It started as a Facebook joke - and became a number one bestseller. Here, Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, the authors of Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling, tell stylist.co.uk how they made it happen.
“How have we managed to pull this off?”
“Thank God there are two of us.”
Me and my best friend Sarah utter some combination of these phrases to each other at least once a day. In the past 18 months we have written a number one bestseller together, quit our day jobs, and changed our lives, and we did it all arseways.
We hadn’t put pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard) when Irish publisher Gill Books first got in touch back in late 2016. An email out of the blue said they’d seen a Facebook page we’d created, and they’d like to chat to us about potentially turning it into a book. Now, Gill Books aren’t known for publishing fiction - cook books and sports biographies are their bread and butter, so they probably envisaged us putting together a funny compendium of jokes and Irishisms. We went away and thought about it, and came back with a proposal: would they let us write a novel?
Sarah and I met in college and were instantly drawn to each other by a shared sense of humour and deep love for double vodkas and Red Bull four nights a week. With the vodkas (and the white wine, as we matured) came the hangovers. It was during one of these hangovers, sitting on the couch on a Saturday afternoon over a decade ago, that we began to muse about something that had puzzled us for quite some time: who are the people who buy brown mascara? Who are the women keeping the industry going? We started to create a persona for that type of woman, and we called her Aisling. Her character traits kept coming and coming.
Aisling writes “suits you” under pictures of people holding babies on Facebook. As well as being a slave to brown mascara, she’s also dedicated to bootcut jeans. She can’t get her head around why people love avocados so much. And as for brunch! What’s wrong with sticking to eggs at breakfast and a nice big sandwich at 1pm? Now, she might sound like the type of person you’d run a mile from, but Aisling is a great friend, a good laugh, and will definitely mind the handbags on a night out,
We created Aisling on that fateful Saturday afternoon and immediately wanted to share her with friends. In the days before WhatsApp and Messenger, a Facebook group was the best option. Five friends joined, and then 10. We shared “Aislingisms” like “Aisling has never ironed a pair of jeans dry” and “Aisling can get three vodkas out of one Diet Coke. Waste not want not!” The group grew organically, slowly but surely. By 2016, when Gill Books came calling, its membership was in the tens of thousands. The members share stories, they tell anecdotes about the Aislings in their lives, or admit their own Aisling traits. They’ve formed friendships over the years, they’ve had meet ups, they’ve cried together and helped each other and built a wonderful community.
The simplest thing to do would have been to gather together our favourite Aislingisms from over the years and group them into a typical Gill Books stocking filler. But we’d grown fiercely protective of Aisling. We knew her inside out. We had created a world for her, and a cast of supporting personas. We decided to write a novel. A full blown 80,000 words, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Gill Books gave it the green light, and we faced into a blank Google Doc with a signed contract in our pockets and fear in our hearts.
We cobbled together the first draft through newborn feeds and full-time jobs. Sarah had just had her second baby and I worked until 6pm every day. So all of our work happened in the evenings. We met in the evenings, we wrote in the evenings and the baby thankfully slept in those first few crucial months. When she’s older we’ll tell her that she was there for it all.
When it came to actually writing the book, we had no process or template to follow, so we invented one. We had outlined a vague plot but we had to actually start putting words – thousands and thousands of them – into action. So, we decided what would happen in the first few chapters in detail, flipped a coin to see who would write the first one and away we went, alternating chapters and mostly making it up as we went along. After every few chapters we would re-evaluate where the story was going and what we saw happening to, or for, Aisling next. Sarah might introduce a character on a whim, and then I might take that character and run with it, splitting off into a new plotline.
It was difficult and the continuity problems were rife, but we had enough cohesion of tone, voice and humour to make it work. Time and time again we wondered how we had gotten ourselves into this. We fretted about being able to deliver anything of any value at all. The imposter syndrome threatened to cripple us. We wondered if our friendship would survive, despite never having a row or a cross word. Thank God we had each other. Sarah strongly but firmly walked me through my procrastination and I sent her texts telling her how many times I had laughed through her latest chapter.
Fast forward a year and the book has, as I said, changed our lives. The doubt we had over our own ability to deliver something funny and warm and engaging – which is what we really, really wanted to do – might seem a bit like false modesty given the success of Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling in Ireland – our greatest claim to fame is that it beat David Walliams to Christmas number one. With that success came another book deal from Gill, for two Aisling sequels. Michael Joseph in the UK said they’d take all three books and we recently found out Aisling is being published in Korea. We quit our day jobs. We got an agent. We signed a film option deal. We’re writing a screenplay. We’ve turned laughing, messing and a not inconsiderable amount of hard work into a career.
At the moment we work out of my dining room, shooing cats off the table and telling each other that surely we’re about to be found out: “We’re scammers!” “How have we managed to pull this off?” Those old familiar refrains of the Song of the Imposter. We worry about whether our friendship can survive being turned into a business. We’ve done okay so far but will we get sick of the sight of each other? Our agent has advised drawing up an agreement, in case we fall out or one of us dies. What if we literally kill each other?
And then we calm each other down, and we remind ourselves that we got here, somehow. We wrote the book. We brought Aisling to life. People love her. They laugh with her, and cry with her (and give out to us for making them cry with her). We can definitely do this. Can’t we?
Oh My God What A Complete Aisling by Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght published by Michael Joseph Hardback RRP: £12.99