Part One: This conversation is divided into ten parts.
Eric Hemmers: I’m sitting in a quiet café, tucked down a side street, having coffee and pastries with the renowned and internationally acclaimed children’s book writer and illustrator, Olivier Dunrea. I first met Olivier when I was a boy in the mid-1980s and was fascinated by the stories he told, and the slides he showed of his research expeditions to Scotland and the Orkney Islands, as well as of his mythical world of Moel Eyris (Mole Islands). Olivier had a large leather portfolio filled with sketches, colour studies, drawings, watercolours, and most impressive—a large detailed map of his island world. Finally, I get the chance to ask him all the questions that I had wanted to ask all those many years ago.
Olivier, I have to tell you, it is wonderful to see you again after all these years. When you came to my school as a visiting author I was mesmerized by your stories, humor and tremendous energy. The story you told that I remember and loved most was the one when you had been stranded overnight on one of the more remote islands in the North Sea and had to spend the night in the prehistoric barrow. You made that story so real I felt I was there with you, huddled on that ladder in the pitch black darkness. And it was great to see the photos you had taken to prove that the burial mound was real! It was because of you that I decided to pursue a career as a journalist and writer. I’ll never forget you telling us “Words are power! Use them!”
OD: Did I really say that? It sounds like something I would say. And mean. Thank you, Eric, for being so interested in my work. I appreciate it. The story of my spending the night in the prehistoric barrow is one of the best stories, I must admit. That barrow is located on the Holm of Papa—a tiny, uninhabited island off the east coast of Papa Westray. Westray, Papa Westray, and the Holm of Papa are the three remote islands in the northwestern part of the Orkney Islands. That expedition was one of the most memorable during all my years visiting Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
EH: Your stories have stayed with me all these years. You have a way of telling a story that makes a person live the story as if it’s happening right then to them. You have to be one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. And your sound effects are the best! If I hadn’t met you I’m not sure I would have been so determined to become a writer myself.
OD: Eric, that is great to hear! And quite a compliment. Thank you. I’ve always said that I probably should have been a motivational speaker or an agent. I’m fairly good at prodding others to accomplish great things.
EH: When I was a boy I always wanted to ask you “Where did the ideas come from for you epic mythology The Lay of Moel Eyris?” but, you were always mobbed by kids and other people, all clamoring for your attention so I never got the chance to talk to you and ask my question. So, I’m going to finally ask my big question to start this interview: Where did you get the idea for The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son?
OD: Well, from this point on we can simply refer to the mythology as LOME. Much easier than to keep saying the full title of series. I suppose it’s fair to say that it all started when I was an undergraduate in college, a sophomore. For one of my English classes I took Children’s Literature. The professor was Dr. Keith Taylor and his love of children’s books, the authors, the illustrators, and energetic style of teaching impressed me beyond belief. We were required to read 450 children’s books, including picture books as well as middle reader and young adult novels. It was in his class that I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
EH: What year was that? Do you remember?
OD: Of course, I remember. I’m NOT that old! That was either in the autumn of 1972 or the spring of 1973. I can’t believe I can’t remember exactly when I took that class! My memory is starting to slip faster than my underwear!
EH: [laughs out loud] See, that’s what I remember about your visit to my school. Your wacky, wild sense of humor! Did you know that you always wanted to be a writer and illustrator?
OD: Yes, pretty much, I think, although I did get sidetracked into theatre and music, which is what I took my undergraduate degrees in and pursued as a graduate student. I quickly learned that I am a much more solitary kind of person and not a group effort kind of guy. Since I was twelve years old I always wrote in a journal. I also wrote out my “Life Plan” when I was twelve. I was a very focused and determined young boy. Today it’s called being ‘obsessive-compulsive’. In fact, one of my journals that I wrote when I was seventeen years old became the basis for my autobiographical novel titled 4” written under a pen name—Gabe Hooton.
EH: I don’t want to stray too far from LOME, but real quick, what is 4” about and why did you write it under the name Gabe Hooton?
OD: 4” is an edgy and compelling coming-of-age story. It’s based directly on one of my journals with a bit of artistic license taken in order to tell the narrative that I wanted. I wrote it and published it under the name Gabe Hooton because I didn’t want it to compete with my children’s picture books. I thought there might be too much of a conflict of interest. And I always wanted to have a pen name. I have several pen names, in fact.