3 weeks ago

Writer’s Block with Helena Duggan

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Helena Duggan is an award-winning children’s author, graphic designer and illustrator from Kilkenny. Initially self-published, her Perfect trilogy has gone from strength to strength; first through the sheer power of community and the support of local businesses, before a major publisher scooped her up.

Duggan was inspired to write her debut novel, A Place Called Perfect (2017), after chancing upon an unusual pair of antique glasses in Australia, and imagining the story behind them. Set in a mysterious town based on Kilkenny, Duggan has created a universe where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind. When protagonist Violet’s family moves to Perfect, the sanitised behaviour of the townsfolk doesn’t sit well with her – until she makes a friend in Boy. As time moves along, many bizarre incidents occur and adults go missing: are these spectacles, in fact, blinding people from the truth? Written in a charming, colourful and quirky style on pages filled with adventure and suspense, Duggan’s tremendous imagination has drawn comparisons to the work of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman.

A Place Called Perfect was a Waterstones Book of the Month and won numerous awards such as the Crimefest Children’s Book of the Year. The Trouble with Perfect (2018) soon followed and The Battle For Perfect, published this autumn, completes the trilogy, which has now sold over 120,000 copies and is published in ten languages.

Helena Duggan lives in Kilkenny with her husband Robbie and their two daughters, where they rent out their fantastical Braille treehouse through Airbnb. Helena is writing her next book.

A Place Called Perfect, The Trouble With Perfect, and The Battle For Perfect (€9.45 each) are all published by Usborne Books and available nationwide.

Female Irish author Helena Duggan The Battle For Perfect

On home

I live in Kilkenny, about a five minute walk from the heart of the town. Our house was originally my husband Robbie’s grandparents’ place. They built it having come from Mayo and Kerry to meet in the middle and set up home. We are extremely lucky to have a very long garden that backs out onto the river Nore. Robbie tells me when he was younger his grandfather used to grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables, he loved turning the clay, and his hard work left us lots of apple trees to reap rewards from every autumn. Now we let the garden run wild and tell people it’s a pollinators heaven! It’s part convenience, part truth, Robbie keeps bees and we try our best to be environmentally aware, though it can be a struggle with small kids. I spend my days at the minute changing nappies, I’ve a 6-month-old called Bobbie and her sister Jo, who I love to run around after. I’ll be back to work soon though and will divide my time between designing for my brother and sister’s lighting business and writing my next book.

On roots

I grew up in the country just outside of Kilkenny. A little village called Dunmore, it has a community hall, a church and used to have a shop when I was a child but that closed down a long time ago. My first memories were of going to mass there, which is odd as Mam and Dad weren’t very religious. Everyone would congregate after for a chat over gravestones and then we’d go to the shop for sweets. I have a particularly sweet tooth so the sherbet dip I received probably aids in remembering those moments! Just across the road from our house, there was an old country lane that snaked down behind the church into the wilds. We used to play with the O’Dwyers, our neighbours, on the overgrown cobbled road, sneaking in and out of a stone quarry nearby on all sorts of probably unsafe escapades. We had huge freedom as children and this plays a big part in my stories, it’s my wish for the girls to have that same sense of space and adventure.

On early reading

My mother is a brilliant reader so, though my memory is not brilliant, I imagine she gave me my love of books. Dad preferred the paper. I always had a book at hand, and devoured all of Roald Dahl’s stories, he had a great way of not speaking down to children. I stumbled on Terry Pratchett’s children’s trilogy Truckers, Diggers and Wings and have recently bought them again to read to my kids when they’re a little older, as the books struck such a cord with me. They were set in a supermarket where a group of miniature people lived under the floorboards and came out once the shop closed for the day. I think the story eventually ended with an airplane robbery though how that came about I haven’t a clue! I loved Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon McKenna too and keep meaning to read it again. I was in third year in school when the Harry Potter books came out, so probably a little older than the intended market, but I fell in love with them straight away. I bought the final one while backpacking around Australia in my twenties. I was in Byron Bay almost shaking as I passed over my hard earned dollars and then didn’t leave the hostel for days.

On family

I come from a very close family, my mother always encouraged us to talk about everything and so we do, it has made us a pretty tight unit. My parents worked for themselves, they ran a designer lighting business called Willie Duggan, my father also played rugby internationally and so, I think because they did, we were always told we could do or be whatever we wanted. I changed my mind quite a lot: from actress, to Olympian, to writer and I was never laughed at once (except that time I spotted Jeremy Irons at a distance on holiday in Cork and bawled my eyes out!). When I wrote Perfect originally I sent it out to a few agents and got lovely rejections, I’d been following the self-publishing revolution in the US at the time. As I’m a graphic designer I decided I could do that myself, put together some sales figures and then get a publisher, which was how eventually things panned out. Had I not come from the supportive and encouraging background I did, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to take that route.

On creating

I had the most amazing writing room down the bottom of our very long and wild garden. My husband and his brother both lost their jobs for a period in the recession. Billy, my brother-in-law, is an extremely talented carpenter and my husband Robbie, like my Dad, is a man full of the most amazing dreams. He’d always dreamt of building a treehouse down the bottom of the garden, and so this particular year he decided to do it. It was a brilliant time. I remember trying to drive a digger around our garden in an effort to landscape only for Robbie to take over before I knocked the house down! Then being sent on a mission to a man selling windows on the side of the road to pick out a few we could use, though we hadn’t a clue where we’d use them. The pair created a beautiful and peaceful space which we now fill with things that hold memory for us such as my friend Denise Nestor’s gorgeous illustrations of nature and a hot air balloon we bought in New York just after Usborne publishers signed me. For a while I had the luxury of writing there, I was in the trees surrounded by the sounds of the river and the rain as it pelted off the corrugated roof and the flocks of birds that call our garden home. Then we decided to rent the space on Airbnb and now the treehouse welcomes people from all over the world as it is one of the site’s most popular Irish spots. I dream that someday I’ll get it back when we’ve our fortune made! Now I write in our front room which currently acts as a laundry / gym / office / playroom, it’s a world away from the treehouse but I make it work!

On bookshops

When I first self-published, my mother believing in my book a lot more than I did and armed with the best sales skills any business could wish for, approached all local Kilkenny bookshops to take on Perfect. They did, with open arms. Back then there were four shops, Liz in Stonehouse, Anita and Kevin in Dubray, Khan in Khans and Siobhan in the Bookcentre, unfortunately the Highstreet in Kilkenny is taking a hit, as are towns right across the country, and two of those shops have since closed. At the time the support was unwavering, they really got behind Perfect, brought schools in for readings and had events in store. Khan even gave me a ticket for the London Book Fair and told me to make appointments with agents there, the result was Josephine Hayes and now the Blair Partnership.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I have a huge ‘to be read’ pile, I like to keep up with what’s coming out in middle grade, which is what the publishing world calls my age group. There are so many Irish authors doing really well now and I’m trying to get round to reading all of their books. Catherine Doyle, Shane Hegarty, Sinead Hart and Padraig Kenny are just a few of the names on my list. I’ve just finished Niamh Boyce’s book called Her Kind about Alice Kytler and the famous Kilkenny Witch Trails in the 1300s. The story blew me away as she walked me through the medieval streets of my hometown. My Mam’s been peddling The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah at me lately so I’ve that to get to next, she’s great for recommendations.

On escape

My escape is the treehouse, so whenever it’s free I love to sit and unwind in the trees. I’m not sure if it’s because of the spirit in which it was built or the happiness the place gives the people who stay, but there is a peace about the space. Lately my husband has started paddle boarding; he takes part in expedition races which are crazy eight to nine day continuous team events where participants hardly sleep as they self-navigate a course over various disciplines. He’s on the Irish team going to Eco Challenge which will be filmed for an Amazon Prime TV series presented by Bear Grylls. Paddle boarding is a part of this race and so he’s been practicing on the Nore. I’ve joined him a few times, paddling against the setting sun. It’s beautiful and peaceful watching the world from a completely different angle. I love getting outdoors, especially for a hike in the mountains and when the girls are older I can’t wait to bring them along. Ireland has some of the world’s most beautiful spots, whether it’s on the river, in the hills or by the sea, we’re spoilt for choice really. We just need to work on the weather!

On her Perfect trilogy

I was backpacking around Australia when I found a pair of round rimmed glasses in a Brisbane antique shop. I carried them with the intention of eventually changing the lenses to suit my eyes. As I travelled I thought about the last person who wore the glasses and if their life memories could possibly be locked inside them, that kickstarted the story. I never did change the lenses and I now bring the glasses whenever I’m at a reading event. I used to let children try them on but the frames are a little too delicate now. There’s a label on the inside of the box bearing the address “135 Wickham Terrace” and I use it in the story. It’s where William Archer, one of the main characters, lives. Out of curiosity, I looked it up on google maps a while ago and it’s now the home to Brisbane’s Eye Hospital, a bit of a spooky coincidence that anyone who’s read my books will understand!

On what’s next

The final book in the series is out this year. It’s called The Battle for Perfect, so I’m looking forward to that. Then it’s back to work, my maternity leave finishes and I’ll return to juggling my design and writing. I have an idea for another series that I’ve been seeding for a number of years so I want to get stuck into that. In this one I’ll have to get to grips with a much bigger place than Perfect. Perfect was based around the streets of Kilkenny so I knew the geography instinctively, this time round mapping the World is the first thing on my list and I’m really excited to get started.

Read more from the Writer’s Block series …

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