My writing career so far has been painted in primary colours: think bears in bow-ties on their first day of school, roaring dragons, fairytale witches, super-sorting robots and ever-so-fancy fairy godmothers. Upbeat messages, larger-than-life characters and feel-good vibes by the bucket-load. So why now, on book number 8, have I gone to the dark side?
Nóinín, my new YA verse-novel, published this month by Cois Life, pulls no punches. Tackling online grooming and descending into the grim realities of its worst imaginable consequences, the story is told in two parts. The first is in the voice of Nóinín, a shy teenager as she meets and falls for a boy online. Oisín isn’t like the other boys at school – he understands her instinctively and profoundly. As she falls deeper and deeper in love with him, her relationship with her best friend Eimear deteriorates. When Nóinín goes to meet Oisín, she doesn’t return. And so the second part is left to Eimear to tell, as she reels in grief and guilt, trying to piece together the events that led to this black place. Through her pain, she raises difficult questions about blame and trust.
To be honest, I felt compelled to tell this dark story. Surrounded by teenagers at home, I was struck by their blanket dismissal of safety advice as dished out by their teachers at school. At the root of their seeming immunity to these messages lies a suspicion that their elders don’t understand their digital world, that their tales of horror are exaggerated scaremongering from middle-aged drama queens, but deep down and most potently, that they themselves are indestructible, invincible, bullet-proof.
Nóinín, my main character, is not stupid. Nor is Nóinín, the book, anti-tech in any way. The sucker-punch I wanted to deliver was that this really could happen to anyone. And that having your eyes wide open to that possibility is the only thing that can keep us safe.
I’m glad I didn’t think through before I started just how gruelling the research for this book would be. And even gladder that no-one was keeping an eye on my online search history as I delved the murky waters of paedophile demographics and psychology, child grooming statistics, police search strategies and much much worse (that I can’t admit without too many spoilers!). This was a far-cry from my super-sorting robots. I am aware of breaking new ground in bringing such dark material before a teenage readership, not per se but specifically in the Irish language. I believe the story couldn’t have been authentic without being a little graphic, but am also aware and intensely grateful to Cois Life as publishers for standing so strongly behind me in my need to push at the boundaries of what has previously been published in Irish for this audience.
The genre of verse-novel is new to me as a writer, and also brand new to the Irish language. In fact, writing in free-verse for the first time has been an absolute revelation for me. Hiding away in the sanctuary of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig for lots of the writing, I found that the words flowed in this medium. I often find my prose splintering into fragments as I write, and it felt deeply liberating to just let it flow and see what form each poem took. Occupying some kind of liminal space between poetry and prose, anything goes.
I am quietly hopeful that the verse-novel genre works its magic in Irish just as it has in English, breaking down barriers for reluctant readers and enticing teens back to reading who may have (temporarily) abandoned it as not being fast-paced, snappy and relevant enough for their dynamic lives. Verse-novels are quick and easy to read, despite – or because of – being written in poetry. Words, action, emotion are vivid and condensed. Pages turn quickly. Readers often describe reading verse-novels in one or two sittings, taking only an hour or two to finish the book.
Nóinín has busy days and months ahead. A launch is planned in the Cultúrlann in Belfast for the 25th May, with events in schools and in Dublin following on. Out in the wild for the first time, the book will be read and reviewed – an exciting and nerve-wracking prospect for all authors. Nóinín has already won an Oireachtas Award for Fiction in 2018, and is about to embark on a most special journey to Brussels for the European ‘Transpoesie’ project. Extracts of the book have been chosen to appear on the Brussels transport system this Autumn. These stand-alone poems from the book will appear on the underground and tram networks in Brussels in their original Irish, alongside translations to Dutch, French and English.
With Nóinín gone out into the world, I am back scribbling about ninjas and aliens, space-robots and zombies, all with happy endings and fun themes. My comfy old writing slippers are back on. But the experience of writing for young adults has been a rewarding one, and one I am already itching to revisit. Maybe there will be something in my writing life akin to yin and yang – time spent blinking in the sunshine and time spent grappling with the dark.
(c) Máire Zepf
Máire Zepf is the first ever Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland, based at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast. She is author of eight books for young people, including the ‘Rita’ picture book series with illustrator Andrew Whitson, and the award-winning ‘Ná Gabh ar Scoil!’ (‘Don’t Go to School!’) which has been translated to six languages worldwide. Máire has also translated books by Oliver Jeffers, Malachy Doyle and Torben Kuhlman. Nóinín is Máire’s first YA book.
Nóinín is a shy, reserved teenager. When she meets a young man online, she knows he isn’t like the others boys at school: he understands her totally and she falls for him, head over heels. She doesn’t have much time anymore for her best friend, Eimear – she’s hooked on her newfound love.
When Nóinín ventures out to meet him offline, she never comes back.
Heartbroken, Eimear blames herself for Nóinín’s disappearance. How can anyone know who to trust?
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