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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
what a complete aisling

'We never expected it': How the OMGWACA authors dealt with becoming a phenomenon

We talked to authors Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen about the book’s incredible success.

Final Cover - The Importance of Being Aisling

EVERY READER WANTS to feel something when they read. And they want to feel like they – and their emotions – are seen by the author.

It’s this intimate connection that led to the first Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling book being a consistent bestseller here in Ireland for the past year. It’s a book that gets what its readers want, a book that makes the reader feel seen. And not just seen, but hugged. It’s a cosy, life-affirming read.

For those few not familiar with it, OMGWACA (as fans call the Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling world) was born from a Facebook group of the same name, created by longtime friends and former flatmates Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen. Both country girls who moved to Dublin (they’re from Kildare and Carlow respectively), they recognised a certain type of young woman who moves to the big smoke, a type of woman they nicknamed Aisling.

She’s the type who brings her shoes to work in her Brown Thomas bag, counts Weight Watchers points, and wears brown mascara. She has no time for notions but plenty of time for her loved ones.

The first OMGWACA book was an unusual sell for those not familiar with the Facebook group, Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, which Breen and McLysaght set up to share their Aisling stories. But it struck such a chord with readers that the second book, released this week (called The Importance of Being Aisling), is once again number one in the charts.

It’s a publishing phenomenon, and no one is more aware of that than the authors – who are as down to earth as Aisling herself. / YouTube

‘We felt the pressure’

With a movie version of the first book on the way, and a third book in the trilogy due to be published next year, the pair are hugely busy too. But did they feel pressure when working on book two?

“We felt the pressure for sure, because the first book had been so unexpectedly successful, everyone sort of fell in love with Aisling and then everyone had these ideas of what they would have liked to have happen her,” says Breen when we meet in Dublin city centre in the middle of their publicity tour.

Now, they have readers, UK editors, agents and publishers to deal with. Says McLysaght: “When we wrote the first book we never expected to be writing a second book, genuinely we were like ‘oh we’ve got a chance to write a book’, so we threw everything at it – a lot happened.”

“We killed people,” laughs Breen. McLysaght nods. “Killed some people, a lot happens to Aisling, a lot happens to her friends, so that was a challenge coming to write the second book, we were like ‘hmmm, what’s left?’”

What was left was bringing Aisling back to her hometown of Ballygobbard, and putting her into a range of situations that would challenge anyone. Situations that don’t feel far-fetched, but utterly believable. The reader roots for Aisling, while seeing themselves in her actions. 

‘They can’t tell what’s an ‘Emer chapter’ or a ‘Sarah chapter”

“You just throw a few obstacles at her and the joy is finding out how she deals with it,” says Breen of the writing process. But because of the way they write – a chapter each in the early drafts – the direction of the plot was sometimes a mystery to the writers themselves. 

“We do write very similarly even when we are writing the drafts,” says McLysaght, explaining that often editors can’t tell an ‘Emer chapter’ from a ‘Sarah chapter’. “We often find it difficult to remember who wrote what,” she says. 

Lower res Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen credit Al Higgins Al Higgins Al Higgins

Breen jokes that one day she discovered McLysaght had written ‘LOL’ beside a funny part of a draft – only to have to point out to her that she’d written that line herself. “I was like: OK Emer, you’re your own biggest fan there,” she ribs. 

The pair are very fond of their creation, so it’s hard for them to put Aisling in difficult situations. “It can be difficult to see her struggling with some of the things thrown at her,” says McLysaght. “Even though we’re doing the writing about it, it can still be difficult, you’re like ‘poor Aisling, how is she going to manage this?’.”

The book is written in Aisling’s internal monologue, so the reader squirms and blushes along with Aisling herself. “She’s so pragmatic though, you can throw anything at her and she’ll somehow find a way to dig herself out of it,” says Breen.

They readily admit that they don’t think they would be able to deal as well as Aisling with having to move back to their hometowns. “I don’t know if that was me I’d be taking the bull by the horns and going ‘how can I make this the best’, but Aisling is not like me, she’s much better,” says Breen. 

“I’d be like a brat,” says McLysaght.

The OMGWACA world is a distinctly Irish one, which must make working with UK-based editors a little tricky. “[For] the first book, we had got a list of queries of what did certain things mean, like county jersey or an ESB pole,” says McLysaght.  

Adds Breen: “What are Meanies, who’s Francis Brennan?”

They had six publishers interested in the UK, and eventually went with Michael Joseph.

They went through their queries about the Irish elements, sorting out what they could dump from what they could explain, and what just had to be in there. In doing this, they looked at how Marian Keyes introduces Irish concepts in her books. 

“She’s talking about the Late Late Show and she says ‘this is the Late Late Show, Ireland’s most popular chat show’. Something like that is very seamless, very nicely done,” says Breen.

But the pair didn’t tone down the Irishness for The Importance of Being Aisling – they actually made it more Irish. “She moves back down to a rural country Irish village,” explains McLysaght.

“There’s a lot of GAA. Generic John [Aisling's boyfriend] ends up being even more involved in the GAA. There’s a lot of local characters, very Irish, so we made it a bit more difficult but actually the UK editors have just taken it and gone with it and said ‘OK, fine – the charm is all there’.”

Women’s lives

Popular literature – the kind that lives in the bestseller lists and that you can pick up along with your loaf of bread in the supermarket – can been seen as light and fluffy, shying away from tough subjects.

Women-focused popular literature can particularly be judged by some as being too relationship-focused. That gendered preconception belies what really goes on though, when bestselling authors like Marian Keyes explore addiction, marital issues and family secrets in their books.

In the Aisling books, it’s not all about setting up Aisling as a trope and then running away with it. The reason why the books connect with readers – particularly women – is that they look at the issues that affect women in 2018, approaching them in an open, non-judgemental way.

In the film world, there’s the Bechdel Test, which asks viewers to examine how many female characters there are, and if they talk to each other about anything other than men.

The OMGWACA books would pass the Bechdel Test and then some, because the writers know that women don’t just relate to each other through their external relationships with men.

In the first Aisling book, one of the plot points centred on abortion in Ireland, in the run-up to the Eighth Amendment referendum. In this book, we see how Aisling deals when faced with a person experiencing domestic violence. 

“We just wanted to look at issues that are affecting women across Ireland, women that Aisling might come into contact with, and again look at it through her lens,” explains McLysaght.

“So there are some domestic violence issues, all kinds of emotional abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, there are women that come into Aisling’s life that she learns that they are going through this – we learn that it’s been going on for a long time, but we only see it through Aisling’s eyes.”

Emer Mclysaght and Sarah Breen photo credit Al Higgins 2 Al Higgins Al Higgins

They didn’t want to force it as an issue, but instead reflect the ubiquity of such abuse in women’s lives.

Says Breen: “[Aisling's] not affected directly but we looked up the statistics and it’s something like one in five Irish women who’ve been in a relationship have suffered some kind of abuse or coercive control, or financial abuse. ”

Breen posits that “women’s fiction can afford to tackle these subjects and it’s not all trolley tokens and bags for life, there’s some meat in the story as well”.

“It’s lovely to think that anything we might write might have some little impact on how somebody feels or thinks or experiences something,” says McLysaght.  

Adds Breen: “Or it sparks a conversation, empowers them to say something, to talk to a friend, because domestic violence is another thing that’s very stigmatised.”

The first book dealt with grief, and the pair have gotten much feedback from readers who say they’ve never read anything before that echoes what they went through.

“It’s crazy because it’s something literally everybody goes through, the loss of a loved one, bereavement, grieving for years afterwards,” says McLysaght. “So it’s crazy that people felt that this was one of the first times they felt it had been dealt with.”

The books are inspired by their own personal experience – both authors have lost someone close to them. McLysaght and Breen are particularly touched when readers pick up the little details in the book, like the types of biscuits you tend to eat when you’re waiting in a hospital with a loved one for hours and days on end.

“So many people have got in touch going ‘I know those biscuits. I’ve eaten those biscuits’,” says McLysaght. It’s those little details that make reading OMGWACA special for fans.

The reaction to the new book has been “overwhelming”, say the pair. 

“It’s been really amazing – because I think Irish people sometimes have a reputation for being begrudgers but we haven’t seen that,” says Breen. McLysaght points out that being a pair means that the tougher things – being interviewed on the Late Late Show, or having Big Meetings in London – are easier to deal with.

Aisling on screen

So what’s next for Aisling? Only the small matter of a movie. The first draft of the script was delivered to Element Pictures last week. “It’s known in the industry as the vomit draft, so it is very much vomit,” says Breen.

“It’s difficult. It’s something we’ve not done before and it’s not something you can just put your hand to and achieve greatness at it straight away,” says McLysaght of script writing, praising Element for its support.

They don’t know who’s set to play Aisling, but they would ideally like it to be an unknown actor. Production is due to begin next year, and one thing is for sure – they have their fingers crossed there’ll be some members of a certain Irish acting dynasty in it.

“We’d love a few Gleesons. Any. We’ll take one, we’ll take them all,” says McLysaght with a chuckle.

They may well get their wish yet. Sure who can fail to be taken in by the charm of Aisling? 

The Importance of Being Aisling: Country Roads, Take Her Home, published by Gill Books, is out now.

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