Sisi Rabenstein meets Susan Connolly, the Veterinary Science student who has found a possible cure for the exam-time doldrums – publishing a children’s book.
Final year Veterinary Science student, Susan Connolly has become a published author at 24, while still in university. Connolly explains that her first novel, Damsel, is a neo-fairy tale, which was written while on a year off from college, two years ago.
“I was a receptionist in this office; there’s not really much you can do to entertain yourself while you’re answering phones. I couldn’t read a book or a magazine or go on the internet, so [I] decided that since I couldn’t read a story I would write my own one,” says Connolly.
What began as an effort to alleviate boredom recently elevated Connolly into the ranks of published authors, but she maintains that this was not her intention. “I really just wrote it for myself, I wasn’t intending for it to turn into a real, proper book.”
This is, however, exactly what happened. Connolly describes hers as an “unorthodox publishing process” in that she met Eoin Persil, later to become Commissioning Editor for Children’s books at Mercier publishing house, while enduring “one of those awkward LUAS conversations”.
The book itself is aimed at children aged 8 to 12, but the author cannot deny adding some more adult themes into the mix: “It’s kinda secretly feminist for children,” she intimates. Damsel tells the story of Annie Brave, a damsel in the traditional sense of the word, who finds herself in the position to save her father (the greatest hero of them all), when no other hero is available.
Connolly was inspired by her irritation at finding out traditional fairy tales had been restricted by historical and sociological context and altered by the powers that be. Connolly joked, “The French aristocracy [of the 18th century] were like ‘what are these stories our children are reading? Girls being independent, good lord, we can’t be having this!’ They rewrote [fairy tales] to teach children to be what they thought children should be… we should teach children what we think, which is not [to be] passive and stupid.”
Connolly takes a realistic view of characters’ motivations and aspirations in this work. This is explored with the conflict between the book’s main protagonist, the clever and cool Annie Brave and Roger of Rockfield, the little boy that leaves Annie in her time of need when she faces the dragon. More importantly, to the story however, he comes back. Connolly wanted the message to come across that “it’s okay to be afraid and it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you make it up later.” This is one of the book’s moral messages.
It comes as no surprise that the author of a fantasy novel is an advocate of allowing children to dream the impossible as part of their childhood experience. “Childhood is all about escapism. When you’re seven you should be thinking about things like, ‘when I grow up I want to be a fire truck… or a wizard’. I think a little wonder at the world is always valuable.”
Connolly goes on to explain that it is often through the more fictional of fiction that lessons are learned. “You can read a book about someone battling personal demons or you can read a book about someone battling actual demons, which makes it a little more real despite the fact that it’s obviously fantastical.”
Connolly has a practical view of the fiction business. “The Stephanie Meyers of the world get a half a million dollar advance… but 80 per cent of writers get less than $5000 advances, for as long as your book is in print you’re going to get a cheque so it’s more of a long term small amount of cash flow, than it is a once-off big cheque.”
The bonus arrives in the form of gained prestige. Connolly explained that ‘published author’ is more a credential than a title, and a valuable one at that. In a competitive market like modern Ireland, any advantage is played and ‘the author card’ can open doors.
“It’s difficult to make a career out of writing but I think writing can help you towards another career. Also most writers aren’t full time,” she clarified. Like the aforementioned Stephanie Meyer, whose Twilight franchise exploded in 2008 to near cult status, and JK Rowling before her, fiction has its shining examples of literary superstars. Connolly, the self professed maths nerd, understands the statistical improbability of such success, “not saying that anyone who writes a book couldn’t be the next big thing but there can really only be one next big thing, so you shouldn’t count on it.”
While some can, and have, made careers out of fiction writing, the sheer volume of writers who disappear after one novel, is a testament to the hardships of professional authorship. S. E. Connolly (as she appears on Damsel’s cover) has a more ‘never say never’ attitude. “I wouldn’t give up veterinary science to do writing, but I also wouldn’t give up the writing to do vet. I’m a very much have your cake and eat it type person. I generally get my way, so I want to do both.”
So in conclusion, writing a novel is not easy, especially not during college but in the words of a neo-fairy tale teller and feminist maths-nerd, “I don’t think you shouldn’t do something you want to do simply because you’re in college but having said that, probably the time to work on your new chapter is not the day before your essay is due”.
A similar lesson I’m sure we’ve all learned, most likely the hard way.