I like reality. I like real people, real emotions. Real people are interesting. A book about a realistic person dealing with the tricky problem of being a human being is so much more interesting to write than a book about a realistic person dealing with the tricky problem of a vampire and some fairies. When it comes to reading, I like fantasy books, and I loved science fiction as a child, but as a writer ... realism all the way.
Which is why I struggled so much writing ‘Season of Secrets’, my second novel, which is based on the pagan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. I fell in love with the Oak King, a damaged summer god forced into a cycle of death and rebirth every year in order to make the summer come, and knew he’d work in a children’s book. I even thought I’d solved the real-people problem by adding a child called Molly, with enough real-life problems (cunningly linked to the Oak King’s story) to fill half a series worth of novels.
But, my God, fantasy is difficult to write! Villains, for example. What do they do when they’re not being villainous? Where do they live? Why don’t they just crush your puny nine-year-old heroine to a pulp, instead of allowing her to run off and plot against them?
And what do gods do all day? In the myths, the Oak King just sort of exists and spring and summer happens around him, but how does this work in real life? When he’s reborn, does he get clothes, or is he naked? Would he bother with clothes, just to satisfy the sensibilities of pagans and primary school librarians? And how does he feed himself? Does he need to? Does he have friends, besides the trees and the flowers? And when pagan mythology says ‘god of summer’, do they mean god of summer for everywhere? Or just the Northern hemisphere? Just Britain? Just his little section of Northumberland?
‘Ways to Live Forever’ was a lot easier. I knew how things worked in ‘Ways to Live Forever’. In ‘Season of Secrets’ I had to deal with all this world-building, which really wasn’t important to my main story, which was about a child coping with the death of her mother. And I knew right from the start that Molly had to tell other people about her man - I never believed in those children’s books where kids find secret passageways or magical creatures and never mention them to their parents. If I’d found anything that cool, I’d want to tell everyone about it, and I knew Molly would too. But if the others can see him, how does he belong to her?
In the end, I took inspiration from writers like David Almond, who let the reader know only as much as the main character does. Molly doesn’t know if her man is real or not - so neither does the reader. She doesn’t know much about his life - so neither do we. She wonders about it - she asks the sort of questions that I hope the reader asks - but she doesn’t get an answer.
I believe in allowing children to engage with a novel - to ask their own questions and come up with their own answers. I believe half of the fun of reading a book is working the tricky bits out for yourself, and I hope I let my readers do this. And I hope it doesn’t come across as merely lazy writing.
I tell you what, though. I’m not doing fantasy again. My next book is going to be realistic, modern-day and totally simple to write.
Except it seems to be set in medieval England.
Sally Nicholls is the author of Ways to Live Forever and Season of Secrets. Her novels have won numerous awards, including the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year and the Luch Prize for the best novel published in Germany 2008. Her website is www.sallynicholls.com.
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