Writer’s Block with Shane Hegarty

Sophie Grenham speaks to author SHANE HEGARTY about life in Skerries, artificial intelligence and why children are the best readership imaginable …

Skerries, Co Dublin

Shane Hegarty is one of Ireland’s most popular writers of children’s fiction, creator of the best-selling Darkmouth fantasy series, which began in 2015 and has four volumes so far: The Legends Begin, Worlds Explode, Chaos Descends and Hero Rising. To date, Hegarty’s work has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2016. Darkmouth is currently being adapted into a big screen animated film by Oscar-nominated director Douglas Sweetland and Moana Head of Story, Dave Pimentel. Before a fierce bidding war at Bologna Book Fair 2013 launched him on this path, Hegarty had been arts editor of The Irish Times, and before that, he worked in radio and the music business.

Boot: Small Robot, BIG Adventure is Hegarty’s first series for younger readers, which is already off to a flying start. It all begins when little toy robot Boot wakes up in the middle of a scrapheap, about to face his demise. Just two-and-a-half memories connect him to his past: his owner was Beth who clearly loved him. With a bad case of “the Wipes” and a posse of rejected robots to help him out, Boot goes on a quest which he hopes will bring him home. Boot is not only beautifully written, but full of heart and wisdom. Together with charming illustrations by Ben Mantle, here is a deeply engaging, witty story that gives us an eerily realistic glimpse into the future, where robots are not the only ones made of metal and humans aren’t the only beings who can feel. Fans of Toy Story and WALL-E are bound to latch onto Boot and not let go.

Photograph by Róisín Macken-Price

Shane Hegarty lives in Skerries, Dublin with his wife Maeve and their children Oisín, Caoimhe, Aisling and Laoise. His next two Boot books are out in 2020.

Boot: Small Robot, BIG Adventure (€8.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Skerries, Co Dublin with my wife Maeve and four children. I grew up in this seaside town and no matter where I’ve travelled, I’ve never really wanted to live anywhere else. With two restored windmills and a new garden in the town, it has really developed in recent years. When I’m supposed to be writing, I can usually be found in either in the brilliant Olive Deli on the main street or LA Bakery, a friendly little cake shop across the road from my office. Skerries also has the only west-facing harbour on the east coast – which means you can watch the sun come up over one beach and see it set over another. In summer, people usually do the latter while sitting outside the institution that is Joe May’s pub.

On roots

I grew up on the main street of Skerries, literally three doors away from where I now rent an office. The view from my window is almost identical to the one I had from my childhood bedroom. The laneways behind the street, which lead to a long, sandy beach, were our playground. As a child, they so inspired my imagination that I filled them with monsters for my Darkmouth series of books. I’ve also spent almost my entire life in and out of Skerries Rugby Club, watching my dad play, then playing, to now helping coach my son’s team. Being there on a match day is still one of my favourite things to do.

On early reading

My parents always kept me topped up on books, and really fed that passion I had for reading and – eventually – writing. I remember getting Winnie-the-Pooh as my first chapter book and reading 30 pages the first day. I knew there and then stories were going to be my thing. As an 80s child I got big into a series called The Three Investigators, which were about these kids solving crimes in a Californian town. Like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, huge things would happen in a book that would have absolutely no bearing on the next one. CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia was really the first series I read from first to last in order, feeling so connected to the characters and their world.

On formative years

In terms of storytelling, my formative years were my younger ones – as a pre-teen and into my early teens. These were the years spent either devouring books or Marvel comics, and also watching the huge amount of classic sci-fi that was on TV in those days. It’s amazing how much telly in the 80s came from as far back as the 60s, 50s and even the 30s. I watched Flash Gordon, Doctor Who, old black and white movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and movies like Gremlins and Back to the Future. All these things had an impact on me way before Star Wars did. But when I was writing my new book, Boot, I was reaching back into things like Short Circuit and Metal Mickey that look so ancient now, but were huge at the time.

On creating

I write in an office over a stationery shop. It’s a small room, next to another used as an office by a friend of mine, and as the years have gone on the books have piled up, the posters on the wall have yellowed, the tea-splash stains make the area around the sink look a bit Jackson Pollock. Oh, and it’s freezing in the winter and unbearable in the summer. But it works, and when I need a change I work from a home office too. I can write anywhere, though. I just need music. I listen to music – usually techno – all day. I bought myself a new set of Sony wireless headphones for my birthday and when they’re on, I’m lost to everything else. Except when I have a little desk dance. Which I do. Regularly.

On bookshops

Skerries Bookshop is the smallest I know, but has a wonderful system: Paddy the owner writes down the book you want in his ledger and calls you a couple of days later when it comes in. Beats Amazon. Skerries Bookshop (or Paddy’s as everyone calls it) is a reminder of how a local bookshop can be at the heart of a town. There are such great bookshops all over the country, and it’s so often about the booksellers as much as the space. If you ever need a tip for children’s books, say, Lisa Corr in Dubray Grafton Street is fantastic, as is Mary Brigid Turner in Hodges Figgis. As for bookshops abroad, I do have a soft spot for Mr B’s Emporium in Bath – a welcoming, relaxing warren. And there’s nothing like spending time wandering the extraordinary secondhand bookshops of Hay-on-Wye – it’s a bookworm’s paradise.

On his “To Be Read” pile

So many books! I’m not alone in buying too many books and having little time to read them. But I’m reading Jess Kidd’s superb Victorian supernatural detective story Things in Jars, after which I’ll read Padraig Kenny’s second book Pog because his first, Tin, was so good and he’s one of the best children’s writers out there at the moment. I also have to read Josiah Bancroft’s Arm of the Sphinx, which is the second in his captivating series about one man’s misadventures climbing the Tower of Babel. And I read half of Jared Diamond’s excellent Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, before I got distracted by my own work – so I need to get back at it. And finally, me and the kids are waiting for the fourth in Julian Gough and Jim Field’s utterly wonderful Rabbit and Bear series.

On escapes

Escape is unusual these days, but I spent a night in Leenane in Co Galway recently and honestly it felt like a week’s worth of a top-up. A coffee at the elbow of the fjord, a run up the mountains, a pint in Hamilton’s. I don’t switch off as much as I should. It’s good to go somewhere that gently forces you to do that. Myself and Maeve also go to a music festival every year. After many years at Electric Picnic we’re instead heading to Altogether Now in Waterford in August. Any good arts festival is always both an escape and an invigoration, and I’ve already enjoyed Listowel Writers’ Week this year. I do love going from band to band at a music festival, not knowing what’s going to surprise you next.

On Boot

I had this character – a rejected piece of technology – in my head for a while. And because we seem to be very much on the verge of artificial intelligence of some sort, I wondered what it would be like if we started throwing things out that were smart enough to realise it. But it’s also about growing up, very much inspired by seeing my own children see the world in simple terms at first, before the tougher bits of life kick in. So, in the book Boot wakes with only two-and-a-half memories and it allowed me look at memory, what we think we remember and what happens when it goes. Even with fantastical, science-fiction writing, it’s all grounded in experiences or characters I’ve seen in my own life – which I hope means it will connect with all other human readers. (No robot reader has complained yet…) And because it’s a kids’ book, I can play with these ideas while adding jokes, action, slapstick, cliffhangers, surreal bits, sad parts, and everything I love in a good book.

On children’s fiction

Writing for children allows such freedom. They’re very clever and sophisticated readers, but with explosive imaginations. They’re not cynical. They’re open to ideas. They’ll go with you on crazy journeys. In all, they’re the best readership imaginable. It’s brilliant to see so many Irish children’s writers, with so many of their stories set in Ireland. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up, but the likes of Siobhan Parkinson, Darren Shan and Eoin Colfer pushed things forward. For a long time we’ve prided ourselves on being a nation of poets and storytellers, and it should be no surprise we’ve so many great children’s writers and illustrators, but it is really great to see them doing so well abroad. Hopefully, it will inspire young writers, to know they can write stories set in Ireland, with an Irish sensibility, and find a readership all over the world.

On what’s next

I have a second Boot book, The Rusty Rescue, out in February and a third out in November 2020. And as always, I’m hoping there might be an adventure or two for me in between …

@SophieGrenham

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