A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

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By Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply is my seventh book, and it always surprises me how different the process has been for each one. Of course, there are some things that always happen- the part where I want to abandon it forever and feel a great sense of panic and shame about how much work needs to be done. The part where I do the work. The part where it slowly takes shape, which varies from book to book, and I’m glad of that, in ways. It means the journey is always a little bit surprising.

Savage Her Reply took two years to write, one I spent reading and researching between all the other parts of my life- working full time as a teacher, meeting deadlines for other projects, working out where the cat vomited because I could tell by the head on him that he had. The usual. But equally, I have been drawn to Aífe’s story since I was a child, who found the Michael Scott retelling of The Children of Lir, with that iconic illustration by Jim Fitzpatrick on the cover on the shelves of Galway City Library (and what a gorgeous coincidence it was that Karen Vaughan, the illustrator decided to depict the same scene in her own visual response to the story). I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know. There was more story underneath the story. But I would be an adult before I started trying to carve it out.

To retell a story, you have to have a story to retell, and it was important to me to have the proper respect for where The Children of Lir came from, and to explore the world in which it is set, a world far older than it is itself. I built up a stack of books on Irish myths and legends, on ancient history. I gobbled up Jeffrey Gantz and Marie Heaney, James MacKilliop, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Eithne Massey and Richard Marsh, as well as the stories I had loved as a child- Michael Scott again, Eileen O’ Faolain, Lady Gregory, Eddie Lenihan, Sinéad DeValera. Some stories I returned to and found changed, I couldn’t read them with the same eyes again, outside of childhood. And there were other surprises too – I has assumed that The Children of Lir was an old, old story, but it’s comparatively young, from around the fourteenth century- and exists in a strange space between myth and fairytale. The setting and some of the characters, Lir, Bodbh Dearg, pre-date the tale itself, and others like Aoife (Aífe in my version) crop up, fulfil their role and disappear. I was able to find Lir’s death, in Acallam na Senórach, and to colour in parts of other stories I thought I knew. It was a gift, and I could have spent forever researching and still feel that the surface had barely been scratched.

As for the nuts and bolts of how it was written, I had to make space for it. Simple strategies, like setting myself manageable targets (word count or time spent on the document), building a routine with a set time I sit down at the desk each day (once the job that actually pays the bills was over) and getting better at saying no to things I didn’t have time for (this is an ongoing process) have all served me well in the past, and in this case, Savage Her Reply was no different. But how I came to the beginning of the book was very unusual. I had several false starts and was beginning to despair, but then one day, towards the beginning of the Summer of 2019, the structure of the opening came to me, and I wrote it in a big gush all at once. When I was finished, I burst into tears. Not like the gentle cry you might have when your protagonist is going through something dreadful, or while doing a painful bit of research, but proper sobs. And something had been released, and I could keep on going with it. And I did. Hour by hour. Word by word.

So, from the beginning, Savage Her Reply has been a deeply felt book, and writing it was an intense process. It’s strange to be at the stage of it where it’s out in the world now, finding readers that it will belong to instead of me. I feel very protective of Aífe. I hope I did her justice.

(c) Deirdre Sullivan

About Savage Her Reply:

A dark, feminist retelling of ‘The Children of Lir’ told in Sullivan’s hypnotic prose.
A retelling of the favourite Irish fairytale ‘The Children of Lir’. Aífe marries Lir, a king with four children by his previous wife. Jealous of his affection for his children, the witch Aífe turns them into swans for 900 years.
Retold through the voice of Aífe, Savage Her Reply is unsettling and dark, feminist and fierce, yet nuanced in its exploration of the guilt of a complex character.
Voiced in Sullivan’s trademark rich, lyrical prose as developed in Tangleweed and Brine – the multiple award-winner which established Sullivan as the queen of witchy YA.

‘No-one writes like Deirdre Sullivan. She is lyrical, poetic and intoxicating.’ – Juno Dawson, author of Wonderland
‘Unsettling, haunting, and darkly lyrical’ – Louise O’Neill, author of After the Silence
‘This is Irish mythology as it is meant to be read.’ – Dave Rudden, author of The Knights of the Borrowed Dark
‘Not a single word is out of place: like a poem, or a spell.’ – Tara Flynn, actor and writer
‘Stirring and shocking, a feat of absolute poetry.’ – Sarah Maria Griffin, author of Other Words for Smoke

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway. She has written three YA novels, Prim Improper (which was shortlisted for the Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award 2010-11.), Improper Order and Primperfect. She has also ghostwritten three books for the Nightmare Club series under the name Annie Graves.

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