Belfast as fantastical as anywhere else for author
Influenced by Terry Pratchett and Irish mythology, west Belfast man Laurence Donaghy has added Belfast wit to the mix in his fantasy novel series, the latest of which has just been published. Jane Hardy spoke to him
WE'RE used to Belfast being gritty in fiction (Odd Man Out, say), to its being gritty and humorous (take Colin Bateman's novels) and even sometimes lyrical (The Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty, for example), but seeing this proud industrial landscape as a fantasy location takes a particular imagination.
Fortunately, Laurence Donaghy, author of the Folk'd trilogy whose final title, Completely Folk'd, has recently been published by Blackstaff Press, possesses one suited to the task.
He says his home town was the starting point for this acclaimed series.
"I'm from west Belfast and had always wanted to write fantasy books. When I was coming up with ideas, I knew I wanted to set it somewhere authentic and was thinking about London or New York but realised I knew nothing about them," Donaghy (33) says.
"I was working in a call centre in Belfast at the time and had a girlfriend and young son. One day I suddenly thought about how I'd cope if I came home and they weren't there. It was a Eureka! moment and I thought 'This is my city, I don't have to worry about the geography here so I could concentrate on plot and dialogue'."
That was the start of Folk'd, the journey of Donaghy's central character Danny Morrigan through quite a bit of space and time, some pretty horrible experiences and some comedy too. Danny is an intelligent guy caught up in events beyond his control ("He starts out complaining his life is boring, then it becomes decidedly un-boring.").
And this witty hero, a descendant of the war goddess Morrigan and the man who must fight the darkness that descends on Ireland, bears quite a resemblance to his creator.
It's the humour interspersed with the horror that strikes a new reader. Donaghy is a master of bathos and has been compared to the late Terry Pratchett. He acknowledges the link. "I was sad when I heard Terry Pratchett had died. The news came through the day I'd got the hard copies of Completely Folk'd and after all the euphoria, with them in my hands, I got a text with the news."
Donaghy says he emailed Pratchett once, indicating it was hard to compete with talent like his. "His response was 'Tough'. But he added you had to take the risk or be a 'never was'."
"I first read Terry Pratchett when I was at school at St Mary's Christian Brothers' grammar," Donaghy, who was brought up in Beechmount, adds. "Through him I first realised you can take the p*** out of a genre but still tell a very good story. Within the fantasy convention, it's what I have tried to do."
The Belfast craic helps in this and Donaghy weaves in the vernacular to spoof the well-written, sometimes terrifying narrative. Here his model is none other than Roddy Doyle.
"I read his Barrytown trilogy and liked his dialogue," he says. In Donaghy's hands, this leads to darkly funny scenes like the massive face-off between Carman and the Morrigan, both figures from Irish mythology, the former a lesser-known witch goddess, the latter a goddess of war, famed for her powers in legends including the Ulster Cycle. Donaghy says he's pleased that women like the fact the Folk'd trilogy has powerful female protagonists.
There are also echoes of Northern Ireland's past. There's a point where his characters have to decide whether to stay in the Otherworld with their loved ones or move forward, which is a bit of a metaphor. "I did want to hint at the issues facing the whole of Ireland," Donaghy says.
He is also good at grisly and there is a nasty scene in which a character is finished off by a swarm of spiders – one as large as a small dog. The author, himself arachnophobic, notes that readers, such as his English wife Kath, like to be scared.
The books contain, as fantasy should, a deal of mythology but it's reworked. Donaghy has tweaked the Norse and old Irish myths. "After all, they're all made up too. But Carman the fighter is an Athenian kind of figure. It's all Marvel versus DC."
We get happenings on the Hill of Tara, fights, a lot of death, some resurrection and a sweeping story. But it isn't just supernatural fireworks. "It is not magic for magic's sake. The novels are about Danny's journey, about what he discovers when he's trapped in a dead-end life. He finds out real magic is in the small thing, the weight of a child's head in your arms. Danny has a choice to make in the first novel, trapped down the rabbit hole."
There is no writing in Donaghy's family. "My father is a factory worker and was the last man at Mackie's; my mother has worked at Belfast City Council since she was a kitten, as we say." But he has a vocation and has loved writing stories since boyhood.
At the recent comic convention at the King's Hall in Belfast, Donaghy met quite a few fans who "said they'd been waiting for the third book to come out". Film rights surely beckon.
:: Completely Folk'd by Laurence Donaghy is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.