- 21 Sep 19
Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght are fresh from releasing the third instalment of their hugely popular book series, Oh My God What A Complete Aisling. They talk to Go Rail about how their eponymous character became a national phenomenon, why they pay no heed to literary snobs, and how they’re getting on with planning for Aisling’s film debut…
Aisling’s back. Ireland’s own modern-day, plain-clothes, tells-it-like-it-is heroine returned with the September release Once, Twice, Three Times An Aisling, the third book in the popular series from Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght.
Still on fine form, the third book sees Aisling continuing to capture the voice of the nation with her witty observations about everything from small-town living to notion-y nights out in the capital. This book finds Aisling in the midst of operating her new café in her hometown of Ballygobard, as well as negotiating A-list Hollywood weddings, throwing a hen do for her best friend Majella, and trying to figure out what to do about her fledging fling with English blow-in James.
The verdict? Another compulsively readable, hilariously relatable tome from two writers who seemingly can’t put a foot wrong.
“We thought this was going to be the book where people said, ‘Nope! It was fun while it lasted but it’s time to bring these two down a peg’,” laughs Emer when I ask her about the book’s reception. “We were worried, but people seem to loving it across the board.”
In reality, the author’s needn’t have worried in the slightest. Soon after the book was released, the onslaught of appreciatively DMs and tweets from Aislingites started pouring in.
“We’re both very accessible on social media so we get them constantly,” says Sarah. “It’s great, because they’re the people we write the books for. We’re there to please them. We’ve been getting those messages since the first book, and when we first started we thought, ‘This is unbelievable – that people are taking the time to talk to us strangers about something they read that moved them so much’.”
The first Aisling book received praise not just for its light-hearted fun, but also for it poignant, sometimes touching, realism. Its depictions of issues like abortion, death and grief cracked even the hardest of hearts.
“We still get people sending emotional messages to us,” Sarah nods. “There was one a few weeks ago from a guy who was living abroad. His dad had just died last year, and he told us he rereads the Aisling books because they remind him of home and because they’ve been a great source of comfort for him. So to comfort a person in their hour of need is such a gratifying feeling.”
The fictional town of Ballygobard is situated in an unnamed county of Ireland, but realistically, it could take place in any parish in the country, such are the relatable observations about Irish small-town living and relationships. Do they find themselves constantly picking up real-life snippets of conversations or small-town drama which they can pocket for their books?
“Yeah I think it happens very naturally,” says Emer. “When we go to our respective home places on the weekend, I always have my eyes trained to find out what the craic is down the country. We get asked a lot about why Aisling is so popular, why do so many people relate to her – I think it’s because the stories in the book are so universal. They could happen to anyone anywhere in the world and we have just happened to put an Irish spin on it.”
For those who don’t know the story of Aisling’s origins, she started off as an in-joke between Sarah and Emer’s friends, then developed into a Facebook group which attracted thousands of followers who fell for the character. Whenever they first conceived of her, did they envisage everywhere it’s taken them? Three bestselling novels?
“Not at all!” laughs Sarah. “We made the Facebook page and people were joining it who weren’t connected to us, so we started to realise that the character was representative of a lot of people and people felt seen by it. In 2010, we were approached by a TV producer who wanted to pitch it to RTE, but that fell through the cracks and didn’t happen. But for years we always knew there was potential there. Then it was in 2016, when Gill’s Commissioning Editor, approached us to do a book, that we thought, ‘OK, this is it, this is serendipity.’”
“We still never thought that anyone would read it though!” Emer interjects. “Genuinely, they published the first book and they did a print run of 4,000 copies, which is probably standard enough when you don’t know how it’s going to do. Then this third book, the print run was 44,000, which goes to show that nobody knew how big it was going to be.”
The duo had never written a book before they started work on OMGWACA, but as soon as they signed the contract with Gill, the wind was put in their sails.
“I remember we sat down with a big piece of paper in Sarah’s kid’s playroom and we just drew a circle with Aisling in the middle and said, ‘Right – what’s going to happen to her??’ We were throwing problems at her, and from that we just decided what was going to happen within the first four chapters. We flipped a coin to see who’d get the dubious task of writing chapter one, then that was us from then on.”
I mention to the writers that the Aisling books are probably the first since Harry Potter that both myself and my literature-averse mother have sat down to read and discuss together…Is there a secret to making something so relatable that it captures a broad audience?
“I think that it comes down to the fact that they’re funny, they’re good to read, they seem to attract a lot of people who haven’t picked up a book for a while,” says Sarah.
“A lot of men read them and they’ll reach out and tell us how much they love them,” says Emer. “I think in the press sometimes the books can sometimes be described as ‘frothy’, or as ‘chic-lit’, and it doesn’t really encompass the readership that we encounter.”
There was once a certain snobbery towards popular fiction (especially when it came to popular women writers). Do they think this has lessons in recent years?
“Yeah, well you look at Marian Keyes,” says Sarah. “For a long time she’s been one of our favourite authors and was beloved by loads of people. But I remember ten years ago, if you said Marian Keyes was your favourite author you’d be sneered at. Not that I cared, mind. Rachel’s Holiday is still one of my favourite books and I’d recommend it to everybody. And if people say, ‘Oh, it sounds like chic-lit, that wouldn’t be for me’, I’m like, ‘Well, that’s your loss!’”
“The idea that just because something is popular means it isn’t worthy, or that you should feel guilty about reading it, I reject that idea. It always seems to happen if something is funny. I think there’s a disconnect between something being funny and something being seen as good or high-brow. Hopefully we’re breaking that down a bit. There is that snobbery there still, but we’re not really here for it.”
Nor are the people at Element Pictures, who optioned the rights to OMCWACA after its release… How’s Aisling’s film debut coming along?
“We are attached to write it, and we’re currently working on the fifth draft of the screenplay,” Sarah says excitedly. “They’re hoping to go into production next summer. I think the next stage is that it’ll go to a director, then a casting director will come on board. We don’t have anyone in mind for the roles in particular. We think it would be cool to see someone really unknown take on the role and make it their own. There’s just so much talent in Ireland that it would be amazing to unearth someone from this.”
Once, Twice, Three Times and Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen is published by Gill Books, priced €14.99. Emer & Sarah are ambassadors for Irish Book Week 26 October - 2 November.