Tuesday 9 August 2016

Real Wild Child – an interview with the adventurous Abi Elphinstone

Abi Elphistone writes children’s fiction which draws strongly upon the Brothers Grimm, shamanic and folklore traditions, and reflects her love of nature. This imagery, mixed with rugged outdoor adventure, could become a cult to those middle-grade readers with whom it strikes a chord! 

Her debut novel, The Dreamsnatcher, tells the story of the gypsy child Moll and the wild cat, Gryff, who befriends her as they take on the dark magic of the Dream Snatcher and finally discover the truth of what happened to her parents. The interplay between the young characters and the adults around them gives a softer grounding to the epic journey undertaken.  

Abi Elphinstone & The Dreamsnatcher
Kim Vertue asks Abi Elphistone a few questions...

At a recent ‘Freedom to Think’ event, you talked about how you set about writing a story and what has inspired you throughout your life, particularly your childhood in Scotland where you spent much time, “running wild across highland glens.” 

The ‘Freedom to Think’ initiative seems to encourage adults, and institutions such as schools, to allow our busy youngsters more ‘downtime’ to day-dream, and generally muck about, in order to foster creative thinking. This something that is reflected in your own up-bringing - can you remember some of the freedoms you were allowed as a child that fostered your imagination?

I didn’t grow up with parents who pushed for me to be in the top sets or who insisted on extra tuition in the holidays to improve my spelling and vocabulary. Instead my parents gave me space. They let me scramble across the Scottish moors, build dens in the woods and jump into icy rivers. I think that out of this freedom I learnt to imagine. And I realise now that the wild woodland world in my first book, The Dreamsnatcher, is almost an extension of my childhood - minus the tree ghouls …and witch-doctors. The time I had back then to ‘be bored’ and to daydream was when I ‘created’.

Are there any particular stories you were told or were read to you when very young that inspired your love of stories? 

I loved reading fairytales as a child – and I still do now. In fact, before I write any book, I read a fairytale. I find them the most powerful, and magical, form of storytelling. The language is often simple but the themes are complex and they provide invaluable motifs to draw on. My parents used to read to me every night - Brothers Grimm fairytales, the Narnia books and the Roald Dahl books, mostly.

You have also talked about how stories are not only found in the form of texts. Were pictures, or music often your way into stories?

Definitely pictures. I’m dyslexic so I’m a visual learner. I draw maps of scenes before I write them and I often turn to photography books - especially the Planet Earth ones - if I’m stuck on describing a scene.

Did you tell stories back to others or to yourself when you were young, perhaps to counteract boredom if the weather was too bad for outdoor play, or when in bed waiting for sleep? 

I did a lot of dressing-up as a child and together with my siblings, we wrote and performed plays in the garden. We also wrote newspapers and tried to sell them to our parents… Most days, I had a narrative playing out in my head – especially when I walked over the moors or built a den in the woods – but often that’s where the stories stayed. It was only in my twenties that I started writing my stories down.

I started writing when I was 23, alongside a teaching job. I used to finish my GCSE marking at 9pm then I’d switch to writing until 11 p.m. But it wasn’t until I was 29 and on my fourth book that I got my first book deal with Simon & Schuster.

When you first began to read books independently, which was the first book, or books, that really grabbed you and took you on a journey?  

The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy were the first chapter books that got me hooked on independent reading. I think it was the superb world building of Miss Cackle’s Academy For Witches – I wanted to be a part of it – and the fact that the heroine, Mildred Hubble, wasn’t the prettiest or the cleverest girl in the class but she was still the heroine of the story. And from there I read all the Just William books then I moved on to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.

Do you have an all-time favourite book or writer, one you have returned to, re-read or has somehow contributed to who you are?

One of my favourite books of all time is Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights. Lyra Belacqua taught me to be brave as a child and I think that image of her riding an armoured polar bear over the Arctic ice plains is one of the most memorable moments in any children’s book. That and Lucy Pevensie pushing open the wardrobe door. I also adored David Almond’s Skellig and Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder – the prose in both books is beautifully lyrical. And I love the tension and detail in Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books.

Which is the most recent book you have discovered, read and really enjoyed?

Probably The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. The language is beautiful, the heroine is fierce and there are wolves – one of my favourite animals.

On your website you have a ‘playlist’ of some of the music you were listening to whilst writing The Dreamsnatcher – we also spotted the Leonard Cohen reference, ‘there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’…

Yes, I love that Leonard Cohen lyric! I also pinched some of Trent Reznor’s lyrics by way of Johnny Cash’s version of his song, Hurt, for The Shadow Keeper ending. I don’t usually listen to music when I write but if I’m working on a climactic scene I often put on the Narnia battle music or the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack!

In your ‘Freedom to Think’ talk, you described your approach to writing and it was somewhat different to the other writers sharing the stage. You seem to place an emphasis on ‘adventures’ as part of your creative process. Can you tell us a little bit about how travel and primary experience inspire your writing?

I grew up in the wilds of Scotland. Some days I’d go searching for golden eagles up the glen with my Dad and we’d spot them in their eyries on the highest crags. Other days the eagles didn’t show and we’d just stand in the middle of the moors, surrounded by the stags and the cairns and the mighty lochs, and I remember marvelling at it all, at the sheer wilderness spread out before me. And I think the sense of wonder I experienced back then at those remote and almost forgotten places made me want to write wild, outdoor adventures years later – and with that has come some very exciting book research trips…

Abi Elphinstone on an Icelandic advemture
I’ve lived with the Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia, and watched killer whales dive in the Arctic, for upcoming stories… I’ve abseiled into jungle caves for The Shadow Keeper and I’ve spent time with a wonderful Romany gypsy who taught me how to carve catapults from ash and sculpt bows from yew for The Dreamsnatcher. I find that book research adventures not only provide me with invaluable details for my stories but they also remind me of the sense of wonder at the heart of our world.

Did you enjoy the experience of discussing your writing method in front of an audience?

It was such a treat to speak alongside Jonathan Stroud at the Oxford Literature Festival – I adore his books – and I think his 'Freedom To Think' campaign is fantastic. Hopefully I’ll be teaming up with Jonathan for some more events in the future.

Do you follow a tried and trusted writing regimen, or is it always evolving?

Every day varies and I often have school visits (I did 97 of those last year and am doing over 150 this year!) so on those days I write on buses and trains to my events. But when I have a day to write at home, I get up at 6:15 a.m. and write in my shed in the garden until it’s time for bed. I usually break for twenty minutes or so for lunch but otherwise I just get stuck in. I lose all sense of time when I’m in my shed!

What advice, or ‘words-of-wisdom’, can you share with aspiring writers?

I had 96 rejections from literary agents on the three books I wrote before my debut was published, so I’d urge aspiring writers to keep trying, keep honing their craft, even in the face of repeated rejection.

So, what next from Abi Elphinstone?

I have a short story coming out this November, called The Snow Dragon, then the third book in The Dreamsnatcher series comes out in February. After that, I’m writing an Arctic book – possibly a standalone – and at the moment all I know is that there will be a girl called Eska, a golden eagle called Balapan and an ice fortress ruled by an evil composer. After that, I’ve got plans for another series: remote settings, fierce kids and wild animals.

Thank you, Abi Elphinstone!

Abi Elphinstone was talking with Kim Vertue

No comments: