First encounters

 

In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE

SARAH WEBB

writes books for children and adults. The latest of her 10 books for adults, The Shoestring Club, was published last month. She was children’s book buyer for Eason’s and published her first children’s book in 1999. She is the author of the Ask Amy Greenseries for young teenagers. She lives in Dún Laoghaire with her partner Ben and three children

‘I MET MARITA SOON after I started work in Waterstones. I used to organise school events pretty much every week. Marita was brilliant with the children, the teachers loved her too. She stretched the kids a bit, telling them how the book was created. She was the first children’s author who took children’s creativity seriously. When she’s with children, she has a childlike quality, an honesty with them, a great quality.

“There was a flowering of Irish-published children’s books in the late 1980s/early 1990s, with authors such as Marita, Don Conroy, Tom McCaughren. Harry Potter changed things radically – now children’s books are 18 per cent of the market, when it had been 8-9 per cent. Under the Hawthorn Tree, by Marita, is the best-selling Irish children’s book ever.

“After the first book event she came to, Marita sent me a little note to say thanks. I was very young, in my mid-20s, and I had all these lovely authors. Marita had a dinner party for me when I went from Waterstones to Easons as its children’s book buyer: she invited 10 authors – it was terribly sweet. I wrote Kids Can Cookin 1999 and published five non-fiction books before I started writing adult fiction.

“By this time Marita and I had become personal friends. We used to have dinners for women writers – men wanted to come, but they wouldn’t host them themselves. Marita’s a great host and a great cook. We’d have PEN dinners, and lunches – we were very sociable. I wasn’t so much the driving force as the bossy one. I’d organise events, festivals – Marita will do anything I ask.

“She’s already signed a copy of her new book Three Women, which I’ve bought for my mum for Mother’s Day. Marita taught me that family comes first, although it’s difficult to balance. I’m organised – I’ve written 10 adult books and 14 children’s in the past 15 years. I just work hard. I’ve three children – I had Sam when I was 25, he’s nearly 18, and Amy (8) and Jago (5). Writing’s a great job for a mum, you can do the school run, do Brownies.

“But Marita has taken a year off when she needed to, to be with her children and grandchildren. I got that from her. Her kids are fantastic – her daughter Mandy, writing as Amanda Hearty, has published a book about a young mum called Are You Ready?. Marita is very modest about her clever kids – all four are creative.

“Having a writing friend is lovely. I have lots of good friends and my sisters, but it’s hard to explain when you’re stuck, when a character’s not working for you – then I call Marita, and vice versa. It’s great to have someone who understands. She’s a great sounding board, sensible, salt of the earth.”

MARITA CONLON- McKENNA

is an author of children’s and adult books. Her most recent novel, Three Women, was published last month. Drawing on her own experience of being adopted, it explores the subject from the point of view of an adopted daughter, her birth mother and her adoptive mother. She has four grown-up children and lives with her husband James in Blackrock, Co Dublin

‘I WAS ALWAYS WRITING, adored writing in school. My parents weren’t into books or writing at all. I was adopted and you do wonder where that came from. I married young and started writing books for my children: the pictures got fewer and the words got more. Under the Hawthorn Tree[about children in the Famine] was published around 1990. It’s had an amazing success and is still selling everywhere.

“I met Sarah at a book event around then. She was children’s books buyer at Waterstones. I remember this small, bright, bubbly blonde girl who managed children’s events perfectly. She ended up as the children’s books buyer for the whole Easons chain. She had a huge passion for children’s books. She’d make publishers do events properly, would have drinks and nibbles for the kids and get Irish authors to speak. She wrote her first book, a children’s cook book, then adult books. Now with her Amy Greenseries, she’s become Ireland’s Jacqueline Wilson.

“She set up a club of Irish women writers, felt we should be friends. She browbeat us into doing stories for Mum’s the Word, a book to raise funds for cystic fibrosis, and Travelling Light, to raise funds for a charity in Africa.

“I started seeing Sarah more and more, began to sound her out about storylines. And for book covers, I wouldn’t trust any but Sarah’s opinion, because as a book buyer, she had excellent instincts. If she said anything critical, she’d say it in such a nice way. I really trust her judgment. Under the small, bright, sparkling little person is a rod of steel. She’d make a wonderful literary agent, people would flock to her.

“She’s a very family person and that comes across in her work. She’s very focused, very energetic, more than I am. When I was chair of Irish PEN, Sarah came on to the committee, helped me organise events. She’s involved with Children’s Books Ireland and in the Dún Laoghaire Mountains to the Sea literary festival; has grown the children’s side. She puts a lot back into the writing community.

“She has a bolthole in Castletownshend in west Cork and when she really needs to write, she just disappears by herself to finish a book – her parents have a house down there. Coincidentally, my family and I had been going to Baltimore for years. I love bumping into her down there.

“It’s lovely to have friends who are younger than you: I’m 55, she’s about 40. She knows my family very well. We meet for lunch, can talk about our work. I have lots of wonderful women friends, but they don’t understand about writing. With Sarah I don’t have to explain anything. It’s a wonderful friendship.”