AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Natasha Farrant

    Natasha Farrant

    THE CHILDREN OF CASTLE ROCK

    PUBLISHED BY FABER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    MARCH 2018


    THE CHILDREN OF CASTLE ROCK is a Blytonesque adventure that carries a layered, sensitive coming-of-age story following Alice Mistlethwaite when she is shipped off to boarding school, Stormy Loch, in Scotland.

    Alice, caught up in the past and grief over losing her mother, and with the hurt of an absent father, chooses to lose herself in her writing. But what she discovers at the Stormy Loch is the freedom to live her life and a willingness to write her future story.

    We asked author NATASHA FARRANT to tell us more about THE CHILDREN OF CASTLE ROCK:


    Q: The Children of Castle Rock reads a little like a love song to boarding school books and Enid Blyton adventures - are those the kinds of books you enjoyed as a child?

    A: I LOVED Enid Blyton as a child. You have to imagine me saying her name with a French accent, because I first read her in French (my first language). I read all the Famous Five and Secret Seven in French, before reading them all over again in English! I've never forgotten how her books made me feel - totally empowered by the belief that children could have proper, dangerous adventures without interference from adults. My favourite series were the Adventure books, and Mallory Towers. I guess Castle Rock brings the two worlds together...

    Q: What are the benefits - and difficulties - of setting a story in a school?

    A: The pro of setting a story in a boarding school like Stormy Loch is that you get to create your own world, with its own rules, in which your characters can come together free of 'normal' routine - there are no homes to go back to (and sneak out of), no parents to impose different sets of rules. On a practical level, it's also a useful way of getting my characters exactly where I want them for their adventure to start.


    Q: The main character, Alice, is a dreamer and a passionate writer - is that drawn from your childhood?

    A: I was definitely a daydreamer, always making up stories in my head when I wasn't completely engrossed in a book. I do think it's important for young people to understand and appreciate the value and impact of stories - more and more, I am conscious of how much of our lives are told through stories. Stories help us empathise with others and help others understand us, which is wonderful, but they are also used to manipulate us, in politics and advertising for example. It's very important to understand the very subtle difference between a story which reveals a truth, and one which spins a lie... (most stories do a bit of both!)

    Q: The narrator's voice helps guide the reader and brings playfulness to the text, but why did you decide to make the narrator such a strong presence in this story?

    A: Honestly? I didn't decide anything. The narrator is a form of a character, and characters have a habit of taking on a life of their own... Some people have expressed reservations about the narrator, but the honest truth is that I needed that voice to guide me through the complexities of the story.


    Q: You have two gorgeous settings in this story, Alice's original home and the boarding school she moves to - are either of these drawn from real life settings, and how important is it for you as a writer to 'know' your settings as you start writing?

    A: Alice's original home is completely imagined, as is the boarding school. The landscape around the school is drawn from memories of holidays spent on the Ardnarmurchan peninsula, the isle of Mull and the Treshnish Isles. I visited the first two as a child, and I think that somehow the Scottish Highlands and Islands are the landscape of my soul. Maybe that sounds very grand, but it's true!

    As to how important it is to 'know' your settings as you start writing - settings are like characters. Sometimes you know them from the outset, sometimes you discover them as you go along. Either way, the story doesn't work until you get them right. The idea for Cherry Grange came to me quite late in the writing process, but as soon as it did, the story flew.


    Q: The boarding school, Stormy Loch, in Scotland, is isolated but offers the children lots of freedom. What are the things you would have loved / hated if you had found yourself as a boarder at that school?

    A: I think I would have loved the setting, the freedom, the mountains, the loch, the animals. I might not have liked killing the hens...


    Q: A strong theme in the book is failing parents; why did you want to explore that idea for this age group? Is this the age when children start to question the adults around them?

    A: I think there comes a point for all of us when people outside the family come more into the foreground. I'm not sure the parents in this book are failing, exactly - Fergus's parents and Alice's dad are just rather too caught up in their own lives to remember how much their children need them. By the end of the book, Fergus's parents have realised what they're doing, and make a sort of peace for his sake. Alice - well, Alice has to learn the difficult lesson that her dad isn't ever going to change, and that he's not good for her. But she also discovers that there are many other people who love her unconditionally, and she blossoms as a result, and that is such an important thing to remember, at any age.


    Q: Your characters - who have lots of freedom to make their own decisions - must also learn there are 'consequences' for the decisions they make, some of which are life-threatening. What was the worst decision you made as a child?

    A: Possibly to go swimming in the sea when everyone said I shouldn't, and nearly drowning? I remember being very scared, and receiving very little sympathy... The consequence is that I now have a very healthy respect for the sea!


    Q: This is also a story about loss, and survival. How do you cover difficult situations in children's books but keep it light and readable for a child?

    A: First and foremost, my aim is always to write a story which will keep readers turning the pages. My hope is that the themes of emotional loss and survival, which mirror the protagonists' physical disorientation and survival, serve the story as the story serves them. I think the stakes are heightened by these themes - it's not enough for Alice just to not drown or be shot. She has to survive stronger than she was before.


    Q: The ending introduces a possible new story about Stormy Loch - will you be following up this book with other books about the school and new characters?

    A: Maybe one day, but I'm not thinking of it right now.


    Q: What are you writing now?

    At the moment, I'm writing a collection of princess stories, which I am loving. I've never written short stories before, so that's a fresh challenge, and the princesses themselves are turning into very strong, determined and independent young women who could totally sort out the world if they, um, actually existed...


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

    A: My dream writing shed would be in a garden, with lots of birdsong, and a wood-burning stove (if it could be ecological), and a cat asleep on a cushion (but who would never hunt the birds), and the long wooden table from my grandmother's living-room in France at which she used to write her letters...


    Q: What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing?

    A: Reading! And being outside.


    Q: In your 'other life' you are a literary scout. What is this?

    A: It means I am paid by publishing companies all over the world to look for books for them to translate into their languages. Yes, it is a real job - I've been doing it for nearly 18 years!



    LYDIA: THE WILD GIRL OF PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

    PUBLISHED BY CHICKEN HOUSE

    SEPTEMBER 2016


    LYDIA: THE WILD GIRL OF PRIDE AND PREJUDICE follows one of Jane Austen's characters, teenaged Lydia from Pride and Prejudice, to reveal what motivated her to elope with a young officer, Wickham, during her visit to Brighton.

    Lydia has very few lines in Pride and Prejudice and is often absent from the main scenes in the book. In LYDIA: THE WILD GIRL OF PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, author NATASHA FARRANT delves into Lydia's time in Brighton to explore what happened while she was there and how her relationship with Wickham developed.

    Farrant gives a sympathetic and intriguing glimpse into Lydia's character, exploring how the energetic and willful teenager might have responded to the restrictions of her world. The novel can be read both as an introduction to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and as an extension of reading around Austen's work.

    We spoke to Natasha Farrant about why she wanted to explore Lydia's story - and the challenges she faced in doing so.


    Q: Why did you decide to write a novel inspired by Jane Austen's most well-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice?

    A: It came up during a conversation with publisher Chicken House. I was talking to rights director Elinor Bagenal about a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker, which is Pride and Prejudice told from the point of view of the servants and we started talking about the sisters in Pride and Prejudice.

    Chicken House then asked if I'd be interested in telling Lydia's story and I jumped at the chance; I wasn't given a choice. I immediately heard Lydia's voice in my head saying, 'At last someone will tell my story!'.


    Q: How well did you know Pride and Prejudice at that point?

    A: I had always liked Jane Austen but it wasn't until the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I really got it and I realised that there was so much more to her than I thought, especially her humour and comic characters. I had read Austen as a young adult and had always taken her terribly seriously. I loved the romance between Lizzy and Darcy but the real revelation was Mrs Bennett and Mr Collins and Lydia, who was a bundle of energy.


    Q: How well did you feel you knew Lydia from reading Pride and Prejudice, before you started writing her yourself?

    A: Lydia doesn't appear very much in the pages of Pride and Prejudice, she doesn't have many lines and a lot of the time is completely absent because either she has gone away or Lizzy has gone away. So Austen doesn't give us much to go on but every time I re-read the novel I discovered something new so although she might not be fully formed in the primary text, she's there in the sub text. For me it was like she came rushing out from between the lines.


    Q: How worried were you about following in Jane Austen's footsteps?

    A: I had decided at that stage in my life not to say 'no' to anything so I immediately said 'Yes!' when I was asked to write this. Then I realised I didn't know that much about Austen, not as a scholar as I'd never studied her, so I came to this from a standing start.

    The best advice I had was from a friend who is an academic and who has studied Austen and he advised not to try to imitate her voice and also, to know that Austen would be laughing at me so not to take it too seriously. Austen was witty, acerbic and didn't suffer fools gladly so yes, she would probably laugh at this attempt but I also think she would have liked my Lydia.

    We often forget how young Austen's characters are, many are just teenagers, and these days we tend to marry so much later in life. So for me Lydia is a teenager, she is still very young, and perhaps Austen reflects on that too. I always felt Austen liked Lydia; she doesn't get her comeuppance.


    Q: Is Lydia perhaps also the most 'modern' of the sisters, therefore easier to write about for today's readers?

    A: Lydia is the most modern of the sisters in the sense that she's selfish at a time when selfishness could be really damaging to others, and especially to one's family. All Austen's characters do right by themselves, however. Lizzy Bennett turns down two offers of marriage that could have really benefited her family.

    Lydia is selfish in the way she behaves but is thinking of herself as an individual rather than as part of a family, which is a very modern thing to do. In those days, it was all about the people that depended on you; your family. Lydia, as the youngest child, has no sense of responsibility.


    Q: How did you decide to approach Wickham, Lydia's future husband, who is such an unappealing character in Pride and Prejudice?

    A: He was tricky. One of the first times you see Wickham and Lydia together is at a party and they are playing lottery tickets and when they travel back in the coach, Lydia talks about the cards she won and lost. So Lydia is a bit of a gambler and so is Wickham. I decided to emphasis those similarities. Lydia is not sure if Wickham is cheating or not and she's fine with that.

    Essentially, Wickham is hustling for a better future so I play on that side of him. Everyone is doing the same thing but his gamble is more desperate than the others; he has done bad things but his redemption is in his relationship with Lydia because he does like her.

    Austen isn't that hard on Wickham and Lydia; their punishment is that they will tire of each other very quickly but materially they will be alright. In those days families sometimes threw out members who transgressed but Austen chose not to do that with Lydia and Wickham.


    Q: Why did you decide to introduce a new plot line to Lydia's story, with the arrival of French emigres the Comte de Fombelle and his sister at Brighton?

    A: The hardest part was writing a novel where the reader already knows the ending, but I also had a lot to explain from Pride and Prejudice. One of the things that had always troubled me was what happened to Lydia after Brighton, and why does Wickham go with her? It's never properly explained.

    Lydia was obsessed by Wickham but she wasn't a fool so why did she elope with him? And why does Wickham settle for Lydia? So I wanted to address the question of what happens when Lydia goes to Brighton and this is where my new character, the Comte de Fombelle, comes into it.

    The reason I decided to make him French was because of something I had discovered in Jane Austen's background. Her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, was married to a Frenchman who described himself as a count and was subsequently executed during the French Revolution. Eliza came to live in England and became Jane's favourite cousin and eventually married Jane's brother, Henry.

    Eliza is fascinating, she is so caught up in what was going on in the world at that time, and yet Austen doesn't write anything about what is happening as part of her novels. You have all these soldiers about yet why they are there isn't mentioned in her writing. And although she mentions the peace that comes in her later novel Persuasion, there's no explanation of what the peace is about.

    So there are these tumultuous events that are happening around Austen and yet she never uses or mentions them in her writing. I decided I wanted to bring in that aspect of her life and those elements that her characters would have known about but which she doesn't mention.

    I am also half French and I like the idea of these characters, the Compte de Fombelle and his sister, running away from France and having to make a life for themselves in England.


    Q: Settings are so important in Austen's books. How did you develop Brighton as the setting in Lydia?

    A: There are lots of different codes in Austen's books around her settings and for her, the seaside equated to decadence. Brighton was already at that time the 'Las Vegas' of the south coast, it had moved on from the time when people went to Brighton to take the waters for medical reasons. The Prince of Wales had begun building the Pavilion, there were theatres and coffee houses and they had vast card assemblies where fortunes were gambled and lost.

    There was a breakdown in codes and behaviours in Brighton. You could wear clothes in a seaside town that you couldn't wear anywhere else and you could use bathing machines to swim in the sea. So things could happen in Brighton that could not happen elsewhere and the town was entirely devoted to pleasure.

    It was, though, also highly regimented and there was even a Master of Ceremonies whose job it was to introduce eligible young men and women to each other. As long as you were rich and kept things behind doors, it was fine, but the middle classes couldn't afford to make mistakes.


    Q: Did Austen's timings for Pride and Prejudice provide any logistical complications when you were writing your novel?

    A: There was an issue with the timelines in Pride and Prejudice as Austen gives two different timelines for her story. I had a discrepancy between the date on a letter and the timings in Pride and Prejudice so there was a lot of going backwards and forwards on it.


    Q: How did writing Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice compare with other books you have written and which have not had the same constraints?

    A: It was so much fun to write this book because Lydia inhabited me from the start to finish and I heard her voice so strongly. It was also a very difficult book to write but I enjoyed it more than any other I have written.

    I hope that what it does is to remind readers how funny and entertaining Austen is. Every generation we move further away from her language and tradition and the social mores of why girls had to marry rich men and I think for every generation, her humour is further removed. I hope that Lydia will remind them of how funny Austen can be.

    For people who have read Pride and Prejudice already, this could be a fun addition to their reading material and could answer some questions they might have. I hope it's also a good introduction to Jane Austen's writing for those who haven't yet read Pride and Prejudice.