PQ Q&A: Author, illustrator and designer Helena Duggan

apca-ebook-coverHelena Duggan is a graphic designer and author based in Kilkenny.

She runs her own graphic design company, Held Design, and has worked on branding and design projects for a wide range of companies and organisations across Ireland.

More recently, she has moved into writing and published her first children’s book, A Place Called Perfect, in 2012.

At the end of the post, find out how you can win a signed copy of A Place Called Perfect.

1. You are a graphic designer as well as an author – can you tell us how you came to work in each of those fields?

I’ve always written but never considered myself an author; it’s a word that I am slowly getting a little more comfortable with!

As I grew up, I wrote and I was always drawing, they were my ‘things’. In college, my choice was architecture or graphic design and I’m pretty happy now that I chose the latter. I left writing aside for a few years during and after college, but while I was living in Australia my sister gave me a cow-print notebook and I picked up a pen again.

2. Your graphic design work and your writing really seem to complement each other – your eye for the visual helping you create vivid worlds in your books, and your experience as an author leading you to offer your design services to other authors. Would you agree?

Yes, I suppose I never thought of it that way. I often sketch out my created worlds as I imagine them but sometimes they don’t reach the same depth as what’s in my head.

I am writing for the Primary Planet at the moment, a children’s primary school magazine, so that utilises both skills. I usually illustrate one or two pieces from the article and I’m really enjoying getting back to grips with the pencil.

I do also offer my design skills to self-publishers and just recently completed a book called Graces and Blessing from Ireland for Celine Mescall, which I illustrated and designed. It’s great that I can make connections in one area and bring them into another.

Currently, one couldn’t exist without the other, from a practical point of view – graphic design funds my writing. I enjoy writing so much that I find it hard to think of it as work and so tend to view it more as a hobby. One day I hope to become successful enough to be able to write full time; this would be a dream of mine. However, I think I will always keep a foot in the design world and will never stop illustrating what I’m imagining!

From ‘Graces and Blessings from Ireland’ by Celine Mescall.

3. Tell us about the books you have written to date. Has your creative process or writing style changed between writing the two books?

A Load of Rubbish is the first children’s book I’ve written, but the second to be published (complicated, I know).

It’s about a Shoe, Seamus, who wanders off and finds himself thrown into the surreal world of the Dump. It’s a world of rubbish, although they would never use that word – it’s degrading! Everything is working to be recycled.

Through this work, Things earn credits in the hope that someday they will reach their credit limit and become useful again. But all is not as it seems in the Dump. Power struggles between the Living and the Made Ins and the constant threat of a Rat attack, lead Seamus on a terrifying adventure. As he eloquently puts it, when trying to cross a busy Dump intersection, “it’s one small step for a Human but one giant leap for a lone Shoe”

I wrote A Load of Rubbish in Australia when my sister gave me the cow print notebook and from that day on, I became addicted to notebooks and to writing. This story was penned then transferred painfully onto the computer.

I’m not sure I would use this method again, even though I love to write by hand – it was pretty slow. The first draft of the book took about six months, then I uploaded the story onto Authonomy.com, a Harper Collins website for unpublished work. It was voted no.1 out of over 8,000 books and so was sent to the editors at Harper Collins.

They gave me a great review but said ultimately the story was too quirky for them. I decided then to leave it aside to pursue A Place Called Perfect. I have now returned to the final edits of A Load of Rubbish and hope to publish it next year.

A Place Called Perfect is my first published work. It’s about a 10-year-old girl called Violet who has to move to a town called Perfect because her Dad, the world’s very best Optician, is offered a job there.

Perfect is perfect except for one curious fact. Everyone who enters the town goes blind after a short while and would remain that way if it were not for the Archer Brothers and their rose-tinted glasses. Violet doesn’t fit into Perfect and soon begins to hate the place, as her mother gets the perfect sheen and her Dad disappears on a strange business trip.

Then she meets Boy, an orphan from No Mans Land and they begin their adventure. I can’t tell you any more or I’ll give away the story!

I started thinking about Perfect when I bought a pair of round-rimmed glasses in an antique shop. I carried them everywhere with the intention of changing the lenses. I always wanted Harry Potter/Lennon specs, but the longer I had them the more I began to think of the last owner and whether all their memories and imagination might be locked in the lenses.

This idea sparked Perfect. The story is really about what is seen and unseen and what it takes to be individual and stand out against the crowd.

It is difficult to balance writing with design work; as I mentioned earlier, I tend to think of writing as my hobby as it doesn’t buy the groceries. I feel guilty if I take a day to write as opposed to design, even if my design business is not busy at the time. I am trying to twist around this notion in my head as ultimately I would love to have the freedom to write full time and design as a hobby!

My writing process has definitely changed, more for practical reasons. I wrote Rubbish in notebooks but Perfect straight into the computer – it was a timing thing, as I really do love to write long hand.

I also feel my writing skill has improved a lot more since Rubbish which is why I am vigorously editing it again.

I attended a three-year creative writing program in NUI Maynooth, taught by Suzanne Power and John McKenna and I cannot say enough about it. The course was the best thing I’ve ever done. It introduced me to an amazing group of writers, which I am still involved with, and John and Suzanne’s tutoring surpassed anything I could have asked for. They gave me the confidence to believe in my work and the skills to play with language.


Boy and Violet
Boy and Violet

4. Do you have any other writing projects planned and if so, can you tell us what they’re about?

Yes – I have written the first 10,000 words of a sequel to Perfect. The book has sold extremely well and I am always getting emails from children asking me when the sequel will be out. I need to finish Rubbish first, but will get working on it then.

I have also written the first 7,000 words of another idea based on the notion of an underworld – this I would like to write for a slightly older age group. It’s not werewolves or vampires; more a ghost story. Possibly it will be more YA (young adult) than children’s, but I’ve been told in the past that all my stories are cross-over, so we’ll see.

5. Like many new writers, you have self-published, and offer professional services to other self-publishers through Held Design. As a creative person, do you prefer the autonomy of doing it yourself, or would you prefer the security and marketing power of a traditional book deal?

I self-published Perfect as it had gotten some really positive replies from agents, a few of which pulled out at the very last minute.

These ‘positive rejections’ (any author who’s been through the mill will tell you) are a good thing. The publishing industry are not quick to respond to work outside of the usual cold compliment slip. This gave me the confidence to believe I had a good story, so I employed an editor and together with my design skills, had the full publishing package.

Self-publishing has been great for me. My local bookshop Dubrays in Kilkenny really got behind A Place Called Perfect from the start. Their staff believed in the story and soon it was a number one best seller.

I’ve now had brilliant support from all local bookshops and the feedback from kids has been amazing. Nothing I expected, to be honest. My sales figures are huge, I’ve been told, for a locally-based, self-published writer. I’ve sold close to 900 books as the story picked up a word-of-mouth factor I hadn’t expected, but now I’m at a crossroads.

As I am self-published I cannot secure a distributor. I’ve been told they require national radio and TV advertising and this is beyond my pocket.

There seems to still be a stigma in Ireland when it comes to self-publishing, which doesn’t exist in the American market. A number of self-published writers have had number one bestsellers in the New York Times.

I’m at the point where, if I would like to get wider distribution on my book, I will need to get a publisher on board and I’m toying with this idea. It would be great to have access to a wider audience and the marketing power of a publishing house behind me, but they are not easy to come by and it would mean letting go of creative control.



Helena is giving away a signed copy of A Place Called Perfect exclusively to readers of The Patchwork Quill. To enter, just fill in the form below. The closing date is 23:59 on Friday 22nd November 2013. Due to postage costs, this competition is only open to readers with an address in the UK or Ireland, sorry. Good luck!


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