I can’t believe that this time next week I’ll be heading home from the Just So Festival, a family arts festival with lots for fans children’s literature. In my last preparatory post as the festival’s Kidlit Correspondent I’m really very pleased to be able to bring you an interview with one more author who’ll be appearing at the festival: Frances Hardinge, 2006 winner of the Branford Boase award and finalist in the 2010 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books.
To liven up proceedings I asked the person I always turn to for advice about children’s novels if she would like to interview Frances for Playing by the book. I’m really delighted that Ali, who writes at Fantastic Reads, agreed to my proposal.
And thus the story begins; one boiling hot day in early August Ali and Frances (wearing her trademark hat) met in a hotel bar in central London…
Ali (AB) : What are your first memories of books?
Frances Hardinge (FH): It’s quite hard to distinguish between my own memories and what has been told to me subsequently, but I was always around books. My mum put cloth books into my cot and I chewed them as a baby. When I was slightly older books were read to me; I remember particularly The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where The Wild Things Are.
AB: Many authors say that they have always told themselves stories, even before they could read and write. Is this something you did?
FH: Yes, I have a sister who is 11 months younger, and I used to tell her made up stories after lights out. They were serials, and she would always remember where I had got up to! We played a lot of imaginary games in the house and garden. One was based on the children’s TV series The Machine Gunners, but we adapted it so that we brought characters who had died in the programme back to life. Others involved our toys; two teddies were married, but we didn’t think it odd that their children included a rabbit and a panda.
Another game was based on E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and The Carpet which was difficult for my mother. We would often be playing it when she was wanting to hoover, and we’d be sitting on the carpet. She was very good about us pointing at her and shouting “Look! A monster!”
AB: Fly By Night was your first novel, and you won the Branford Boase prize with it. Was it the first one that you wrote?
FH: It was the first one I wrote that I felt deserved to be seen. I finished my first novel when I was 13, because I felt that it was important to finish something. Then I wrote another when I was 16, a very derivative fantasy.
AB: Can you remember what you were reading at the time that influenced you?
AB: That’s very interesting, as I’m struck by the sense of place in your novels. Garner, Cooper and Kipling really had that too. I’m particularly struck with it in Verdigris Deep. The seaside towns remind me strongly of run-down seaside resorts in Kent; is this what they’re based on?
FH: They are based on real places; or at least amalgams of real places. Ebstowe is a little like parts of Felixstowe, and Magwhite is partly based on a place in Reading, near an industrial park. It’s near the canals, and it’s very overgrown, an odd mixture of countryside and urban wasteland.
AB: When I write, I get an image in my head, and I write to work out what that image is about. What starts you? An image, or a phrase?
FH: I collect images, phrases and characters, and I save them. (AB: Do you save them written down? FH: Yes, I try to write them down). These aren’t the seed of the book, however. When I have two fundamental concepts that interact well together and spark off lots of new ideas in my head, I know I have the spine of the plot. Then I turn to my stores of phrases and characters and sort of audition them, to see which will fit in the book. The ones that don’t go back to the store.
AB: What are you working on at the moment?>
FH: I never like saying too much about a book before it’s published. However right now I’m at the plotting stage of my sixth book. I’ve also just submitted the first draft of my fifth book, which is a standalone novel. It’s set in an underground city, and features luminous Venus fly traps, magic based on cheese and a heroine who can’t lie.
AB: This sounds amazing! I particularly like the idea of cheese-based magic!
I’m fascinated by your use of language and how you construct sentences.
FH: I love language! I love words! I like the music of languages. Unfortunately it is a fault in my writing; I tend to over write, I don’t know when to stop. I get carried away with metaphors and alliteration. I need someone to rein me in, and shoo away the extra metaphors!
AB: Are you conscious of the age of the children you’re writing for? Is it a consideration in your choice of language?
FH: I don’t find writing for children at all inhibiting. I write for the 12-year-old me. I actually have a lot of respect for young readers, and think they can cope with darker subjects and more complicated plots than some people think. Of course children are used to not understanding every word they read; they’re used to looking things up and taking the time to puzzle out new ideas, whereas adult readers are far more impatient.
AB: That’s something two writers I love have said; Philip Pullman said that he writes for children because there is scope, breadth and depth in children’s writing that there isn’t in adult literary fiction; and Patrick Ness said that adult reviewers have complained about the size of some recent doorstop children’s novels, but you don’t hear children complaining!
FH: I totally agree. I have occasionally been told that my books are too confusing – and all these complaints have come from adults. The children seem to manage just fine. The only real limits I face writing for children are that I can’t have swearing, extreme violence or graphic sex in my books; but then I wouldn’t be doing that anyway.
AB: Do you write in a specific place, or are you one of these lucky people who can write anywhere?
FH: I split my time between Oxford and London. I have a rented room in a shared house in Oxford, and in London I have a small ‘office’ in my boyfriend’s house. It’s also a storage room! I’m lucky, they’re both private, but I have variety. I do also carry my laptop with me and I can write while I’m travelling.
AB: Is music important to you? Can you write to music?
FH: I have omnivorous music tastes. Often I will listen to the same song over and over obsessively, particularly when I’m trying to maintain a particular state of mind for my writing. To preserve his own sanity, my boyfriend has bought me some very good headphones!
AB: Do the lyrics affect your writing?
FH: Trip hop is very good; the vocals are just part of the music and aren’t always audible. I listen to it a lot while I write.
AB: Do you enjoy festivals? Do you go to many?
FH: I’ve been to a few Science Fiction conventions and literary festivals. I always enjoy meeting other authors because we’re no good at professional rivalry – there’s always a good sense of camaraderie. I love the idea of the Just So Festival; I love camping and the story telling element, and camp fires. The setting sounds marvellous.
I used to be a part of a historical re-enactment society; English Heritage let us stage interactive Regency murder mysteries in stately homes to entertain the public. The children would need encouraging by their parents for the first five minutes; “there’s the housekeeper, where she was when she heard the screaming?” but after that they’d form little Scooby-Doo gangs, running around looking for clues! I must admit, it gives you a proprietorial attitude to a stately home when you’ve had a cat fight on the lawn!
AB: And are there some authors you’ve particularly enjoyed reading recently?
FH: I love Garth Nix, and Philip Pullman. And some people are rather sniffy about JK Rowling, but I really admire her. She had a winning formula in her first two books, but she didn’t stick with it; she allowed her characters and the conflict to develop, and continued taking risks and trying out new things.
AB: It must have delighted you when Garth Nix called Fly By Night “a wonderful and wondrous novel”!
FH: Yes, but I liked him even before that!
AB: Thank you Frances for the interview! I hope that you enjoy the Just So Festival!
My thanks also go to Frances and to Ali for providing us with such an interesting interview. I’m really looking forward to meeting Frances at the end of this week at the festival, and if you haven’t visited Ali’s blog yet, do pop on over and discover a blog I’m sure you’ll want to return to.
For another interview with Frances Hardinge, head on over to read Betsy Bird’s conversation at the School Library Journal.
This week the Children’s Book section of the Guardian newspaper’s website is featuring Frances Hardinge and her book Twilight Robbery, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. If you follow this link you can read an extract from Twilight Robbery, watch a video of Frances Hardinge and read another interview with her!
Do return tomorrow when Frances will be sharing with us 8 books which played an important role in her development as a writer.