish language award-winning writer grew up in a town called Holywood, just 6 miles outside of Belfast on the shores of Belfast Lough.
‘We spoke only Irish at home, but all of our formal education, friendships, the entirety of our public and outside world – was conducted in English,’ Máire tells me.
‘It meant that for a long time as a child, I wondered if we were the only ones who spoke it. Maybe we had even invented it? With time and Gaeltacht holidays and more and more contact with the blossoming Belfast Irish-speaking community, I managed to fit our experience into a better context.’
‘But even so, I think the feeling never faded that we had something rare, precious and very special.’
Growing up, Máire had a lot of beautiful European picture books in translation, thanks to An Gúm in the 80s, and those books still bewitch her today.
‘What we didn’t have in Irish, my Dad translated himself and stuck on top of the English. I loved fairytales and anything with magic.’
Máire went on to study History at Oxford University, a place that she says was ‘much more positively-inclined towards my ‘Gaelic’ side’ and eventually moved back home where she worked as a Foras-funded Irish Language Development Officer in Downpatrick.
Máire started writing when she became a fulltime parent and quickly got hooked.
‘At first, I was writing a parenting column called ‘In Ainm na Máthar’ for a magazine called An tUltach,’ she explains.
‘Looking back, I can see that I was spending so much time reading picture books to my own children and remembering the warm and fuzzy feelings of being read to from my own childhood. I think that combination was potent, and resistance was futile. I just had to try writing my own book. I started with historical fiction chapter books, but I also write across all sorts of age-groups, from picture books to YA.’
Máire says that it’s nearly impossible to choose her favourite book out of all of the amazing ones that she’s written as they all have had different impacts upon her career.
‘That’s like asking a mother to pick out her favourite child! They are all special in their own ways!’ she says.
’Ná Gabh ar Scoil! was kind of a game-changing book for me, though. It was that moment for me where I took writing seriously as a profession – a fulltime, on-the-road obsession and job. It was also kind of a breakthrough in that the book was sold in seven languages and made an impact somehow.’
Máire is the two-time winner of the Oireachtas Award for fiction for Lá Leis na Lochlannaigh and Nóinín and tells me that having her Irish language work recognised means the world to her.
‘OK, I’m not going to lie. Winning awards is amazing! Getting Children’s Book of the Year for Nóinín was a high that I haven’t quite come down off yet,’ she muses.
‘But I’ve been around long enough to have been all of those writers – the one nominated but not winning, and also often the one not nominated. I’m still the same writer. You must find some sort of even ground for yourself and not rely too heavily on the reflected glory. But yes, having a book in Irish win is something else – a win for our whole tightly-knit book community. I was absolutely blown away by the response I got from Irish speakers all over the country and even the world. It was very very special.’
Nóinín received such fantastic recognition and while it is aimed at Young Adults, the subject of the book is quite dark and cautionary.
‘I really wanted to write this book to help wrap my head around such a difficult subject,’ Máire says.
‘It deals with online grooming and victim culture and all sorts of heavy stuff. But I wanted to step into Nóinín‘s shoes and tell that story in a way that showed that we are all vulnerable. How do any of us balance scepticism and trust? ‘
‘The research was gruelling, though. And my internet search history was gruesome. I think I was lucky in a way that I was working on the Rita picture book stories at the same time. When it got too much and I felt punch-drunk, I could set it aside and think about super-sorting robots for a while to soothe myself.’
Unlike many books out there, Nóinín is written in a verse format instead of in full-blown paragraphs and this is something that Máire has always been a fan of.
‘I’m a big fan of verse novels. The more I read, the more I thought about how great they would be for reluctant readers in Irish, teens who read in English instead, or learners of the language. There is something so accessible about the style. It’s like storytelling with all the fat removed – pared down to the bare bones.
‘I was more than a little scared to take on the challenge, but I actually found it very instinctive to write in this way. It’s like writing in 3D. As well as the meaning of the words, and their sounds, you also have shapes to play with. I’d love to write another novel in this style.‘
But what about her own process when it comes to writing? Máire believes that the most important part of the writing process actually happens in that ‘twilight daydream zone’ long before you ever lift a pen, paper or type on the keyboard.
‘I need to have an idea first, and it is as likely to come to me whilst driving (Míp), having a shower (Nóinín) or going for a run (Rita agus an Dragún) as it will sitting at a desk with a notebook in front of me,’ she says.
‘The next part – taming the idea that came in a wild burst – is more predictable. It starts with messy scribbles/doodles and questions, like I’m interrogating the idea, and grows from there into something I can research or structure into submission.’
Máire says that generally she prefers not to give advice to other writers as there is no correct way to do it.
‘Finding your own way is the only path I can see. In fact, reading advice from authors often makes us feel worse about our own creative process. Stick at it if you really want to do it. Know that overnight success is astonishingly rare. That’s the height of my advice!’