Writing the White Darkness of Story: Geraldine Mc Caughrean on writing

You have achieved very high critical acclaim for the versatility and range of your writing. However, you’ve often stated that you like working on children’s books best. Having written more than 150 books, I wonder how you keep coming up with new themes?

Oh, there’s plenty more where they came from, I assure you. I have a box in the corner of the spare bedroom where all the ideas go that turn up on the doorstep while I am too busy to give them tea and biscuits. However I’m slowing up now. I once wrote eleven books in one year. These days it’s one or two. Stories are everywhere, begging to get written. Gold Dust came from a snippet of news in the newspaper, Stop the Train from a TV documentary, and The Kite Rider from a poster for an exhibition glimpsed through a London Tube train window.

In addition to writing your own children’s books you have rewritten myths and legends, classics, fairy tales, Bible stories and Shakespearian plays. Do you find the rewriting process as enjoyable and challenging as creating your own work from scratch?

I rather like to alternate between original and retelling – it’s two different pastimes, but both have their distinct pleasures. What’s the point in forever writing new stories when there are perfectly good old ones falling into obscurity for want of retelling? Admittedly the most fun to retell are those that haven’t been done to death – the fairy stories and myths I didn’t know before I went scouting around for the unusual. It seems that the story of Monacello of Naples has never been retold on paper by anyone before, so I jumped at the suggestion to write it in the form of an illustrated trilogy.

Besides, myth, legend and, to some extent, fairy tales are the dark material I crave when it comes to writing for primary-school children. Publishers are so proscriptive these days about what you can put into a book for juniors – no blades, no witches, no alcohol, no pigs, no swearing, and no religion… on and on. A ludicrous and stultifying censorship. But nobody objects to myths and legends, because they’re ‘educational’, aren’t they? So Perseus is still permitted to carry a sword and slaughter an ugly woman pregnant with twins. Monsters still lurk in the darkness, threatening to devour the world. War and the pity of war still rage around Trojan walls, and Enkidu still dies in the arms of Gilgamesh and drives him mad with grief. And I am still able to plunder myth and legend for moral dilemmas, big passions, the importance of doing battle with evil and deep-seated, universal fears and to present them with a certain grandeur of style. While the story is with me, the story is mine to do with as I see fit – adapting it to my audience as storytellers have always done throughout the ages.

Do you view Peter Pan in Scarlet, the official sequel to Peter Pan, as your highest literary achievement to date?

I think Peter Pan in Scarlet may be my most useful book to date, in that it contributes to the funding of Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (it’s not often you can call a work of fiction useful beyond its power to entertain). Highest literary achievement, though? No. I think that has to be The White Darkness, because no one else could have written it. I was feeding off my own feelings and stratagems for living.

Could you tell us a little about the challenge posed by being commissioned to produce a sequel to such a well-known and well-loved children’s classic?
It was a bit scary to find I’d won a competition that I wasn’t expecting to win and suddenly to have to write my ‘book of a lifetime’. There were bound to be people out there who would hate my book because they genuinely love the original and have spent years knowing exactly how the story ought to continue. There would be authors who thought they could do a better job. There would be purists who thought it was a mortal sin to write a sequel to someone else’s book. After a week or two of panic I decided simply to enjoy writing it as much as possible, in the hope that my pleasure would impart itself to the reader. I tried to pick up something of J. M. Barrie’s quirky style without suppressing my own completely. More importantly, I tried to honour the virtues he admired – like courage – and I allowed a little snow to blow in off the shoulders of Captain Scott, who was his great friend and hero.

 

'Stories are everywhere, begging to get written.'

 

Peter Pan in Scarlet begs to be performed on stage or in film. Do you think there is a likelihood of this happening in the near future?

A film has been on the cards for six years now. It seems to me that each passing year renders it less likely to be made. Right now, most bestselling books seem to be in the cinema within a year. 
I am much more astonished that the dramatic rights have not been taken up. Surely to goodness, with thirty Peter Pan’s playing nationwide during the 2012 pantomime season, there must be grounds for something new about the boy?

Could you share some of the background to your book, The Positively Last Performance, and how it emerged from your residency at the Theatre Royal, Margate?

I had a phone call from Will Wollen, who was the theatre’s Artistic Director at the time in 2012. He asked for advice on how to set about finding someone to write a book about Margate, and then donate some of the proceeds to the theatre. Taking this broad hint, I asked if it was likely to become a play afterwards and Will, taking this equally broad hint, said he didn’t see why not. Game on!

I called the town in the book Seashaw. Anyone who knows Margate will recognise it. Equally, anyone who’s holidayed in any British seaside town will recognise Seashaw. I benefited from the best research source of all: the locals. Two Margate ‘residences’, organised by the theatre, combined the usual author visit with drama workshops and information-gathering. The children were better than any guidebook. Guidebooks don’t mention the autographed photo of Tiger Woods in the Palm Café, the tin-can shop, or the man who always wears yellow. I also visited Dreamland, the museum, arcades, caves, beaches, graveyards, and theatres, of course – because this book is about theatre, too. It’s set in The Royal. After a lifetime eschewing ghost stories (on the grounds of disbelief), I finally succumbed, because they presented the ideal way of uniting past and present. All the Theatre’s ghosts have back stories they would rather not tell; over the years they have settled into a comfortable, comforting routine, like oysters into a mud-bank. But interloper Gracie ruthlessly prises them open one by one, so out spill the stories.

This novel is also based on historical fact. Are you drawn to historical writing?

History’s genuine hiccups and absurdities always throw up better storylines than staring into space does, or forking over personal experience. In Margate the sea came half a mile inshore, Mods and Rockers invaded, TB patients died under the stars, circus lions went walkies on the beach and tens of thousands of Londoners arrived every summer by steamer in search of a good time. Terrific material. History has been good to me. Stop the Train, Plundering Paradise, Pull Out all the Stops!, The Kite Rider, Tamburlaine’s Elephants and all my adult novels have leaned heavily on real-life historical events.

Deception is a very prevalent theme in your novels. Are you a cynic by nature?

I’m not in the least bit cynical. But there isn’t any story without conflict, and the major conflict in any story is usually good pitted against evil, honesty against deceit, truth against lies. Virtue is a great turn-on. Children in particular need to think righteousness can triumph over brutish villainy, and it’s my place to prove it. I might be peddling a lie, of course, in saying that good can win out over evil, but I’ll go on writing it while my hand is still capable of clutching a pen, because I need to believe it as much as the reader does.

‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us.’

This quote from Kafka led you to write The White Darkness.

Sym, the 14-year-old protagonist in this thrilling novel, is much more comfortable living in her vivid imagination than the real world. I wondered if you identified at all with Sym?

I am Sym. That’s how life was for me when I was 14 (well, without the homicidal relations and in-depth knowledge of Antarctica). Fortunately there appear to be a lot of 14-year-olds in the world who still experience things the same way. It was only when I saw it was still all true for my daughter and her friends when they were that age that I felt justified in writing the novel for an audience of modern, street-wise kids. It’s a book about the imagination – the great recurring theme in my novels. Imagination is the knotted rope that can rescue you from any pit, however deep. Imagination is the space capsule that can take you to the curtain walls of the universe and bring you safe home in time for tea. Imagination is the way of climbing inside the skin of another person and living their life for a while. Imagination is a hammock swinging between the two horizons, that lets you lie in the sunshine enjoying the clouds, even when tigers are prowling about just below your spine.