One of the most striking works of fiction for young people this year won’t be winning any Newberys. That’s because Frances Hardinge, the brains behind the extraordinary Gullstruck Island (called The Lost Conspiracy here in the U.S.), is also a resident of the British Isles and is technically ineligible. A true pity since as novels go, Gullstruck Island is probably the smartest, fastest, most intriguing middle grade chapter books to hit bookstore shelves in recent years. I was honored to get a chance to ask Ms. Hardinge some questions about her book, as well as what she’s working on at the moment, her influences, and the relative importance of radishes.
Fuse #8: It sounds a bit trite of me to ask, but which character was the most fun to write for in Gullstruck Island ?
Frances Hardinge: The agent provocateur dentist, Jimboly, was consistently fun to write. She had a certain malignant life of her own, and was therefore one of those obliging characters who virtually write their own scenes. The most interesting to depict, however, was probably Minchard Prox, because of the ways in which his personality evolves. I wanted to make all the changes believable, and to ensure that, in spite of everything, the reader kept up a reluctant thread of sympathy with him.
F8: In terms of publication, what are the differences you’ve experienced between being published in Britain and being published in America? For that matter, are the fans different? Or the book tours?
FH: As yet I have never had a book tour in the UK, only a series of one-day public appearances at schools, librarian conferences, book shops, etc. For my first book, on the other hand, Harper Collins arranged for me to visit the US for a public speaking course, a pre-publication tour, and a fortnight long post-publication tour visiting seven cities and about eighteen schools. I suspect this difference is mainly a matter of geography and expense. It is fairly easy and inexpensive to have me travel to one-day events within the UK, whereas if somebody is paying to fly me to the US it makes sense to keep me there for longer and cram the schedule with events so that the trip is worthwhile. However I also got the impression that more money was spent on marketing a newly published book in the US. Certainly I was wonderfully pampered during my stay.
As a British visitor to an American school I felt the same sense of familiarity and unreality that I experienced when visiting Manhattan. Everything around me was so similar to what I had seen in US teen movies and TV shows that I felt as if I was walking around a film set. Once I had recovered from this, however, I found the kids were not so very different from the ones I had met on school visits to the UK. Though the American students were a bit more hopeful that, as a British author, I might have met J K Rowling. I was sorry to disappoint them.
F8: There is no good answer to the question "Where do you get your ideas?" so I’ll avoid asking that one. On the other hand, your books tend to contain events and descriptions that one does not tend to find in your average everyday rote fare. Eyeballs growing out of knuckles, a homicidal goose, sentient volcanoes, perpetual smiles, floating tea rooms. . . . here’s what I’ll ask instead. Who did you read as a kid? And whom do you read now?
FH: As a child, I read a lot of Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Nicholas Fisk, Leon Garfield and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. For a long time my favourite book was "Watership Down," still one of the darkest and grittiest children’s books ever written about fluffy herbivores. In my teens I took to detective fiction, reading Chandler, Christie and any other murder mystery I could get my hands on. I also read a lot of Dickens, and I think it shows through in my writing style from time to time.
Now I find myself reading a lot of other children’s authors, but I still have a soft spot for nineteenth century mysteries or melodramas, particularly those written by Wilkie Collins. I still enjoy reading and re-reading the classics, and have just finished Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter" once again.
F8: This is a personal one. Will there be a Gullstruck Island sequel? The book stands on its own, true, but now I want to know even more about these characters in the future. Any plans to return?
FH: I have no plans to write a sequel, but it makes me happy when readers feel there would be room for one. I hate leaving characters at anything that feels like a full stop. Life simply does not work like that. I prefer to leave the reader feeling that the book’s world and its inhabitants will continue after the last page, and that this is not the end of their story.
F8: I’ve heard tell that there will also be a sequel to Fly By Night one of these days. Can you give us a hint as to what to expect in it?
FH: Expect kidnaps, betrayal, chocolate, moonlit chases, traps within traps, consequences, fire from above, death-defying chimney incidents and an extremely important radish.
Thanks to Laura Lutz for helping me to connect with Ms. Hardinge, and thanks to Ms. Hardinge for taking the time to answer my questions.