AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Michelle Harrison

    Michelle Harrison

    A SPRINKLE OF SORCERY

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    FEBRUARY 2020


    The Widdershins sisters make a dramatic return in A SPRINKLE OF SORCERY, the sequel to A TOUCH OF MAGIC, with a life-changing adventure that takes them to a mythical island with pirates, treasure and will-o-the-wisps along the way. Readers aged 9+ can expect surprises, unexpected heroes and a very satisfying ending.

    We asked author MICHELLE HARRISON to tell us more about A PINCH OF MAGIC and its follow-up, A SPRINKLE OF SORCERY:


    Q: Was there something you saw or read that first inspired A Pinch of Magic?

    A: It began with a book called The Lore of the Land, in which I found a snippet of Essex folklore. It's said there will always be six witches in the village of Canewdon, and whenever one of them dies a stone falls out of the church walls. I loved the idea of this, and it formed the basis of the curse in A Pinch of Magic: the witches became a sorceress and the church evolved into a prison tower.


    Q: What happens in A Sprinkle of Sorcery, the sequel to A Pinch of Magic?

    A: A runaway turns up in the night at the home of the Widdershins sisters - a runaway the prison warders are searching for. The girls attempt to help this person, but disaster strikes. Before the night's out, one sister is missing and the others are on a perilous mission to get her back, as well as unravelling the mystery of who the runaway really is. Their journey takes them away from Crowstone and in search of an island that only exists on a magical map.


    Q: Why did you want to return to the world of Crowstone, and what is it about this world that draws you as a writer?

    A: I get very attached to my characters. Once I'd finished A Pinch of Magic I couldn't bear for it to be the end for the Widdershins sisters, as I enjoyed the dynamic between them. I also loved writing such a gloomy, atmospheric setting with swirling marsh mists and a hulking prison. It felt as though there were more stories demanding to be told.


    Q: Each of the books is framed by a folk tales and stories about magic, why did you decide to give the books this structure?

    A: As a reader I find stories within stories very appealing, and in the first book it seemed a great way to explore the history of the Widdershins curse. I found, when writing these sections, that they flowed out of me really easily - perhaps it's to do with a shift in scenery.

    I was keen to keep a similar structure in A Sprinkle of Sorcery, particularly splitting them into three parts which immediately gives it a magical feel. The number three brings to mind fairy tales: the three bears, the three little pigs and so on.


    Q: The stories follow the adventures of the Widdershins siblings - Betty, her younger sister Charlie and her older sister Fliss. Why three sisters, and how did their characters develop?

    A: It was a fluke. Initially I only intended it to be Betty, but as the planning of the first book shifted from witches to a family curse, I needed to give her a family to raise the stakes.

    I'm the youngest of three sisters so I knew this was something I could write about convincingly, with warmth and humour. The three characters needed a lot of work in the early drafts to make them all distinct from each other. At first Charlie was a bit too whiny, and Fliss rather weak. I tend to focus on plot first and work on the characters after.


    Q: Their grandmother is fabulous - is she based on anyone you know?

    A: She's loosely based on my mum, who used to run a bar and could be fearsome when she needed to be. Unlike Bunny Widdershins who's nearly always tipsy and sneaking off to puff on her pipe, my mum never smoked and was virtually teetotal. She might indulge in the odd Baileys at Christmas but even that would leave her dizzy!


    Q: There is a lot about will-'o-the-wisps in A Sprinkle of Sorcery, has this folktale image always drawn you?

    A: I never gave much thought to will-o'-the-wisps until I invented Crowstone. I've always been more interested in the folklore of fairies and witches, but as soon as I wrote about the marshes they seemed just the place for these mysterious orbs of light. I've never seen anything like that, but I live in hope...


    Q: The Widdershins have three magical objects - A carpet bag that takes you travelling; Russian dolls that can make you invisible; and a mirror to see what people are getting up to. Which one would you choose for yourself?

    A: I'm torn between the bag and the dolls. As someone who travels a lot for events and school visits, a magical bag would be lovely. Having said that, long train journeys are great for catching up on reading, so I'll choose the dolls. Being invisible would offer so much potential for mischief!


    Q: Which of the islands in the story would you visit, if you could?

    A: I'd love to go to the main isle of Crowstone and hear one of Fingerty's stories by the fire in the Poacher's Pocket - as well as meeting the Widdershins. I'd also like to sneak around the prison on the island of Repent - but only if I could use the dolls to be invisible.


    Q: Where is your favourite place to write - and what are you writing now? Will we be seeing more of the Widdershins?

    A: I always end up writing in my living room armchair, it's where I feel most comfortable. I'm about to start the third in a younger series for Stripes, called Midnight Magic (the first is out in October), and after that I'm delighted to say there will be a third Widdershins book. I've discussed the outline with my editor and have been given the go-ahead. Exciting!


    Q: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process - how do your books develop? Are you a planner, do you re-write drafts significantly etc?

    A: I plan to an extent - it's helpful to have a framework in the form of what I call 'an extended blurb'. I never know all the answers when I start, but I've learned to trust myself to figure things out as I go along. I'll get more ideas as I get deeper into a story so I've found it's best not to be too rigid.

    My first drafts are fairly polished in terms of the writing, but way too long. During edits I'll have to restructure; rewriting / shifting or deleting chapters. It varies with each book. Pinch was a hell of a job to write and edit, but thankfully Sprinkle was much easier.


    Q: Your character, Betty, loves maps and the idea of travel - are you a traveller? Where have you visited that has stood out for you or inspired a story?

    A: I'm not as adventurous as Betty - I'd choose a good book over sailing the high seas! Having said that, I enjoy opportunities to nose round old or unusual places for story inspiration. Both the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, Cornwall, and the Pitt Rivers in Oxford have inspired a YA novel that's in progress.

    I also spent a weekend on Osea Island in Essex which partly informed Crowstone and the surrounding islands. One of the best places I've been is Chambercome Manor in Devon, whose ghost stories I built on in Unrest. And I'll be drawing on the history of that place once more in the third Widdershins book - watch this space...


    A TOUCH OF MAGIC and A SPRINKLE OF SORCERY are both available now from Simon and Schuster Children's Books.




    THE OTHER ALICE

    JULY 2016

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS


    In her latest novel, Michelle Harrison (author of The Thirteen Treasures) explores the art of writing and being a writer through her character Alice who is obsessed by writing and who, it transpires, has the ability to bring her characters into the real world.

    When Alice discovers that some of her characters are now living, breathing people and in her town - including the evil Dolly - she realises she has to find a way to get them back into the story by finding an ending. But Dolly has other plans....

    We asked author Michelle Harrison to tell us more about THE OTHER ALICE:


    Q: Why did you call your main character Alice?

    A: I really, really like the name. I like that it's associated with being a bit mad from Alice in Wonderland, but there's also a line in the book that mentions Mad Alice Lane, which is in York, and I really liked it.


    Q: Why did you decide to explore the writing of stories in this book?

    A: Books about books have always appealed to me and there's so much of me in this book! Although Alice is a much more dedicated writer than I am, she gets consumed by it and I'm not always like that except when I wrote my first book. But Alice takes it to the extreme.

    Some of what happens in the book is taken from my real life, the things about being a writer. When Alice asked her mum to lock her in the boot of the car so she could practice what it was like to be kidnapped, that was something I made my mother do to me, and like Alice I also drink lots of tea while I'm working, and my writing room is always cold because I work better if it's cold.

    There's a lot of me in the book, it's written from the heart, because writing is my source of income and stories are my life, and I wanted to do a tribute to that.


    Q: Alice's writing is also treated almost as a curse at times - is that something you also feel?

    A: Sometimes, yes. There seems to be a bit of a myth that once you're published everything is okay and wonderful but being published actually brings more worries because then you're compariing yourself to others and sometimes it can feel like everything is against you.

    When you're writing, you feel locked into these stories but at the same time there's nothing else you would rather do. The best times are when you've finished a book and you're hearing back from children who didn't like reading but who do now because they've read and loved your book - that's a great place to be.


    Q: Is there also a sense in the story that, for a writer, the story and developing all the characters can be overwhelming?

    A: I think that as you write you are all the characters and that can be hard. I thought that being all the different characters at once could also be a metaphor for mental illness.

    In my first drafts of the story Midge, Alice's younger brother, comes over as an unreliable narrator; the magical aspects are fabricated by Midge whilst Alice had actually broken down.

    There are still elements of that original idea in the book. The thing about mental illness is that it affects the whole family and Midge gets drawn into Alice's fantasy and obsession. For him, it becomes normal, or real.


    Q: You also have one character, Piper, who can't read and another - the Other Alice - who at one point can't talk, trying to communicate with each other. Are you using that to highlight issues around illiteracy?

    A: I needed to put some challenges in there for the characters but I was also conscious of news stories reporting how many adults as well as children are illiterate and the stigma that goes with that.

    I wanted to show that, despite not being able to read, Piper gets by - he's not stupid - and I wanted to show unity with people who might struggle with reading.

    The other Alice not being able to talk is linked to Alice's writer's block and her father, Gypsy, is an echo of that as there is a curse that makes him unable to write at times, too.


    Q: The story that Alice is writing within your story is the idea of a museum of unfinished stories. Where did you get the idea for that?

    A: I'm not sure where it was but I saw something about a Museum of Broken Relationships which was filled with all these sad objects and letters related to failed relationships. It was such a sad idea that I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I thought I would have a museum of unfinished stories instead.

    I have a whole folder of unfinished stories. I started a novel as a teenager and I often think about that story and wonder if there was anything in it - but it went missing during a house move. Sometimes I just feel a bit wistful about that and other stories I have given up on.


    Q: What about the stories you finish, like this one. Are they still hard to write?

    A: I really struggled with this book, but I have struggled with every book I have written. This one was a bigger mess though than my other ones because this is the first book I've written since I became a mum and my time is so limited. The first draft was the hardest part.


    Q: Were there some sections or characters you enjoyed writing more than the others?

    A: I really enjoyed writing Dolly, the villain. As she says in the book, 'everyone knows that the villains get the best lines'! So I like the horrible, dirty, smelly characters the most.

    And the talking cat, Tabitha, who is completely based on my cat Pepper. I've always imagined these stories about Pepper, that she's a witch in hiding or a reincarnated person. But unlike Tabitha, she doesn't like drinking tea.


    Q: You're a trained illustrator so did you create some of the silhouette images in the book?

    A: Yes I did some sketches of different cats and a spinning wheel which the designer included in the story. He reversed them out, so they are black cut outs on white. I was interested in paper artwork but it was seeing images cut out of books that got me started on creating silhouettes.


    Q: When do you do your writing and what are you writing now?

    A: I only have two afternoons a week to write at the moment but I have started a new story, it's about witches because I was reading some stuff on folk lore and that set me off on this path, and I have some ideas for picture books.



    ONE WISH

    JUNE 2014

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    One Wish is a prequel to Michelle Harrison's hugely successful 13 Treasures series and describes what happens to Tanya a year before the 13 Treasures gets underway.

    Tanya has always been able to see into other worlds but regards her gift of second sight as more of a curse because not all faeries are the kind you'd want to meet.... In this story, she stumbles across a boy and his father who share the ability to see faeries but their gift has brought them into mortal danger.

    We asked author Michelle Harrison to tell us more about her latest novel, One Wish.

    Q: Why write a prequel to the 13 Treasures books?

    A: I'd been getting lots of requests from readers asking me to write another book in the 13 Treasures series and wanting to know what happens to particular characters. I hadn't really wanted to go back to the books, because I had thought of that as a trilogy and that was complete. I had the idea of making some short stories from the 13 Treasures and although the editor liked them, what everyone wanted was another novel. So I started to think of a prequel and what life was like for Tanya before the time of the 13 Treasures. That made things easier because I could start to think of something new and different.


    Q: Was it hard to get back into Tanya's head as she would have been before the 13 Treasures takes place?

    A: Tanya is just one year younger so it wasn't that difficult. What I did struggle with was that when 13 Treasures begins she's learning a lot about fairies in the story so I needed to find a way to give her a fresh start for the next book. I couldn't have what she learns in One Wish still being there for the start of 13 Treasures. Then I found out that there are stories about fairies being able to take memories away, so I had a way forward for this story.


    Q: What kick-started your interest in all things Faerie?

    A: I first got inspired to write about faeries when I was looking at Brian Froud's images of faeries. The images go back to a time when people thought that fairies were still around and took measures to stop them causing harm, rather than the pink and fluffy images we now have of fairies who are there to grant wishes. I wanted to put a different slant on fairies, so Tanya has this ability to see fairies but wishes she couldn't because only horrible things come from it, like getting a chewed up toffee when she put a tooth under her pillow.


    Q: Why are your stories about faeries still rooted in the everyday world?

    A: I remember when I first saw the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens how magic seems more real if it's set in the real world. Some people prefer to set their fairy stories in alien, magical worlds but I'm interested in coincidence and superstition and seeing patterns in things that could be magical.


    Q: In One Wish, Tanya is offered a faery wish - would you take one wish if it were offered?

    A: I think I wouldn't be able to resist it if I were offered a wish but I'd want to think about it for a long time before I committed to that wish because there are lots of potential downfalls to wishes; look at stories like Five Children and It where they end up getting something completely different from what they had wished, so I'd be worried about the consequences - but even so I know I'd still go ahead and make a wish!


    Q: Although it's not an issues book, One Wish does explore some quite difficult things like divorce and being an outsider. Do you set out to explore issues around everyday life?

    A: NO I didn't intend to come across with these messages but I knew Tanya would be trying to get over her parents' divorce and it got me thinking about how people hang on to things and they fester and people become very bitter. There are things I've also gone through that I've held on to and so these themes have come over quite strongly in this book.

    I get quite a lot of letters from fans talking about things they have experienced and I hadn't really expected that because I don't see myself as an issues author, I write to entertain so I'd expect them to turn to authors like Cathy Cassidy or Jacqueline Wilson. I had quite a few readers open up to me and that can be difficult because I'm not a trained councillor but it was touching that they felt able to so.


    Q: There are also some quite dark characters in this story - did you have fun creating them?

    A: I always go down to the dark stuff, I guess I watched too many horror stories when I was younger and it draws me back! One of my characters, Needle Nessie, has quite a small role but it took a while to come up with her name. It was Duckweed to start with and then Needle Teeth and then I started thinking about needles and the way the past affects the present, especially things like grudges that can transform into other things like fear. People hold on to grudges and this makes them their own worst enemy.


    Q: Where do you get the ideas for the ingredients in the spells in your book?

    A: It did take a while to think of the ingredients in the spells and I started by looking at a spells book I have from when I worked in a bookshop. I used to look at the books for inspiration for my writing although I've never actually tried any of them out, I don't think I would believe it and I think you have to believe it to work. I've seen one spell which is how to give up something like a sweet tooth - I think you have to plant something sweet with garlic - and when it grows you're supposed to be cured of your addiction. I think that would be quite a good way to stop eating loads of chocolate, if it actually worked....


    Q: Are there any more stories to come from 13 Treasures?

    A: I still think there are possible stories although I'd be hesitant to embark on a whole new trilogy. There are ideas Id like to follow up on though, like the characters Ratty and Turpin

    Ratty, the boy Tanya meets who has second sight, came first as a character and then I thought it would be a good idea to give him a guardian as the theme comes up in the trilogy. Ratty is quite comfortable with his ability to see faeries and doesn't have the relationship that Tania has with hers, which is one of fear and control, because he has been able to talk to his dad about it. Ratty and his dad are travellers so Turpin has become a great thief who helps Ratty through life. She has a mischief and loyalty about her and is also quite vain. Turpin seems to have grabbed people's attention and she's certainly my new favourite fairy!


    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: I'm not doing anything at the moment apart from promoting the new book because I had a baby recently - but I am about to do a synopsis for my next book, another 9-12 years book, in the same vein as One Wish as it has a magical feel.



    THE THIRTEEN TREASURES

    2010

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS


    Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and why?

    A: I've always loved stories, so it felt natural to me to want to tell them as well as read them. I started writing short stories when I was about fourteen, and it was around that time that I got it in my head that I would write a novel one day. By the time I left school I knew I wanted to be an author and illustrator of books.


    Q: Where did you get your ideas for The Thirteen Treasures from?

    A: Here, there and everywhere. I based the character of Tanya on my niece, who, according to a fortune-teller my sister saw when Tanya was a baby, would grow up to be very psychic. This, combined with a lifelong love of fairy lore and tales gave me the idea of a girl who has the rare ability to see fairies.

    The Hangman's Catacombs in the story are based on deneholes in a patch of woodland where I grew up. From the first time I saw them I was both fascinated and scared by them; these cavernous holes in the ground with no real explanation as to how they got there.

    The Thirteen Treasures is an old legend I came across during my research. Whats interesting is that the list of objects never seems to be quite the same from one reference to the next there are always differences in the items and the magical powers they have. The legend immediately sparked my imagination and led me to my own interpretation.

    The rest of the story and characters are mainly pure imagination, though I've woven in a fair few references to common fairy legend, such as the deterrents Tanya uses to keep fairies at bay.


    Q: Do you believe in fairies?

    A: I couldn't possibly say I don't in case a fairy drops down dead somewhere.


    Q: Where do you go or what do you do when you're looking for inspiration?

    A: I don't really go looking for inspiration I tend to be inspired by things that fall into my path. For instance, the charm bracelet in The Thirteen Treasures is inspired by one I found in a second-hand market. I immediately wondered who'd owned it, what their life was like, what their secrets were. What did each charm stand for?

    The fun part was then weaving it into a story. For me, this usually involves a lot of staring into space or drawing spider-grams of ideas until I figure out what that story is. I get inspiration from most things: newspaper stories, pictures, old places and objects, or things people do and say.


    Q: What did you do before you were an author?

    A: After my illustration degree I worked as a relief bar steward in a social club. It was during that time that I wrote my first draft of The Thirteen Treasures.

    After that I worked in an art gallery, before becoming a children's bookseller for Ottakar's / Waterstone's.

    I currently work as an editorial assistant in children's fiction at Oxford University Press, so my writing is done in the evenings and at weekends.


    Q: Describe yourself in three words

    A: Creative, persevering, daydreamer.


    Q: What kind of person were you at school?

    A: Socially I was a bit of an 'in-betweener'. Though I had a steady group of friends I liked talking to people from lots of different groups, and got on with most people.

    Academically I suppose I was a swot - in subjects I enjoyed, anyway. I always hated maths, and never put much effort into it until the final year. Instead I had far more fun making up songs about the teachers with friends and fellow maths-haters.


    Q: Have you any advice for aspiring authors?

    1) Read lots. Not only will it widen your vocabulary but you'll learn how good stories are constructed.

    2) Write lots. Keeping a diary or writing short stories is a great way to start. Then keep practising. Re-write. Think about how you can improve what you have.

    3) Don't give up. I'm a big believer in perseverance.


    Q: What was your favourite childhood book?

    A: I loved Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories, and returned to them over and over again. They were the books that made me into a reader. But if I could only choose one book as my favourite I would have to say The Witches by Roald Dahl. I remember the feeling of absolute terror I had when I first read it aged about ten. It's a brilliantly scary book.


    Q: What is the best thing about being an author?

    A: Being able to let my imagination run wild. It must be the only profession that allows you to tell fibs and get away with it.


    Q: And what is the worst thing about being an author?

    A: Having a great idea, but having to change or abandon it because someone else got there first . . .


    Q: How do you relax?

    A: Usually with a nice bubble-bath before bed, or curled up with the cat on my lap and a book in my hand.


    Q: What could you not live without?

    A: My family, books, music, writing and drawing. I'd also be pretty peeved if chocolate and make-up weren't available.


    Q: Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?

    A: This is a difficult one! There are so many, but it has to be William Shakespeare. His work has stood the test of time and inspired so many modern retellings, such as West Side Story and Ten Things I Hate About You. Everything he did, he did well, whether it was tragedy or comedy.


    Q: Who from the past would you most like to have met?

    A: Jack the Ripper. Obviously not in a dark alley - but I'd like to know who he was, and why he committed those terrible crimes. I'm a bit of a sucker for unsolved mysteries.

    On a more personal level I'd have liked to have met my maternal grandmother.


    Q: What is the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

    A: Embarrassing myself is a specialty of mine, so there are many examples. But a time that comes to mind is when I was about seven years old and was in a friends garden, playing with her rabbit. I'd never had a rabbit as a pet before - only dogs and a cat - so I couldn't understand why it was refusing the juicy raisins I'd found in its cage and was enthusiastically offering it.

    It was only when my friend managed to stop howling with laughter that she told me that what I had in my hand weren't in fact raisins, but the rabbits droppings. I was mortified.


    Q: Which children's book do you wish you'd written?

    A: Harry Potter (don't we all?). Im a massive Potter fan.

    For young adults I wish I'd written The Merrybegot by Julie Hearn - one of my all time favourite books.