The Lie Tree: Author Frances Hardinge's 2016 BGHB Fiction Award Speech

hardinge_lie treeWriting is a thoroughly weird job. Writers perform in a void for an invisible audience. We show the tender insides of our brains to people we will probably never meet.

Sometimes I’m asked whether I write for an “ideal reader” or a particular “market.” To be honest, I don’t really know how you write for a market. If I tried to imagine a massed readership peering over my shoulder as I typed, I’d be gibbering with stage fright by the end of page two.

Instead, I write for a younger version of me. As a child I was an incredibly shy, mousy little thing, a master of the art of social invisibility. When people noticed me at all, they seemed to assume that I was sweet and fluffy all the way through to the middle, like candy floss. In reality, I had a rather black and surreal sense of humor, and my overactive imagination tended toward the dark. I had a penchant for murder mysteries, ghost stories, atmospheric horror, thrillers, and fantasy that has since proved to be incurable.

I was perfectly aware that I was not exactly what people supposed, and I didn’t see why the world should be any different. From the beginning, I’ve always felt an urge to peel back façades, to understand the secret layers of things. Normality might be hiding the wondrous or monstrous. Safety might conceal peril. Respectability might be a cover for a multitude of intriguing sins.

I occasionally hear people say that there’s something inherently reassuring about detective stories, and the formula of puzzle and solution. I’ve never seen mysteries this way. Indeed, I always liked the fact that they didn’t make me feel safe.

The setting of a detective novel is one in which safety is a lie. All appearances are deceptive. Everyone is unknowable. Everything must be questioned.

There’s nothing comfortable about the investigation, either. No secret is spared, and the culprit is not the only one with secrets. The quest for truth has no respect for power, etiquette, or sentiment. A murderer kills an individual, but a detective tears apart the tissue of lies that have allowed a community to function. It’s necessary but traumatic, and afterwards nothing can ever be the same again.

Even when I was young, I loved the shocks, the slipping of masks, the thrill of order disrupted. Mysteries frightened me, but they were cathartic and liberating, too. They are stories of danger and disillusionment, but not despair. Those characters that survive stagger out of the wreckage understanding themselves and others better than before.

When the core idea of The Lie Tree originally came to me, I didn’t know that it was a mystery or a historical novel. At first, all I had was the notion of the tree itself — a plant that fed on lies, and bore fruit containing secrets.

The story only came to life in my imagination once I considered a Victorian setting. This was an era when appearances were paramount. An age of sordid secrets, double standards, and double lives — everything that a mendacity-munching tree could need. During my teens, I had fallen in love with Victorian melodramas, mysteries, and novels of sensation, which fed my enthusiasm for monstrous secrets lurking behind respectable-looking doors.

Furthermore, this was a time when science advanced at a gallop. It was the age of the gentleman amateur scientist, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the wholesale disruption of humankind’s understanding of the cosmos. New theories and revelations left some believers reeling with grief and religious doubt. This too would be a part of my book, I realized.

All manner of lies would twist and twine through my plot. Not just the little deceptions by individuals, but also the untruths so big that nobody can see them. The nation-spanning, all-smothering lies backed by the social consensus. Lies reinforcing existing hierarchies. Lies about women’s abilities, frailties, and worth. The lies we tell others, the lies we tell ourselves, and the lies nobody questions because they are common currency.

And yes, The Lie Tree would also be a murder mystery. The tree is a thing of lies and secrets, and at the heart of every mystery are human lies, human secrets.

I imagined my heroine, fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly, as conflicted and clever, teetering on the brink of adulthood. Because of her sex, she would have faced endless rejection and discouragement, and learned to hide her intelligence, scientific aspirations, burning curiosity, anger, and frustration. After her beloved father’s death, she would accept the tree’s dangerous bargain and spread lies in her attempt to discover his murderer. The quest for truth would take her into dark territory and force her to sacrifice her dearest illusions.

Faith is living through a time of change, and her life has also been turned upside-down. I am always fascinated by transitions and revolutions, those little apocalypses when the world shakes and reshapes itself. However, people experience their own miniature revolutions, too.

At a certain point in our lives, usually during our teens, many of us start to question and challenge everything we have been taught. Cracks appear in our world. Our idols fall. It can be a painful time, but also liberating and empowering.

There is something valiant about asking questions with difficult or dangerous answers, the sort that can leave you in freefall. The best scientists and detectives are willing to do this…and so are most teenagers. They are the heroes of necessary disillusionment.

Sadly, most of us reach a point in our lives where we stop asking such questions. Our opinions ossify. We assume that we have found all the answers, or at least found our answers, and that no more painful exploration is required.

When I write for young readers, I’m not retreating into cozy nostalgia or yearning for the safety of the shallows. I’m tapping into the dark energy of that life stage, that questioning, iconoclastic impulse. Each of us is all of the people we have ever been, and it’s liberating to channel my younger self, with her macabre and mischievous curiosity and her unwillingness to accept easy answers.

My relationship with my work can politely be described as “turbulent,” and The Lie Tree was no exception. I was aware from the start that I was writing rather a strange book. The best summary I have ever managed is: “a Victorian gothic murder mystery with extra feminism, paleontology, post-mortem photography, blasting powder, and a tree that eats lies.” The last month of writing was a blurry montage of late nights, caffeine abuse, and muttered swearwords.

I could not have imagined that my strange, twisting tale would get such a generous reception. Many, many thanks to everyone involved in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards. I am thrilled and honored, particularly to find myself listed alongside such talents as Laura Amy Schlitz and Rebecca Stead.

I am having an utterly extraordinary year. Just now and then, the surprises that shake your world are really rather wonderful. Thank you again.

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB16.
Frances Hardinge
Frances Hardinge
Frances Hardinge is the winner of the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award for The Lie Tree (Amulet/Abrams).

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