‘There’s a lot of Aisling in us as well, so we can’t afford to slag her off’
Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght’s hit character is back – and coming to the big screen
Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen: their shared humour and similar provenance has given the Aisling series a cohesive, distinct voice. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It may be midday on a drizzly Tuesday, but it’s never too early for wine. Specifically, it’s never too early for wine if you’re Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, and you’re in the mood to celebrate after you’ve submitted the latest draft of your script, an adaptation of your first book Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling, to Element Films.
The writing duo can enjoy a break for now, albeit a short one. The German translatonof the book, OMG, diese Aisling!, is out within days. Closer to home, Breen and McLysaght are readying themselves for the release of the third instalment of the Aisling series of comic novels, titled Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling.
“I’m still as nervous as ever,” admits Breen of the book’s impending release.
McLysaght agrees immediately: “It’s actually gotten worse, the waiting. The nerves haven’t gone away.”
We’ve had it too good for so long. We feel like those people who didn’t study for the Leaving Cert but got loads of points
What, still nerves after the first book became the publishing success story of 2017? After fans, among them Marian Keyes and Tara Flynn, took to social media to rave about the book? After signing a six-figure deal with an English publisher? After there’s barely been a week that the book has been off the bestseller charts? After the first print run of the series’ second instalment, 2018’s The Importance of Being Aisling, was ramped up from 4,000 to 40,000? After the book sold 11,000 copies in a single week?
“The first book’s success was a surprise, and the second book, people were really excited about, but the third book…” Breen trails off.
“This is the book where everyone is going to turn,” McLysaght interjects. “We’ve had it too good for so long. We feel like those people who didn’t study for the Leaving Cert but got loads of points.” She turns to Breen. “I mean, I don’t sleep at night worrying. The whole time, I’m like, ‘How are we getting away with this?’”
“When you go to the warehouse and see all these pallets of books and you’re like, ‘Why would people buy them?’” Breen adds.
The two talk at a breakneck clip; not quite finishing each other’s sentences, but certainly chatting in a seamless stream. It’s this synchronicity, not to mention a shared humour and similar provenance (McLysaght is from Kildare, Breen from Carlow) that has given the Aisling series a cohesive, distinct voice.
Yet, as a character, Aisling was nigh on a decade in the making. Breen and McLysaght started an Oh My God What a Complete Aisling Facebook page, primarily as an in-joke between friends. Originally boasting 20 members, the group has since grown to almost 50,000.
The original members began to ping around various posts, creating an amalgam of the titular Aisling, a small-town girl finding her way in a city full of notions. Aisling is the sort of girl who carries her gym gear to work in a Brown Thomas shopping bag. She has a safe job, a sensible car and a dependable(ish) boyfriend. She loves going out (or even Out Out) to Copper Face Jacks. She reckons burritos, nut butter and herbal tea are the height of notions. “Thanks, Penneys”, “Weight Watchers points” and “road frontage” are the cornerstones of her lexicon.
It all works because the biting satire is tempered with a genuine warmth and affection for Aisling.
“There’s a lot of Aisling in us as well, so we can’t afford to slag her off, as we’d only be slagging ourselves,” admits McLysaght.
Yet what started out as a ticklish bout of online banter between friends soon became a word-of-mouth sensation, and Gill Books approached Breen and McLysaght about writing a novel. The success of the first book enabled them to move away from their jobs in journalism towards full-time novel writing – Breen is a former editor of now-defunct teen magazine Kiss, while McLysaght previously edited the humorous news site The Daily Edge. The pair met while studying media at Ballyfermot College of Further Education.
“I cannot even explain to you how unmotivated we are,” McLysaght offers.
Breen adds: “We only did this because they came to us and asked if we’d do it and we signed contracts, and then if you don’t, you get sued.”
Yet their output in the last 12 months has been staggering, not least because the first half of 2019 has posed personal challenges for each woman.
“My mother hasn’t been well, so I’ve been pulled in that direction, and Sarah has just had her third baby,” McLysaght says.
“It all happened at the same time,” says Breen. “We have to support each other, but the book was written in that time and there was a lot of stress.”
McLysaght adds: “There were probably times when we both thought, ‘I cannot do this, I’m going to have to step back. Let’s just leave it until next year.’”
And yet Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling bears the same charm and warm humour as the first two books. Our anti-heroine is no longer living in Dublin city but has moved home in Ballygobbard, where her best friend, Majella, is now engaged.
“Without giving too much, we get to see her evolve a little more,” McLysaght says. “She’s not drinking the West Coast Coolers any more – she’s drinking the gin and tonics now. But we wanted to make life a little less easy for Aisling, as things have worked out really well for her so far.”
Aisling is about to turn 30 too, and isn’t thrilled about hitting the milestone.
“She’s like, ‘I’m so far behind everyone,’ and she always thought she would be ahead,” Breen says. “For Majella, the messy, perpetually single friend to be getting married first, and for Aisling to be organising her hen…”
Both women, now in their mid-30s, acknowledge that turning 30 is a significant turning point for women. Recently, the New York journalist Rachel Syme touched a nerve when she tweeted: “I feel like 33-38 is a really tough age for a lot of women I know; feels like so many big decisions and future plans have to be squeezed into this lil window; just me? ... It feels like all my friends this year are doing this huge reevaluation of everything. It’s a time of lurches and swerves.”
McLysaght says: “I was living in Spain at the time and had a steady boyfriend, but I think it hit me the day before I turned 30. I had spent my 20s thinking my spiritual age was 17. I did feel kind of hard done by. I was a youthful sprite; what was I doing turning 30? It wasn’t like I felt that I definitely wanted to have kids, and I wasn’t really into getting married or anything, but for the first time in my life I felt that time was marching on.”
Breen, meanwhile, had left Kiss and had relocated to the United States with her boyfriend Eoin, who would eventually become her husband.
“I went to Disneyland for my 30th, which probably gives you an idea of my state of mind,” she said with a smile. “I had a baby and got married at 30 so I suppose I was a bit like, ‘Oh my God, let’s do everything now.’”
McLysaght says: “It’s probably a bit old-fashioned in the way Aisling thinks, ‘I’m not settled down and not married yet’. It’s a bit of an outdated idea these days, but I guess that’s the way she was brought up.”
If anything, Aisling’s sense and sensibility mark her out as near radical in pop culture. Thanks to Amy Schumer, Aisling Bea, Emma-Jane Unsworth, Roisin Conaty and others, thirtysomething “trainwrecks” are dominating recent film and TV comedy. Aisling’s rational and prudent streak is, whether by accident or design, an antidote to that.
Still, that’s not to say that bringing her to the screen has been straightforward.
“In terms of writing, it’s probably been the most difficult part of the whole process,” McLysaght admits.
“We’ve been working on and off continually on this for a year, and we’ve had to do two books in that time as well,” adds Breen.
“We’ve spent hours in Sarah’s dining room with a huge whiteboard, agonising over what stuff to lose,” McLysaght says. “Although I feel like we’re getting somewhere with this last draft.”
“It’s very entertaining when we go into the production company meetings and they talk about the character as though she is a real person,” Breen says. “And Chelsea [Morgan Hoffman, head of development at Element] is American – it’s great to know that there are Aislings in Long Island, too.”
We’ve had people ask us, ‘Would you not make Aisling president or have her win the lotto?’, but she’s too grounded in reality
Element has not yet attached a director to the project, meaning that the all-important search for the actor who will play Aisling has yet to begin.
“We get asked a lot who would be our dream Aisling, but we don’t know,” says Breen. “People can stop sending us in their casting reels on Facebook. Like, do they think we have any power?”
In the immediate future, Breen and McLysaght have book number four to grapple with after signing a contract to write five. Far from “dragging the arse out of it”, they insist that book five will constitute a full stop in Aisling’s story, and that they have already worked out an overall narrative arc for her.
“We’ve had people ask us, ‘Would you not make Aisling president or have her win the lotto?’, but she’s too grounded in reality,” McLysaght says. “I think after five books, we’d like that to be it.”
“We’ve already sat with Conor [Nagle, commissioning editor at Gill] and Catherine [Gough, Gill’s managing editor] and talked about what would happen to everyone at the very end,” says Breen.
McLysaght, finishing her glass of white wine, adds: “I think Conor had tears in his eyes when we told him.”
Breen nods. “Then again, I think we all did.”
Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling, by Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght, is published on Friday by Gill Books