An Interview with Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge, acclaimed author of many bestselling books, such as Cuckoo SongA Skinful of Shadows and The Lie Tree, has recently launched her latest book, Island of Whispers. The tale is inspired by Greek mythology, specifically the figure of the ferryman, Charon; however, as is often the case with Hardinge’s work, she brings a unique twist. Rather than an immortal being, the new ferryman Milo is human and must travel with the Dead to the Island of the Broken Tower, facing many difficulties along the way.

I was given the wonderful opportunity of quizzing Frances about her new book, writing inspirations and her working life.

A lot of your books have historical ties, even if they sometimes have more fantastical settings. As an Oxford alumnus, did the history of Oxford, or indeed the historical approach of the English course, have any bearing on this approach?

To be honest, I was hooked on history and historical fiction long before I came to Oxford. Leon Garfield’s historical adventures for children had a big effect on meI read Smith when I was eleven, then devoured every other Garfield book I could find. I also loved ‘timeslip’ fantasy books like Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and by the time I was in my early teens I was enjoying classic Victorian novels.

Having said that, I’m sure that the historical approach of the Oxford English course enriched my understanding of different periods. Also, my Master of Studies course touched on the Company of Stationers, the development of copyright and some of the history of the printing press, providing details that I incorporated into my first novel Fly by Night. As for the history of Oxford itself, my eighth novel A Skinful of Shadows includes a brief picture of Oxford during the Civil War.

Something which struck me when I read The Lie Tree was the stifling world of patriarchal Victoriana and the tensions between science and religion, all of which felt very grounded in reality, making the titular lie tree even more mesmerising as a possibility. What inspired you to come up with this fantastical idea? Would you, like Faith, be tempted to use the lie tree?

I’ve been asked before how I came up with the idea of The Lie Tree. The short and accurate answer is, I can’t quite remember. I know exactly when and where the idea hit me, since it was during a long walk by the Thames. In fact, I stopped halfway across the bridge at Richmond loch, because I knew I had come up with the seed (if you’ll pardon the pun) of a story. It was the concept of the lie tree itself, which could be fed lies so that it would bear fruit containing an important secret. I can’t remember the train of thought that led to this, though!

At first I had no idea what to do with this concept. I considered using it in an imaginary, fantastical setting, and even devised a few, but in that context the idea didn’t have much power. It was just a fragment of weirdness rattling around loose in a weird setting. It was only when my editor said that she would welcome another historical fantasy that I began to consider period settings for my lie-munching tree. As soon as I thought about the Victorian period, the idea ‘took root’. This was an age of lies and secrets, a time when scientists were uncovering the secrets of the universe, and when faith of all sorts stood on shaky ground. This was where my tree belonged.

Unlike Faith, I don’t think I’d be tempted to use the lie tree. We’re already living in an age of misinformation, disinformation and alternative facts. I don’t think the world needs any more deception added to the mix.

Religion (be it the mythical faith system in Fly by Night, the classical mythology of Island of Whispers, or the oppressive Christianity of The Lie Tree) seems to be a recurring interest in your work. What is it about religion as a theme that makes you keep coming back from different perspectives?

I’m always interested in people, in what they believe and why. As a species, we’re always looking for ways to understand the cosmos, and also ways to cope with it. Like most other aspects of human nature, faith isn’t inherently good or bad. It all depends on where faith is placed, and the behaviour that results from it.

I love the fairy tale style of Island of Whispers, with its eclectic cast of characters and richly atmospheric settings. What inspired you to adopt this fairy tale style – did it feel fitting for the classical mythology you were using as a springing off point?

Some stories ‘want’ to be written a certain way. I don’t remember ‘deciding’ to use a fairy tale style, it was clearly just the way the story wanted to be written. It felt natural.

What do you think illustrations add to a text? Island of Whispers is full of gorgeous illustrations by the award-winning Emily Gravett, and notably The Lie Tree has a special illustrated edition by the incredible Chris Riddell. Does it ever feel like your vision is being lost, or enhanced by the collaborative process between author and artist?

I certainly never felt that my vision was being lost, quite the reverse! In both cases, it was magical discovering how my scenes, characters and settings looked in the mind’s eye of a very talented illustrator. 

In the case of The Lie Tree, the book was already finished and published by the time Chris Riddell kindly agreed to create pictures for an illustrated version. (I actually have his illustration of Faith riding the dinosaur framed on my wall.)

The Island of Whispers was a different arrangement, since from the very beginning it was written for illustration. While the first draft was written in full before the illustrations were created, the text was sometimes adjusted in order to fit better with Emily’s wonderful images, so it felt more like a collaborative process. It was an absolute joy, and seeing Emily’s pictures arrive in my inbox felt like a series of mini-Christmases. Her pictures are beautiful, and she has exquisite judgement when it comes to deciding what to draw, and how to draw it, in order to add emotional depth. There’s a series of pictures at the end that nearly made me cry, despite the fact that I’d written the story!

In several of your books you pull from folklore, such as the changeling tale that is cleverly subverted in Cuckoo Song by having the invasive changeling be the protagonist of the novel. Similarly, Island of Whispers puts a new spin on the legends of Charon through the ferryman being mortal himself. How do you think folklore and myth are still relevant in the modern day? Which of all the various folktales and legends still sticks with you, that you still feel is important to come back to and relearn? 

Folktales are the stories that persist whether they’re approved of or not. They thrive like weeds, spreading and adapting and pushing up in unexpected places. They have vigour and life, a rawness and forbidden energy. Like dandelions they thrust up through cracks in a modern pavement, the way they once found purchase in medieval pastures. Are dandelions ‘relevant’? Are they ‘important’? I don’t think they care. They just carry on anyway, timeless, thriving and disobedient.

When we hear an old folktale, there’s something about it that still tugs at our emotions and imagination. Some are ways of talking about forbidden feelings. Others provide vivid pictures of peril, misfortune and injustice. Yet others show us the soul of a landscape or place, by filling it with strangeness or supernatural creatures. Furthermore, these are stories that shapeshift. It’s in their nature to change a little with each storyteller, so that new audiences can find fresh meanings in them.

In my case, I’m always particularly fascinated by folktales that are tied to a particular place. The tale and the landscape have a symbiotic relationship, lending each other psychological power. That lonely path twisting across a twilit Suffolk field looks very different when you remember tales of Black Shuck the gigantic demon dog prowling in just such places…

Alongside your many award-winning novels, you have written lots of short stories. How do you decide what form a tale is going to take?

Again, I find that story ideas ‘want’ to be a certain length. Occasionally I get in a battle of wills with a story, and try to persuade it be a different length than it thinks it should be. I very seldom win these battles. It seems I’m quite good at coming up with ideas that suit 4000, 12,000 or 120,000 words. I find it much harder to form concepts that want to be 2000 or 80,000 words.

What is your writing process, and does it differ much depending on the book you are writing?

I’m one of life’s planners. Before I start to write I do a lot of research, plan out the main storyline and the personal arcs of the main characters. Sometimes while I’m writing I come up with other, better ideas, and end up deviating from my plan, but it still really helps to have that framework.

Some books require more research than others. Three of my books are historical fantasy, and those required a lot of extra research into everyday details. When I’m using an actual historical setting, I can be ‘wrong’ in a way that I can’t when creating a fantastical world from the ground up.

What was your experience getting started on your publishing journey? How has it changed now that you are a more established author?

I first started sending off short stories to magazines when I was sixteen, and received piles of rejections. I was in my twenties before I had a few accepted, and won a couple of short story competitions. Back then I found out about most of these magazines and competitions through the magazines Writers’ News and Writing. I wrote continually and obsessively back then, producing lots of short stories and several abortive novels, and also churning out huge amounts of text for online shared narrative games. Eventually a good friend named Rhiannon Lassiter persuaded me to try writing a children’s book, and when I had written five chapters she urged me to show them to an editor. When I proved reluctant, she took matters into her own hands, and took my chapters to an editor! A week later, to my colossal surprise, I had a book contract. As you can imagine, I’m very grateful to Rhiannon!

Needless to say, this was decades ago, and the publishing world has changed since then. The internet and digital magazines have come into their own, self-publishing has become easier and more widely accepted, etc.

Macmillan Children’s Books signed a contract with me for my first book, and I’ve stayed with them ever since. They’ve treated me well, and have been very broad-minded when faced by my rather eccentric book concepts! It’s nice having a publishing ‘home’, and editors with whom I can have long term professional relationships. Writing is always a precarious profession, and there are few financial guarantees, but I’ve been luckier than most.

Finally, what advice would you give to budding writers at Oxford?

Here are the tips I usually give young writers: Also, don’t be afraid of writing rubbish. Take risks, try things that don’t work, write when you don’t feel like it, and don’t give up even if you’re not happy with the result. The more you write, the more you learn about your craft. No writing is wasted. Also, no writing is ever perfect. Don’t hide your work away from the world because it’s not flawless yet. It never will be.

Featured Image Credit: Island of Whispers cover, illustrated by Emily Gravett. Photo of Frances by Urszula Soltys.