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His bestselling book Guess How Much I Love You is only 400 words long but took six months to complete... NI's Sam McBratney on the story behind the enchanting tale that has delighted millions of children and why he'd love to write a western

With a new book The Most-Loved Bear out now, Sam McBratney tells Laurence White how he was finally able to quit teaching at 50 to become a full-time writer

There is an inner cowboy trying to get out of Northern Ireland author Sam McBratney. He'd love to write a western which seems a strange departure for the former teacher who created one of the world's best loved and bestselling children's picture books, Guess How Much I Love You.

"But I have always written in a wide variety of genres. Before the picture books I wrote ghost stories, teenage angst tales, sci-fi novels - everything but a western," he explains.

Speaking from his home outside Lisburn, he explains: "I would love to take a ranch in somewhere like Wyoming for six months and see if I could put that omission from my writing career right".

In a way it is a surprising gap in his list of books for westerns were almost the only books he had to read as a very young child growing up in Belfast's York Road district. "My father Sam loved Zane Grey books and I also read my mother's People's Friend magazines. I remember my father once buying me a book in the old Smithfield market."

He was also an avid reader of this newspaper which is hardly surprising given that his father and brother Jim were long term employees in the printing department of the Belfast Telegraph.

Sam is still amused by the union title his father held - father of the chapel, which is a term used to denote shop steward in the various departments of the newspaper industry.

Life for 75-year-old Sam now is probably as busy as it has ever been.

He writes every week but being a full-time author - and a very successful one - means that it is a proper business. "There is an awful lot of administration involved. I reply to correspondence from people who have read my books and the financial side of things takes up quite a bit of time. I write for substantial periods of the week, revisit old texts and play around with new ideas."

And he admits that the idea which made him famous came not from within but from his publishers.

It was an editor there who suggested to him 24 years ago that he should try his hand at writing a children's picture book.

The result was Guess How Much I Love You, the tale of a father and son nutbrown hares who compete in telling each other how much they love each other. The dad eventually wins when the son goes to sleep and he says - 'I love you to the moon - and back'.

The book is only about 400 words long but it took six months to complete. Sam explains: "You have to live with the book for a long time before it is perfected. It is like writing poetry. It is using as few words as possible to convey as much meaning as possible".

It certainly touched a chord with parents and their children around the world, selling more than 30 million copies and being translated into 53 languages.

That is the sort of success he might have privately hoped for but never really expected when he retired at 50 from his teaching career to become a full-time writer.

Sam taught right across the education spectrum in a college of further education, a secondary school and, his favourite, a primary school. "If you imagine teaching a fairly rough class in a secondary school, it can be hard work and you need to have plenty of energy. It is a job for early in your career," he says.

"I loved teaching in a primary school. You soon realise that every primary class has some very clever children and you can nearly tell which pupils will end up at university by the time they are in P6 or P7."

Sam was writing by night and by the time he had reached 50 he was earning enough from his books to encourage him to retire and become a full-time writer.

"I was writing in all kinds of genres and at that stage my main aim was to send a manuscript to a publisher, get it accepted and get an advance which would be enough to pay for a nice foreign holiday. That all changed with the success of my first picture book."

He has now written somewhere around 100 books but his favourite surprisingly, is not the one what made his name and which keeps the royalties coming in, but one called The Chieftain's Daughter set in Iron Age Ireland. It was inspired by a visit to an ancient site in Limerick and centres on a boy who falls in love with the chieftain's daughter and involves tribal feuds and Christian missionary work.

Another book he has a soft spot for is a volume of short stories called Lagan Valley Details and published by Blackstaff Press in the 1980s.

Sam accepts that Guess How Much I Love You and the publicity attached to it - the publishers held a special 20th anniversary celebration - has made it easier to get other material published.

"When your name is known it helps a lot," he says. "You could easily spend six months writing a book and never get it accepted by a publisher never mind see it reach the shelves. Gaming and other forms of entertainment now has made publishing more difficult. After all the publishers want - and have to - make money.

"The average writer makes buttons and unless you are lucky there is no way you could live on what a writer makes."

So what is the secret of writing a bestseller? From his experience with Guess How Much I Love You and its associated follow-up stories there are some rules that must be followed.

One is to choose the name of the main character in particular with great care. "That name occurs so often in a children's picture book that it must be memorable. I spend an awful lot of time on that. You also have to keep reading the book and refine it layer by layer. I have to work very hard to get a finished product I am happy with."

He adds: "It is the art that conceals the art. A lot of people say to me that they could have written one of my books but that is because I have had years of experience making it readable. A picture book is as hard to write as a good novel."

The inspiration for his latest book The Most-Loved Bear came from very close to home - his wife Maralyn, who was also a former primary school teacher. She had a teddy bear as a child which made a growling noise when it was tipped into a certain position. She still has that bear some 70 years later and the star of Sam's latest book is modelled on it.

"This book revolves around the bear, how its owner lost it and the adventures the bear had until its life came full circle and it eventually was reunited with its owner," Sam explains. The couple have three grown-up children and they read to them when they were very young, although they all now follow careers which have no association with literature.

Sam used to read bedtime stories to his grandchildren but even they are now growing up - the eldest is 21 - but he still remembers how one of his granddaughters loved the story telling.

"I was reading to her one evening and she turned to me with her eyes all bright as I was turning the page and said 'Get ready to laugh grandad'. That was what I call a 'shine in the eyes moment' - she knew what was coming but so wanted me to share in the fun. You could never write a learned article which would do justice to that enjoyment she was feeling and which then spread to me".

He adds: "I know that somewhere in the world someone is reaching for a book I wrote and is reading it to a child and I get a real buzz out of that. I know that I am bringing joy into someone's life even though they don't know what I look like and I don't know what they look like. That makes all the scribbling worthwhile."

With Sam hoping to publish another couple of books in the next two years has he any time to relax?

"I have a greenhouse in which I have five vines and this year I had 131 bunches of grapes on the vines. My son takes them away and makes the wine and this year we got around 15 bottles of red. At the moment I am pruning the vines back hard in preparation for next year."

He also followed closely the world chess championship in which reigning champion Norwegian Magnus Carlsen beat his American opponent Fabiano Caruana. "I love chess but am useless at it", says Sam.

Naturally he has retained his love of reading with history books his particular favourite, but sci-fi and old-time thrillers also feature often. Outdoors, golf is a favourite pastime.

He has a comfortable lifestyle which he alludes to in a passing story. "I was at a book signing in Washington and I could not see the end of the queue. I remember saying to Maralyn 'I wish I had a penny for every book I have to sign here today' and she replied 'You do have'.

"The royalties are not bad and they are the icing on the cake after a lifetime of trying to write for a living. I never thought it would pay off.

"What you are doing is bringing the products of your imagination to the marketplace and you never know if others will think it is good or if it will disappear for ever. The marketplace will decide no matter how good the book really is."

But he has an unique memento to show that his writing hits the mark.

The illustrator of his Guess How Much series of books - Anita Jeram - drew the Nutbrown Hares of the story onto an emerald green silk tie.

The Most-Loved Bear by Sam McBratney, with illustrations by Sam Usher, is on sale now, £11.99

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