BRIAN CONAGHAN was getting fed up with rejection. He had published a book, and it had been translated into German and Korean, yet his second manuscript was rejected by all the publishers and agents in Ireland. He hit lucky with the English agent Ben Illis; he read the book, loved it, and secured a publishing deal with Bloomsbury. And the crossover book looks set to become a bestseller.
When Mr Dog Bites features Dylan Mint; a teenager at a special school who has Tourette syndrome. When he overhears a doctor saying he will die within a year, he makes a list of things to do before he snuffs it. These include having sex with a girl, and preferably his classmate Michelle Malloy; making sure his best friend, Amir, won’t be bullied, and getting his soldier father back from war.
There are lots of twists in the plot, but each one feels natural. And that’s because Brian was taken as much by surprise by what happened as the reader was.
“I have a rough idea of the plot before I start writing, but if the story meanders away I go with it. Something more exciting happens when you let it. The book changed some more when Bloomsbury asked me to write more scenes during the first round of edits.”
In learning of Dylan’s difficulties at school, and in society at large, we gain an insight into the world of the disabled, but the story, although poignant, is never grim. It’s funny, tender and ultimately redemptive, without ever being too sentimental. How did Brian get into the world of the disabled?
“I taught in a special school when I was doing my teaching practice,” he says. “They are very interesting places, but not so very different from normal schools. I took the character of Dylan from a kid at that school. I witnessed a wonderful friendship and based that on the friendship Dylan has with Amir. I loved listening to the boys’ conversations.
“The kids there talked about sex, clothes, football, and pop culture. And when I taught in a normal school, the kids there talked about exactly the same things. But there was inequality. In that there was a sense of the ‘normal’ kids talking of ‘the spastic kids’. The kids in the special school were tortured, socially.”
There’s a distressing scene where Dylan encounters some bullies in the park. He knows he’s about to be beaten up, yet he stays to answer their questions, taking each one literally.
“Tourette syndrome can be linked to autism,” says Brian, explaining Dylan’s character. “And to OCD and Asperger’s. It’s often misunderstood.”
Then there’s his obsession for Michelle Malloy, who seems, at first anyway, utterly unobtainable. Dylan’s insecurities are particularly his; but his general hopes, worries and insecurities could apply to any teenager anywhere.
“It’s essentially a book about growing up. The Tourette’s is incidental to who Dylan is. It’s a book about friendship, about family and about camaraderie.”
Brian chose to give Dylan Tourette Syndrome, because it’s a condition he knows all too well. He was diagnosed with a mild form of it soon after he arrived in Ireland, in 2007.
“I went for a medical for a job. There were ninety questions on the form. They asked about repetitive movements. ‘Do you twitch your legs,’ and I answered ‘yes.’ From my answers they suspected something was up. I went back to the doctor over a period of eighteen months, and when the pattern could be built up, I got my diagnosis.
“I’ve always had it, but I’d learned to cope. I don’t compulsively swear, which is people’s understanding of Tourette syndrome, though only 10% of people with Tourette do.
“When Dylan gets particularly stressed, he starts to bark; to growl and snarl. When tension builds up for me, I tuck in my ears, and work hard to hold my gestures in. I might twitch, or hit myself. I find it hard to sit still.
“Before the book came out not many people knew I had the condition because I was always very clever and skilled at disguising it. I was confident teaching in the classroom; it was my space and I felt secure and in control.
“That’s not to say that I didn’t have times in class when I felt tense. I couldn’t sit still when the kids were working quietly on something. I’d always be tense then, and I would walk around the classroom, or sit there, tucking in my ears. If the kids noticed, I’d either say nothing, or I’d make a joke about it.
“A girl on TV recently described the condition beautifully. She said it’s like someone shaking a fizzy drink. There’s a build up, but once it’s out, everything relaxes again, and then slowly the feeling mounts and the can will be shaken again.”
Brian is pleased that he was never given a label of Tourette syndrome at school, back in Glasgow.
“I wasn’t bullied. It was allowed as part of my character. Today, I reckon many of my friends would be diagnosed with ADHD, and many others, I am sure, were on the autism scale. I think society is too ready, these days, to give people a label. It’s not helpful.
“I was happy at school, but I didn’t excel there. It was Thatcher’s era, and the teachers were often on strike. We were allowed to drift through school with no ambition. I left with no qualifications, and I became a painter and decorator.”
It was the urge to pursue creativity that got Brian to university. He’d tried writing songs, then decided he wanted to teach, and he did his Leaving Certificate at night school. He loved his time at Glasgow University, being surrounded by creative minds. He started writing ‘puerile poetry,’ then turned to plays.
“Afterwards, I formed a theatre company; it’s still in existence now. And when I became a teacher, I decided that writing was always going to be my main thing.”
In 2001 Brian went to Italy.
“I was there for five years. I taught in Milan and Perugia. I worked in an international school in Bologna with the British Council. I spent a lot of time on my own, and that’s when I really got on with my writing.”
Then it was back to Glasgow for an MPhil in Creative writing. Writing constantly since, Brian has completed six novels to date; that includes his first three, unpublished, manuscripts.
There were 217 rejections. Did he never feel like giving up? “It’s an exercise in endeavourand took stubbornness and determination. But you do get a lot of encouragement, and you take on board the criticism. I like my early books. My agent says, maybe they could be published down the line.”
Since the monetary success of When Mr Dog Bites, Brian has been able to write full-time.
Now 42, he lives in Dublin with his Irish wife Orla, and their daughter Rosie, who is two.
Life is sweet.
“I don’t have to rush breakfast. I have time to play with Rosie before I take her to crèche. Then I’m home for a cup of tea, and I’m at my computer by ten or half past. I’ve handed in two novels in the past year, and am working on more.”
Does he think of himself as a Scottish writer? “Well I’m a writer from Scotland,” he says. “But I noticed my book was filed under Irish fiction in Hodges Figgis.”
It took a while to settle in Ireland. It was the height of the Celtic Tiger and people’s priorities seemed to be different. I’ve always liked Dublin, and when I became a dad it cemented my place here. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”
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