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O.R. Melling

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Between two worlds

O.R. Melling brings Irish myth to Canada

Like the bog dwellers and other little people who inhabit her YA fantasy novels, O.R. Melling is tiny (“five-foot-nothing”), but her voice rises clearly – penetratingly – with a slight Irish lilt over the clatter of dishes in the small Toronto restaurant we’ve selected for afternoon tea. Melling is visiting Canada for Canadian Children’s Book Week, and in the next few days will tour British Columbia in support of The Light-bearer’s Daughter, the third book in her Chronicles of Faerie series, being published in February by Penguin Canada. Afterward, she’ll fly back to her home in Ireland, where she has been living with her daughter for more than a decade.

O.R. MellingLike the protagonist in her new book, whose father announces plans one day to move the family from Ireland to Canada, Melling experienced the upheaval of immigrating to Canada at a young age. Fourth in a family of 10 kids who moved from Ireland to Toronto in 1956, when she was five, Melling remembers keenly missing her Irish best friend. It’s an experience she calls her “first loss.” In the book, the protagonist, Dana, also has good reason for wanting to stay in Ireland: to search for her mother, who left home when Dana was just three. In the adventure that follows, Dana runs away and encounters bog people, a medieval monastery, and the High King of Faerie before finally finding her mother. Eventually, she is reunited with her father, and begins a new life in Canada.

As her characters often do, Melling straddles two worlds. She remembers the Trudeau years in the 1970s as “a great time to be young and Canadian,” but at the same time maintained strong ties with Ireland, returning there during her teens to work in an aunt’s hotel. She attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto, but took Celtic studies. Even her name reflects a kind of split personality. When I ask what the O.R. stands for, I learn that the entire name is a pseudonym created from Orla Melling, that childhood best friend. Her birth name – what she calls her “secret name” – is the decidedly Irish-sounding Geraldine Valerie Whelan. It’s what her family and friends call her and what she uses when writing for the Irish press. To further complicate matters, her novels are published in Ireland under the name Orla (not O.R.) Melling.

Melling’s professional ties, education, and upbringing may be Canadian, but the ancient tales and poetry of Ireland are the inspiration for her stories. The first in her Chronicles of Faerie series, The Hunter’s Moon (published by HarperCollins in 1993, and rereleased in 2000 by Penguin) tells the story of a 16-year-old Canadian girl, Gwen, who visits her Irish cousin, Findabhair (pronounced Finn-ah-veer) for the summer. Although the girls think “wee things with wings and shoemakers with pointy ears” are “a load of American rubbish and an insult to [Ireland’s] heritage,” they do believe there’s an element of truth in the ancient myths.

When the two sleep overnight at Tara, an ancient Irish site, Findabhair is kidnapped by a fairy king, and Gwen sets out to find and free her. Among the fresh, sometimes funny characters they encounter are a sexy fairy king and a leprechaun who drives like a New York cabby. The fast-paced fantasy won the 1994 Ruth Schwartz Award and was shortlisted for the 1993 Mr. Christie.

Melling’s connection to ancient Irish myth is clear, but she wasn’t always sure she’d become a writer. She travelled to Malaysia in the early 1970s with Canada World Youth, an experience that years later became the basis for My Blue Country, a novel about a girl who falls in love with a Muslim boy while on a youth program. It was her only venture away from the fantasy genre, apart from an adult novel that received mixed reviews. She also tried law school for three months – “I was planning to become the first NDP prime minister,” she jokes – but hated it and left. She earned an MA in Medieval Irish history at U of T and did a stint as an editorial assistant at William Collins & Sons.

Melling didn’t plan a writing career. But when her first book, The Druid’s Tune, a fantasy tale of two teens in Ireland’s Iron Age, earned the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year Award, a bell went off. Melling remembers walking the beach in Toronto, paddling her feet in the water and thinking, “I’m not going to waste any more of my life.” That decided it. With a contract in hand to write a second book, she left a bad marriage, dumped her full-time job, cut down on her drinking, and began writing full-time. The next few years saw “lots of to-ing and fro-ing” between Canada and Ireland, but most of the writing happened in Ireland where she had “lots of relatives to bunk in with.” Melling also credits the support of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for the Arts in County Monaghan, which provided her with a place to stay.

And yet, and still. “If you ask me what kind of writer I am, I’m Canadian,” she says. Maybe it’s the greater opportunity in Canada – and the tolerance. She was the first in her family to go to university, and trained armed forces recruits in the summer, attaining the rank of lieutenant. She became a single parent at age 37 when she gave birth to a baby girl. Clearly, O.R. Melling doesn’t put much stock in what other people think women should or shouldn’t do.

Which goes to the heart of why she doesn’t think of herself as an “Irish writer.” The Irish writing community, she says, is a “boys’ club,” She cites the example of Edna O’Brien, a well-known writer, who Melling says was resented for her success and ignored in her own homeland. Then there’s Eilis ní Dhuibne (pronounced Aylish nee Gwivnee), who was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize and has been described as Ireland’s Alice Munro, but, according to Melling, has received not a spot of coverage in her own country. “Thank God I’m not an Irish writer,” Melling says tartly, “or I’d have given up before I started.”

In fact, Melling says she does plan to leave Ireland again. Where does she want to go? As soon as her daughter, now 11, is grown, Melling says she’ll return to Canada, maybe Whitehorse. She fell in love with the mountainous landscape and the small-town feel when she visited the Yukon several years ago. Her best friend, a nurse and a can-can dancer, also lives in the city. “I’d like to work in a diner there because I think that would be a great adventure for a woman in her 50s,” she says, laughing.

In the meantime, though, she’ll stay in Bray, the small Dublin-area town where she was born and has lived for the past decade. Within walking distance of her home are the house in which she was born and the long-ago home of the real Orla. Half of her family has moved back to Bray, including her parents who retired there. (Her father has since died.) Most importantly, her daughter Findabhair, like Melling herself decades ago, has no desire to leave her friends, or give up the visits with her filmmaker father.

Like any honest fantasy writer these days, Melling admits she’s “terribly jealous” of J.K. Rowling. “I think she’s a genius storyteller,” Melling says enthusiastically, adding conspiratorially, however, that she doesn’t find the writing particularly deep. Rowling’s incredible success probably hangs in the background, a constant reminder of what could be, as Melling begins work on the fourth title in her series, scheduled for publication in 2002. The Book of Dreams will be set in Canada, a departure for Melling. In this book, characters from all three previous books will meet at the University of Toronto.

“Fairies are always tied to the landscape,” explains Melling, who looks forward to creating mythical creatures that will inhabit Queen’s Park and the Toronto subway system as well as the forests around Creemore, Ontario, where many Irish settled in the 19th century. The characters’ mission, she says, will be to find the book of dreams that Irish settlers brought with them to Upper Canada. Interesting collisions lie ahead as new world meets old.

Two worlds, indeed. If anyone can bring fairy folk to Canada and make them believable, O.R. Melling can.