Interview with Paul O’Connor,
on 10th February 2009, for his Masters Thesis.
Paul O’Connor: In attempting to place your writing within a genre, I have suggested the term ‘realistic fantasy’. Would you agree with this?
Oisín McGann: Yes. Once you start trying to define fantasy in any serious way, the genre is hard to pin down. For me, fantasy just means there are no rules. You can make up your own. That’s all fantasy means to me. There are different genres within fantasy. As far as I’m concerned, people can make up their own genres if they like. Kate Thompson is one kind of fantasy, Tolkien would be another. As far as I’m concerned fantasy just allows me to do what I want. I have no interest in writing about orcs or dwarves or elves or dragons because it has been done to death. I’m not ruling it out but the term ‘fantasy’ just gives me the freedom to write what I want to write – so I can basically make up anything I want. I think if you’re going to write anything in an alternative world or setting, there have to be enough things within it that people can relate to, to make it real for them. A story has to become real for the reader. You have to have enough reality in it for the fantasy to be believable. You cannot cheat the reader. One of my big issues with fantasy stories generally would be where you can have a magical solution to the problems in the story. At that point, you take the risk that the reader will feel cheated. Instead of using a magic sword to solve everything, why don’t you just use your brain? I have a big issue with this idea of casting a spell and all your problems are solved. I think it’s a very lazy way out. I think you have to have the reality in it if the fantasy is going to work. Otherwise, you can just make any old stuff up. If you’ve got to set rules, you’ve got to have boundaries within them so that the reader does not feel cheated at the end when you come up with the overall solution or conclusion.
O’Connor: You have suggested that fantasy gives you the room to explore issues that you want to look at as a writer. Is there anything else that appeals to you about the genre of fantasy fiction?
McGann: Well, there’s the variety of plots that you can have in a fantasy story. Literally, there is no end to what you can bring in. You can have a murder mystery, a romance, an action plot, a horror or thriller, politics or domestic issues. Anything you want in a fantasy story, you can put in. It is literally a frame within which everything works. Again, it just means that there are no rules. I am not stuck to a certain structure. If I start, for instance, writing westerns – if I get stuck with the label of ‘western writer’ and I then decide I want to write a political thriller or a sci-fi thriller, the market will make it hard for me to shake off that label. If I keep doing a variety of stories and keep changing directions, however, I won’t get pinned down. I think it must be very hard for writers when they do get pigeon-holed. I’m sure John Grisham just got tired of writing legal thrillers after a while and wanted to do something else. The likes of Michael Crichton or Stephen King, however, were able to write what they wanted while still enjoying the full thrust of all the marketing. You want to have the freedom to do what you want to do, and at the same time, have enough recognizable features in your story that your regular readers will be able to say “This book is a gamble, but I know it will have this, this and this in it, even if it is a completely different story to the last one”.
O’Connor: In an article for Inis entitled ‘The Books That Brought Me Here: A Monstrous Appetite’, you expressed an admiration for works of fantasy such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. What did you learn from these books as a reader and a writer?
McGann: In terms of being a reader, it was the scope of the stories that got me. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single story but it was sold as three books originally. It was an epic piece of imagination, and yet it maintained a compelling story the whole way through. If it were published now, a good editor would hack another quarter off those stories. But every page you turned, there was a new idea. It all fitted in. There was nothing that stuck out and said: ‘this does not belong here’ or ‘this is a kind of open-ended magic’. Everything had its rules. There was an ecology to it. Everything worked within its environment. There was a real sense of nature. At no point in Tolkien’s world did you feel that he had stuck something in that did not fit. He really worked it all out. I think a lot of the books that followed him tried to do the same; to set up these huge worlds. But most the time, either they didn’t get the worlds right or they didn’t get the story right. Very few could combine the two. There’s an awful lot of derivative stuff based on The Lord of the Rings. A lot of people were doing these world-building exercises and did not have a good story. On the other hand, they had a good story, but their worlds weren’t convincing. That’s what Tolkien cracked. C.S. Lewis did it as well. But in terms of his work, he would have things he just made up and stuck in. It was more like Harry Potter, with little peaks of imagination within a setting that could allow for almost anything really. I’d be afraid to go back and read the ‘Narnia’ stories now because I think I’d be disappointed with them. When you go back, sometimes, it’s not the same, whereas I read The Lord of the Rings again just before the films came out and loved it just as much.
O’Connor: Do you think you learned anything from them about writing?
McGann: Absolutely. I learned from Tolkien, the importance of creating a setting which allows the story to take place. I think, with any good story, the setting is an element. It is a driving factor of the story. If you think about characters, everything about you or me is defined not just by what circumstances we were born into and who we grew up with, but where we grew up. Everything is about our environment, whether it be the colour of our skin, the food we eat, the air we breathe, or literally the ground under our feet. You have to recreate that in a realistic way. People talk about the importance of having good characters, but you cannot have well thought out characters unless you are thinking about the environment that they are created within. If you are creating fantasy characters, you have got to have an environment that is just as convincing. Tolkien and Lewis both did that. I think C.S. Lewis was more playful in his magic. He just loved coming up with lots of different magical creatures, some of which did not really make sense – though this didn’t really matter because he was writing for a younger age group. It was more whimsical, even though there were undertones of Christian ethics – which I just did not get as a kid.
O’Connor: In many of your texts, you appear to create alternate worlds in which you explore contemporary issues affecting the real world. Do you see fantasy worlds or alternate worlds as a safe means through which complex issues can be addressed?
McGann: Yes, I think a good story can be a means of looking at things in a slightly dispassionate way. For The Gods and Their Machines, I was very conscious that I wanted to look at this particular issue. When I started writing, it was very much: ‘I’m going to explain the world to everybody because obviously nobody understands it’. The more I thought about it and the more I wrote, the more I realised how little I knew and how little I understood it myself. It was very much a thought process. Most of the books since then have been the same. I was very deliberately removing the reader from the sides that we would naturally or subconsciously take and switching them a bit. For instance, in The Gods and Their Machines, there was a hint of the Shanneyans being almost like cowboys; a hint of the Wild West. They wore wide-rimmed hats and had low-slung guns and they rode horses. I wanted that feel of the American Wild West and I wanted to mix those up a bit so that when you thought you knew what a side represented, I wanted that to be slightly removed and shifted so that you could quite get a grip on it.
O’Connor: There is a sense of the east about the Shanneyans at the same time.
McGann: Yes, so they are very much mixed together. I wanted that. I didn’t want there to be too much familiarity. At the same time, there are obvious parallels. In the case of The Gods and Their Machines, it could be applied to almost any imperial culture imposing on another, or a technologically superior culture imposing its might on a less technologically advanced culture. It has happened time and time again and it keeps happening. It is not something that applies to just one context. It occurs anywhere in life. It could be the British up the North, or the Western Allies going into Iraq. You can go back to the British in Iraq in the early twentieth century. It is never as simple as one lot conquering another lot.
O’Connor: Tolkien spoke of his preference for applicability over allegory. Was there a conscious attempt to make your writing applicable to different scenarios or were you commenting directly on the Western Allies in Iraq in The Gods and Their Machines for example?
McGann: No. I was conscious that people would apply it and I was conscious that there were certain things about it that I wanted to bring up. At the same time, I did not want it just to be applied to the one situation – for two reasons. First of all, I did not want a direct analogy. I think that can cause problems for a number of reasons. It becomes transparent what you are trying to do. You can be accused of preaching or lecturing. Secondly, it can also make your plot predictable because if you say that you’re writing about this situation but through a fantasy lens, the reader knows what is going to happen. At one point, The Gods and Their Machines was accused of being anti-Islamic. This was coming from the view that any kind of criticism of the Islamic side was being pro-Western. I disagree because there are two sides in this and neither is without blame. Wherever I have done that, I try to say let’s think about other conflicts and how they can be portrayed or hinted at. You can imagine the Europeans showing up in Africa or South America for the first time and it is like the guys riding on horses in the book, looking up and saying, “What the hell is that?” It’s on a par with a plane flying overhead and a bomb dropping on your land when the height of your technology is an ox and cart – you literally cannot even understand how a truck works. So on one hand, I was conscious of having definite parallels and on the other, I was very careful that I did not want a direct analogy because it can put people off.
O’Connor: In an article for Inis entitled ‘The Importance of Being Violent’, you suggest that boys are interested in cops, soldiers, spies, assassins and violence; all of which feature in your work. Do you see your books as being primarily for boys?
McGann: Well, this is where male writers have the advantage over female writers. Because, as anyone who works with kids can tell you, there are certain books that boys just won’t read, whereas girls will tend to read a wider range. It has been that way for a long time. I think if you write books that boys will read, girls will read them most of the time anyway. Harry Potter aside, most of the hugely successful authors in the world are male for the simple reason that girls read those books as well as boys. If you take Jacqueline Wilson, there is hardly a boy who would read them. It’s not anything to do with the quality of the writing or the storyline. It is simply because she’s a woman and she is writing about issues that primarily concern girls.
O’Connor: It’s like J.K. Rowling using her initials on the cover of her books.
McGann: Exactly. J.K. Rowling called herself J.K. Rowling so that boys would not reject the books. It is a sad state of affairs when boys will reject a book simply because it has a woman’s name on the cover or it has a girl on the front. But that is the way it is. I wish it wasn’t because I think boys need to be reading a lot more about girls. There’s a lot of information there. Consciously, I want to appeal to a wide audience. You need to give the audience what they want in terms of the story elements before you can do anything else. If you don’t get them to read it in the first place, then nothing else you write is going to matter.
O’Connor: Is the representation of gender an important consideration in your writing?
McGann: Yes, you have to consider it. We are kind of in a strange place where gender is concerned at the moment. I think you still have to have the feisty female. It is an essential element in any children’s book. I think the pendulum is still swinging back in terms of sexism because for a long time you had to compensate for women being dominated in literature. There is still a tendency to make the girls smarter than the boys, more sensible, and more daring. A lot of the time they are better fighters. I think if you’re writing in an industry where most reviewers, teachers and librarians are women, you’d be an absolute eejit to present women or girls in a lesser light. At the same time, I grew up in a house where I didn’t realise this kind of thing was an issue at all. My sisters and mother would never have let themselves be pushed around by anybody. It was only in my late teens that I really started to appreciate that sexism was still around. I thought it had been sorted, that we’d had that argument already. I suppose I didn’t become conscious of it until very late. It would be inconceivable to me that if you have a group of characters in a story, that there would not be a number of strong female characters in that group – because that is the world we know now.
O’Connor: There seems to be quite a few strong female characters in your books. Is this something you do consciously?
McGann: I suppose not too much now. I would be careful if I had only two or three main characters. I think it is incumbent on you to have at least one strong female character. That’s also to make sure that you are appealing to your audience because you want girls as well as boys to read it. Girls will read about strong male characters and will quite happily take in stories about them, whereas boys would be less likely to read about a strong female character. If you look at the books that are being published now, and how often the lead is female, I think that is a representation of how our tastes are now. We expect that. It is very rare now that you would have books that would be solely about male characters. There is always a strong female in there, even if it is not the lead character. I was watching Twelve Angry Men again the other night. It’s a great film but it would not get made like that now. It’s an entire film with nothing but guys in it. Even in war films now, there will be a woman in there somewhere, even though they would not have been on the battlefield. I think our expectations have changed. In some ways, I think, the publishing world is catching up on our expectations. Twenty years ago, these representations had to be forced in there – to force people to change their perceptions. It’s amazing it’s taken this long. In my new book, The Wisdom of Dead Men, – the sequel to Ancient Appetites – I make the comparison that by the time there was a female Prime Minister in Great Britain, man had walked on the moon. It’s a weird situation when you think about it.
O’Connor: You spoke about the importance of setting earlier. In texts such as The Gods and Their Machines and Ancient Appetites, you appear to construct highly gendered societies in which females are subject to male authority. I have argued that by portraying such societies in your writing, you are able to critique them. Was it a conscious decision to create such gendered societies?
McGann: It certainly was in The Gods and Their Machines because I wanted to bring in the issue of women having less independence, and wanted to show Riadni, the main character, being different from that. She has to be a tomboy in order to be independent. She is seen as unfeminine’. This is a problem in itself if you have to be unfeminine before you can be independent. One of the things I did within that was that instead of having them worshipping a male god, they worship a goddess. In some respects, the women are held in high regard and at the same time, they must be kept in their place. They are not allowed out without their face make-up or without their wigs. It’s control as well as deification. The Wildenstern family was a different thing because it’s set in Victorian times, which was not necessarily about a gender setting, but it did necessitate one because it was a fact that women did not have many rights back then. They were the property of their fathers or their husbands. It did, however, set up some really nice scenes for the battle of the sexes. Everybody likes a war of words. I love that Oscar Wilde kind of sophisticated word play with the jabs and the barbs. It gave me a chance to play with that. Daisy is a great character and I really like Tatty. Somebody recently used the phrase ‘pathologically bubbly’ to describe her. I love the idea of having these characters sparring with each other. Daisy is less involved in the action, but she always has the better jab in terms of the word play. It just gave me a lot of room to play. In the sequel to Ancient Appetites, there is more of that because it’s very much about the women’s position in the world. It wasn’t the point of the book – it was just something that came along because I wanted this Victorian setting. Conflict makes for good stories. The more little things you can have where characters are going up against one another, the more interesting a story can be, particularly if you have these epic action scenes on the one hand and, on the other hand, you have two people sitting down over tea having a go at each other in very civilized tones. It’s a nice contrast.
O’Connor: You suggest that Riadni had to become like a tomboy to transcend the constraints of society. I’ve argued that many of the characters in your texts possess both male and female attributes. Would you agree that a person is neither wholly male nor female, but rather consists of a blend of masculine and feminine characteristics?
McGann: I’m not sure. If I was going to make a point, it would be that there are certain character traits that we admire and there are different versions of them. A strong woman does not have to be like a strong man. I think it’s one of the problems with politicians now. Female politicians are often the same as male politicians. I think it’s a shame because they should be able to bring a female perspective to the job. It would be far more beneficial. Female bosses can be far more hardcore at times, than male bosses because they have had to work harder and maybe their authority is not accepted as easily. I think the setting is important. In the case of the Bartokhrians, for Riadni to do anything she wanted to do, she had to take on male characteristics. At the same time, when she meets Chamus, she ends up defending a lot of the traditions she would have held in contempt because she realises that there is a point to them. Part of that one came from a conversation I had with a group of Pakistani guys when I was living in England. I was having a go at arranged marriages. One of them argued that it’s all very well to have romantic marriages when you have pensions and social welfare but that’s not the case everywhere. In a culture where your only social welfare is the family that looks after you, then you cannot have rash impulsive romantic marriages. It’s got to be worked out because there is a whole family involved. The parents have got to look out for their own future and make sure that their daughter is going to be well looked after. Riadni ends up defending that, even though she wants a more independent life. She doesn’t want her parents having a say in what she does. With the Wildensterns, it’s a different kind of thing. There is this institutionalized, engrained sexism in Victorian culture. At the same time, there is a stirring of feminism. There is a movement starting off. For instance, Daisy is one of the first women educated in university. There is already an acceptance that women are starting to make their mark. This would have been in a story set before the suffragettes, but she is of the type. It would have been slightly influenced by Pullman’s Lockhart books. He really makes a great point of exactly how isolated a woman can be if she goes out on her own. I wanted that sense within the Wildenstern family – this family of predators. Even though the women cannot take power, they can be involved in the power plays. They can be, in some ways, more devious to get what they want. In some ways, if you are dealing with men, it helps your cause if you are more feminine. You use your feminine wiles as opposed to trying to compete with them on their level. There are two quite different takes on it. Daisy would be very feminine, traditional and certainly the strongest Christian. I was a little bit worried about that because some people would find that distasteful now. My editor, for example, is not Christian and she didn’t want Daisy to be too Christian. I argued that that’s the way it would have been at the time. Being good was perceived as the same thing as being Christian. I wanted her to be this upstanding, honest strong believer in fair play and that was how her character was formed really. There’s this clash between trying to be good, obedient and law-abiding while at the same time, wanting to get her way.
O’Connor: You mentioned the work of Philip Pullman. In His Dark Materials, the characters of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry appear to be interdependent. Many of your texts depict male and female characters collaborating to achieve success. Do you think interdependence is a strong theme in your work?
McGann: It wouldn’t be a conscious theme. I can’t see it working any other way. I can’t see us succeeding in anything as human beings without interdependence. When I started off in my career, I was determined that I’d do everything on my own. I wasn’t going to join in this whole culture of doing your work in the pub, chatting to people and making contacts that way. But that’s the way we work. We are humans, we’re social. We do not revolve around logic and rationalizing things. We revolve around forming bonds and friendships. I think that’s just the way we work. Interaction is absolutely necessary to succeed in anything that is worthwhile. One of the things I do have in my books is that the characters are not necessarily blessed with all the skills they need to survive in their particular situations. They need people to help them. All too often, there are thrillers where you have someone who is basically a normal person, thrown into a situation where he is called upon to shoot people and beat them up. All of a sudden, he has these skills. These are not skills you come across in normal everyday life. Bad guys who train with guns tend to be a good shot. They tend to be better at fighting than someone who grew up in a normal school, living a law-abiding life. I think where you have characters who are dealing with real villains, they’ve got to have something that plays to their advantage. It could be particular contacts, knowledge of their environment or something that gives them an advantage over these villains, who may well be hardened criminals. The normal everyday person is going to need something on their side. More often than not, it will be friends who can do certain things or a knowledge of their people or community. That is what gives them their edge. I think that interdependence is going to be an element of any story that has more than one character.
O’Connor: In your writing, it is often those who possess power that are conveyed as the villains. Is this an attempt to reflect the reality of our world?
McGann: This gets back to something we were talking about earlier. You can’t avoid reflecting your own culture and the things that influence your life. I think, if you are talking about a big fantasy theme, the days of an army coming over the horizon are gone. Threats to us now tend to be more insidious. They tend to involve personal freedoms, information and controlling our perception as much as controlling our physical lives. I think that that cannot help but come through in stories now. You can see it in the way we have changed our attitude to developing characters and developing plots. I think plots in children’s books have become incredibly complicated over the last ten years. Even in cartoons, I sometimes wonder how children are able to work them out. It is, I think, because as a whole our lives have become more complicated and the threats to our person, certainly in western Europe and America, are not to do with somebody who’s likely to come and drive a tank through your house. It’s more likely to be that somebody is going to take away your freedom or subvert your freedom in some way. I think, particularly in children’s stories, plots tend to reflect what is going on around us. Children’s stories really do reflect the culture that they’re set in and, whereas a hundred years ago, you would literally have had the threat of another country invading you, that doesn’t exist anymore. Fifty years ago, every villain was Japanese or German. In the Cold War, it was all spy thrillers. It was all about being spies and being spied upon. I think it’s now getting down to threats within the community, spying on each other and people spying into our lives. That’s a recurring theme.
O’Connor: This theme is perhaps most evident in Strangled Silence?
McGann: Yes. That really comes down to the control of information and how our perception is controlled. We are looking well within our culture now. We only have one government, which we no longer trust. We do not trust our leaders anymore. If there is one kind of thing you see in thrillers all the time now, it is characters constantly being betrayed by their leaders or employers. It has become a situation where we do not have an external enemy anymore so we are looking hard at what is really affecting our lives now. I don’t think we are more corrupt than things would have been forty or fifty years ago. We’re more aware of it because we have more access to information and we’re getting more demanding in terms of who is manipulating us. In terms of corruption, if you look at Ireland, we are not tolerant of the ‘chancer’ culture anymore. It used to be that a guy who could pull off a bit of a nod, a wink and a manila envelope and would get away with it. We just don’t put up with that anymore. It doesn’t have a hugely detrimental effect on people’s lives at that level, but on a greater level, you may have somebody who is convincing you to go to war for the wrong reasons. We know things aren’t that black and white anymore. The threat of war has become the ultimate danger, as opposed to going to war and having an enemy to face. With Strangled Silence, I did not want to show battle scenes because as soon as you show battle scenes, it becomes about winning the battle and surviving. I wanted to portray war as a deeply frightening hell that men come back from. I wanted to show the consequences of it, without portraying the action scenes. Men come back from it, and they’re not coming back in body bags, they are coming back with amputated limbs or post-traumatic stress disorder. In Ivor’s case, he has lost his eye, which I think is a very personal injury. Even though it is small, it is the kind of wound that would really bring it home to you. I wanted to portray war as something you really don’t want to get into in the first place, and you certainly don’t want to get into it in dubious circumstances. We’re less tolerant of going to war now because we know more about it. We have seen so much of it in the media. If you look at the portrayal of war in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a brilliant portrayal of the soldiers running away from battle. Nobody knows what’s going on – there’s no communication. When they come back, they talk about the battle in heroic terms, so that’s how battles are perceived by the public. Nowadays, the thought of getting into a war has become profoundly frightening. We are very suspicious of governments that try to push us into it. Again, that’s something that affects your life and if you’re writing, that’s one of the things that’s going to influence you.
O’Connor: In the article ‘The Books That Brought Me Here: A Monstrous Appetite’, you mentioned how Richard Scarry’s books had “their educational content cleverly hidden behind sincerely playful characters and wonderful machines”. Do you think the same could be said of your work?
McGann: You probably can. Maybe he sowed the seeds. But I’d hate for my books to be seen as educational. It’s often the death knell for a writer if he starts getting used in schools. Although, we have the class novel now, which is a great programme. If there are points that I want to make with the books, I always want those points to be secondary to the story. Because anything you want to indulge yourself in, when it comes to writing a story, has to be secondary to the basic elements the reader wants to read. If they don’t want to turn the pages, then nothing you want to say after that is going to have any effect or is even going to be read. Writers say it all the time, but it is always the story that comes first. There is often the perception that you can be either commercial or literary. I have a big problem with that because commercial, to me, means that you’re pleasing the crowd. You’ve got to please the crowd. I want a wide range of people to read my books. I don’t want them to be read by just the chosen few. It’s great to be critically reviewed, but I can’t make a living from that. Teenagers, in particular, do not read reviews. I want people to read my books and say that they have read a bloody good story that makes an interesting point about such and such. I would like them to be interested in conversations about the books. Frankly, there aren’t going to be any conversations about the books if people don’t read them first. So much of Richard Scarry’s work is used for educational purposes now but originally, I loved them because they showed different machines. There was always a playful sense to it. There was always colour. There were great drawings. You weren’t aware that somebody was telling you stuff that was really going to be useful because you were having a good time looking at the book.
O’Connor: You suggest that you hope readers will enjoy your books first and foremost, but at the same time, do you think they’re learning about the world and society they inhabit?
McGann: I suppose, rather than delivering particular points of view or certain facts, I would hope that they would provoke questions because I think any good story should. I had a brilliant question from a child a while back. The child asked “How do you take a book to a new level?” It was a straightforward way of asking how you take a story beyond just the plot and the characters. I suppose it’s the kind of story that leaves you thinking about something after the story has finished. All that I can ask is that my stories provoke questions and that you are left thinking about something. Not that you have answers, but you are left wondering about something. I also like to have little things dropped in there that make people say “Oh I saw that, aren’t I clever?” It’s important that you flatter the reader and that you treat them as intelligent so that they feel smart for having spotted something. It is also important to challenge them and say something to them that makes them think about things beyond the plot itself.
O’Connor: In the same article, you express an interest in the cartoons of Carl Giles. Did the political context of his work encourage the treatment of contemporary politics in your own writing?
McGann: I don’t know. It certainly would have made me aware of how cartoonists treated politics. When I was reading his cartoons, they were collected books. This meant that a lot of the issues he was talking about were over, and had been over for a long time. I think they were from the sixties and seventies. I found them on the shelves one day but I can’t remember when I started reading them or when I stopped. It was one of the things that got me interested in political cartoons because I think it’s a great way of breaking down complicated issues into very simple points. If there’s one advantage to being an illustrator as well as a writer, it’s that you know there is a difference between trying to portray something realistically and trying to portray the idea of it. A drawing is not a realistic representation of an image; it is a two-dimensional representation of the idea of something. Cartoon is the epitome of that because you’re exaggerating the things that you want to show. I liked looking at Giles’ pictures as much as I did, because I didn’t understand half of the cartoons. They were talking about British politicians that I’d never heard of. I did realise that they were being pilloried and I loved the way this anarchic family were making fun of important issues in a very down-to-earth way. It was only one small part of all of the stuff that I was reading, but it was very different from some of the books I was reading and it struck me as being a great vehicle for presenting ideas. He was an all-round illustrator as well. It was a great education from the perspective of illustrating ideas as much as illustrating real things. The best cartoonists do that.
O’Connor: You have said that Charley’s War by Pat Mills left a “permanent mark” on you because it was so realistic. Do you think it’s important for books to have an element of realism?
McGann: Those are available now as collected editions. I actually hadn’t read a lot of the First World War stuff because by the time Charley got to the Second World War in that series, there was another writer, and Pat Mills doesn’t think much of that series. When I picked it up, it was coming to the end of the First World War. What struck me first was the art, because the art was superb. It was different from the other World War Two stories. There was a barrage of those. First of all, he presented the human side of the Germans, which was novel. Other people were doing it too, but he did it best. Charley was also very much a working class character. Mills is very socialist and it really comes through in his writing. His stories were as much about class war as a World War. Charley was a fairly ordinary guy who eventually became a sniper, which meant that he was skilled in that respect. He also became a veteran soldier. He wasn’t very bright and barely literate. Everything made it very easy to relate to. It got you emotionally involved, in a way that you can’t get with explosions and guns. It’s one thing to get hooked on the action, but quite another to get emotionally involved with the characters, which a lot of comic stories fail to do. In Charley’s War, you really got involved and felt that this could be anybody. Charley kills very few people in the comic strip. A lot of the time, the hazards are literally down to the dangerous things that were going on during the war. You were as likely to get buried by a collapsing trench as you were to get shot in these stories. They were extremely well researched as well. Every battle was a real battle. It just had everything. I read the first four books again recently, and it still stands up.
O’Connor: How do you feel you accomplish realism within your own writing?
McGann: Just human details, I think, and the way people speak. Having things that normal people can relate to. There is no point in having aliens attacking the world and threatening the planet, if you do not have someone with a normal everyday problem. You need normal stuff. I know that some writers think it should all be normal stuff. I like the escapism bit as well. I like stories to be about the kind of stuff that cannot happen to you. Particularly as a boy growing up, I wanted to read about all of the stuff that I was not going to get to do, or could not do. I like stories that mix the down-to-earth with the otherworldly.
O’Connor: What do you see as the main message of your writing with regard to your audience and what they might gain from it?
McGann: I don’t know if there is one. When I’m talking to children, younger children as opposed to secondary school, I encourage them to enjoy the details of life. There’s so much in life that’s interesting and can be savoured and relished. Getting back to the realism, the normal little things are the things that we understand and can appreciate. It is like having a class full of different nationalities and appreciating the differences. It doesn’t mean you have to like all of them, but you can appreciate the value of something new or something you have not come across before. It’s the pleasure of appreciating just what you have got in front of you and the entertainment that can be had from it. I suppose just having a weird take on things. If there is one thing that has served me well, in terms of coming up with ideas, it’s that you can look at anything and make it weird. You could take a coffee cup and imagine that it could be the reconstituted brain of a dead writer, or maybe it could turn into a little robot or it could be haunted. You can look at anything normal and give it a twist. When I am stuck for ideas that is what I’ll do. I’ll imagine or exaggerate. For example, instead of your hair being untidy, maybe it wants to ruin your life and take over your world. It might pick you up like a giant spider. That is how I came up with the idea for The Evil Hairdo. I watched a girl struggling with her hair as if it was alive. Ordinary things just need a weird take on them and normal life becomes incredibly entertaining. I’m rarely bored. There is always something to entertain me. Look at the entertaining stuff in life. But I don’t know if there is one message. I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve never sought to convey a single message.
O’Connor: You have said that the strength of the story is your primary concern. During the writing process, do you start with a story and build the characters and themes around it?
McGann: I tend to find that the theme will suggest a plot. I know some people start with the characters and end with a plot. I don’t know if I’d do that. They tend to be organic and grow together. For The Gods and Their Machines, there was a particular idea I wanted to write about. For The Harvest Tide Project, I had the basis of a plot and two characters that I wanted to have a bunch of adventures with. The theme came along slightly after that and held it all together. Once I have the central theme for a story, that forms a frame and suggests a plot. It will suggest the main problem in the story that has to be overcome. I find that once I’ve got that, it’s important for me to have the climactic ending. I need to have that before I actually start writing the story. I’ll do copious note taking before I start writing a story. I tend to have a fairly firm idea of the plot, the frame of the story and the ending before I even start writing. I’m not one of these writers who start writing without any idea of where they’re going. I’d find that incredibly frustrating. It also means that I don’t do many re-drafts. I’m not a fan of the editing process. I am, however, the first to admit that it’s necessary. It tends to be the most stressful part of the book. When I’m planning things out, I don’t go as far as laying cards out on the floor and moving them around, but I do tend to have a basic frame to work in when I start writing. The theme forms the rough layout of the story. Once I know what it’s about, I tend to have the shape of it then. It also means that I don’t go off too far in the wrong direction. If I feel a strand in the story going too far away from the main theme, then I can bring it back in. My books are long enough as they are – I don’t need to be adding to them with extraneous plots. The theme helps wrap it up, but it’s not always the starting point. Sometimes I will have an idea that becomes a plot and then fits in the theme or sometimes I will have a theme that needs a plot. Sometimes the characters just pop up and sometimes they are formed because they have a specific job to do and need certain characteristics to do it. You add in more to make them more interesting and provoke more empathy. There is no one way I have of coming up with particular characters, except that they have to have certain types of personalities so that they are going to create sparks and help drive the plot forward. That’s not a straight answer really, but there is no one way of doing it. I plan first and then write.
O’Connor: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Oisín.
McGann: It’s been a pleasure.