The commissioning editor behind the hugely popular Aisling novels speaks to Claire Coughlan about striking a national chord and beating David Walliams to the Christmas number one
Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling, by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, has sold over 100,000 copies to date since its publication in Ireland by Gill Books in September 2017. Not bad for a title that started life as a Facebook page and was only expected to reach a target of 4,000-5,000 copies.
The authors, who have worked as journalists in Ireland for many years, have since picked up an agent, Sheila Crowley at Curtis Brown, a UK publishing deal, with Michael Joseph, and a film deal, with Element Pictures. A follow-up novel, The Importance of Being Aisling, has just been published. The novels have fans in unlikely places - Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed his admiration of Aisling, the warmly-detailed archetype of a country girl in the 'big smoke', and author Marian Keyes is a fan. Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling beat David Walliams to the number one spot in Ireland last Christmas.
Conor Nagle, one of the three commissioning editors at Ireland’s Gill Books, who approached McLysaght and Breen about the idea of turning their satirical Facebook page into a novel, describes the book's success as "unprecedented". Nagle, who had previously pursued a career in academia and later worked as a freelance journalist at TheJournal.ie, an Irish online news site where McLysaght also worked as a journalist, had been aware of the Facebook page for many years, since its inception a decade ago.
But then something shifted, and throughout 2015 and 2016 the whole lexicon of Aisling began to appear in the mainstream, he explains. "I remember an article in The Irish Times called 'I’m proud to be an Aisling.' That sent the antennae quivering, and I began to notice people referring to it and other characters in the Aisling world. Then one of my colleagues was at a hen do in Waterford, and one of the running themes of the weekend was 'How much of an Aisling are you?'. That was when I got in touch with Emer and Sarah, to have a chat about publishing something in general."
The initial idea was to publish a gift title for the Christmas market, which was followed by a second, "more ambitious" idea: to publish a novel. "This entire world really lent itself to fiction," he says. "The characters and setting were there. There obviously is a satirical edge, but the characters themselves are so richly textured that people relate to them on a much deeper level. We felt like the idea of a novel would either miss, or really hit home; there was no middle ground."
Gill Books, which started life in Dublin as Gill & Macmillan in 1968, founded by Michael Gill, hadn’t published adult fiction since the 2000s, when it had a dedicated fiction imprint called Tivoli. That’s why Nagle describes the decision to publish the Aisling novel as "a bit of a leap into the unknown in some ways". Nagle has also published a collection of short stories from Blindboy of the Rubberbandits, an Irish comedy hip-hop duo.
"The fiction side of things happened by accident," he says. "It was very much led by the concepts themselves and where they sat relative to us as a business. It’s not as if we went out looking for fiction; fiction found us and then we realised this was actually a good thing for us. When I started, my brief would have been current affairs, history, politics, memoir, as well as sport. We hadn’t done a huge amount of sport up to that point and it was a really vibrant market, but for one reason and another it hadn’t really been a Gill area. Part of my brief was tap into that and we’ve published quite a number of sports titles over the last few years."
Breen and McLysaght have been nominated for their second Irish Book Award, this time in the popular fiction category, for The Importance of Being Aisling. The winners will be announced next Tuesday evening (27 November). In total, Gill has 11 titles nominated at the awards, across fiction, sport, memoir, children’s and cookery. Nagle’s other titles on the awards lists include At All Costs by Davy Fitzgerald with Vincent Hogan, and Fighter by Andy Lee with Niall Kelly, in the sports category; and People Like Me, a memoir by young Irish senator Lynn Ruane, in the non-fiction category.
Nagle says that part of the success of the Aisling books may be down to the way readers engage on social media. "The Facebook page is huge, but then also the nature of the engagement is really great. People don’t just follow it, they almost live it. We thought that if we got things right, we’d have an audience there. But that it might transcend that audience and reach out further into the mainstream… we had a hunch it might happen, but when it actually did, it was incredible."