Wednesday 23 October 2019

Local heroes: 'Concise take on Irish literary canon attracts new generation of readers'

End of Joyce copyright sparked idea to adapt works such as Ulysses, writes John Cradden

Niall Laverty and Maite López say their revamp of Ulysses, which aims to make it more accessible, has won praise from Joycean scholars and enthusiasts. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niall Laverty and Maite López say their revamp of Ulysses, which aims to make it more accessible, has won praise from Joycean scholars and enthusiasts. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When the 70-year EU copyright on James Joyce's works expired in 2012, it enabled a whole range of artists, writers, and theatre producers to produce all manner of new publications and adaptations based on Joyce's published works.

Up until then, most such efforts came unstuck due to the copyright protections afforded to the late Joyce's work.

Among the earliest to take advantage of this new freedom were German-Spanish writer Maite Lopez and Irish illustrator Niall Laverty. They, along with Jessica Peel-Yates and James Moore, were inspired by a long walk through the Dublin mountains to produce a book that would make the big, intimidating work of Ulysses more accessible.

They were out walking in June 2011 having attending the Bloomsday festival earlier that day. "It was my first time doing Bloomsday in Dublin and we were all a bit disappointed," said Lopez. "We thought it would be bigger, especially me because I come from Cologne where we have carnivals where millions of people dress up in costume for a whole week. And I also felt it was very elitist."

That set off a period of intense collaboration. "We came initially up with the idea of mixing Rocky Horror with James Joyce and then this little book [Romping Through Ulysses] was born because it's interactive."

Using a combination of text and illustrations, the book turns the big epic into a more digestible 60-page read. It was so well received that it prompted them to give other iconic works of Irish literature the same treatment and form the basis of a sustainable business, hence the name At It Again!

The team produced four further books (also out of copyright) under their Romping Through Irish Literature series: Joyce's Dubliners, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray.

The books are intended as a "quirky literary gift for book lovers or people planning to travel to Ireland and looking for an alternative experience", and includes an illustrated retelling of the relevant work, maps based on the story and the author's life, things to do and see, titbits and the best quotes.

Some may consider it brave to take a serious and revered work of literature and cram it into a 60-pager, but it's clearly not the intention to dumb them down.

Rather, it's a light-hearted and authentic spin on famous books that aims to get new readers inspired enough to read the original works. "We tend to try and make it fun or at least give people something to chuckle about it, especially with Ulysses because Ulysses is actually quite funny in most places," says Laverty. "We're trying to do the same with the other ones where it's appropriate, but it's not necessarily that our main aim to make it comedic, it's more about making it accessible, easy to read and get people interested in it and also celebrate the fact that you can walk through Dublin in the character's footsteps."

The book has won praise from Joycean scholars and enthusiasts.

"Joycean scholars have really appreciated what we've done because they understand that we've actually read the book and done the research," he says. "So it is reaching out to a wider, maybe younger audience because of that."

It has also won funding from the Dublin City Local Enterprise Office, Microfinance Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Unesco Dublin City of Literature, of which the latter has closely collaborated with the pair to produce a set of Irish Women's Writers Cards of iconic illustrated images of Dorothy Macardle, Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Binchy, Lady Wilde, Maria Edgeworth, Lady Gregory and Maeve Brennan.

The Dublin City LEO stepped into to help when the second book in the Romping series, based on Joyce's Dubliners, was finished. They wanted to revamp the first book to look like the new one, which had a better look and design. The LEO offered to support the publishing of four books in one go including a revamped Ulysses.

Lopez studied theatre, media and film before she met Niall, fell in love and moved to Ireland where she proceeded to start three businesses, including vintage make-up as well as life and business coaching. While she no longer does the make-up, she now also dabbles in English-to-German translation.

Laverty is originally from Dundalk, studied animation in Ballyfermot back in the 1990s and then worked in the industry for 15 years, working on feature films in Ireland, USA and Germany. He now teaches animation and gesture drawing in various animation schools.

Both run the day-to-day side of the business with Lopez focusing on marketing and Laverty on graphic design and illustration, although they write the books together.

Book publishing is a tough industry, but the pair clearly had a gung-ho attitude to begin with. "I think if we had looked into it and researched it we probably wouldn't," says Lopez. "But because we didn't know any better, we just went and did it and it worked out for us because they are not books, in a way, they're gifts or pocket guides, so we work more with the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland rather than the publishing industry."

Lopez also credits good timing in that the boom in e-book sales had peaked, while sales of Irish-interest, gift and coffee-table books have taken off. "We just were lucky that we hit that. We're kind of marginally involved with the publishing industry but we don't really see ourselves as book publishers."

They sell the books online direct from their website and Etsy shop, and also through wholesaler Argosy Books and a selection of about 20 independent bookshops.

The only other major challenge was during 2017, when the two other members left; Peel-Yates to take up a post as director of the James Joyce centre and Moore to focus on his own work. "The business went through a bit of a dip, says Lopez. "But this year has been really good to us... it was worth sticking with it and the opportunities have been coming our way."

The pair are currently working on the sixth title in the Romping series - George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion - that it hopes to release early this year.

The rewards also come from hearing how readers are inspired by the Romping series or the writers cards to find out more about these iconic Irish authors, which is exactly what gives them their creative kicks.

"It's just nice to know that we sort of made some little mark in terms of trying to promote a lot of Irish writers," says Laverty.

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