AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Hilary McKay

    Hilary McKay

    THE SKYLARKS' WAR

    MACMILLAN CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    SEPTEMBER 2018


    THE SKYLARK'S WAR follows three children, Clarry, Peter and Rupert, as they leave behind their childhoods and move into adulthood, just as World War One begins.

    A classic in the making, it is a perceptive and touching story that explores friendship and love, education and gender, and how a war can change so dramatically individual lives and the fabric of a society.

    We asked author HILARY MCKAY to tell us more about THE SKYLARKS' WAR:


    Q: How did writing The Skylarks' War compare with your previous books, especially writing an historical fiction novel?

    A: The historical background was a great help, it gave me an immediate depth to the story. The fact that I could research the setting from the landmark dates of the time, down to the smallest detail of dress and domestic life, was very empowering. It gave such a secure base for the story that I felt almost as if I was working with a team, rather than the usual solitary writing experience.

    I have done a bit of historical fiction before. I wrote a short novel about the Iceni a few years ago, which I enjoyed doing so much that I plan to turn it into a full length story. I also wrote a novel called Wishing For Tomorrow (rubbish title, not of my choosing!) a sequel to Frances Burnett's A Little Princess, which of course had an historical setting of Edwardian London.


    Q: Why did you decide to set the story in the run-up to WW1, is it a period that has always interested you or was your interest drawn by this year's anniversary?

    A: It is a period that has always interested me, and I have read a good deal about the subject over the years. In 2015 I published a story (Binny in Secret) that had a WW1 sub plot. I found the sub plot so much more interesting than the main story that I planned The Skylarks' War from that time onwards.


    Q: You provide a book list showing what you read for your research - did any books stand out and was there anything that surprised you during the course of your research?

    A: The Henry Williamson stood out, but I have been a huge fan of his Flax of Dream and Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight sequences ever since I was at university, so I can't say they were a surprise. For social history they are a treasure trove. The Army and Navy Stores price lists were wonderful, the original copies of The Times newspaper and magazines also.


    Q: Was it also important to you to show during the novel how the war affected those left at home?

    A: Yes, very important. I don't know which is worst, knowing that people you love are suffering, or having hard times yourself. I don't think there is much in it personally. It must have been so hard to have someone close to you fighting.


    Q: The Skylarks' War follows Clarry and Peter as they grow up, go to school and how the war affects them all as teenagers and young adults. Why did you decide to cover such a long period in their lives?

    A: I agree, it was a long period. Perhaps it should have been two books. I had to put in the pre-war years, both to give a context of what was about to change for ever in the world at large, and also to explain the actions of the main characters as the war years took over their lives. The post war chapter or two was plain self indulgence - I wanted to know what happened to them all afterwards. I got very fond of Clarry and Peter and their friends by the end.


    Q: Can you tell us about how you decided on the style of the the narrative?

    A: I used dialogue to progress the personal narrative quite a lot. When it came to describing eg. the situation on the Western Front, I deliberately took a step back from personal narrative to give a more detached point of view.

    To take out the involvement of the narrator, and just give the plain (appalling) statistics to the reader and leave the rest to their imagination, is a useful device. It's like holding up a picture and asking, 'Now, what do you make of this?' You are no longer telling the reader what to think, you are involving them directly. They are given a situation. They can make their own assessments. On stage you might call it audience participation, I suppose.


    Q: Clarry and Peter - who have lost their mother and whose father is hopeless and largely absent - are sent away for holidays and Peter to boarding school. Are their childhoods fairly typical of this class at this time?

    A: Yes, fairly I think. Not with their father, I hope. I hope such a miserable parent was unusual. But I think fathers in general were much more detached from children's lives, I think boarding school was not so unusual as it is now. I don't think holidays with grandparents is much of a surprise though, I know several modern families that turn to grandparents for summer holiday childcare.


    Q: You explore through their lives the limited aspirations, and opportunities, for girls and women in a world so dominated by male patriarchy. What would you like today's readers to take away from this?

    A: I would like the girls to think, as my characters did (Mrs Morgan, Clarry, Vanessa and Violet) that they have as much ability and right to follow their ambitions as any boy. That anyone who tries to limit them because they happen to be female is wrong. And I would like the boys to think, 'Absolutely! Why not? Was there ever any doubt?'


    Q: The focus on the relationships in the book is strong friendships through life that grow into love. Do you feel that this kind of relationship can be overlooked in books for young people?

    A: No. I don't. I never thought it was overlooked. The friendships in my life have always been that way.


    Q: War looms as the friends in the book become young adults. I wondered how hard it was to get that balance of reminding readers of the horrors of war without providing too much detail? And why did you decide to take The Skylarks' War - from the battlefields - as the title?

    A: I think I provided quite a lot of detail actually. I've already read a review or two that have said, not for the very young. Also I have left pauses for imagination to fill in the blanks. There is a brutal death of a friend that I found quite distressing to write.

    Skylarks! I love skylarks! They battle with song alone. They stick to their territories. They fly so high above the fields and meadows that they are invisible against the bright sky, and you would not know they were there but for their song. I read an account written a few years after the battle of the Somme. It was written to comfort someone, and it said that now there were skylarks singing, and meadow flowers. They are a symbol of hope, and summer. They sing their same unmistakable-for-any-other-bird song all over Europe and beyond.


    Q: You write a lot of series following specific characters; is it the character that draw your attention as an author?

    A: No, not really. Circumstances have led me to writing sequels to books that I originally never intended to have a sequel.


    Q: Where do you write and what is your favourite time for writing? And your favourite escape from writing?

    A: I write at home, in a cold converted garage. It still has the original garage spiders and very little insulation, so it takes quite a few hot water bottles to get me through a working day. Which goes from late morning, after the dog is walked, to late evening. I am a terribly slow writer.

    Escape? What escape? There is no escape?


    Q: What are you working on now?

    I am writing a time slip book about prehistoric cave paintings, the growth of fear, the power of books, and kindness. It has a setting of ivy, spiders and autumn chill. It's called Iffen and so far I love it.





    BINNY FOR SHORT

    HODDER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    MARCH 2013


    Binny, a middle child, finds her world turned upside down when her father dies, the family moves house and her dog is taken away. But when she and her family move to a seaside house left to her by her aunt, she finds new friends, rediscovers an old friend, and starts to piece back together the past she has lost.

    Author Hilary McKay talked to ReadingZone about Binny for Short.


    Like a number of Hilary McKay's earlier stories such as the Casson Family books, Binny for Short features a slightly eccentric family and its day-to-day activities. In this story, the family has to overcome tragedy - the father's death - and to find its feet in new settings.

    McKay has become known for writing about families but it is not something she particularly aims to write about, she says. "It feels very hard separating children from their family and in real life most children are with their families. It's not the thing I have chosen to do and I have also written other genres, but I do come back to this area.

    "When I started writing Binny for Short, I thought I would be writing an Enid Blyton-type story about children having an adventure but it has also come back to being about family." She adds, "These days we read a lot of dystopia but I think it's nice to have stories set in a real life setting and, once children are 11 or 12, they do get a lot more freedom so they can have adventures."

    McKay feels drawn to writing about children at this age, a time when they are becoming their own person and the family influence withdraws as the friends' influence takes over, she says. "You see them blossom into real people and you see their individuality beginning to grow." As a writer, writing about children this age also allows the characters more freedom. "Physically, you can let them out to do more. It's an interesting phase. I remember being given a bike when I was 11 and being able to go right out into the coast and into the woods and being allowed to be out later."

    Binny is a middle child and stands between her two more showy and articulate siblings. While she doesn't have any particular talent, what stands out for her is her stubbornness, says McKay, adding, "I wanted a middle child who had no particular charms but who had huge stamina". Clem, Binny's talented older sister, was useful as Binny could be left with her when the mother went out.

    McKay 'met' James, the younger brother, in a cottage garden when she was taking her daughter out one day. "This boy had a bucket and he was stirring something horrible inside and he said, 'I'm waiting for it to turn into something magical'," McKay says. "He was a real boy, about six years old, and so intense in what he was doing."

    While real people and children don't often inspire McKay's characters, which tend to be a "patchwork" of children she has known, she says that Binny's "ability to hold grudges is very much me". She adds, "I enjoyed writing about Binny from the start. She isn't particularly cute or a talented artist while her sister is a fabulous musician. She is a little girl who has had a hard time, she has a temper and she's frightened of certain things."

    McKay also draws on her own affection for her pets as a child in writing about Binny's pet dog, Max. "When I was a child we had border collies just like Max in the story and I used to wonder if it was wrong that I loved them more than my family but that's how children think. I would have been devastated if they had disappeared. My children had pets too and they were much cared for and loved and very important in our lives."

    Max, who is taken away when the family move into a flat, is Binny's touchstone to the past and her father. McKay says, "I was conscious that I had to kill off a lot of people very quickly, the dad and gran, and then Aunty Violet. Max the pet dog was introduced because that is how Binny sort of gets her father back at the end. Through Max, she finds out that she has memories of her father as much as her siblings do."

    The plot is told in two strands, with short chapters describing the events of a particular day at the climax of the story, alongside the main story about the family's daily ups and downs. McKay says, "I found it quite easy to write the separate sections, it's a bit like when you talk to someone and say, 'do you remember when...' so it's in the present but remembering what steps led to that."

    Focusing on one day that takes place towards the end of the story "gave a momentum to the story", she feels. "I always knew the ending and that it would bring in a story that Binny's father had told her right at the beginning of her childhood."

    The story her father tells is the story of Selki, a legend about seals. McKay's father, like Binny's, was a great storyteller, says McKay. "I remember his stories and I thought it would be nice if Binny had that link to her father." Binny's father tells her that seals stop to listen when you sing, something McKay checked for factual accuracy and found it to be true. "Her father also said that 'stories can save your life' and I believe they do - stories are powerful."

    Towards the end of the book, the reader is given a 'shorthand' version of how Binny's story came about - the causality of each event - as Binny recaps the steps that led to the turning point of the story. "The readers are children and this is putting the links in the chain for them," says McKay. "You are pointing out to them that 'this and this happened', it's like The House that Jack Built and everything that happens in the story leads to that point."

    McKay knows the area where the main part of the story is set, St Ives, very well and says, "I like to know where a place is in my stories and I draw maps of all my settings. With the Cassons, I put them in so many nice settings that I decided later on to put them in a town and to see how they managed it, although as a writer I want to have a place that appeals to me, it makes it easier to write about."

    McKay used to visit St Ives as a child and also took her own children there. "When I was small, I used to visit it and I liked it and my children liked it, and the rocks in St Ives are almost exactly how I described them in this story. When I was a child we also used to visit Scotland and we went to the seaside and I lived by the sea for a long time; I like to revisit it in my stories."

    These days, she works with the wildlife trust and helps support painting and drawing trips of the local wildlife, having studied zoology and botany at university. She says, "I remember keeping a nature diary when I was little of what I saw and I still like to paint and draw what I see."

    Currently, McKay is writing a second book about Binny, this one set in the autumn term as Binny starts school. She says, "I loved the characters so much and I felt that Binny had more to say so I thought I would write another story about her and her family. This time Binny finds herself stuck in a small town and going to school. It's linked to another story set before WW1. It's more about misunderstanding and all her assumptions being challenged; Binny makes her mind up about something and then finds she has to rethink it all. She is stubborn but this story also features how brave she is."

    McKay writes in the mornings and evenings and goes out in the afternoon. She says, "When I am writing a story I have the turning points written down and a flow diagram for the plot and have a calendar for all the dates. When I get to a certain point in my writing, I check everything is happening as it should be. I check the structure and check that the characters are not taking over and then I prune it."

    Her advice to young writers is to "keep a notebook and write what interests you, what you're reading etc. We used to learn poetry by heart and I think that gives a fluidity to your writing that I have found really useful. And listen to people, wherever you stand people will talk and tell their stories and sometimes it's useful, I have used that over and over again."