Born to Irish parents in South Africa, raised in Dublin, married in Cork and currently living in Massachusetts, Leigh Fallon has had no shortage of upheaval in her life; none more so than her recent success of a writer. Within a year of writing the first line of her debut novel, The Carrier of the Mark, Leigh signed with HarperTeen in America, her first step into publishing that rapidly became a sprint to triumph. Leigh chats to Kevin Massey about her writing habits and how she took her idea for The Carrier of the Mark from patient daydreaming to best-seller.
The Carrier of the Mark opens with Megan Rosenberg moving from America to Ireland with her widowed father. She is surprised at how easily she adjusts to her new home; making friends, fitting in at school, and she is instantly drawn to the brooding Adam DeRis. However, all is not what it seems and Megan discovers that her attraction to Adam is tied to a centuries old fate that may lead to their doom. To understand where the story comes from, you need to get to know the author. Leigh Conroy, as she was then known, lived in Rathfarnham Co. Dublin, when she and her parents returned from South Africa, and attended Sancta Maria College in Ballyroan. After college, she worked with A.I.B. before moving to Cork and settling down to start a family, taking a career break to do so. It was at then that she realised that she was in the wrong line of work. ‘I started writing and just couldn’t stop, it was like an addiction. I wrote Carrier in about six months’.
Leigh spent many a patient hour sitting in the car, waiting to pick up her children, but it was not time wasted; ‘The beautiful surroundings of Kinsale combined with memories of school tours. Add in an overactive imagination and the surrounding and ideas started merging and needed to be written down. I started out on scraps of paper I found in my car, receipts and kids drawings’. Leigh became moreorganised and began to fill notebooks rather than nearby scraps before typing up a rough manuscript. ‘Once I’d started typing up these notebooks into something resembling a book I started to get very excited. It felt real, it had a life of its own, it meant so much to me, I just knew it was going to take me somewhere’.
Leigh realised that, for years, she had been unwittingly researching for Carrier. She dug out old photos of Trinity College, Christchurch and Newgrange; places she had visited on school tours, and found that the places that had inspired her as a child now inspired her as a writer. Kinsale was chosen as the main setting for the book. The next order of business was to establish a theme; mythology. ‘I trawled through the internet researching Irish folklore, I knew my book was going to be about the elements, but I wanted the story to sit on a foundation of mythology and actual real life places. I wanted to blend lore, historical sites, and my imagination into something tangible and believable’. With setting and theme in place, the characters began to take shape and direct the plot.
Within six months, Leigh completed her first draft and spent the next six months editing, redrafting and attempting to get it published in Ireland. Having no luck with the traditional route, Leigh decided to upload her manuscript toInkpop.com. Carrier rocketed into the site’s top five in the first month and was selected for review by a Harper Collins editor. Two weeks later, Leigh was offered a publishing contract with HarperTeen, meaning that it was time to find an agent. ‘At that stage I submitted query letters to my top pick literary agents, and really clicked with Tina Dubois Wexler of ICM (International Creative Management) I signed with her immediately. Once I’d signed the deal with HarperTeen, I was soon offered a deal from HarperCollins UK to publish Carrier in the UK, Ireland Australia, and New Zealand. I also had offers from publishing companies in Poland, Italy, Turkey, and Brazil’.
What following was a whirlwind promotion, taking Leigh to every corner of the globe to promote The Carrier of the Mark. Along with the jet-setting, Leigh has been working on the second book of the Carrier trilogy. The as yet untitled book is due for release in late 2012 or early 2013, at which point she will begin work on the final Carrier book. After that, Leigh has several other projects she would like to get stuck into ‘I’ve also been working on a standalone title, a ghost story set in Tipperary. My critique partners have read the first eight chapters of that and are very excited about it. I’m hoping to get it finished and on submission maybe sometime early next year. Then I have another series knocking around in my head, I’ve done a rough outline for it, and the more I think about it, the more excited I get. It’s a sort of sci-fi with a fantasy twist’.
Leigh cites Judy Blume, Virginia Andrews, Roald Dahl, and Jilly Cooper as writers who inspire you; an eclectic mix, as she admits herself, but each has a role to play in developing her own writing. ‘I felt inspired by the contemporary humor of Blume, by the dark thoughts and twisted stories of Andrews, the laugh out loud humor of Dahl, and the sizzling romance and hysterical shenanigans of Cooper’. Variety is important for a writer. It allows them to test the boundaries of their genre without their work losing its shape and tone.
Speaking of her writing, Leigh characterizes it as ‘an addiction’. ‘I need to really get absorbed in a book. I could sit and write for 10 hours straight, I’d break for nothing but coffee’. She does not set word count goals or follow a strict outline, preferring to write as the inspiration strikes, more of a ‘stream of conscious’ approach. ‘I like to write as it comes to me, and sometimes that means I’m writing out of sequence. I’ll always have the last chapter scribbled in longhand somewhere before I even get to the middle of a book’. One rule she does adhere to is to never mix writing and marketing. When promoting her work, she gives it her full focus and vice-versa with writing; ‘It’s like my brain has to switch from creative mode to business mode, and the two just don’t mix’.
Books such as Carrier and The Twilight Series have seen a massive increase in the Young Adult fiction market but Leigh sees this growth as necessary for YA readers. ‘People in the YA years are finding themselves. They’re figuring out who they are, what they want, what their likes and dislikes are.’ Leigh admits that with such a diverse YA audience there will always be a level of polarisation when a new book or series enters the market; some will love it and some will hate it. ‘But there is huge diversity in what is written for YA, so the authors out there are making sure they’re covering all the niches. There is also aging process to consider’.
There is also the age factor to consider; the gap between Young Adult and Adult seems to be getting shorter every day. ‘When writing YA you have to have the ability to appeal to an adult audience, because by the time you’ve got to the end of your trilogy, your audience has matured with your characters, you have to be able to maintain their interest and appeal to the older mind’. Essentially, your story needs to grow with your audience to retain the interest of your readers but must stay true to the YA genre to attract the next generation of YA readers; notably the younger siblings, cousins etc of those who grew up with the series during its initial release.
Leigh signs off with a solid piece of advice for any budding writers, not just those writing YA. ‘You need to get out there, make connections, and forge friendships. Write, and keep writing. Write what you love, don’t bend to market trends. Trends come and go, but good writing will always be in style. Edit, edit, edit, and then edit some more. I strongly urge you to get online and start building your social networking framework. It will stand to you when you finally get the call. Good luck!’