The children’s book world is thriving, and it’s always a delight to meet a new author with an exciting career ahead of them. This week, E.R. Murray caught up with debut author Caroline Busher, who has just published The Ghosts of Magnificent Children (Poolbeg) a fantastic historical fiction novel for children. They discuss all things writing and inspiration including missing ribcages, the importance of location, folklore, historical detail and more!
The Ghosts of Magnificent Children spans 100 years, with the action from 1848 to 1948; what was it about these time periods that attracted you? And how did they impact the story?
My novel is historical fiction, and the backdrop includes major historical events: the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1800s; the cotton industry in Manchester and the effect it had on the lives and health of children; and finally the wave of emigration from Ireland to major cities in England in the aftermath of the Great Famine. When the novel moves forward one hundred years, we see the effect that World War II had on people and their experience of great loss reflecting, to some extent, the losses of the previous century. It examines the ability of children to adapt to their surroundings. It looks at the importance of friendship and lets children know that it is acceptable to be different and that everyone has their own unique abilities and talents.
Yes, I got a real sense of time and place via subtle, human references rather than direct mention of events, which I thought was beautifully done. And this brings me to location… Your circus setting is obviously integral to the story, but your characters also travel geographically from Manchester to Ireland – can you talk a bit about your chosen locations and what influence they had on your novel?
Location is crucial in the novel and I have tried to convey a strong sense of place. From the bustling city streets of London to the lonely graveyard on top of the mountain in Inis Rua, place has an impact on the way people live their lives. Although I didn’t intend there to be autobiographical references in The Ghosts of Magnificent Children, I am of Irish descent and grew up as part of a large Irish community in Manchester and I made the journey over to Ireland regularly. I felt a deep sense of belonging in both places and used this to enhance the writing of the novel.
You include snippets of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence – was this part of the original idea and process or did it come later? Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to include Blake?
I chose to write the novel in two parts, punctuated with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, in particular The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found. I write poetry and it felt natural to include a poetic reference in the novel. The decision to include Blake came early on. Blake uses short poems based on childhood experience to expose and criticize the society at the time. The harsh treatment of children in the Victorian Era seemed to parallel the references in William Blake’s Song of Innocence. The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found encapsulate Archie the little boy who is lost in part one of the novel and found in part two.
I thought they really added to the book and yes, they encapsulate Archie perfectly. You have a colourful cast of memorable characters, but I’m particularly fascinated by Ginny. Tell us a little about how she came about and how she developed?
Ginny was the first character that came to me and I adore her. I discovered Ginny in the recesses of my imagination, she came to me fully formed, she was always there waiting to be found. Ginny has a dark secret; she has a birdcage instead of a ribcage and a bird called blue lives inside of her. Transformation is a theme in the novel and this is embodied in Ginny. Rejected by conventional society she is offered a life in Badblood’s Circus where she is forced to reveal her ability. Ginny is a strong female character; she is representative of people who are considered outsiders, those with hidden disabilities who are forced to fit into conventional society, she is also the character that I relate to the most.
I adored the birdcage idea – very original and skillfully handled, with every little detail thought out. Throughout the novel, I was struck by your attention to detail – especially when it comes clothes. Is this a fascination and how did you approach your research?
When I am not writing, you will find me rummaging around in vintage clothes shops. Clothing is inherently linked to our sense of identity. When you wear vintage clothing, you are wrapping yourself in a piece of history. You are opening a dialogue between the past and the present. Linking stories from one generation to the next. It was essential that the clothing the characters wore were authentic and historically accurate. As part of my research I discovered that there were rules and regulations governing what was deemed to be appropriate attire for female circus performers in the 1800s. There was also a difference in the clothing that Archie and Millie wore, compared to Theo and Ginny as they came from different social classes. All of these factors enrich the experience for the reader, as a writer you are asking them to enter into a world that you have created and the small details such as clothing really can enhance the overall reading experience.
Partly because of the attention to detail, The Ghosts of Magnificent Children reads like a cross between fairytale and oral tradition – was this a conscious decision or did your voice develop as you rewrote?
Dark twisted fairy tales intrigue me. They excite my imagination and stir my senses. The visual imagery in fairy tales are stunning, the dark undercurrent that infiltrates the seemingly simple narrative make them timeless. I studied fairy tales and folklore when I was completing my MA in Creative Writing (UCD) and I was privileged to have been taught by Eílís Ní Dhuibhne. I draw from folklore for inspiration, which is deeply routed in the oral tradition and it was a conscious decision to include folkloristic and fairytale elements in the novel.
It worked really well and added that necessary touch of magic to your writing. Speaking of writing, I’m always interested in writer journeys as they’re always so different – tell us about your journey to publication.
Reading and writing have always played a major part in my life, as a young child I would jot down stories on sweet wrappers and scraps of paper. I spent hours in my local library. Then in 2013 I entered a short story competition on writing.ie and it reached the shortlist. Over the next year I received various awards and bursaries for my writing and in 2014 I decided to take the next step and apply for the MA in Creative Writing in UCD. It was during this year that I wrote my novel The Ghosts of Magnificent Children. Wexford Literary Festival also played an integral role in my journey to publication. I attended a Date With An Agent event during the festival in 2014 and was signed up with Tracy Brennan of Trace Literary Agency (USA). Then in March this year, I signed a three-book deal with Poolbeg Press.
Many people struggle with rejection – how did it impact your journey? Did you develop any particular coping mechanisms? How did you keep going?
Rejection is an inevitable part of the writing process and it can be tough. I decided early on in my writing journey that the best way of dealing with rejection is to keep writing. By concentrating on your next piece of work you remain focused and driven. As part of the MA in Creative Writing we attended peer critique sessions on a weekly basis, constructive criticism in a nurturing environment helped me to develop as a writer. When it comes to rejection, it is important to learn from it and move on and never let it stop you.
Absolutely! If you stop you have zero chance of getting published – keeping going, listening to constructive advice and improving, is the only way forward. So, what about your writing process? Do you plan or write organically? Any special routines or rituals? What does your writing day involve?
I write organically, I trust the creative process and allow it to develop naturally. This is important when I am writing the first draft of a novel, I allow the creativity to flow. It is only on the second or third draft, through the editing process, that the novel starts to take shape. I write in my studio; I work for eight hours a day, from nine o’clock until three o’clock every day and then I do two more hours in the evening. I am disciplined about my working day, it is important to me to put the time in. I try to schedule meetings for late in the afternoon whenever possible. I am a creative writing facilitator and deliver workshops in schools and libraries so this takes planning and preparation as does my role as a curator for Wexford Literary Festival. In order to get the most from my day, I have to be organised and work hard.
Writing is rewriting – agree or disagree and why?
Writing begins for me with the initial surge of creativity, the spark of an idea that has the potential to begin a story. However, it is through the re-writing that a novel begins to take shape. The difference between a first draft and a fourth draft of a novel is remarkable. Taking the time to rewrite your novel enhances every aspect of your work from character development, to plot and dialogue.
Any advice for people striving to get published?
The best piece of advice I could give to aspiring writers is to keep writing and keep reading. Join a writing group, attend literary festivals and enter competitions. Immerse yourself in the literary world and never give up.
And finally, what does it feel like to be a published author? Is it what you expected or were there any surprises along the way?
Being offered a publishing deal is the best feeling ever, to hold your book in your hands for the first time is amazing. It is everything I expected it to be and more. I was pleasantly surprised when I my book was chosen to take part in a major project called Battle of The Book with Dublin Airport Authority and Fingal Library Services. Events will be arranged over the next six months to coincide with themes in the book and it will culminate with a final Battle of The Book in Dublin Airport at the end of the year.
If there is one thing I have discovered it is this; no matter what stage of the journey you are at, whether you are just starting to write or whether you have published your fourth novel, the support and encouragement from the literary community in Ireland is unbelievable. I recently attended the Children’s Books Ireland Conference in Ireland and was overwhelmed by the support and encouragement that I received.
Caroline Busher’s debut novel The Ghosts of Magnificent Children (Poolbeg Press) is being launched by E.R. Murray in The Gutter Book Shop Temple Bar Dublin at 6:30pm on Tuesday 11th October. Do join them!
(c) ER Murray
About The Ghosts of Magnificent Children
The year is 1848. It is a time when magic and ghosts exist. Four Magnificent Children are captured by Badblood’s Circus.
Theo can look into your eyes and reveal your secret thoughts, which come out of his mouth like a swarm of bees. Ginny has a bird called Blue living inside her. Her ribs are woven together to form a birdcage. Blue perches on a swing made from one of her ribs. And the Thought-reading Twins, Archie and Millie Luxbridge, have an extraordinary ability to read each other’s minds. They become stars of the circus but are unaware that Badblood has a dark and secret plan. One hundred years later the children’s ghosts appear on an island off the coast of Ireland where a boy called Rua befriends them. Rua discovers that a terrible fate awaits them and, in a desperate race against time, he struggles to learn how they may be saved.
The Ghosts of Magnificent Children is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here!
About Caroline Busher: Caroline Busher graduated with a first Class Honours MA in Creative Writing (UCD) and is represented by Trace Literary Agency (USA). She is an award-winning author and was recently appointed the Reader in Residence with Wexford County Council Library Services. Caroline teaches creating writing courses to adults and children and is a curator for Wexford Literary Festival. Her debut novel “The Ghosts of Magnificent Children” (Poolbeg Press) has been selected for a major project called “Battle Of The Book” by the Dublin Airport Authority and Fingal County Council Library Services. You can learn more about Caroline on her website or on twitter.
About E.R. Murray: Author of The Book Of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 (chosen as Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read 2016), The Book Of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 & a young adult debut Caramel Hearts, E. R Murray lives in West Cork where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and lives for adventures and words. You can learn more on www.ermurray.com, on twitter or facebook.