AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Sylvia V. Linsteadt

    Sylvia V. Linsteadt

    THE WILD FOLK

    USBORNE BOOKS

    JUNE 2018


    SYLVIA V LINSTEADT'S THE WILD FOLK is a lyrical, beautifully-crafted allegory about our relationship with the environment and our responsibilities for the world around us.

    It is also a fabulous story for readers aged nine years plus about Comfrey, a girl from the country, and Tin, a boy from the city, who set off on a quest to help save the 'Wild Folk' in their strange and amazing world.

    We asked US author SYLVIA V LINSTEADT to tell us more about THE WILD FOLK.


    Q: The Wild Folk is a beautiful and heartfelt environmental message for our time. What inspired you to write this allegory?

    A: Thank you so much! I'm really honored. Five years ago, when I wrote the earliest draft of The Wild Folk, I had this very strong conviction that connecting children to the lives of the creatures and plants and weathers and stones of the land - showing, through story, how all of the natural world is animate, conscious, and also intimately part of us - was of utmost importance for our planet.

    Children are the next generation, and the Earth is in deep need of young tenders who believe that a river should have the same rights as a person - for we are all one interconnected and interdependent family. Now, this message feels more important, even more urgent, than ever.


    Q: The book explores a world divided between town and country, which is viewed as the biggest threat to the land of Farallone. Do you see that division between man and nature as the main threat for our times?

    A: Yes, in essence I do. But I knew that in creating this binary between City and Country I was treading on thin ice because things are never so black and white, and I don't personally believe something so simplistic as 'the City is bad, the Country is good', Not at all!

    My hope was more to demonstrate, as you say, what can happen when we humans cut ourselves off too much from the land and from the natural world. This sense that we are separate (or even that we are outcasts from the 'Garden', as is one of the foundational myths of Western culture) makes us view everything in nature as an object to be used for our own ends, and not a subject in its own right.

    And this attitude is currently destroying the ecosystems and life processes on this Earth as we know it. I don't think there is a greater threat. All other social and political issues rest on this essential disconnect, and growing crisis.


    Q: You also touch on issues around colonisation, is this something you feel drawn to writing about / researching outside of this book?

    A: Yes, I definitely do. I feel very strongly about it, as a woman of mixed European heritage living in California, on land that was violently stolen from the hands of indigenous people only about 200 to 300 years ago. This is part of our history in the United States that we are really uncomfortable to face; the narratives I was taught in school were woefully inadequate, and shied away from the truth.

    I think it's really important for children - and adults! - to understand this dynamic as a force that has oppressed and destroyed earth-based belief systems, cultures and languages across the world. Of course, this realisation can be paralyzing, and can fill you with a lot of guilt and shame, but only by shining light on the truth and really feeling the sadness that it brings can we begin to tell a different story.


    Q: Two children, Comfrey from the country and Tin from the city, are given roles in helping decide Farallone's future. How did their characters develop, especially in relation to their very different upbringing?

    A: I think one of the biggest ways that Comfrey and Tin develop in this book is through their friendship. They open up one another's worlds, teaching each other how the stereotypes and prejudices we might have been taught about people with very different backgrounds, from very different places than us, all dissolve when we actually meet and interact with each other across those boundaries.

    Comfrey and Tin mutually show each other that the narratives they've had - Comfrey about City people, Tin about Country people - are completely wrong.

    I think they both grapple with coming to terms with their own "Oddnesses", the term used by the Holy Fools in the book to refer to the things that make us each utterly unique, but by the end of Book Two they've really each come fully into their own, as have the leverets, Myrtle and Mallow.


    Q: Rooted in the history of Farallone is a myth about an ancient stag, a bob cat and a spider - is this myth drawn from existing folklore, and why did you use these creatures?

    A: This myth arose organically from the sedimentary accumulation of material that's built up in my imagination since I was a girl, as well as my knowledge of the animals of Point Reyes (the coastal peninsula where I live in California and upon which Farallone is based).

    If I try to unravel the threads in my memory a bit, the Elk of Milk and Gold is a mix of the wild tule elk that live on the end of the peninsula here, and some of the reindeer mythology of the Saami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia. The First Bobcat just kind of came to me because I love wildcats, and the bobcat, the smaller of our two wild felines, has a particular fierce magic that I've loved since I first saw one when I was a girl (like Comfrey does!).

    I also liked the link between witches and cats, who are often familiars, able to see what humans cannot, able to cross between worlds. Old Mother Neeth, the great spider, is definitely inspired by many different creation mythologies that can be found across the world - from the Navajo Spider Grandmother to the Egyptian goddess Neith (her name was an inspiration) - as well as the Norse Norns who weave the threads of fate at the root of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

    The spider in particular is a big symbol throughout this book and the sequel - as the weaver of the threads of interconnection that exist in the natural world, that hold us all together.


    Q: The 'Wild Folk' who live deep in the country of Farallone are a mix of human and magical / nature. How did they develop and again, have you drawn on existing folklore to create them?

    A: I think my inspiration for the Wild Folk is rooted in my childhood love of Egyptian mythology, those magnificent animal-headed gods and goddesses like Hathor and Bastet, Ra and Isis and Sekhmet. So in terms of how I visualized them, I was drawing heavily on depictions of Egyptian deities, how they so gracefully blend human and animal features. Otherwise they are very much my own creation, at least as far as I can tell (it is sometimes hard to excavate all the threads from the strange untidy depths of my imagination).

    Of course, their biggest inspiration is the wild animals of Point Reyes in Northern California. I have been a student (and teacher!) of animal tracking for the past six years, and the knowledge gained from that training in natural history and animal behavior certainly informed the way I wrote the Wild Folk. I think the mythologies of people all over the world include animal gods, these magical beings who represent the powers and voices of the living land - so the Wild Folk are my own version of such demi-gods, born out of my love of the particular landscapes of Point Reyes where I live.


    Q: Given the strong environmental message in The Stargold Chronicles, do you feel that as an author you have a role to play in helping change how we perceive and manage the environment?

    A: Yes, it is my deep hope that my writing can in some small way help the future of the way we treat the environment; in fact it is one of the central reasons that I write. I strongly believe that we need our novels, our fiction, our movies, all of our stories, to reflect a very different worldview than many of them currently do - that the natural world is a living, conscious, interconnected, diverse being worthy of respect in its own right, and not an object that we use for our own needs, an object that is nothing more than a stage set for the stories of our human lives.

    We are inextricable from the web of life; I hope that The Stargold Chronicles can carry this message out into the hearts of children everywhere!


    Q: Can you remember when you first recognised our problems around the environment? If you could change one human behaviour in relation to the environment, what would it be?

    A: I think I probably first became conscious of the threats to our environment when I was a teenager in high school fifteen years ago. There was no particular event that catalysed this passion in me, just a time in my life when I was beginning to learn more about the world and my place in it.

    I think I just woke up to the deep beauty and meaning that walking on the wild mountain of my hometown brought to me, and the disconnect that the broader culture around me seemed to have from the cycling life processes of the animals, plants, weathers, and seasons all around us. This, I realized, was the true meaning of magic - and yet pursuit of 'progress' and 'civilization' seemed to be in direct opposition to this magic, to the flourishing of life on Earth.

    I think that if we could see and feel and really believe ourselves to be of this Earth, literally inextricable from the trees and birds, the waters and air, as we in fact are, then everything about the way we interact with the natural world could be different. It's only in believing we are separate and above that we can enact the violence that we do.


    Q: What are your top tips or campaigns for young people in supporting our environment?

    A: I'm not sure that at this point engagement with environmental issues through supporting campaigns is as important as changing our beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves about how and where we fit in to the great web of life.

    And doing this can start with just going out into your backyard and taking the time to observe the plants and animals around you. Even if it's just a single tree outside on the sidewalk, and the birds that come and go from that tree - form a relationship to that tree and to those birds, so that they are no longer objects to you, but subjects, characters, living beings with specific and beautiful lives being lived right beside yours. That tree creates the oxygen you breathe.

    When we form relationships, we begin to change the story. Then getting involved in campaigns can have deeper meaning, and our energies can be better directed. One great place to start in terms of more specific campaigns is to attend to the water where you live - what is your watershed, and how can you help to keep it clean and healthy? Are there watershed clean-up projects, organisations that support the health of bays and estuaries? As the brave and beautiful people at Standing Rock taught us all, Water is Life; so start with the water, and see where you flow.


    Q: Where do you write and what are you writing now? Can you give us a glimpse into book two of The Stargold Chronicles?

    A: I have a lovely little studio on the wild pinewood property where we live, with a window that looks out into manzanita bushes where families of quail and all sorts of other birds (and chipmunks too!) come and go through the day.

    I just finished book two of The Stargold Chronicles, and am taking a little break, writing poetry in preparation for a new book, which will be for adults and set in ancient Greece.

    Writing Book Two was both challenging and very rewarding. Challenging because there was a lot to bring together in the conclusion of the epic adventures of Tin and Comfrey, and rewarding once I reached the end and saw all the threads of the story woven into a finished whole.

    Book Two takes our protagonists all across Farallone, which was a delight for me as the writer - we get to see new hamlets and meet new Wild Folk, visit the First Bobcat's Underworld and the very top of the Juniper Mountains. I think Comfrey and Tin mature a bit throughout the book, as the challenges they face are very serious and very intense - the fate of all of Farallone rests in their hands.


    Q: What would your dream 'writers shed' look like and where would it be?

    A: Well, I feel like I already have something pretty close! A room with a big desk and a big window overlooking the pinewood of Point Reyes, with a glimpse of Tomales Bay (Tamal Bay in The Wild Folk) just out the door.

    But if I could vacation to another writer's shed for a while, I wouldn't mind one in a small stone hut with wild thyme and laurel out the door and the sound of the blue Aegean nearby, and all the heat and light of a little Greek island... but maybe that's just because we've been having some cold foggy weather here on the California coast! Still, writing with swims in the Aegean between is a pretty dreamy prospect.


    Q: Who are your favourite contemporary writers for young people?

    A: Ursula Le Guin is the very first person who comes to my mind, although she passed away in January. Her work has been formative and deeply inspiring for me. As an adolescent and teenager (and again as an adult!) Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials moved me in a way few tales ever have. Louise Erdrich, a general favorite adult writer of mine, writes beautifully for young people as well in her Birchbark House books.

    A couple really lovely middle grade books I've read recently are Sophie Anderson's The House With Chicken Legs, and Kelly Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon, very different books, but both beautifully written and full of deep heart.