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Author Sam McBratney on his love of privacy and work

Belfast-born Sam McBratney may have sold 30 million books worldwide, but the 72-year-old still craves his anonymity, says Una Brankin

Sam McBratney
Sam McBratney
Sam McBratney

Once upon a time, in a house overlooking an enormous lake, there lived a mysterious scribe, his wife and an elderly tortoise. No one in the kingdom knew who the story teller was. But, in lands near and far, millions and millions of little children hung on to every word of his wonderful tales of Little Nutbrown Hare and his very long-eared daddy, as the funny gangly creatures tried to show just how much they loved each other …

Sam McBratney really does live in a house with great views of Lough Neagh, and in complete anonymity, in spite of the fact that he has sold 30 million books worldwide. The massive success of the Belfast-born author's Guess How Much I Love You series puts him second only to the late Maeve Binchy and her 40 million book sales, and well above the 22 million of Marian Keyes.

The signings and publicity organised by his publishers to celebrate the 20 years of the loving Nutbrown family are, however, about to cast the self-confessed introspective 72-year-old into the limelight, whether he likes it or not.

"My head's turned with all this," he complains mildly. "I'm okay with being famous in America, but not Lisburn - we live just outside it, in a place called the Crew. I suppose with Maeve (Binchy) gone, I think I'm the bestselling writer in Ireland, but I live here and nobody knows and that's the way I like it. But I can't hide away anymore; I'm going to have to get dark glasses."

Mabel the tortoise is real, too, by the way. At 39, she's 100 in human years and spends most of her time sleeping in the greenhouse.

Sam and his wife Maralyn, a former primary school teacher, also have six grandchildren - he reads to them but, oddly, avoids his own books.

His two sons, Adam and Patrick, and daughter, Sarah, were the first to hear the bedtime yarns that were to lead to Guess How Much I Love You, which has been translated into 53 languages, and You're All My Favorites, featuring a bear family.

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Sam was earning his living as a primary and secondary school teacher at the time, but all the while dreaming of becoming a writer.

The ambition, which he'd nursed since his teens, had been shot down early by his mother Ina.

The family wasn't well off - Sam recalls never tasting a banana until he was 11 or 12 - and didn't have children's books in their first home on Belfast's York Road, nor their second in Lisburn.

"I was about 16 and I remember my mother asking me what was I going to do later on in life, and I said to her I might be a poet," he recalls.

"There was a long pause and she actually said, 'You know you can be put in jail for stealing other people's words'.

"Looking back on that, I ask myself, it is true, but that was the attitude in our family. She had no clue it was possible for someone from the family to write. Dad was a reader, though, and I read all his Zane Grey westerns, as well as the Beano and the Dandy and my mother's Woman's Weekly - there was nothing else there to read."

Sam Snr and his other son, John, were skilled operators on the Belfast Telegraph's former printing works.

"I used to go through the paper and point out mistakes and blame them on dad," the author remembers. "He died when he was 59 from cancer, no doubt caused by the non-tipped cigarettes he smoked."

After an austere post-war childhood "in short trousers and Fair Isle jumpers", Sam Jnr studied hard for his 11-Plus exam to get into Friends grammar school, where he won a scholarship in 1961 to study history and political science at Trinity College, in Dublin. He used to carry a notebook about with him there, to record all his thoughts, and began to write historical texts.

On graduating, he became a teacher and taught at a further education college, a grammar school and a primary school, while writing at night in various genres, from science fiction to radio plays. His acclaimed 1993 young adult novel, The Chieftain's Daughter, a fifth century story of young love and tragedy, was praised by critics as among the most significant works of children's historical fiction published in Ireland. But it was not until he wrote the seemingly simple story called Guess How Much I Love You that his writing became a career.

"My mother lived to see some of my earlier success and was probably very surprised by it," he remarks. "There wasn't a tradition in our house of telling stories but in my own family, stories are paramount, although when my children grew up and went to university, they did computer science, physics, and business studies. There's not a historian among them, but they are readers."

Guess How Much I Love You is a charming bedtime story about a father and son hare who try to out-do each other with how much each loves the other. Beautifully illustrated, the book was shortlisted for the 1994 Kurt Maschler Award, and is now one of the world's bestselling picture books.

In 2004, Sam reunited with Guess How Much I Love You illustrator Anita Jeram to produce the follow-up, You're All My Favourites, and the two of them collaborated again in 2007 to produce a series of brand new storybooks featuring the Nutbrown Hares: Guess How Much I Love You in the Spring followed by Summer, Autumn and Winter, and brought together in Guess How Much I Love You All Year Round.

"I was thinking of this sort of thing all at the time but my editor in London asked me to write a picture book, and what I tried to do was capture tender moments between the big ones and the wee ones. It took about six months - it's not as easy as it looks," he says, sounding just like the farmers I know from the Lisburn hinterlands.

"As a child I was transfixed by those moments from Robin Hood, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland and the Pied Piper - I was very worried about the guy with the bad leg who couldn't get away when the mountain opened up.

"My Nutbrown Hares just came out of the ether one day, when I was sitting in the kitchen. You have to have a good ear for language and rhythm for very young kids. It's more like writing poetry. And to keep their interest you have to have repetition and patterning."

The huge success of Guess How Much I Love You enabled Sam to give up teaching to write full time.

"It has contributed significantly and made a difference to my life - I was able to retire at 50. The royalties are nice but I write to get an advance and get on with it. The act of imagining always makes me feel good. I really enjoy sitting and trying to make things up.

"Then I have go and promote the books, mostly in America up until now. It's funny, I was at one signing there and three ladies and a baby turned up. Then at the next one, at the Washington book fair, there was an endless queue. I said to my wife after an hour and a half, I'll have to stop; I haven't even had my lunch yet. It's totally random."

When he's not working on his new Nutbrown Hare stories, he enjoys taking a day trip to the peaceful and atmospheric Ram's Island on Lough Neagh, and spending time with his grandchildren, who, like most kids today, are fixated with iPads and gadgets.

"'Thumbsies' I call them," he says drily. "It's a very worthwhile thing to read to kids - but I wouldn't be that worried about them not reading. There will always be kids who will want to curl up with a book.

"You know, I just love the idea that you know somewhere in the world tonight some mum or dad is going to be reaching down a copy of a book that I wrote and reading it to the most precious thing they have in the world, you know. For writers that's the Holy Grail. And that gives me enormous pleasure."

  • Sainsbury's are stocking the Guess How Much I Love You range in stores across the country, including books, clothing, cuddly toys and games to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first edition. Sam will be signing copies at 4pm today at Sainsbury's in Lisburn

Hare's a tale of true love...

I love you all the way down the lane as far as the river, cried Little Nutbrown Hare. I love you across the river and over the hills, said Big Nutbrown Hare.

That's very far, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. He was almost too sleepy to think any more. Then he looked beyond the thorn bushes, out into the big dark night. Nothing could be further than the sky.

I love you right up to the moon, he said, and closed his eyes.

Oh, that's far, said Big Nutbrown Hare. That is very, very far. Big Nutbrown Hare settled Little Nutbrown Hare into his bed of leaves.

He leaned over and kissed him good night.

Then he lay down close by and whispered with a smile, I love you right up to the moon - and back.

Extract from Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram 1994-2015, by permission of Walker Books UK

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