Catherine Doyle | 'The Middle-Grade community is very supportive . . . I hope they don’t mind me sneaking in'

Catherine Doyle | 'The Middle-Grade community is very supportive . . . I hope they don’t mind me sneaking in'

Arranmore is an island off the west coast of Ireland that radiates a "special kind of magic", according to author Catherine Doyle, who set her first Middle-Grade novel among its "rolling hills, crashing waves, towering cliffs and winding roadways", which is where her grandparents grew up.

The Stormkeeper’s Island is about an 11-year-old boy called Fionn, who is sent to Arranmore with his sister for the summer, where they live with his grandfather in a tiny cottage, filled with candles. Although Fionn is totally disinterested in the sea and island life at first, an old magic is stirring and a dark storm—similar to the one that took his father 12 years ago—is coming, so Fionn is soon pulled into Arranmore’s mysterious ways, especially when he realises his grandfather is the Storm Keeper and has the ability to wield the elements of wind, earth, fire and water.

Doyle wove the novel together with "little pinches" of Irish myths, magical storylines of her own making and accounts of sibling rivalry. The conversations between Fionn and his sister are the funniest passages in the book, an example being: "Fionn didn’t know how Tara measured maturity because he was the one cooking dinner for the three of them most evenings, while Tara pawed Nutella out of the jar like Winnie-the-Pooh and shrieked the walls down any time she saw a spider."

The real inspiration

The novel also features the remarkable but little-known story about "SS Stolwijk", a Dutch cargo ship that was wrecked off the north-west coast of Ireland in 1940 during one of the fiercest storms on record. An all-volunteer crew from Arranmore sailed out to rescue the survivors, even though they knew they probably wouldn’t return. For days the women of the island walked up and down the shore, crying for their lost menfolk, and were stunned when just before midnight the crew—one of whom was Doyle’s great-grandfather, returned with 18 surviving Dutch soldiers.

So the author had, in her own words, "lots of strands to pull together", but the joins are impossible to spot. "I couldn’t stop writing. I could feel a sense of magic when I was writing and the sentences poured out of me without me really thinking about them."

The relationship between Fionn and his grandfather is, however, the heart of the book, says Doyle, who explains: "When I was writing I was thinking about the nature of memory loss. My grandfather, who grew up on Arranmore, has developed Alzheimer’s in the past two years, so I have spent a lot of time watching him go in and out of his memories. I wanted to look at memory loss from a different angle and find a shard of light in that darkness. The grandfather [in the book] isn’t defined by memory loss. He still has a capacity for love and adventure. That’s the truth I came to, and Fionn does too."

By the end of the book, Fionn has become the Storm Keeper but the "danger and dark magic" of foe Morrigan has been roused for the first time in thousands of years, meaning she has moved "even closer to returning to the world".

The write track

Born in the west of Ireland, Doyle started writing fiction while doing a masters in publishing at the National University of Ireland, Galway. "I was applying for PhDs at the time, because I had wanted to go into academia, but I got an agent [Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White] and when I got a book offer I decided to do that instead."

Her first deal was for three YA books, inspired by Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" and classic Mafia culture, and set in modern-day Chicago. They were published by Chicken House; Doyle would write her thesis in the morning and the trilogy in the afternoon, sometimes "until three or four in the morning".

When that story arc came to an end, she was slightly at a loss about what to do next when, while teaching creative writing on Arranmore, the idea for The Stormkeeper’s Island popped into her head. She wrote six chapters in three days and showed her work to a friend, who encouraged her to send it to her agent. Wilson then encouraged Doyle to travel to London to meet several interested publishers (the book was later sold in a five-way auction) and the pair settled on Ellen Holgate of Bloomsbury, who "got" the story, heart and soul.

"I remember when I was talking about the book Ellen was looking at me in a really specific way. I could see she was coming up with her own ideas and she knew the importance of the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather," the writer says. "I could see she was connecting on a heart level." Although Holgate and Doyle did a lot of work on the original submission, publication followed swiftly. The partial was sold in June, the first draft was ready by August and the manuscript was ready to go by Christmas.

Genre fluid

"Middle-Grade" is the buzzword in children’s publishing these days, with editors rushing around at book fairs trying to find the next Kiran Millwood Hargrave or Katherine Rundell, but Doyle says her move into Middle-Grade was purely by chance, and not a calculated career swerve. "I’m not really conscious of writing ‘Middle-Grade’, or ‘YA’. It wasn’t a deliberate move. Writing a male narrator was more of a different experience," she explains. "It feels very organic. The Middle-Grade community is very supportive . . . I hope they don’t mind me sneaking in."

Doyle writes full-time (usually at night, sometimes until four or five in the morning) and is working on a sequel, set in winter, in which Fionn finds himself calling to the merrows—mermaids from Irish lore that are generally seen as being less beautiful and more barbaric than the traditional idea of mermaids—to protect the island. Dagda, a force for good in book one, has at some point in the past given Arranmore an army of merrows, hidden somewhere in the Undersea, setting the scene nicely for a second story.

The deal signed with Bloomsbury last year was for two books but there are plans for four, and rights have now sold in Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Brazil.

"Arranmore is the perfect place to set my novels because, on a personal level, it holds great meaning for me. It’s the island where my grandparents were born, grew up and fell in love. On a historical level, it has been the setting of many daring sea rescues and exciting stories, and is a place replete with adventure and possibility. There’s something very magical, almost mystical about the place.

"It simmers with possibility, both for adventure and discovery. It’s incredibly special to me."