Peadar Ó Guilín: waiting for the call

The author of The Call, set in the near future where the Irish are an endangered species, finds out tomorrow if he is the third Irish author in a row to win the YA Book Prize

Peadar Ó Guilín is a writer of whom there are great expectations. His latest YA novel, The Call, is one of 10 titles shortlisted for the YA Book Prize. This is the third year of the award, which is open to UK and Irish authors and has so far shown a particular fondness for Irish authors, with Louise O’Neill winning for her debut, Only Ever Yours, in 2015, and Sarah Crossan nabbing the prize (along with the Carnegie medal) for her verse novel One in 2016. Ó Guilín may well feel himself under pressure to – much like the Eurovision in the 1990s – maintain Ireland’s legacy with the prize. But he is matter-of-fact instead.

“On one hand it’s brilliant that a well-read group of judges have listed The Call in their top ten YA books of the year,” he says. “However, I can’t help but be aware that changing the composition of the committee might have resulted in a whole different set of nominees. So I know I’ve been lucky.” Lucky may not quite account for its presence on other shortlists, including the 2017 CBI Book of the Year, but Ó Guilín has been at this for a while. The Inferior, his first YA novel and the beginning of an unsettling trilogy, was published10 years ago; he’s also written and published various short stories.

Several scenes in The Call reference my time in boarding school: the long driveway with the crows in the trees; the way the children cluster around the radiators on cold days

He considers himself a speculative fiction writer first and foremost: “If anything drags me out of bed in the morning, it’s the chance to create new worlds. I don’t really care who reads my work as long as I can keep them engaged and, I hope, intrigued.” But he acknowledges his gratitude to the YA audience, and a sequel to The Call is forthcoming: its current title is The Invasion and it may be even more gruesome than the original. Ó Guilín’s fondness for the creepy is evident in both his trilogy and The Call, with the latter presenting an Ireland set a few years into the future, where an eerie mist hangs over the country and the Irish people are an “endangered species”.

The threat in question, the mythical Sídhe, “call” each Irish teenager to them in their turn. It is a day in their world, but only three minutes in human time – and most do not survive. To give them the best possible chance, schools are now places where one learns to fight, although some elements of the traditional boarding school motif remain. Ó Guilín notes the book would have been “very different” if he hadn’t been through a similar system himself. “Several scenes in The Call reference my time in boarding school: the long driveway with the crows in the trees; the way the children cluster around the radiators on cold days; every scene in the refectory and the way groups of friends are formed.”

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As someone who loves creating worlds, he begins with the central idea of the story and considers its ramifications. “For example,” he says, “in The Call, the Sídhe are real and are kidnapping our teenagers. I tried to imagine all the ways such a situation might influence Irish society. How would our economy be affected? Our customs and language? It’s a pretty standard technique used by science fiction writers, as well as being an enjoyable mental exercise in its own right.” At the same time, world-building doesn’t mean planning everything out before he begins. For him the best part of writing is when he encounters “the little bubbles of inspiration that rise up and pop at unexpected moments. It’s even better when they set off chain reactions of other bubbles so that I’m almost in a panic to write the ideas down before they can fizz away into nothing.”

His number one priority is story, though he notes that “part of making the Ireland between the pages believable and satisfying for the reader, lies in reflecting all the rich complexity of our own world and the people who inhabit it.” His protagonist, Nessa, is disabled as a result of childhood polio, and identified by many in the book as the girl least likely to survive an encounter when she is eventually called. She is admirable without being an “inspirational” figure who teaches the reader a valuable lesson, and as Ó Guilín notes, even though it is important to reflect a diverse range of experiences, “personalities are complex too. I sincerely hope that nobody thinks of Nessa as ‘the disabled girl’, but as a fully-rounded character.”

Having recently returned to a “day job” in computers after a short leave of absence, Ó Guilín has his work week mapped out neatly: “I’m a part-timer, so I work three days; write three days; and get to laze about for one.” His writing is kept to himself at the early stages. “I’m too jealous to share my story with anybody until I’ve finished a good three drafts or so. That means that for the best part of a year, I’m writing purely to please myself.” Sometimes it doesn’t work out – “more than once I’ve emerged triumphantly clutching a manuscript that nobody else likes,” he recalls. “On the plus side, my editors and my beta-readers don’t have to waste their time on endless early drafts.”

This solitary impulse doesn't extent to all areas of his writing life, though; he is a regular attendee and guest at various conventions, including the annual speculative fiction conventions Titancon (Belfast) and Octocon (Dublin), both of which he highly recommends, and Ireland's YA convention, Deptcon, which marks its third year this October. Having seen him speak at a number of events, I can attest to his ability to always be highly engaging as a speaker – if a little quirky and dark. Much like his fiction, in other words.
The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín is published by David Fickling Books, and has been shortlisted for The Bookseller YA Book Prize. The winner will be announced at the Hay Festival on June 1st. Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator. Her latest YA novel is Like Other Girls (Hot Key Books)