Tuesday 12 December 2017

Meet Ireland's newest literary star - and she's just 16

Homeschooled debut novelist Eilís Barrett tells how her parents’ separation inspired her first book

Paperback writer: Eilís Barrett at home, near Ballinasloe, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes.
Paperback writer: Eilís Barrett at home, near Ballinasloe, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes.

Edel Coffey

Sixteen-year-old Eilís Barrett comes from just outside Ballinasloe in Co Galway. She grew up with her mother and three brothers on the family farm, with her grandfather and uncles all living within a few miles of her.

Unlike most ordinary teenagers, however, Eilís has never been to school, nor has she ever sat a school exam, having been homeschooled by her mother. She has also just published her debut novel, Oasis, as part of a two-book deal with Gill Books.

When we meet, she is palpably excited, as any teenager would be, enjoying this build-up to what is clearly a fantastic moment of achievement in her young life.

She describes her upbringing as idyllic and admits it all sounds a bit "little house on the prairie". There must have been moments of struggle too, however, as her parents split up when she was just eight-years-old. Perhaps it was this experience that formed the remarkably mature young woman that sits before me.

It's only when she gets excited about her book, or the attendant fanfare around it, like interviews and trips to Dublin, that you're reminded of how young she really is. She admits that a lot of the themes she deals with in her book are things she has gone through herself.

Oasis tells the story of Quincy Emerson, a young girl who is on the run because she carries the X gene, a gene that causes a virus that nearly wiped out the human race. The remaining survivors live in a quarantined city, Oasis, free of the virus.

Those who live inside, and outside the oasis are awaiting the discovery of a cure, so that life can go back to how it once was. Quincy very much fits into The Hunger Games mould of a brave young girl fighting for her life, and fighting for others too. Does Eilís see herself in Quincy?

"Yes and no," she says, although she is quick to point out that, unlike her protagonist, she hasn't killed anyone. "There's no way to completely detach yourself from your characters.

"Because it's my first novel, it's kind of an amalgamation of everything I was trying to process in the last two or three years. So it's about body image and relationships with the people around you, with yourself, with higher powers.

"I've taken all of the things I've dealt with in the last few years and turned them into something creative and dealt with them through writing, because that's a big part of how I cope with things."

When she's writing, she says it's the themes and concepts that come first, long before characters or plot. "The catalyst [for Oasis] was this thing I saw all over the place where people thought something was bad in their lives and you hated something and something was stopping you from living the way you wanted to and if that was taken away everything would be perfect.

"It's that idea of escaping this bad thing and then everything is going to be wonderful and perfect, and it's not. And I know that from experience.

"My mum and dad split up when I was eight and we moved up to Galway and it seemed like a very idyllic sort of life and you think that it's going to be all perfect once you move and you start a new life and you're not going to have the same problems you did, but there is always something else.

"That isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's not something that should stop you from being happy, this trying to push things out of your life to make your life perfect, because there is always going to be something else."

Again, it is at moments like these that it's easy to forget just how young she is. She seems more like a post-graduate 20-something than someone who has never been to school. The form of homeschooling that her mother Bernadette employed is called 'unschooling', which doesn't follow any curriculum and relies on the child to lead the way in terms of what their passions and interests are.

For Eilís, her passion for storytelling first manifested itself in the complex imaginary games she and her brothers played, games which sometimes went on for years. She also taught herself how to play piano from YouTube videos.

Her determination to write a book led her to research how other writers wrote, and then take on their writing methods and even mimic their schedules and word tallies in her efforts to become a writer herself.

When she got blocked, about 100 pages into her book, she sought help from the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) workshop, which aims to get aspiring novelists to write 50,000 words in a month.

"I wanted to fix this problem I was having so I wanted to join a writing group but as a 14-year-old it's not particularly easy to find a writing group," she adds drily.

When a friend of Eilís's mum, who works in PR, read the book, she contacted Gill Books on her behalf and, a year after their first meeting, they signed Eilís up for a two-book deal.

"I was so shocked. I felt like an absolute imposter. It was one of those life-affirming things in that [Conor Nagle, commissioning editor at Gill Books] asked me about what I was doing and told me I was doing the right thing.

"I felt like maybe I should be taking courses, or interning in publishing, I just felt like I needed to be doing something because with that lack of structure sometimes it feels like guesswork if you're getting on well or not because nobody is telling you you are doing the right thing, so it was incredible to hear that from someone.

"So I just went home and wrote and wrote and wrote and about a year later we got a call just before Christmas asking me up to talk about the book."

The difference between Eilís and other people her age is that she was encouraged rather than deflated by that first meeting, even though Gill Books were not publishing fiction at that time.

"There's a lot of willpower involved. You have to be very accountable to yourself because there's nobody banging on your door saying are you writing? - there is now!"

She hasn't done anything wild with the money she has earned yet, apart from buying a new laptop.

"I kind of hate it. I'm not a particularly materialistic person. I'm putting my money into what's making my money but after that it's just weird for me. It does feel wrong to be 16 and to have more money than my friends... the only upside is I can buy a lot of books. I'm very proud of my bookshelf."

Interestingly, one of the concepts she tackles in the book is the question of whether we are a product of nature or nurture.

"Quincy is a product of herself, she saw what was going on, she saw how her life was going to play out and she decided that that wasn't what she wanted and so she took control of that."

I wonder is she, Eilís, a product of her story or of herself? "I think I'm very much a product of myself and it's something that I fight for. I think Quincy had to fight for it, and anyone has to fight for it if they want their story to be about them."

As mistress of her own destiny, Eilís has always had a plan. The goal was to be a published author by the time she was 30. She's achieved that 14 years ahead of schedule. The only problem will be deciding what to do next.

'Oasis' by Eilis Barrett is published by Gill Books

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment