Spies, sabotage and a mystery
3rd Nov 19

Spies, sabotage and a mystery

Look out for spies, sabotage and a secret weapon between two warring nations in CATHRYN CONSTABLE's novel, THE PEARL IN THE ICE (Chicken House). Here, Cathryn tells us more about her latest novel.

Q: Why do you mix real and fantasy elements in The Pearl in the Ice?

A: As a child, I never enjoyed books that were only about the real world. I felt cheated somehow. I could get reality in my own life, why would I want to read about what I could experience myself? So I was drawn to books that hinted at shadows flickering behind the veil of reality.

But straight fantasy can be a bit tiresome - as soon as the story becomes too weird, I get annoyed. It's a taste thing, I suppose.

When I write, I just like to give reality a nudge and see what happens.

Q: Was there any one thing that inspired the germ of the idea of The Pearl in the Ice?

A: I like writing about spaces and places that are on the edge of real life, or at least, real life as I, a London dweller, experience it.

I like places that feel unknown or that are freighted with mystery. That was (for me) the wilds of Russia in The Wolf Princess, and the skies above London in The White Tower.

I've known that I wanted to write about the sea for a while. So much of it is still unexplored, so it feels like a very mysterious realm. And then I started to wonder how much the myths around sea creatures might be based on a lived experience. So those two things set me thinking.

Q: In this story, your main character Marina has to discover who she is. Is that sense of self discovery what interests you in writing about and for this age group?

A: Those years between, say, nine and 12, are very special: I think it's when the essence of your personality is the most potent. The kernel of your character is formed and you're beginning to be much more aware of the world outside the confines of the family but you haven't made all the accommodations necessary to living in the adult world.

It's the moment when you are compelled to try and gain the tools and skills for the next stage of life's journey. Pass the popcorn.

Q: Marina is impulsive and courageous. Do you feel there is a shortage of strong female role models like her in children's books.

A: I think that Marina's impetuousness comes from her not having the ability (yet) to understand the consequences of her actions. She can always explain to herself why she might be doing things even as we, the readers, are wincing in embarrassment or are worried for her welfare. But she has the armour of not yet realizing that she can be wrong or that she can be harmed.

I didn't set out to make her 'strong' to mitigate against the idea that girls are 'weak'. I wanted to show the importance of the choices we make given the hand we are dealt.

I think that even more important than being 'strong' is being kind and thoughtful but fiercely determined to do good in the world. I think it's not enough to be 'strong'. The mesmerizing Miss Smith is a 'strong' female character and yet look at the damage she caused.

Q: The Pearl in the Ice is set in the past, at the start of WW1, but you introduce a very different, fictional conflict. Why did you decide to take that course?

A: The history is blurred from the very beginning. There are airships over London and place names aren't 'correct'. Needing a nation to nation conflict, I was aware that we are now very suspicious of the sort of nationalism that came naturally century ago, so it felt more appropriate to blur the identity of the 'enemy'.

Q: Did you still need to research this era, for example the clothing and the ships being built at the time?

A: I did do lots of research on the methods of British Naval Intelligence. I had this vague notion that WW1 had been a dreadful 'mistake', brought on by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo when in fact it seems that both the German and British Empires had been building ships and surveying 'enemy' ports and coastlines for decades in preparation for a European war they both thought would be won at sea.

I try to be accurate, even when I'm making everything up. It was very odd, however, how often I would imagine something and then find that something similar had actually happened.

Q: Perilous journeys also feature in your books and in this book, Marina ends up travelling to the frozen Arctic region. Would you describe yourself as a keen traveller?

A: I'm not big on adventure. I like a quiet life.

Q: If you could travel anywhere to research a new book, where would you want to go?

A: Tough question. The setting for the next book doesn't exist, and I can't think of any way I could get there.

Q: You comment towards the end of the story, on the power of the young, female voice. While this story is set in the past, do you feel that young women, now, are being heard?

A: Not always, but my ardent wish is that they keep up their chorus, keep questioning the status quo and asking who benefits from keeping things as they are.

I hope they keep trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. Societies work better for everyone when women have agency in their own lives, when they are not silenced, when they are able to contribute fully to society at every level.

Q: Where and when is your favourite writing place and time? What are you writing now?

A: My favourite place would be in my study at home, with the house empty, but I can't remember the last time I was completely alone. I have started another novel but my daughter is waiting for a transplant and so it won't get finished very quickly.

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