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>> Apocalypse in Europe

Apocalypse in Europe
03/09/2019

Apocalypse in Europe


Imagine hearing about a plague that is devastating Europe, that there is no cure, and that it's heading your way...SALLY NICHOLLS tells us about writing ALL FALL DOWN, her novel about how the plague swept across Medieval Europe.

ALL FALL DOWN explores the impact of the Black Death on one family of farmers in Medieval England. The novel was first published in 2012 and is republished by Andersen Press this month.

ALL FALL DOWN follows Isabel and her family, left with nowhere to run as the devastating plague travels through Europe until it finally arrives at their doorstep. As the villagers grapple with trying to understand why this is happening, the terrifying disease takes hold and will change their world forever.

We asked SALLY NICHOLLS to tell us more about ALL FALL DOWN:


Q: Can you tell us a little about how All Fall Down - a fictionalised account of one girl's life and community during the plague in Medieval England - came about?


A: I loved apocalypse novels as a teenager but never really wanted to write one, because I'm much more interested in people than in world building.

The Black Death interested me because it's the closest thing we have to a real-life apocalypse - it's believed to have killed around 45% of the population - yet it affected society in surprising and unexpected ways. So many apocalypse novels get it wrong - I wanted to write about what really happened, which is much more interesting.


Q: Why did you decide to write the book from teenager Isabel's perspective?

A: Well, it's a YA novel, so it needed a teenage protagonist. It's quite a gory book, so I'm not sure it would have worked as middle-grade. I wanted to write about the experience of villains - people 'owned' by the Lord of the manor - because they were the people for whom life changed the most, in generally positive ways, and I wanted it to have some hope.


Q: And why did you set it in the north, near York?


A: Well, partly because I grew up in the north-east, and I spent my childhood reading about people who lived down south. So it's good to readdress the balance. And partly because the Black Death arrived in Britain on the southern coast, and came slowly up north at about walking pace, spreading terror before it, which was a wonderfully alarming way to start the story.

Isabel's family would have had a very good idea of what to expect. And as peasants they just had to sit there and wait for it to reach them.


Q: How much research did you need to do into this period, and where did you go to find out more about it, given it happened so long ago and when few people could write about the events?


A: I read a mixture of general introductions, scholarly texts, and fictional works such as The Canterbury Tales. The most useful book about Isabel's daily life was called The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, which was based on reading the reports of medieval inquests into sudden deaths.

Where and how people of different ages and genders died, and how people felt about it, tells you an awful lot about how they lived their lives, it turns out.

One thing that hadn't occurred to me was that, if it's necessary to mention something, it's probably because it's unusual. The Wife of Bath mentions that she was twelve when she was married, because that was a shocking thing, not a normal one. (Though it was legal. But it probably happened about as often as sixteen-year-old marriage happens today.)

Similarly, the fact that an inquest mentions that a baby was left unattended while it's parents went to church and was subsequently squashed by the family pig suggests that it was unusual to leave babies alone for that long.


Q: What was the most startling thing you found out about the plague and its spread?


A: The population of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century was half what it was at the beginning. Isn't that incredible?


Q: All Fall Down was originally published seven years ago - why do you feel it's an important book for today's young people to read?


A: Apocalypses are in the air at the moment, thanks to Brexit, climate change, the rise of the far right and ecological collapse. There's a sense that that sort of thing doesn't happen here. But it did, not very long ago. And it could again.

The Black Death was, in the long term, very positive for society as a whole - it broke the back of the feudal system, reduced the power of the church and the monasteries, and improved life for peasants and women.

But - and this cannot be ignored - it also killed 45% of the population. I think most people would say that's too great a price to pay.


Q: Have you made changes to the new edition?


A: Yes, some - I've tidied some things up and made a few changes. But it's still broadly the same book.


Q: What would you like your readers to take away from the novel?


A: That apocalyptic disasters are real and have happened in Britain in historical memory. That they can and almost certainly will happen again. We will almost certainly survive them, and good things may even come out of them. But the human cost may not be worth it.


Q: You have since written other historical fiction, including Things a Bright Girl Can Do. What do you enjoy about writing historical fiction?


A: I like getting the details right. I like the effort required to imagine a particular time and place. And I like the excitement of entering a world that is so different. There are story possibilities in so many things that there aren't in everyday life.


Q: What are your top tips for writing great historical fiction?


A: Read as many novels and memoirs written at the time as you can. They will probably surprise you. We think we know what the past was like, and very often we are wrong.

Think about how people spoke, and what underwear they wore. Think about the practical details like how they lit fires and what their roads were like before tarmac.

But remember that what being a person was like didn't really change that much - children have always loved rolling down hills, teenagers have always fought with their parents, and old people have always thought things were so much better when they were a child.


Q: What are you currently writing?


A: Several things all at once! I've just finished a first draft of a YA novel set at Christmas 1919, about a teenage girl whose illegitimate son is being raised as her youngest brother, and what happens when the boy's father comes home from the war.

I'm also writing the next book in my middle-grade timeslip series - An Escape in Time. And I'm trying to finish a follow-up to my first picture book, The Button Book, which is coming out next year.


Q: Describe your dream writer's shed, and where you would want it to be?


A: It would have comfy sofas, food and drink and cake on demand, and lots and lots of bookshelves. And a house elf. And a bed. It would be in some sort of time portal which meant I could do all my work and have a long nap, and maybe a swim, and then pop back in time to pick my kids up. Maybe it would be a Tardis. With the aforementioned house elf.


Q: What are your favourite escapes from your desk?!


A: I love climbing mountains - I hardly ever get to do it any more, now I have two small children and live in the south east. I like playing bridge and complicated board games. And I love books.
 
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