Witch by Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguié
 

Witch

Classic SFF Review

 
Critical Role Is A Natural 20 Of A Good Time
 

Critical Role Is A Natural 20 Of A Good Time

Livestream Review

 
Character Development: Character Death and the Ultimate Sacrifice
 

Character Death & the Ultimate Sacrifice

Article

 

Frances Hardinge Interview – A Skinful of Shadows

Frances HardingeFrances Hardinge is one of the finest fantasy authors around. Her inventive and beautifully written YA novels, the most recent of which is A Skinful of Shadows (2017), are widely loved by readers of all ages and have received many awards. They run the gamut from richly invented fantasy worlds populated by homicidal geese or magical cheesemakers to deeply realised and socially engaged historical fantasies.

Her debut Fly By Night (2006) won the Branfoard Boase Award, A Face Like Glass (2012) was nominated for The Kitschies, and The Lie Tree (2015) won the Costa Awards Book Of The Year, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

Frances was a Guest of Honour at Edge-Lit in Derby, where she was kind enough to agree to talk with Fantasy-Faction.

Your latest novel A Skinful of Shadows is out now with Macmillan. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about it?

A Skinful of Shadows (cover)Absolutely. It’s a historical fantasy, it’s a YA book, and it’s set at the start of the English Civil War, at the point where the entire country’s about to tear itself apart. But I’ve given my main character, a young girl called Makepeace, some other problems to worry about, because I’m not very nice to my main characters.

For one thing I’ve called her Makepeace, which is just cruel. She’s grown up surrounded by secrets. Her mother won’t tell her about her father or where they came from originally, and from about the age of ten Makepeace is plagued by terrifying nightmares, where smoky indistinct things try and claw their way into her head. She doesn’t know it at the very start, but this is because she has a hereditary gift… or curse, depending on your point of view. She’s hollow. There’s a space inside her where ghosts can take sanctuary. And all the ghosts can sense this. They might not mean to hurt her, but if they claw their way into her they possibly would, and if too many cram into her, her own personality will be squeezed out.

One thing I’ve noticed about your books is the memorable animal companions. You have the ghost bear in this one but also Saracen the murderous goose in Fly By Night.

In the case of Saracen, he was partly inspired by a goose owned by a friend of mine, a very nice female goose called Jemima. She was white and pretty and would potter around in the garden. She was a guard goose, which was not immediately obvious to people. And one day she broke someone’s leg in two places. In the goose’s defence, they were climbing over the fence into the garden. They knew they were allowed to, but nobody had briefed the goose. So that’s the reason for Saracen.

In the case of the ghost bear who ends up becoming Makepeace’s secret ally and ace in the hole, so to speak, his role is a little complicated because partly he’s a character in his own right, he’s an animal, but he’s also in a sense a part of Makepeace. Quite a wounded part, quite an angry part, but a source of strength. And a source of some fairly useful gut instincts.

Both of them behave like animals, rather than being anthropomorphised as in a lot of YA and children’s novels. Is this something you specifically wanted to avoid?

Fly By Night (cover)

I did a bit, partly because I think that animals are extremely charismatic and interesting without having to be like us. I quite like the fact that basically most geese don’t give a stuff about us, and will try to mangle us if we’re between them and their goslings. I don’t actually own a cat because I’m allergic, but I’m very much a cat person. I like the fact that cats are amoral little so-in-sos who might eat us if there was no other food going. They’re sort of like little, furry, charismatic, sociopathic housemates. I’m pretty good with that, it’s better than having a pet that’s like a slave or a child.

Your three most recent novels tend towards historical fantasy, set in particularly tumultuous periods of history, whether the English Civil War or the aftermath of World War I. What is it that attracts you to writing about these historical periods in a fantastical way?

As you correctly guessed, I am very drawn to historical periods that are times of change or transition, aftermath, rebellion. Points where the rules change. Some people cope with the change of rules or find ways to redefine them, and some people really, really don’t. I tend to think that change is a natural state for the world, that it should be continually breaking and fixing itself in large and tiny ways.

As to why I describe it in a fantastical way, probably for the same reason that I describe anything in a fantastical way. It feels natural. I think I probably see the allegedly real world through quite a fantastical lens. It is continually bizarre, and sometimes writing about the absurd, the grotesque, the exaggerated, is actually an easier way to convey the emotional truth of things. Just as sometimes describing a monster is a good way of describing an emotional mind-set or an emotional landscape that one is passing through, rather than doing so in a purely realistic way. In the case of mixing history and fantasy, they’re both otherworlds. They’re both alien and strange and hard to believe, but one of them truly existed. So mixing them doesn’t feel that unnatural to me.

There’s a strong feminist streak in all of them, particularly in The Lie Tree.

The Lie Tree (cover)Yes, The Lie Tree is the most overtly feminist of my books. When I was writing that story I realised at an early stage that I wasn’t going to be able to duck gender. If I was looking at natural scientists at the time and I had a young female protagonist who was an aspiring scientist, I didn’t want to handle it lightly. I didn’t want to have her basically snap her fingers at society, slap her thigh, and romp off in male clothing without consequences. Fun as that would be. And books where that happens are tremendously fun, I love them. But in this case, because of the way I was writing the book, I wanted to try and get a sense of how hard rebellion is, so that proper credit is given not only to those women who did find some way to rebel or subvert the system, but also those who didn’t, those who just muddled on somehow with the odds against them and managed to get on with their lives. It felt necessary in order to do justice to all of them.

So gender ended up being actually an overt part of the book. For the rest of my books, I don’t sit down and think, “Right, how shall I display my feminist agenda?” But I am a feminist, and so obviously that comes with certain concerns, certain insights, and awareness of certain contexts. That’s going to inform my writing, particularly when I’m writing in a historical setting. Because historically, being born a girl has come with its own set of obstacles. Even if those attitudes haven’t been central to my narrative, I wanted to at least nod to them, and acknowledge them.

There seems to be a switch between your earlier books, which are mostly set in completely fantastical settings, and your later ones, which happen in a world that is recognisably ours. Was there a conscious shift of that happening as you wrote more books?

Nope, and I’m totally going to mess with that. It’s nothing like that orderly, and I’m afraid I’m going to continue my perverse resistance to being easy to classify in terms of anything. Most of the first five books, as you say, were in alternative realms, but one wasn’t. My second one was set in the modern day in this world, apart from supernatural elements. I’ve ended up writing three in a row that are historical fantasy, but the next one’s going to be in an alternative world. I’m just going to write whatever seems to be the thing I want to write next. I’m afraid there isn’t so much a solid or sensible rationale to it.

There’s a recurring theme of truth versus lies and our perceptions of reality, centre stage in The Lie Tree, but also running through A Face Like Glass, and in Fly By Night. What is it about this theme that keeps you coming back to it?

A Face Like Glass (cover)I think there’s a number of different things that appeal to me. I am fascinated by lies and the way that reality can be reshaped. I am particularly interested by the lies we tell ourselves, which is of course one of the main themes of The Lie Tree. One of the most compelling lies that can be told to you is one that you’re conspiring in, effectively. You are complicit because it’s something you want to believe.

In a lot of my books where I’m glancing at prejudice, I’m looking at society-wide lies. Historical fiction gives you lots of opportunities, because you can look at things that people genuinely believed, that to us now seem wrongheaded and stupid and evil. But those people weren’t all incredibly stupid. They were able to rationalise these views in some way. These are abhorrent views that were held by otherwise decent and intelligent people. And that’s perhaps a heads-up that we should always be questioning our own views – looking at what we think, asking ourselves what we’re just accepting from the world around us, because it’s easy and acceptable to believe it, and which might seem ridiculous and noxious in a hundred years’ time.

Also, I’m fascinated by storytellers. I’m fascinated by the ways stories can reshape facts into a lie, or use fiction in order to tell the truth.

It’s really interesting reading The Lie Tree in the context of the last few years of politics, where we’ve seen how lies can shape consensus reality.

Yes, I didn’t mean to be quite that topical! And similarly, writing A Skinful of Shadows, I was researching the early English Civil War, which is of course a point where you have a country that is divided down the middle, where all sensible conversations are breaking down, both sides are demonising each other, and the rift is if anything getting bigger and bigger. I was reading that and thinking, you know, this feels eerily familiar!

Family relationships crop up a lot in your books, particularly the way that they are frequently not as ideal as we’d like. What is it about families that inspire you?

Cuckoo Song (cover)It’s an emotional powerhouse. Our family connections are always incredibly intense, and are wired into us from our earliest years. The patterns that we are taught to obey, the internal voices that we acquire, a la Makepeace, all of those remain incredibly powerful throughout our lives. So these are very important.

And my protagonists tend to be at an age where young people are often considerably more self-aware, well-informed and questioning than a lot of adults realise. And are very much starting to question the narrative they’ve been given by their families, and the world they’ve been given by their families. They become aware that they are outgrowing those, and start to see the flaws, and shove their idols a little bit to see which ones fall over (which is a very healthy and natural thing to do, and I think it’s a pity more of us don’t continue doing that as adults). Particularly in the case of Triss in Cuckoo Song (2014), well, suddenly finding that you’re not the good little girl that everyone expects you to be and that you remember being, you just can’t be it any more, that is no longer possible, you are somebody else, and at the same time discovering that you are physically changing… well, that’s not a unique circumstance, is it?

One of the things that’s refreshing about your approach to writing YA fiction is you are intentionally engaging with these things, and not talking down to kids.

Absolutely. I mostly think younger readers tend to be a heck of a lot tougher and smarter than a lot of adults realise. And also I’ve absolute faith in their ability to self-censor. If the book is not for them, they are very good at just closing it and reading something else. And also, I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I read my parents’ books. Including some with adult content. And it didn’t break my fragile little mind. It did not noticeably end my childhood. Some of them I found a bit boring, but that’s a different thing. If you’re going to be exploring such things, what is saner and safer than doing so through books?

So I take things pretty dark, I don’t tend to dumb down the language, I keep things pretty complex, and I don’t provide simple trite answers to what are complicated real world questions. I try to write with a bit of nuance. In some cases where I think a younger reader might not necessarily have access to the same context, I will clarify. But I try to clarify rather than simplify.

Have you ever had editorial kickback from that?

On the whole Macmillan have actually been really good. They’ve been very broad-minded. With my first book I did have one thing kind of queried, because I included a rogue printing press. And my editor said, you know, we’re great with the homicidal goose… but the rogue printing press, we’re not sure whether that’s child friendly. Could you get rid of that? And I had to say, no, it’s the plot. And they let me keep it.

Basically, they have been incredibly broad-minded. There have been points where I have been writing certain dark scenes, particularly in Cuckoo Song, and thinking, I don’t know if they’re going to let me keep this! And they turned out to be my editor’s favourite bits. I think they’ve become more and more ok with it since they decided I was probably YA. Because I am very difficult to categorise. A lot of my protagonists are twelve, which puts them neatly on the cusp between upper middle grade and YA. At first they were marketing me as middle grade, and now they’re sort of marketing all of my books as YA. And I don’t really mind either way, as long as people find them.

Fly By Night has the dichotomy at its centre, the power of the written word and social control via mass censorship. Arguably an unusual choice of theme for a children’s book!

Fly By Night (cover 2)The thing I can say about Fly By Night is, I wasn’t expecting it to get published. It came into being because I’ve got a very good friend called Rhiannon, who is one of these annoyingly talented people, and has been a published author since she was in her late teens. She’d seen a lot of my writing, partly through narrative-based role playing online projects (there was something called Elsewhere which I threw huge amounts of text into), and she suggested that we try writing something together.

We started meeting up regularly and brainstorming, and we quickly realised that we did not have a book concept, we had two. Rhiannon suggested, as these brainstorming suggestions were actually proving to be so positive, that we both write our different books and carry on meeting up. And she said oh, by the way, do you realise yours is a children’s book? And I thought, no, I didn’t realise that but now you say it everything makes more sense! My heroine makes more sense! But as far as I was concerned this was an experiment. So I tried to just have some fun with it. And so I just put in lots of crazy stuff. I put in lots of weird elements that I’d spotted on a holiday to Romania, and the Stationers company because why not? I’d found out about them during my masters, so I quite liked the idea of them being semi-evil. And a homicidal goose because why not again, and floating coffee houses, because I’d read about some kite powered technology.

There was the Charvolant, which was 19th Century rather than 18th Century, but it was a kite-drawn carriage. This guy called George Pocock invented it, partly because the toll bridge near his house would change you for the number of horses you had. And so he’d skim over for free. Apparently one time he actually overtook a carriage owned by a duke in his crazy kite-drawn carriage. And apparently he did have to tack, which must have been a bit scary for everybody else on the road. But I loved this idea. And since I was going to write about coffee houses anyway, because I like the idea of 18th Century coffee houses, I was like yes! Let’s combine those! Kite-drawn coffee houses! Who cares! And highwaymen and smugglers and stuff. Secret societies! Murders!

And then I got a book contract. Which I was not expecting. So yes, it’s a very weird book. It’s probably not necessarily something one would think of as an initial pitch for a children’s book, or an anybody’s book, I imagine. But it worked.

And so far it’s the only one you’ve written a sequel to.

Twilight Robbery (cover)It is, yes. The thing is, by the time I finish a book I usually hate it. The last thing I want to do is write another book exactly like it. I have written a sequel, but there was a gap. Fly By Night was my first, the sequel was my fourth. And I could just about bear to go back to that series then. I’d like to write more books in that series, but they will probably be, like Twilight Robbery, self-contained stories in their own right, that you can pick up and read even if you haven’t read the other two. I was quite careful writing Twilight Robbery to insert enough of the back plot that even if you hadn’t read Fly By Night, you could still read Twilight Robbery. So it’s not a trilogy.

Are there any other ones you’d consider revisiting?

Probably not. I do tend to leave the books with a sense that more things will happen after the end, and the character will go on to more adventures of various different sorts. But that’s got more to do with my attitude towards endings. I can’t think of anything more depressing than tying up all the loose ends and suggesting nothing interesting happened to the characters again. I tend to think of the happy ending as an unlocking of potential rather than a resolving of it. So I’m always glad when people ask me if I’m going to write a sequel to those other books because it suggests I probably got the balance about right, but at the same time I probably won’t. That character’s gone off now, other people can decide what happened to then. Fanfic can have them.

A Face Like Glass deals with artificial faces, where when you look at someone what you’re seeing is an artificial construct, it’s what they want you to see.

Yes, indeed. It’s a conscious choice like putting on a hat. I can’t actually remember how I came up with that, but I’d had an idea floating around in the back of my head for a while, and I knew from the start that I wanted the contrast. I wanted an environment where most people have these deliberately chosen faces, and one girl has an extraordinarily expressive face, and is actually incapable of hiding what she’s thinking or feeling. Basically, a girl who cannot lie in a city full of perfect liars. It was later on that I worked out that I also wanted to have a labyrinthine, possibly sentient underground city and crazy exploding cheeses.

It’s a shame that elements like exploding cheeses and perfumes that control people’s minds get left out of a lot of normal fantasy worldbuilding!

I have this compulsion or maybe anxiety, I’m not sure what you’d call it. A fear of writing something that’s a little bit too derivative. When I was brainstorming A Face Like Glass, and I had created this thing with expression designers, and giant glowing Venus flytraps as a light sources, and exploding cheeses and divination by theft, and all the rest of it, I showed the plan to Rhiannon, and asked her, do you think it’s a bit same-y? Do you think it’s a bit derivative? And she looked me in the eye and said, no Frances, it’s whacked out. But there’s always that little part of my brain going, oh yeah, that’s fine, but can we make it more interesting? What if we do this to it? Or we added that?

There’s a lot of detail in your historical fantasy novels. Does a lot of research go into getting that right?

The Lie Tree (cover 2)Yes. I am aware that, because I am writing historical fantasy, people would probably give me a bit of a pass if I wasn’t historically accurate. But I don’t want to have to be given a pass. I try very hard to get the historical non-supernatural elements as right as I can. I mean, I cheat a bit, in that I create places. The Channel island of Vane, on which The Lie Tree is set, does not exist. This gives me some freedom with its geography and so forth. Similarly the city of Elchester in Cuckoo Song I invented, which allows me to build enormous, slightly dodgy, slightly supernatural bridges, and weird 1920’s stations in it. But everything else, the societal details and all the rest, I try to get right.

I have to admit, I also really enjoy the research, because you discover some completely insane stuff that you just couldn’t make up. Like Victorian post-mortem photography. Which is amazing and clearly something that I had to put in a children’s book. And a lot of the sort of beliefs of the various different times. And Victorian death superstitions and death practices like the covering of the mirrors. And weird 17th Century medical practices. My favourite is: if somebody is desperately ill and you think they’re on their last legs, kill some pigeons and put them on their feet. Funnily enough there’s not a particularly substantial record of this actually working, but this is your last ditch thing. Dead pigeons on feet.

I mean I guess if nothing else is working…

Yes, you might as well! Though you could see those pigeons going *coo* “No I think he’s looking better! Try something else!”

How much research goes into the purely fantasy worlds when you’re making something out of whole cloth?

Gullstruck Island (cover)A certain amount, yes. Of course with those I can’t be wrong, so there’s less pressure, but I can be inconsistent. I do actually pull a certain amount of historical research into my worlds, because that’s fun. At the moment for example, as research for my current book, I’m looking into a lot of 17th and 18th Century submarines, and there are more of those than you might think! Some of them had oars. In fact, in the reign of James I, a guy called Cornelis Drebbel managed to make one that he could basically row up and down the Thames. And it looks like he actually got the King down in that death trap…I mean that amazing prototype! And up again, more to the point!

I do other research as well. I tend to visit places and try things and do things. For A Face Like Glass I went on a one day cheese-making course. And when I was writing Gullstruck Island (2009), I used that as an excuse to go scramble around on volcanoes. I like volcanoes anyway, which is why I included them in the book, but it gave me a reason to go there with my ‘research head’ on, so I was able to describe them better.

When you’re writing these stories, when do you know if it’s going to be set in a fantasy world or the real world?

I usually know right from the start. Not absolutely always, The Lie Tree is the notable exception. That’s one of the few situations where there was an actual lightbulb moment where I got the idea for the book. Most of the time, bits of ideas hang around in your brain for ages like dust bunnies, and eventually they kind of gather size and merge with other dust bunnies and become bigger dust bunnies, and eventually it’s a slightly grubby looking book concept. But with The Lie Tree, I was on a walk, and I was halfway across a bridge over the Thames, when I had the central idea of this tree. A tree that you feed by whispering a lie to it, then getting as many people as possible to believe that lie, and if you do so, it will bear a fruit that you can eat to learn an important secret. I think I knew immediately that I could use that as a central concept for a book, but for some time I had no idea what to do with it. For a while I was thinking about it as perhaps belonging in a fantastical context, and I actually came up with one or two different worlds that it could possibly exist in. And it just didn’t quite work. They were all fine, but the Lie Tree felt as if it was rattling around loose, just one weird thing amongst a lot of other weird things. It didn’t feel core.

The Lie Tree (cover 3)Then I got a message from my publishers saying how pleased they were with Cuckoo Song, and asking what I was writing next, and saying, have you thought of another historical fantasy? And I thought, well, hang on actually, could I write this Lie Tree concept as historical fantasy? Possibly. I started considering a number of possible historical periods. I’d often thought that probably I wouldn’t write a Victorian set novel, just because so many other people have, and I felt it had been fairly thoroughly mined by other authors. But then as soon as I thought of the Lie Tree in the context of the Victorian period, it just fitted. Immediately I could think of all these different ways to use it. And of course the Victorian period is full of lies and secrets. It’s full of hypocrisy and false respectability and facades and sordid pasts, etcetera. It’s a great time for murder mysteries.

At the same time I was looking at this bizarre tree and saying to myself, well, how would a Victorian look at it? There were obviously two main reactions. One was: Gah!, that looks far too much like the Tree of Knowledge, and I’ve been brought up in a highly religious way, not sure how comfortable I am with this! And the other was: What a fantastic botanical specimen! So the whole science and religion aspect opened up as a possibility. Then I started to get an idea of who my main two characters might be – this father and his daughter, and all of a sudden there were all these possibilities. It developed an emotional resonance, and this was clearly just where the Lie Tree fitted.

And it won the Costa Award.

Yes, apparently that happened! Yes. Wasn’t expecting that. The fact that I wasn’t expecting this is probably fairly clear from the footage, where I do a kind of electrified goldfish expression. And freeze to the spot and have to be gently guided in the right direction by other people.

It’s nice because your books have been nominated for a range of different awards, there’s the Carnegie Award, and A Face Like Glass was nominated for The Kitschies.

Frances Hardinge - Costa AwardIt was, yes. And Cuckoo Song had won the Robert Holdstock award at the British Fantasy Awards, which made me very, very happy. Because that was actually the first thing I’d won in about ten years. There had been various shortlistings but I’d been bridesmaiding it pretty hard. And then the Robert Holdstock Award turns up, and I end up hugging this lovely wooden thing that’s now on the mantelpiece. And then the Costa turns up.

I’d never even been shortlisted for the Costa award before. And then I get shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Award, I think, wow, that’s really nice! First time that’s happened! Then I find out I’ve won the Costa Children’s Book Award and I think, bloody hell, wow, fantastic! And then I’m invited to this awards ceremony, to collect Children’s Book Award, and also for the presentation of the Costa Book of the Year, but obviously I’m not going to win that one because the children’s book doesn’t win the big prize unless you’re Philip Pullman, and I am not noticeably Philip Pullman.

Funny old world!

What’s next for Frances Hardinge?

Well, I carry on surfing this ridiculous wave, I think. At the moment I do a lot more public speaking than before, and sometimes people send me to literary festivals in other countries and things like that, and since I love travelling my answer to all that is, yes, I will let you fly me to interesting places and pay for my hotel. That is fine, you can do that. Because I am in a fundamentally unpredictable profession, the answer to what’s in the future is always going to be, I don’t really know. But apparently I quite like unpredictability, and certainly of late the unpredictability has all been of an extremely gratifying and slightly scary sort. So, what’s next? I carry on winging it like crazy, and enjoying this wonderland I seem to accidentally have fallen into.

Thank you Frances Hardinge for talking with us! If you would like to learn more about A Skinful of Shadows and Frances’ other works you can visit her (very cool) website or follow her on Twitter.

Share

Leave a Comment