An Interview with award winning author Lari Don

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Lari Don is one of my best discoveries of 2013. A storyteller and award winning author, with a range of books to her name which includes picture books, early readers and novels (her 20th book in just six years of writing will be published later this year), I discovered her when researching children’s authors who feature Orkney in their work.

M and I are currently working our way through Lari’s First Aid for Fairies Series, full of magic and music and set in contemporary Scotland, whilst as a whole family we’ve really enjoyed her newest book, a collection of retellings of Scottish myths, entitled Breaking the Spell.

We’ve being doing lots of “playing by the book” inspired by Lari’s work, but it mostly involves pretending to be dragons and centaurs and running around the garden singing, so I haven’t got photos to share with you. But what I do have, is an interview with Lari; I hope it will inspire you to seek out her books and discover her for yourself.

breakingthespellfrontcoverPlaying by the book: Would you tell me a little bit about Breaking the Spell – how you chose the stories for inclusion, for example?

Lari Don: I was very lucky – Frances Lincoln [the publisher] gave me a free hand, and I chose my favourites! But I know and love dozens of Scottish stories, so even with the aim of sharing my favourite legends and folktales, I had to make a few strategic decisions.

I was keen to mix lesser known stories with stories which are better known. I love the story of Tam Linn, the boy stolen by the fairies who grows into a fairy knight then is rescued by a brave girl called Janet, and I’ve used it as inspiration for several of my novels, so I really wanted to include that. I’m delighted that Tam Linn is the title story of the book (because Janet breaks the spell…) It’s probably one of the best known Scottish fairy tales.

Selkies. An illustration by Cate James, for 'Breaking the Spell'. Used with permission.
Selkies. An illustration by Cate James, for Breaking the Spell. Used with permission.

Other stories often associated with Scottish folklore are the shapechanger stories of selkies and kelpies, but I’ve never really connected with the best known selkie story about the selkie wife – a seal who becomes a woman when she comes on shore, but can’t change back because a fisherman steals her sealskin, then forces her to marry him. So instead of telling that story, I’ve told a story that happens AFTER that story, about a child of a selkie and a fisherman. It’s a bit dark and gory, but then lots of old stories are! And the kelpie story I tell in Breaking the Spell is absolutely original, because it’s based on a family story from my mum’s childhood on Skye.

Then, with those well-known Scottish magical creatures – fairies, selkies, kelpies – represented, I could start looking at less well-known Scottish stories, like the Celtic hero Cuchullin learning from a female warrior on Skye, the Witch of Lochlann trying to burn down Scotland’s forests, and a crofter who steals a monster’s baby… creating what I hope is a mix of familiar and surprising.

Lari Don loves the story of Tam Linn so much, she name her cat Tam Linn!
Lari Don loves the story of Tam Linn so much, she name her cat Tam Linn!

Playing by the book: What stories “got away” and couldn’t be included?

Lari Don: Well, I love Viking stories, and with groups of older children I often retell a bit of the Viking Orkneyinga saga from the point of view of the invaded (and victorious) Scots. But we decided not to put that story in this collection because it is (loosely) based on historical record, rather than pure legend. I may tell it somewhere else some time!

Playing by the book: Ooh, so are there are plans for another collection?

Lari Don: Another collection? Well, I’d love to, but I’ll have to wait to be asked…

Cate James and Lari Don signing books at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival
Cate James and Lari Don signing books at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival

Playing by the book: I’d like to explore a little the differences between oral storytelling and writing books; I would imagine for a storyteller it can feel strange choosing a single version of a story to set down in black and white. What does it feel like to you?

Lari Don: I do find writing retellings and collections of myths and legends very different from writing my own original fiction. I never retell a traditional story in print that I haven’t told to an audience, and when I’m working up a story to tell it out loud, I might make very sketchy notes, but I don’t ever write it down in full. I just work out how the story makes sense to me, let it come to life in my head, then tell it as I see it to the audience.

So… when I come to write that story for a collection, it’s a bit like taking dictation from myself. I just type the story as I tell it to myself. It then needs a few tweaks to make it work on paper, but it is essentially the story I tell out loud. And though I do change stories over time as I tell them (quite a lot sometimes, depending on the audience, and also on new things I might learn about the stories), what I’m keen to discover over the next few months is whether I still feel I can change and play with a story once it’s been put down in print. I do hope it won’t change my relationship with these stories. I don’t think it will though – I retold Tam Linn at a preview of Breaking the Spell at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I loved it as much as ever, and felt myself inside the story as much as ever.

This feeling of knowing the story before I write it is very different from my fiction writing, where I work out the story as I go along and don’t know what’s going to happen at the end until I’ve written my way there. So though my adventure novels are often inspired by the legends I love, I write them in a totally different way.

Playing by the book: I loved reading how when you are doing storytelling sessions in school you invite children to tell you other variants of the story you are telling, and also the scene in First aid for fairies where Yann and Helen tell the same story but from different points of view. Have you ever considered writing a pair of books which tell the same story but from different perspectives?

Lari Don: I have not yet told competing versions of a story, but I wouldn’t have a problem doing that, as I genuinely believe there is no one right version of a story!

But yes, that scene in First Aid for Fairies where they argue about the two versions of Tam Linn (from the human and the fairy points of view) is very much a dramatic distillation of my attitude to stories. I’ve done the same sort of thing when I tell a Viking invasion story from the Scottish point of view rather than the way the Norse saga writers told it. There are so many ways a story can be told, and the storyteller, the audience and the atmosphere on any particular day are all vital parts of that alchemy. And I don’t think there is a wrong way to tell a story. We all do it differently, and that’s fine!

Playing by the book: What are your favourite aspects of storytelling versus writing? What are the most challenging aspects of each?

Lari Don: My favourite thing about storytelling in the traditional sense, ie the standing up (or sitting on the floor) and telling an old story to an audience, is the most fundamental thing about storytelling. Sharing a story, keeping it alive, and passing it on to people who may tell it, share it and pass it on in their turn. Also I love the sense of being part of a tradition, the connection to tellers who have told these stories before. And I don’t think that connection is broken by a desire to retell a story in your own and different way.

And the other best thing about live storytelling is instant feedback from an audience. There is nothing like the moment of silence you get at the most dramatic bit of a story, when everyone is holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next!

Lari Don at a recent storytelling event
Lari Don at a recent storytelling event

My favourite bits about writing would take a novel to describe. But briefly – making it up, getting to know the characters, and living inside the story.

The challenges of storytelling are also the fun bits: the research to find the right stories, getting the story right in your head and in your voice (I tell a new story to cuddly toys, usually a squirrel and a dragon, until the story is strong enough to tell a live audience) and then finding the right stories to tell a specific audience – which often means changing plans at the last minute when you see who you have sitting in front of you.

The challenges of writing are different. Finding the peace and quiet to think, finding the time to do an idea justice, choosing which of many ideas to bring to life first. But when you finish a book and believe you have done the best you can with it, it’s a great feeling!

An illustration by Cate James, from 'Breaking the Spell'. Used with permission.
An illustration by Cate James, from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.

Playing by the book: I imagine that having the skills and passion of an oral storyteller must be so helpful when it comes to doing author events…

Lari Don: I think being comfortable performing and talking about stories is really helpful when it comes to promoting books, and I do enjoy it. You can’t really know what children find exciting or dramatic or emotional or funny until you actually tell them stories, read them passages, and chat to them about their own stories and writing. So while I try very hard not to use children’s ideas in my own writing (I’d rather they turned those ideas into stories themselves) I do find working in schools and libraries and at book festivals very inspiring. I might love a story, but it doesn’t come alive when I tell it, then it clearly doesn’t work (in that form) with kids. But if I tell a story and the hall is silent, and when I finish the hands fly up with questions and ideas, then I know it works. Those are the stories that made it into Breaking the Spell!

And that works for fiction writing too. I often read out drafts to kids (usually whatever I was writing on the train to the event) and get feedback. Kids are wonderfully honest!

Lari Don at the recent Tidelines Book Festival
Lari Don at the recent Tidelines Book Festival

Playing by the book: What’s the best (/strangest) question you’ve ever been asked at an author event?

Lari Don: There are quite a lot, but probably the most surprising and hardest to answer was when I was asked which of my own children I would feed to a monster (if forced, like the characters in the dragon story I’d just told, to choose one.) I didn’t feel able to give a definitive answer to that question, instead I threw it open to general philosophical debate.

Playing by the book: Ha! That was cleverly done 🙂

How do you create a working balance between actual writing and promotion (ie author events)?

Lari Don: I love this question. If you ever find the author who has got that balance right, I’d love to hear how they do it! I reckon I juggle four things: Writing, which I love. Events with kids, which I also love, and which may take time and energy but also repay me in inspiration, and in time to write and think and read while travelling. Online promotion, which I often enjoy (hello booklovers out there!) but which does seem to take up an expanding amount of time. And I’m also a mum, so I occasionally try to spend time with my own kids. It often feels like I have four full-time jobs, and that I’m not giving quite enough time to any of them. But I know that most writers (and most working mums!) feel the same… However I am passionate about stories, about writing them and sharing them, which makes being a kids’ writer, with all its pressures and contradictions, the best job in the world for me.

Playing by the book: I’ve read you love editing and I’m intrigued by this – I think quite a lot of writers, especially early in their career, find editing terribly difficult – as if it is throwing away lots of hard work. What do you love about editing? And how does this effect your relationship with your editors at your publishers?

Lari Don: Ah. I do love editing. And I think it’s because of how I write. Especially when I’m writing adventure books, the fiction that I base on Scottish magic and landscape, I really do just make it up as I go along. I work out the plot and the characters’ reactions and the dialogue and the resolution as I go. I just point the characters in the direction of a problem, put lots of obstacles in their way, and follow along with them to see what happens. It is a wonderfully exciting way to write, but fairly chaotic.

So when I reach the end of the story I have usually written a long journey with many winding detours, and I have to go back and slash it to bits. I have to turn a meandering stroll into a sharp pacy adventure. And that can mean losing thousands or even tens of thousands of words. (I gather that writers who plan don’t have to do this! But do they have has much fun on the way?) I think of editing as finding the story in among all the words. It is really satisfying, especially when everything joins up and makes sense, and particularly when I know I have written something original that I could simply not have planned, because it grew organically out of the characters’ journey.

I also enjoy the final edit, when I am making sure that I am telling the story (shorter and tighter as it now is) in the best possible words. I get very nitpicky at that point and will read the same sentence a dozen times or more until I’m happy.

None of this feels like throwing away hard work. It feels like refining and perfecting, and making all the hard work shine.

And I have no idea how this affects my relationship with editors, because it’s the only way I know how to do it. I do love working with editors though, because a good editor tends to ask awkward questions about the plot, and I find answering those questions always makes the book stronger.

An illustration by Cate James from 'Breaking the Spell'. Used with permission.
An illustration by Cate James from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.

Playing by the book: Although pace and plot are what drives your stories, setting is clearly incredibly important too (even if _scene setting_ isn’t something you enjoy: you’ve previously said, “I haven’t got a lot of patience with scene-setting“).

Genuine locations all over Scotland feature in your books, a device I think can really pull readers and listeners in, making the story even more real in their heads and hearts. I’m rather envious of you being able to use research as an “excuse” to explore Scotland. What do you love about your country and where is your favourite place in Scotland?

Lari Don: These are such challenging questions – you’ve clearly done your research! It is a contradiction, isn’t it? Setting is so important to my writing, because all my novels and most of the stories in Breaking the Spell are set in very specific geographical areas; yet I don’t like wasting my time or the readers’ time with lots of flowery description.

It was easy in Breaking the Spell, because I could trust Cate James’ illustrations to create the forests and mountains… But in the novels, it is more of a contradiction. What I usually say to kids who feel they ought to spend the first three paragraphs of any story describing the scenery and weather before getting to any exciting action (especially when someone has asked them to ‘set the scene’) is that I tend to describe scenery only while my characters are being chased through it! (That’s not completely true, but it’s a good goal to aim for!)

What do I love about Scotland? What does anyone love about their home? I love so many things about Scotland… The fact that the landscape looks great even in the rain has to be one of the main things. And Scotland has produced lots of very magical stories, which may grow out of our historical mix of cultures and influences, and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so much inspiration.

Lari Don at Smoo Cave, Sutherland, Scotland.
Lari Don at Smoo Cave, Sutherland, Scotland.

Deciding on my favourite place in Scotland is not hard at all. When I researched Storm Singing, an adventure novel based in cliffs and caves in the north of Scotland, I spent a freezing cold February weekend in the county of Sutherland, in the very far north west of Scotland. I wrote notes on snow-covered beaches, wearing two pairs of gloves. (So my notes were almost unreadable when I got home.) And I fell in love with the area, with the silence and the emptiness and the amazing rocks. I’ve been back to Sutherland on holiday every year since. Many of my books and stories are set in bits of Scotland I already loved (three of the Breaking the Spell stories are set on or near Skye for example, and First Aid for Fairies takes a trip up to Orkney) but Sutherland is somewhere I discovered because I was setting a book there, and I will always be grateful to the local seal legends for that!

Playing by the book: So, given the love of landscape, what about the language? Do you ever write in Scots?

Lari Don: Not often. Like many people, as a child, I spoke one language in the playground and learnt to write another in the classroom, and so while I can speak Scots, I naturally write in English. Many of the words I use in telling stories out loud are Scots, but when I come to write them down, I can’t help translating into English. I’m not really sure how I feel about that habit. It does lose a bit of the flavour of the language, but it also makes the stories more accessible outside Scotland! I fought off that tendency to write ‘proper’ in one of the stories in Breaking the Spell though – there’s a rhyme in Whuppity Stoorie which is written exactly as I speak it. I wonder how many readers will understand every word of it? But so long as readers get the jist of it, that will be fine for keeping the story rolling along!

Playing by the book: And now one last, very different question. You were involved in student politics, and then used to work for the SNP – what are your thoughts on the independence refendum?
Lari Don: I am a little bit involved in the referendum campaign – mainly as someone campaigning on doorsteps in my local area, when I can. But I also recently took part in a debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival about young voters and the referendum campaign (the Scottish government has voted to allow 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote on Scotland’s future.) And I am campaigning for Yes, for an independent Scotland.

However my desire for independence has nothing to do with my love of Scotland’s landscape and magical legends, and far more to do with my hopes for Scotland’s future. I am a strong believer in self-determination, and that definitely does affect what I write. I believe that children in books should solve their own problems without adults appearing at the last minute to sort things out, and that girls in fairy tales should defeat their own dragons without waiting for a prince to turn up and save them. On the same basis, I think that a small country with its own resources should be able to solve its own problems and build its own future, and not have to rely on a 300 year old political union which can never democratically represent us. (But I also believe very strongly in choice, and will be delighted if lots of young people debate the issues, get involved and turn out to vote – however they vote!)

Playing by the book: Thank you, Lari, it’s been a pleasure interviewing you.

Lari Don: What wonderful questions! Thank you very much!

Find out more about Lari on her website: http://www.laridon.co.uk
Read Lari’s child-friendly writing blog at http://www.laridon.co.uk/blog/
Follow Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter
Find Lari on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/laridonwriter

4 Responses

  1. Looking forward to getting to know this author. In addition, the art work looks exceptional.

  2. What a fascinating interview, as a Scot it is great to have such an insight into how Lari has used Scottish stories and landscapes in her writing. I can’t believe we don’t have any of her books already, and Breaking the Spell is top of my wish list!
    Helen D recently posted..Lucy Ladybird

  3. Yes, the art work is lovely – and quite a fresh take on folk tales I think.

    You’ll enjoy Breaking the Spell, Helen!
    Zoe recently posted..An Interview with award winning author Lari Don

  4. I have a feeling Lari Don is going to be one of my best discoveries of 2013, too! Thanks for a great interview, to both of you–lots of fascinating thoughts re language, storytelling versus writing, and more.
    Anamaria recently posted..National Book Festival

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