Saturday 24 March 2018

Author storms children's market

Tired of rejection letters, Alan Healy published his own book. Ireland's answer to JK Rowling talks to Andrea Byrne

Andrea Byrne

It has always struck me that writing for children -- particularly of the pre-teenage age-group -- is one of the more challenging literary genres. With shorter attention spans, they need to be kept enthralled from the outset. "People are used to their 30-second fix of whatever it is -- be it the YouTube clip or the video game. People talked about the demise of the book a long time ago, but there is still a big group of kids out there who get immersed and lost in the story," says children's author Alan Healy. "You do have to try and keep it taut, and exciting ... you can't let the line go slack."

Touted by many as Ireland's answer to JK Rowling, Healy writes with imagination and wit, addressing culturally relevant issues such as climate change in an engaging manner. "To a certain extent, my books are probably more advanced than a Harry Potter. They are a challenge in their own way. I want to stretch children and push them. It does take good readers. It appeals to thoughtful kids," he says.

Tommy Storm and the Galactic Knights is the second in the Tommy Storm series. It takes Tommy and his four friends on a mission to save the Universe from pending destruction. The author describes it as "a mad, wacky, crazy adventure on one level, and a humorous satire on another".

Healy's protagonist -- Tommy Storm -- is not a conventional hero. He has a stutter and an unusual appearance, which perhaps inadvertently acts as inspiration to children readers who feel that they are not like everyone else.

Despite harbouring an obvious talent for writing from an early age, Healy opted to study commerce in college. "In the Eighties, there was no money, no jobs. I thought, if you want to do something like that maybe the best thing to do is have some sort of career

or skills behind you, and then when you're 30, you could turn around and write ... Also, you'll have life experience which is useful," he explains.

The years that followed saw Healy in a diverse range of situations -- from a penny-pinching globetrotter to a position earning senseless amounts of money in an investment bank in London -- none of which failed to quash the writing bug that continued to eat away at him. In October 2001, at the age of 32, he decided to finally give it a whirl.

While most people would grow despondent on receiving rejection letters and an apparent lack of interest from the powers that be in the publishing world, Healy decided not to let it stop him and opted to self-publish.

"I would say to people it is really difficult. Everybody tried to talk me out of it. Everybody thought I was nuts," he remembers with a smile that only hindsight could afford. "You have to be so sure. Either you are very brave or very stupid to do it. I wanted to be sure that I wasn't very stupid. A lot of people would think it's very cocky. There is an arrogance about it. You know on X Factor or Pop Idol, there's a person who sings really badly, and they go to Simon Cowell and they say, 'you will really regret this'. There is a certain element that if you haven't got a publisher that you are kind of saying, 'Well, I know better than you.'"

Healy decided to cut himself loose from his agent, something that was met by widespread disdain from those close to him. "Everyone said you're crazy. Don't do it. The more they said that, the more convinced I was. I sent the manuscript out to a load of children I didn't know. Kids don't lie. The comments I was getting back were like, 'Brian doesn't read very often but we can't get the book out of his hand.' So I thought, I am not crazy, I know the book has something."

To keep costs at a minimum, Healy sourced a printer in China. He also put up advertisements in art colleges to find an enthusiastic artist to do the book's illustrations. He then had the hard task of convincing the bookshops to stock it. It sold 3,000 copies, and most admirably of all, he managed to stay within his modest €10,000 budget. A few months later, his efforts were rewarded when he was offered a two-book deal. Healy's wife was pregnant with their first child while he was hard at work, some weeks putting in as many as 130 hours.

Sensing my admiration at his brave endeavour, Healy says, "We all have a parachute in reserve. I remember a phrase someone said once: A trapeze artist was asked, 'When you do it for the first time, how on earth do you jump on to that bar?' They said, 'Well, you throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow.'"

Tommy Storm and the Galactic Knights (Quercus, €9.09)

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