We're happy to welcome Brian O'Sullivan to the Interview Corner! Or, as a writer of Irish culture, perhaps we should say, "Fáilte, Brían Ó’Súileabháin!"
Brian was born in county Cork, Ireland. On completing a degree at University College Cork, he went on to travel extensively before settling in New Zealand where he runs a small publishing company (Irish Imbas Books). Brian writes fiction (and non-fiction) that incorporates strong elements of Irish culture, language, history and mythology. These include mystery thrillers (The Beara Trilogy), a contemporary version of the Fenian mythology (The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) and the Liath Luachra/Irish Woman Warrior Series, recently optioned for the screen.
Although he writes predominantly for an Irish audience, Brian's unique style, attention to historical accuracy, twisting plotlines and humour have meant his books are firm favourites of readers all around the world.
Q: Tell us about a great book you've read recently!
I picked up Tim Lebbon’s ‘Fallen’ at a second-hand bookshop about two month’s ago and was absolutely blown away by it. A unique blend of original fantasy merged with adventure/horror, it was excellently written with great characterisation and some decently innovative storytelling. I’ve since been wondering how the hell I managed to miss coming across him for so long. Since then, I’ve also read some of his other works such as ‘Echo City’ (also a very original and excellent read).
Q: How long have you been a writer and why did you begin writing?
I started writing back in 2007 with a collection of short stories – predominantly literary. After that, I had a stint as a Writer in Residence at Victoria University where I was working on academic research related to Irish mythology. While I was there, I began to get a better appreciation of the true cultural depth within the material but also how Irish mythology and culture is misrepresented in common fiction – (particularly the whole “Celtic” fantasy genre). That was a Eureka moment for me as I came to the conclusion I wanted to change that. I ended up changing direction completely, dumping my academic programme and going from non-fiction to fiction to “educate people through entertainment”. I’ve been doing that ever since.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for your books?
Most of my inspiration comes from my own analysis of Irish mythology and Gaelic belief systems - which I’ve been studying on and off for most of my life. Given the huge amount of material there – several centuries of documents (much of it never even translated) I’m never short of stimuli.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve experienced in your writing career, so far?
The biggest challenge for me is translating Irish/Gaelic cultural concepts into a form that contemporary audiences can appreciate. That involves a lot of conceptual translation (not just language). Presenting authentic Gaelic cultural constructs to non-Gaelic speakers can fail completely if you don’t work out an effective way to introduce those concepts in a meaningful way. I wasn’t sure it was working until my book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma hit fourth place in the SPFBO 2017 and its subsequent popularity seems to suggest I’m doing something right. That said, I’m always seeking to improve.
Q: If you could go back and give your younger self a single piece of writing advice, what would it be?
Don’t have children. Buy a dog or a cat. They take up waaaay less time and money that you can invest in your writing. Mind you, you’ll probably be a lot sadder.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A bit of both. I have an overall plan of how a book ends (and some of the critical character scenes to get there) but the story can go all over the place within those very flexible boundaries. With a series, I find the more books you have, the more intellectually challenging (but enjoyable) it is to maintain consistent subplot lines. As a result, I probably do more planning for those.
Q: How do you develop your plots and characters?
For me, everything is driven by the character but to make the protagonist interesting, they must have some essential flaw that helps drives the narrative. When developing characters, I intentionally try to avoid the fantasy/adventure clichés or stock derivatives and often I’ll use attributes of people I’ve met who have impressed or shocked me. I try to keep the character consistent and, that way, they generally tend to end up leading the story the way it needs to go.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenges are for aspiring or up and coming writers, right now?
Probably the sheer volume of books in a shrinking market. I think anyone wanting to have a career in writing alone is going to have a hell of a job of it, particularly if they limit themselves to a single genre. I also find the whole ‘genre’ thing quite challenging. The ebooskstores insistence on framing your book within certain marketing definitions that you don t really fit in can be quite constrictive. I tend to circumvent all that where I possibly can.
Q: Do you believe that having a strong social media presence leads to more book sales?
Yes and no. Social media certainly helps with visibility and name recognition but there’s huge dysfunction going on in most platforms – particularly Facebook – which can undermine marketing efforts, promote piracy etc. etc. The sooner they regulate, the platforms, the better it’ll be for any creators.
From a writing perspective, I also find some of the subtle peer pressure in social media platforms a bit tragic (i.e. the “I wrote 2000 words today, how much did you write?” or “I’m a successful writer and you should buy my book of success marketing secrets!” posts).
Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?
I have no idea. My problem is more with ‘writer’s flood’. I have at least ten projects lined up at any one time and struggle to work on just two of them. I could be wrong but I suspect ‘writer’s block’ is what happens when a writer can’t work out what they really want to write next.
Q: What is your favourite part of the writing process?
Probably the polishing on the third or fourth edit. Once the narrative is sound, this is the time you have opportunity to make the prose shine, sharpen the dialogue etc. All depending on how much time you have left before publishing, of course
Q: If you could collaborate with any other author on a project, who would it be and why?
To be honest, what I do tends to be pretty unique and after five years of looking, I haven’t really found anyone who does anything similar. That said, I’m always happy to collaborate on a specific genre project, but probably only with people I know and like. I see collaborations as fun events, not so much as a money maker.
Q: Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I signed an option for a potential television series adapted from my book Liath Luachra: The Grey One and that’s been taking up an inordinate amount of my time these past 8 months. Given the pressure to have additional content ready for that if/when it goes ahead, I’m currently trying to finish book 3 in that series (The Irish Woman Warrior Series) and hope to release it later this year.
I also have a pilot project entitled “Dark Dawn/Camhaoir Fuilsmeartha” which is a one-off, spin-off of my Fionn mac Cumhaill Series. I’m hoping to release this in the next two/three months, time permitting. The 4th book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is also half-done.
Q: Where do you see your writing career in 5 years?
I honestly have no idea. For me, writing is just one creative pathway for the things I’m passionate about so the possibility of a career working solely as a writer doesn’t really interest me. I suspect, I’ll probably be looking at alternative means of storytelling (virtual books etc.). I have a lot of ideas I want to try out and they may not just be limited to writing.
Q: Have you ever considered writing in another genre?
Yes. I have done and will do again. My first book was a collection of literary short stories. The second was in the detective/thriller genre (Beara: Dark Legends) that involved a mythological detective – a kind of an Irish De Vinci Code but with greater cultural depth and humour. It’s still a strong fan favourite but, because it’s part of a trilogy, people are constantly hassling me to finish the next one.
Q: Pen names – yay or nay?
I don’t know. They have their uses, I guess, but far less so in the digital age as far as I can tell. There’s a train of thought that if you want to manipulate the Amazon algorithm you should use pen names and there may be some truth to that but, of course, if everyone does that it won’t work any more. I think it really depends on what you actually want to achieve. For me, despite the genre differences, all my books overlap within the niche of Irish culture/Irish mythology so – in the long term - a pen name would be pointless, particularly as I don’t want to limit myself to ebookstores. Circumstances are probably completely different for other writers, of course.
Q: What marketing tips would you give to someone starting out in their career?
Know the business and the reality of the costs in terms of time and investment. Writing a book is a huge effort and you probably won’t make up the costs of that investment unless you merge with several others. As a result, don’t bother doing any major paid marketing until you have at least 3 books under your belt. Even then, don’t expect to make ends meet. A general rule I work by for marketing is that if everyone is doing it, it’s probably no longer working.
Q: What (or who) are your most significant influences?
In terms of the cultural material, a whole range of Irish academics. In terms of style – I’m honestly not sure. I think Trevanian and David Gemmel influenced me dramatically when I was younger and more recently I’ve been very impressed by a whole bunch of writers across the board (in fantasy, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, etc.). Nowadays, I’m probably more influenced not just by writers but by all creators who produce something genuinely original. Then of course there’s my own Irish culture, language, music etc. etc.
Q: Would you be so kind as to give us an elevator pitch for one of your books? Why should readers check out your work?
If you enjoy authentic Irish world-building with confronting characters and intriguing plot twists, I may be your new best friend. If you like derivative fantasy/adventure or Celtic Fantasy, fairies or Fae, you should probably avoid me like the plague.
How the fuck do I get out of this elevator?
Q: Of all the books you have written, which is your favourite and why?
Probably Liath Luachra: The Grey One. For some reason, I just managed to get the character of a very complex protagonist right - to the point that readers are often more intrigued about her than the associated plots. I’m also really pleased with The Celtic Mythology Short Story Collection 2016 which I edited and published through my publishing company Irish Imbas. My input here was the non-fiction, academic-style material but overall, I think it works really well.
Q: How can people find out more about you Brian?
My monthly newsletter tends to be my preferred option. You can get that here: http://eepurl.com/KA99D
That said, I blog weekly on my website at http://irishimbasbooks.com/
My Facebook handle is: https://www.facebook.com/irishimbasbooks/
My Twitter handle is: https://twitter.com/ImbasInfo
I exist on Goodreads as: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6990425.Brian_O_Sullivan
If you are trying to contact me my email is firstname.lastname@example.org but remember I’m probably in a different time zone. My usual schedule means I may take 3-5 days to respond.
We're grateful to Brian for his time and we hope everyone enjoyed the interview.