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>> Step back to a time of Civil War, and Ghosts

Step back to a time of Civil War, and Ghosts
18/09/2017

Step back to a time of Civil War, and Ghosts


FRANCES HARDINGE, who won the Costa Award last year for The Lie Tree, returns to historical fantasy in her original and powerful new novel, A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS (Macmillan Children's Books).

A Skinful of Shadows takes us back to the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651), and the destruction of the old world order as King Charles 1 and the Parliamentarians fight for power.

Into this chaos steps 12-year-old Makepeace who discovers that she has a special gift - or a curse - that enables her to 'house' ghosts inside her own body. The Fellmottes, a powerful family, want to use her abilities but their greed for power at any price would condemn Makepeace to a life in the shadows...

We asked FRANCES HARDINGE to tell us more about A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS:


Q: What impact did winning the Costa Award for The Lie Tree last year have on your writing career?

A: It has definitely changed things for me, and it's been a strange time. I try to avoid the term 'it's been a roller-coaster ride', but there has been that same sense of exhilaration, mild terror and struggling to tell which way is up...

I also had to learn how to say 'no' to things because I had been saying 'yes' to everything. In 2016 I had never been on television and now I have been about a dozen times and it still feels weird, and I've been to festivals like Cheltenham and Hay that I had never been to before. I've also been to festivals abroad, in Auckland, Los Angeles and Mantua in Italy.

I like travelling so this is all good, but it has impacted on the amount of time it has taken me to actually write the next book... Like a lot of authors I'm essentially an introvert so while we can learn to enjoy public speaking, it does take it out of us and it's so hard to concentrate on anything else before an event.

Because of the award, I was also aware of there being more expectation for my next book...


Q: A Skinful of Shadows is an historical fiction, like The Lie Tree, and like that book also has a strong element of fantasy. What inspired the ideas behind it?

A: It's very hard to work these things back. I know with The Lie Tree exactly when I got the core idea of a tree that lives on lies, but with a lot of my books it's more complex than that. It's a bit like how a river forms, it starts with lots of ideas trickling away at the back of your mind and then they join with others and develop a momentum and then you have the river.

The idea of having a ghost bear, which is central to the story, had been hanging around in my head for a while, since I found out how badly dancing bears were treated, and that made me very angry. So I had the idea of a dancing bear coming back for revenge and making a connection with someone who empathised with its anger.


Q: Why did you decide to set this idea during the Civil War in England?

A: I am very interested in time periods that are times of change, of transition, where you get revolution and the aftermath. I don't set out to find these times but they appeal to my imagination and I can visualise characters being stretched in some way and having their lives disrupted. The world is changing all the time but how people cope with the larger and more sudden changes interests me.

The idea of using the Civil War for this story was probably because of seeing a play a few years ago called 55 Days (leading up to the execution of Charles 1) that brought home to me how much things changed for people across all parts of society because of the war.

It also reminded us that, while the Civil War was won by Parliament, they were totally unprepared and have won, they had to ask, 'What do we do now?'. It was unprecedented, a lot of the old rules simply didn't work anymore. It made the time more relevant to me and so I had a latent interest in it.


Q: How did the ghosts come into the story?

A: This was the other piece of the puzzle, the Fellmotte family, which has some ideas around inheritance and right. So part of the idea was to explore their interesting rules of inheritance, which was probably partly inspired by a film I saw when I was 14, The Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price. That follows a young aristocrat who starts to go through some strange personality shifts when he inherits his title and a palace. It obviously made an impression on me.

I had this idea of some very ancient spirits who would have an edge over their younger, living opponents because they had so much experience that they could predict the tug and flow of politics. I wanted them to face a situation where they think the outcome will go one way and it doesn't; their experience and their refusal to change makes them complacent and the world moves on without them.


Q: Your protagonist Makepeace can have spirits or ghosts live inside her and one of these is Bear. Why did you want your idea of a wounded bear to be in this story?

A: In a way the idea of this wounded ghost bear started to make more sense once I saw him as part of a partnership. I saw him in a secret alliance with this wounded girl, someone who is a bit of a loner and whose confidence in her own species has been dented. He becomes an ally and a friend, and an aspect of her self that she feels she has to suppress, but he also helps to represent her gut instincts, her sense of rebellion.

The other ghosts came along because I wanted them to come from different walks of life - different social classes and different sides of the conflict because that would make it more interesting. I didn't want to write a book where one side of the conflict is right and the other is wrong, where one side is humanised and the other is not. We have quite a lot of that in this world already so I wanted a heroine who would understand and sympathise with both sides, mentally and imaginatively.

I called her Makepeace; she can't make peace in the greater conflict, but she can make some peace with herself and other individuals. Sometimes that's all we can manage, to create that bit of empathy.


Q: There are several examples in your book of brave women doing unexpected things. Why did you decide to explore this and were any of these characters inspired by real people?

A: The English Civil War was a very interesting time for women. There was, if you like, a bit of a gap between what was being promoted as the 'ideal woman' and what women were really like, and social norms for women were being disrupted by the war.

A number of women found opportunities to get involved in the war or impacted on it in some way through acting as spies or passing on intelligence. The character Helen in my book is a nod to Jane Whorwood, a Royalist agent during the English Civil War. She was remarkable and seems to have managed to smuggle quite a lot of gold into Oxford for the King - which I refer to in my book - and was involved in rescue efforts after Charles 1 was captured.

Then there are women spies for parliament like 'Parliament Joan' (Elizabeth Alkin), and prophetesses; it wasn't decent for women to speak in public but if you're a divinely inspired woman, you can say whatever you like, and women like Anna Trapnell and Lady Eleanor Davis did just that. With the men away fighting, some women also had to take on the role of protector of their castles against various sieges, as did the Countess of Derby.


Q: Did you feel you needed to do a lot of research into this period to accurately portray it?

A: I always do a lot of research because it pains me that I might get something wrong and that paranoia is still busy in my mind... It's possible to do an infinite amount of research but usually it's the things you think you know that catch you out.

One of the books that I found most helpful was Diane Purkiss's The English Civil War: A People's History. That was invaluable because it's very good at giving a human angle and contextualising all those events emotionally and practically. She provided details about things like the cures for plagues and different fevers that were found in people's recipe books after the war, or how people celebrated Christmas.


Q: If you, like Makepeace, could have some 'ghosts' come back to live inside you, who would you want to visit you?

A: The first would be Mary Kingsley, a Victorian explorer who was intrepid and who would be able to give me some good advice. Also Mary Frith, who was better known as Moll the Cutpurse in the seventeenth century. She was a pickpocket who wore men's clothes and smoked a pipe, so she would be a useful reminder to me that other people's opinions don't matter.

More recently, there's Nancy Wake, an Australian spy who served as a British SOE agent and who was on the Gestapo's 'most wanted' list; with her help I'd be able to lie my way out of any situation. I'd also like to have Tennyson because his way with words is so beautiful, and finally Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish bureaucrat who used dodgy paperwork to save thousands of Hungarian Jews. He was a remarkable man who unfortunately didn't survive the war. He was a truly gentle person from a country that wasn't involved in the war. It would be wonderful to have someone that brave and humane inside my head.


Q: Where is your favourite place to write?

A: I have a cluttered study upstairs, which has all the books in the world in it, and a nice view of a small park across the road. I'm not sure what I'll write next yet, I am still playing around with some ideas. I also make sure I have a hyperactive social life because being a writer is quite solitary.

 
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