Photo: David Levenson
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Mention three fun facts that your fans maybe don’t know about you
1) My hobbies include historical re-enactment and live action roleplaying games (LARP)
2) I own a full-size Sith lightsaber that does all the right noises
3) A Titan trigger-fish once bit a hole in my fin when I was scuba-diving off the coast of Thailand
When did you know that you wanted to become an author?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. (Mind you, I also wanted to be an artist and an international spy. And when I was very young I hoped to learn how to fly unaided, and speak fluent cat.)
How long have you been writing? And what started it?
I know that I was producing (very) short stories by the time I was six. I think it helped that my parents surrounded my sister and me with books, and read with us.
I got my first short story published in a magazine in 2001, so I suppose that is when I technically became a ‘published author’. My first novel was published in 2005, and I have been a full time writer ever since.
Who discovered you? (Did you contact publishing houses? How was the process?)
I spent years writing short stories, occasionally attempting full length novels, and acquiring lots of rejection letters. Then a good friend of mine named Rhiannon Lassiter persuaded me to try writing a children’s book. Rhiannon was already a published children’s author, and had spotted that my style was actually better suited to children’s fiction. When I had written five chapters of this book, she tried to persuade me to send them to a publisher, but I refused because I thought the chapters were rubbish! Fortunately, Rhiannon didn’t take no for an answer. She stole the chapters from me, and took them to her editor, Rebecca McNally at Macmillan. To my great surprise, Rebecca offered me a book contract.
So I was discovered by two people, Rhiannon Lassiter and Rebecca McNally.
How many books have you published (so far)? And which genre?
I’ve published eight so far. They’re all fantasy, but different different kinds of fantasy. Actually, most of them are a jumble of genres. For example, The Lie Tree is a historical novel, a Victorian gothic melodrama, a murder mystery, a fantasy story, an adventure, and a tale about gender, science and religion!
Why this story? What made you choose this specific theme?
My latest book, A Skinful of Shadows, is very bizarre ‘ghost story’ set in the English Civil War, a time that interests me because I’m always fascinated by periods of change.
Like the rest of my books, it doesn’t really have a single theme, it has lots of them – class, tradition, gender, identity, trust, the way humans demonise each other, how people adjust to catastrophic change, and the way we internalise the influences of the world. More importantly, the story has sinister, eldritch aristocrats, spies, secret messages, narrow escapes and a vengeful ghost bear, so it was fun to write!
What inspires you to write? Which authors have inspired you? (Music, art, things in life?)
Like most authors, I find my inspiration everywhere – overheard conversations, random weird objects in museums, anecdotes told to me by friends, street names, folklore, historical tales, places I visit, people I meet, my own chance experiences, etc. Travelling to new places and trying new things also tops up my store of ideas. Many writers have inspired me, including Susan Cooper, Nicholas Fisk, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, Wilkie Collins, EM Forster, George Eliot, etc. I suspect the films of Alfred Hitchcock are also an influence.
What is the message of your book? How should the reader interpret it?
First and foremost I’m a storyteller. I don’t sit down with a message or manifesto and look for a way to wrap a story around it. However, there are problems of the world that concern and fascinate me, and these sometimes emerge in the stories I tell. My books have handled themes like class, gender, prejudice, persecution, cultural miscommunication and censorship, amongst others. These subjects are complex, so I generally try to explore them, rather than reducing them to a pat ‘message’.
I suppose the nearest I get to having messages in my books would probably be something like this:
1) There is never an excuse for treating someone else as less than a person.
2) Think for yourself. Don’t let anybody else tell you want to think… and that includes me.
How do you identify with the character(s) in your book?
I always need to have a sense of their inner life, and the story that they tell themselves to justify their own actions. This is particularly important in the case of villains. It’s useful to have an idea of what the character wants, what they fear, and which lies they tell themselves.
What are you currently reading?
The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov.
Mention 3 book titles that you wish to recommend
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
A Swift Pure Cry by Sioban Dowd
Watership Down by Richard Adams
When is your next book going to be published?
Not until 2019!