Picking Destiny’s Pockets – An interview with Frances Hardinge


Frances Hardinge’s novels have received wide critical acclaim and something of a cult following. After the release of her latest book, Cuckoo Song, she chatted to Juliette Saumande about world-building, rebels and changelings, metaphor addictions and the spaghetti of morality.

JS: I read your books in the order they were published and I felt I could see you developing as a storyteller with every new title. How long have you been writing/telling stories for?

FH: I was storytelling even as a child, albeit very quietly and shyly. When my sister and I were young, I used to invent serialised bedtime stories for her while we were trying to get to sleep. Most of them I can no longer remember, but there was definitely a prolonged comic saga featuring a family of dinosaurs, and a time-travelling chiller set in an overgrown castle. When I was about five, I wrote a story for a supply teacher’s class and she refused to believe I hadn’t copied it from somewhere. I think she was confused by the fact that I could punctuate.


Were your books written in the order they were published? And did the writing get any easier or did you discover new challenges along the way?

The books were indeed written in their published order. Each book tends to be very different from the last, because I get heartily sick of them during the writing process, and I’m usually desperate to try something completely different afterwards. The main exception has been Cuckoo Song, which I never actually learned to hate. On the whole, the writing has not grown easier. With every book I become increasingly self-critical, and better at spotting my own flaws. This is useful for self-editing, but doesn’t help morale!


Your plots are always rich in complexity and twists, and never take the easy route to anywhere. I feel you often start when most other writers would finish. In A Face Like Glass, you remove what seems to be the source of all evil, and yet Neverfell’s adventures are far from their conclusion at this stage. Similarly, in Cuckoo Song, the great reveal about Triss’s strange state of mind and health is, in some ways, only the beginning. Do you plot your stories in detail before you launch into the writing?

I do always plot my books in advance, though to varying degrees. In the case of Fly by Night, I had a chapter by chapter outline prepared in advance. (This was partly because I was using an alphabetical chapter naming system in that book, and thus had to plan ahead.) Usually my outlines are not quite that detailed, but I generally plot out all the most important events that will occur, how it will end, etc.


And do you always follow your plans or do your novels sometimes take you by surprise too?

Yes, my novels do take me by surprise! I’m glad they do, or writing them would be a lot less interesting. Usually the surprises aren’t too earth-shaking – quirks of the plot that suddenly become clear, characters who develop unexpected depths, or sudden revelations about ways disparate elements of the plot connect. In Verdigris Deep, however, I was about halfway through writing the book when I realised that I wanted to abandon my plotted route completely and head off in a new direction. I was still glad I had planned ahead, though. It helps to have a map, even if you change your destination en route.


One thing that is always very striking in all of your books is how rock-solid your world-building is. From Gullstruck Island to Caverna, the Realm to Ellchester, it feels as though the setting is as much part of the action as the protagonists. Do you treat place as a character when you set out to write a new book?

I do tend to treat places as a character, sometimes quite literally. Magwhite has a ‘spirit of place’ in the form of the Well Witch [in Verdigris Deep], and the underground city of Caverna [in A Face Like Glass] is seen as an awe-inspiring female entity by the crazed Cartographers who worship her. My sense of direction and spatial memory are unbelievably poor, but I do tend to pick up on the character and atmosphere of places. I’m particularly fascinated by cities, in all their unwieldy, unpredictable, dangerous, anonymous, extrovert, contradictory glory. Old cities are particularly captivating, living in a dozen times at once and haunted by their past selves.


The amount of detail and the level of consistency are also impressive. How do you go about research? Where would be your favourite port of call? History? Folklore? Actual places?

Most of my book settings contain fragments and aspects of real places I have visited. Gullstruck is a veritable patchwork of places I saw whilst travelling round the world, sewn together in the hope that this would make the island convincingly solid, but with its own unique identity. I clambered around, up, down and inside a number of volcanoes so that I could describe the way Gullstruck’s volcanoes looked, smelt, sounded and behaved. I also draw heavily on history and folklore, since both fascinate me. When I visit a place I always want to learn about its stories, both historical and mythical, so that I can understand it better. I don’t feel as if I have really been somewhere if all I have done is trundle between postcard views without asking questions.


Do you draw maps or use any kinds of pictures?

Yes, I quite often draw maps while planning the action for my books. Given my terrible sense of direction, it’s essential if I want to prevent my characters inadvertently teleporting!


In Cuckoo Song, the action takes place in a post-World War One Britain. Even though there is magic involved, the setting is much more realistic than in most of your other books (except Verdigris Deep). Why pick this specific time and place?

There were a number of reasons. I wanted to write about grief, and setting my book in the wake of World War One allowed me to show not only a bereaved family, but an entire society stricken with a sense of loss and struggling with the need to move on and rebuild, rather than clinging to the past.

Also, Cuckoo Song is a changeling story. It seemed apt to set it at a time when a lot of soldiers were returning from war understandably altered by their experiences. They looked the same as before, they answered to their names … but they couldn’t be the same young men as before. At the same time some young women were hacking off their ringlets, smoking, drinking, driving, getting jobs, etc. The older generation could be excused for wondering what the heck had happened to their children, and who these alarming young people were that had taken their place. It was a changeling age.


The places you create are fairly dark and oppressive, and the people in authority can almost never be trusted. You write about outsiders, underdogs, victims, people who are not in the right place or don’t seem to have one. This makes for very political books.

I never sit down to write a political manifesto disguised as a children’s book. First and foremost I write stories, but some subjects that I consider important or interesting come out to play in the narrative.

It is certainly true that I do tend to focus on outsiders, underclasses, rebels and the marginalised. This is partly because I am fascinated by human ingenuity, courage, stubborness and humour, and people’s everyday ability to endure the unendurable, make the best of the worst and push up through the cracks like dandelions between paving stones. At the same time, I feel a compulsion to explore the many ways in which we slide into regarding our fellow humans as less than human.


Your protagonists also battle with their consciences a lot and they often feel and do things that are not ‘right’. Were there scenes/moments that were particularly hard to write? And has this ever got you into trouble with publishers, reviewers or readers themselves?


Mosca Mye from Fly by Night and Twilight Robbery certainly does accumulate a reasonable list of crimes! By the end of the first real chapter she has committed arson, stolen a goose, released a felon and gone on the lam. Then again, in Fly by Night almost every named character, with about two exceptions, breaks some law. Not all law-breaking is equal, though, and you can tell a lot about the characters from which laws they break and why.

The hardest Mosca chapter to write was ‘O is for Oath’ in Fly by Night. For most of that chapter, Mosca is ‘lost’. She has helped hide a body, thinks that she is assisting a murderer in covering his tracks and, in a numb state of terror and shellshock, finds herself testifying to the guilt of an innocent man. That is her darkest moment, far darker than her times of peril or her petty thefts and lies for survival. To avoid spoilers, I should probably not say whether she turns away from this course …

Curiously enough, my highly fallible protagonists have not brought me too much criticism. Their moral sense is embattled, not absent. They are not perfect, but neither is the world that forces choices upon them, and ethical questions tangle like spaghetti when you look closely.


One hears a lot about how readers supposedly like to ‘read up’ in terms of age, how they won’t care for a character who is their age or younger. But your protagonists are often quite young (10, 11, 13 tops), and yet the books address older readers and are often categorised as 12+ or even YA. Do you set out to write with a particular audience in mind? And has that age ‘discrepancy’ ever been an issue?


My standard answer is that I write for a twelve-year-old version of me. At that age I had a love of books with adventure, murder mysteries, twists and turns, spies, elaborate battles of wits and a real sense of menace. I didn’t have a problem with darkness or intricacy.

The ‘discrepancy’ does mean that nobody quite knows what to do with me. Sometimes bookshops put me in the 8–12 category, sometimes in YA. The UK Literacy Association shortlisted one of my books for an award in the 7–9 category! I do have readers who are nine or ten years old, but also an increasing number of adult readers. When people ask me what age I write for, I usually say: ‘Ten plus, but in some cases quite a lot of plus.’


Your prose is such a delight. Your metaphors, similes and so on are always so surprising and yet so right. Do you write poetry or songs?

Thank you very much! I don’t tend to write poetry, but I have written a few songs purely for my own amusement, complete with tunes. They are not very good, though, so I haven’t sung them to anybody else!


Do you ever wish you could just string words together and not have to worry about plot and character?

I do get carried away with words, and I have a terrible metaphor addiction, but I would soon lose momentum if I was simply creating pretty patterns with words and nothing more. The plot and characters are there to keep my interest, as well as that of the reader. Besides, sometimes the way in which I use words depends on the character speaking, or the mood of the scene and its place in the plot.

I can get a little over-lyrical, though, and if I did not have my editor and writers’ group friends to rein me in, I would probably turn into Eponymous Clent, the con artist poet of Fly by Night. I find his wordy speech all too easy to write, and surprisingly hard to stop writing.


You were recently invited to take part in the 26 Characters exhibition in the Story Museum. You picked as your character a strong-minded, nimble-thinking trickster: the Scarlet Pimpernel. Would you like to tell us a bit about the reasons behind this choice?

I have always had a love of tricksters and characters who find ways to live outside the usual rules. I liked the Scarlet Pimpernel because he did not simply think faster than his opponents, he thought in a completely different way. He played to his enemies’ psychological blind spots and usually slipped past them by hiding in plain sight and taking risks so audacious that nobody predicted them.


Would it be fair to say that there is a bit of his cheek, bravery and quick-wittedness in Mosca, Neverfell, Hathin and Triss/Not-Triss/Trista?

I think my protagonists do show some of that originality of thought, quick-wittedness and nerve, because they’re qualities that I find very appealing. I am not a fan of Chosen Ones, or individuals who are given everything they need by Destiny. I want a protagonist who picks Destiny’s pocket, or finds loopholes in an unwinnable game.


Finally, can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

At the moment I am writing a novel set in the 1860s, on a semi-fictional Channel Island. It is mostly a murder mystery, but also a tale of archaeology, bizarre mourning rituals and supernatural plants …