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>> Myths and horror in haunting novel

Myths and horror in haunting novel

Myths and horror in haunting novel

THE BEAST IS AN ANIMAL is a powerful and haunting story by PETERNELLE VAN ARNSDALE. It is set in a timeless world where 'soul eaters' hold sway and fear rules the communities. Only one child, Alys, doesn't fear the terrible beings that threaten the villagers. But does that mean she is the same as them..?

We asked author PETERNELLE VAN ARSDALE to tell us more about THE BEAST IS AN ANIMAL.

Q: Your career is in editing. How has that supported your own writing?

A: While it's impossible to be one's own editor (being a good editor requires some distance and objectivity), I do edit my writing ruthlessly. I know that some people think of editing and writing as separate tasks, but I edit every sentence I write. As I go along, I ask myself whether I've overused a particular word or image and I shape my sentences until they feel smooth.

I'm not the kind of writer who bangs out a very rough draft and then goes back to tidy things up. I tidy as I go. And I start each new writing day by rereading and editing what I wrote the day before. Certainly being an editor has helped me understand the publication process a bit better. Sometimes that's a downside - I know how much can go wrong, and I can be a worrier.

Q: Why do you want to write for young people?

A: I love writing about the time of life when we start engaging with concerns outside of our immediate needs while also trying to figure out who we are. Most adults I know still grapple with who they are, but when we get to a certain age that's considered self-indulgent or even a personal failure.

Adolescents are lost and don't mind saying so (at least to themselves). I'm also deeply moved by the time of life when we expect so much from young people who are barely past childhood. One day we're taking care of everything for them and telling them what to do, and the next we expect them to know how to figure all that out for themselves. It's such a poignant time.

Q: The Beast is an Animal is an eerie read, does it reflect the things you liked to watch and read as a child / teenager?

A: I loved horror as a child, starting with anything Dracula-related. I adored Bram Stoker's DRACULA, and I also inhaled all the old Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee movies. There was something called 'Chiller Theater' that aired on my local TV station and I vividly remember the opening sequence showed a hand emerging from a grave and that's absolutely worked itself into my genetic code now.

Anything with a dark, misty, Gothic vibe was like candy to me. I loved JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte - it hit pretty much every sweet spot for me. At the same time I lapped up fairy tales, the darker the better. 'Rumpelstiltskin' was my favourite - a little creature who comes to 'save' a desperate young woman in exchange for her firstborn. Very, very creepy.

Q: Your book features 'soul eaters'. Were there traditions you researched into around this concept?

A: I think I was largely influenced by vampire stories generally, but I also felt strongly about the notion that fear begets hatred begets more fear and hatred. And all of that drains us and the world around us.

Q: The 'soul eaters' in your story derive from children who endured horrendous childhoods. Why did you want to explore this idea?

A: I think it's an essential truth of our world that the evils we perpetrate upon our children - not just those we parent, but all children - come back to haunt us. I'm regularly despairing at the short-sightedness of those who begrudge our children the resources that will enable them to grow and prosper.

At the same time, the heart of the problem in my novel is fear - the fear of a community that is struggling to survive. When communities feel threatened, they look around for someone to blame. They look for monsters. And this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We treat our children like monsters and then they become them.

Q: How did you develop your setting?

A: I was really pleased when a bookseller told me that she felt the novel could just as easily have been set five hundred years in the future as five hundred years in the past.

I was aiming for timelessness, like a fairy tale or myth - a story that felt archetypal, rather than tied to any particular moment in history. And I do believe that my central theme of fear and what it does to us is timeless. We're just as likely to look for monsters now as we were hundreds of years ago.

That said, there are some elements of the scenery that were very much inspired by Wales, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. And I used Welsh names for characters and places.

Q: You also explore the role and strengths of women through the novel. How does this society perceive women?

A: I began with a story about the betrayal of two girls by their father. From there, I explored the ways in which a community that feels threatened tries to exert control over its women. The character of Mother grew and developed over time, and she enabled me to flesh out the ways in which we judge women.

A woman who knows too much is deemed dangerous, and a woman who doesn't have children is deemed suspect; a woman who is both needs to be very, very careful. I hope I did justice to the complexities - my point wasn't to put forth one particular way a woman should be, but rather to explore the ways women operate within a power structure in which they have no or very little say.

Q: Can you tell us more about how you developed the character of The Beast in your novel?

A: The Beast embodies fear for the villagers in my novel. To them It's the devil, evil incarnate, the thing they scare the kids (and adults) with when they want them to behave.

I'm interested in moral ambiguity and the ways we're often drawn to the things we're most afraid of. So it was important to me to create a character that is genuinely frightening and physically grotesque but also difficult to define. The Beast is neither male nor female for that reason.

More than that I'd rather not say, because I think it's important for readers to encounter The Beast on their own.

Q: The book has a sense of the mythical blended with its setting, have myths inspired you as a writer?

A: I'm fascinated by archetypal stories generally - fairy tale and myth. Those stories speak such truths about the human condition. In myth and many fairy tales, it can be difficult to identify characters that are purely good. Sure, there are heroes, but the heroes aren't necessarily purely good.

The heroes of myth do terrible things. And even the heroes of my favourite fairy tales are morally compromised. The princess in 'Rumpelstiltskin' has to lie and connive to save herself. Gretel has to murder a witch in 'Hansel and Gretel'. Those stores are all about what we would do to save ourselves.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from The Beast Is an Animal?

A: The first word that came to mind was: compassion. I hope I've written an entertaining novel that's frightening and page-turning, but once the fun is over, what I'd love to rest with the reader is a feeling of compassion - for oneself and one's own struggles and mistakes, and for those of the strangers around us.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write, and how does your writing day go?

A: My favourite place to write is a desk or table by a window with trees outside. I've just moved and it's no coincidence that I placed my desk in a nook right by a window with a tree. The wind is blowing through the leaves right now and it's heaven.

The Beast Is an Animal evolved over many years and I had to slot it in between editing and ghost-writing. Sometimes it languished for months at a time. I was lucky that my publisher acquired my second novel along with The Beast Is an Animal, and so the second novel has come together over a much shorter period of time. I was able to set aside the time to work nonstop on the outline and then the first draft, which I handed in to my publisher in August. It's also a dark fairy tale, and I'm very excited about it.

Q: What is your favourite escape from writing?

A: Visiting museums and walking in nature. I have both a museum and a botanical garden near me, so I'm very lucky, and my son loves to hike - he's my ideal walking companion. Sitting (or walking) and talking with a dear friend is restorative, and I have some very dear ones. I also love to paint and cook. Working with my hands while music is playing is a wonderful way of relaxing the writing muscles. And music gives me ideas!

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