Frances Hardinge Talks with Roger

frances hardinge talks with roger

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frances hardingeIn The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge eschews the full-blown fantasy of her previous books for something more ambivalent. Does the tree of the title indeed feed on lies, rewarding its caretaker with truth, or has the author instead written a (superbly atmospheric) Victorian detective story? Hardinge and I talked just after she won a very big prize for The Lie Tree, the Costa Book of the Year, an award that hadn't gone to a book for children since The Amber Spyglass won in 2001. So we chatted about that, about writing fiction, and about Dungeons & Dragons. I believe she was telling the truth.

Roger Sutton: I heard you had a school visit today. How did that go?

Frances Hardinge: Pretty well, actually. Very lively class, in a good way.

RS: How old were they?

FH: They were about twelve. Year Seven, basically. I was talking about my books, and a little about the writing process. There was a reading and questions and answers, that sort of thing.

RS: Do you find that helpful, as a writer?

FH: To me or to them?

RS: You.

FH: Yes, I think I do, really. It's nice to see reactions. It's nice to meet readers. It's lovely when I meet younger writers and see them as mini-me, younger versions of myself. Writing's a very weird profession. You are basically operating in a void, so actually getting some sense of the readership, a little touch of reality — yes, I think that is useful.

RS: I honestly don't understand how writers — people whose main job is writing — do that. I would get nothing done if I didn't have to leave the house.

FH: There's always a danger of that. There are some writers who seem to be phenomenally organized and write the same number of words at exactly the same hours every day. I aim for approximately nine-to-five, but I'm not one of these ferociously, robotically organized people. What helps me is writers' groups, because they provide mini-deadlines, where I am repeatedly faced with the potential shame of not having written anything. My productivity peaks just before a writers' group session.

RS: How much will you share with a writers' group?

FH: In terms of the planning, I often don't share that much unless I want to run a synopsis by people. Quite often I like to be able to play out the chapters one by one, and gauge the reactions at different points, for characters or for plot — what people are getting, what they think is going on at every stage. Particularly when you're writing mysteries, a lot of writing is an exercise in manipulation.

hardinge_lie treeRS: One thing I really love about The Lie Tree is that in the opening chapters, I thought: I have absolutely no idea where this book is going. But the writing was confident enough that I felt like you were taking me in a direction; I just didn't know what it was yet.

FH: Thank you very much.

RS: I would think: Oh, it's this kind of book. No, it's that kind of book. It's this other kind of book. But I kept going.

FH: I try and do that, pull multiple tablecloths out from underneath the crockery if possible.

RS: Now, I haven't read all of your books, but this seems like the least fantastical of your fantasy. Would I be correct in saying that?

FH: Yes, I think you'd be entirely correct. In fact, in this book the fantastical elements are probably at their most ambiguous. In a way it's almost less important what the tree is than what people think it is and what they're willing to do about it.

RS: And you even have one of your characters say something like, "Maybe there's nothing magical about this tree. We just don't understand yet." I loved that.

FH: We are looking at scientific frames of mind about a thing. That's one of the reasons it seemed quite important to keep the Lie Tree ambiguous.

RS: Yes, it could be either some scientific thing we don't understand yet, or it could just be a tree upon which the characters are projecting their imaginations. I thought that was really cool.

FH: Thank you.

RS: When you are dealing with fantastical elements, how do you keep control of them? If you say, "I'm writing a fantasy," then really you could have a magic wand pop in at any point and solve any particular plot problem, right? So how do you make your rules?

FH: One has to know what the metaphysical rules are when writing, so that one isn't tempted to cheat. Aside from anything else, though, the readers have to have some idea what the rules are. They need to know what's at stake, how it can be resolved, how it can't be resolved, etc. Take M. R. James's short story "Casting the Runes." Basic setup: you have a vindictive magician who passed on a set of runes to an individual. That individual is now being stalked by a demon. You don't need to know about the demon. You don't need to know how the runes work. What you need to know are the rules. But once you have them set up, the reader would be justifiably annoyed if, for example, the demon turned out to be quite a nice chap and thought better of the whole thing.

RS: Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons?

FH: Yup.

RS: I tried that once many, many years ago — and I was so annoyed because it seemed to me that with the Dungeon Master, there was a capriciousness at work. I thought, well, I can't really plan here, because anything could happen, just because this person decides the elves are going to do something, and there goes my plan to get the gold. I found it very frustrating.

FH: It takes a games master with a good sense of story. I have to admit, I still role-play. Not just tabletop games, like Dungeons & Dragons. I also play in live-action games, which involve full costume, sometimes running around in woods, hitting each other with convincing weaponry. For a writer, there's nothing like actually being part of a story with a lot of other people to break you of any habits of thinking of your main character as the only true acting agent, with everyone else existing as foils.

RS: Are you kidding? That's how I regard life. You are all projections of me.

FH: In my case, what were you thinking?!

RS: Oh, just wanted to mix things up a little bit.

FH: I get asked if all my characters are reflections of me. It's possible, because part of my personality is a homicidal beast.

RS: It's one thing to talk about rules for fantasy, but what about historical fiction, which is where I would more firmly place The Lie Tree. How do you convey another era without getting anachronistic? How do you find the way to connect today's young reader to that material?

FH: There were points where I had to compromise. For both The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song, I had to compromise a little bit on dialogue. Cuckoo Song is set in the 1920s, and I was very excited about the idea of using 1920s slang. So I went and looked at 1920s slang and it's all like "What rot" and "I should say so" and "You little beast" and things. It's very difficult to sustain a mood of brooding horror if everybody's talking like Bertie Wooster. I had to instead default to something different, and that is timeless language. Which of course isn't exactly timeless, but it feels timeless. It's language of a sort that doesn't either alienate a modern reader or sound too jarringly of today. I ended up doing something similar for The Lie Tree. It is a bit Victorian — I've got some Victorian terms in there — but it's less formal; the way of speaking is less careful than it would have been. Again, just so the language doesn't seem completely alienating, so it doesn't lose any of the emotional content. But research — research is fun. If nothing else, you come across all these wonderful, implausible things that you just couldn't make up. I mean, there was no way postmortem photography wasn't going into The Lie Tree.

RS: Let's talk about your Costa book award. Congratulations.

FH: Thank you very much.

RS: First you won their award for best book for young people, and then you took the whole shebang, which is the first time a children's author has done that since Philip Pullman.

FH: Yes. I'm still a little prone to giggling about this, I'm afraid. I really wasn't expecting that. It was clearly a thing that was not going to happen.

RS: What do you think is the difference between a book for adults and a book for young people?

FH: Less than people think. As I've said before, I have a lot of respect for my younger readers, and I tend to assume that they can actually cope with quite a lot. So I don't dumb-down much. I do address dark themes. I do address some serious things. I hope the books are still entertaining, but I am happy with them. These are written for twelve-year-old me. Twelve-year-old me was quite a strange little girl. But I think The Lie Tree is a book that older versions of me could have read as well. Some books that are written for children have that magical quality of being different books when you come back to them at different ages. So when you read books like The Midnight Folk — that's a fairly different read when you're young than when you come to it as an adult, and start to see different elements to it. Even Peter Pan's very different. You come back to it and find yourself having sympathy for Hook and Mrs. Darling.

RS: Right. I felt that way about The Catcher in the Rye, which I read as a twelve-year-old, maybe, and loved it, and I identified with Holden. When I read it later as an adult, I still loved the book, but I was completely removed from Holden. There was no sense of identification, and instead I thought, oh God, this poor kid.

FH: Yeah, I read it late. I read it as an adult. I could kind of feel how I would have reacted, but that's not quite the same as actually encountering it when you're younger. Though twelve-year-old me is still very much alive and kicking.

RS: What was the twelve-year-old you reading?

FH: Mostly what she could get her hands on, and she could get her hands on quite a lot, because my parents had a lot of books in the house, and they were basically fine with my scrambling around with what I liked. She read a fair bit of fantasy. She'd already read quite a lot of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. She read Leon Garfield, which was her introduction to — I'm going to stop talking in the third person now, this is weird — it was my introduction to historical fantasy. Gripping stuff, smugglers and that sort of thing. It didn't pull many punches in terms of peril, grimness, death, and all the rest of it. Clearly I loved it.

And I was into murder mysteries. My gateway to mystery stories, detective stories, was Conan Doyle. I chomped my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories. My parents had this really tall bookshelf that was at the top of the stairs, on the landing. It had this huge ladder right up next to it, with a sheer drop down to the ground floor on one side. I remember being perched on the very top of this ladder reading "The Hound of the Baskervilles." There was a dark frisson there of metaphysical danger, an enormous spectral hound.

RS: It's funny, Conan Doyle is one of those writers that if one reads him at all, one tends to read him first as a young person. Does that make him a children's writer? I don't know.

FH: I think he's, again, someone you come back to. That is a very good question. I think there always has to be some question as to what kind of writer the author thought he or she was. That still counts for something, doesn't it? What the author thinks he or she is writing?

RS: We've been talking about it a lot here because of Harper Lee's recent death. To Kill a Mockingbird was in no way conceived as a book for children, but that's when everybody reads it. That's what the destiny of that book seems to have been.

FH: Yes. I guess it wasn't intended as that. I have rather adopted the Atticus Finch approach to younger people, which is basically if they ask you a question, answer it. Or if you feel you can't answer it, show your cards and explain why you can't answer. Don't make any fuss about it. Just be as clear as you can, which I think is a pretty good policy.

Sponsored byAmulet Books, an imprint of Abrahms

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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