I’m delighted today to be talking to Emma Carroll, author of ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ and ‘The Girl Who Walked on Air’ – and the soon to be released (and much anticipated!) ‘In Darkling Wood’.
Emma, I loved your first two books, they were wonderful stories and settings. In your latest book, ‘In Darkling Wood’, I’ve heard there will be fairies, the First World War and the magic of ancient woods. It sounds like just my kind of thing. Could you tell us a little bit more about it? Where did the idea for the book come from? Do you tend to start with a character or a setting or just an idea of a story?
‘In Darkling Wood’ is about two girls- one in the modern day, one in 1918 – who are anxiously awaiting news about their brothers. What connects them is Darkling Wood, a place where they find comfort in the magic that exists there. The idea came from the Cottingley Fairies photographs. In 1917, two cousins took fake pictures of what they claimed were real fairies. The pictures became famous when Arthur Conan Doyle publicly announced he believed them to be genuine, as did many other ‘experts’. It was this that fascinated me, this willingness for hope and magic to exist in a world full of misery and war.
‘Frost Hollow Hall’ started with a character and a setting. ‘Girl Who Walked On Air’ with an idea. So too did ‘In Darkling Wood’. I think that initial starting point changes from book to book, to be honest.
It does sound like a great starting point for a story. I‘ve always been drawn to the poetry and stories of the First World War. As you say, given the timing of the Cottingley Fairies story, the idea of that ‘willingness for hope and magic’ makes it all the more poignant. With one of your main characters set in 1918, did you find yourself doing a lot of research for this latest book? Do you sit with the idea for a long time and only start writing when you have something very well developed, or do you dive right in and see where it takes you?
There was quite a bit of research, yes. I read up on the Cottingley Fairies story, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s reactions to it. I read folklore and fairy myths, and the history surrounding the Armistice. I read accounts of heart transplant patients, medical websites, watched documentaries. And… I researched trees. So yes – lots of different stuff!
But no, I’m not a very big planner. I like to dive in and see what happens, though I tend to start with a scene, rather than at Chapter 1.
I’m always interested in the journey writers take to publication. When did you start writing and how long was it before you got published? Was Frost Hollow Hall the first book you had written?
I always wrote as a child, but as an adult didn’t get serious about it until June 2009 when I went on an Arvon course with students from my school (I’m an English teacher by trade). From there, I wrote a short book – teen, contemporary, not very good, but it was enough to get me a place on the brilliant Bath Spa MA in Writing For Young People. ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ started life as my MA work-in-progress. It wasn’t the first book I’d written, but it was the first decent thing I’d done. I met my agent through the MA course. She took me on a few months after I’d graduated in February 2012. ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ was sold to Faber in March 2012 and was published in October 2013. It felt as though it all happened very fast, but looking at those dates, it probably didn’t!
Three books in three years sounds pretty good going to me! Which part of the writing process do you like the most, dreaming up the idea, the frenzy of the first draft or the editing?
I like elements of all the stages. But the more I write the more I realise it’s the editing part I truly LOVE. My first drafts are clumsy and full of plot holes; what I really enjoy is getting stuck into the second/third/fourth draft and putting those problems right. This is when my creative brain really fires up. It wakes me in the night sometimes and I have to write things down before I forget them again!
Do you have any tips/techniques to keep yourself writing even on the tough days?
A big mug of tea. A dog walk. A ‘right Carroll, you’re going to do 300 words before supper’ pep talk. Leaving my phone downstairs under a cushion. The promise of prosecco and crisps if I hit my word limit. Knowing when to walk away when a break’s really what you need.
Knowing when to walk away - definitely good advice! (Tells self to listen up) What’s been the best thing about being a published writer?
Absolutely all of it. I wouldn’t change a thing. Nothing can prepare you for the moment you first see a finished copy of your book. Right now though I’m about to take a break from teaching to write full-time – a dream come true – so it’s being able to work from home, for myself and getting to be around people who love books like I do.
Wonderful! If you could go back and give your pre-published self some advice, what would it be?
Second and third books are HARD!
OK, moving swiftly on! I understand you’ve just been commissioned to write a version of Wuthering Heights for younger readers, how did you find that?
Great fun! It’s one of my all-time favourite books, so I leapt at the chance. It was quite hard to tone it down for a younger audience, but I really loved trying to understand Heathcliff’s motivations a bit more (the story is told from his perspective). And… all in under 5000 words. Now that part really was tough!
What appeals to you about writing for the age you write for?
I think it’s the best age to be. It’s when you’re starting to grapple with the real world, the deeper emotional and psychological issues of life. And yet you still believe in magic.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I know - so mean!
Ok, my favourite series was the ‘Jinny at Finmory’ books, about a girl and her Arab horse having adventures in the Scottish Highlands. They were such brilliant books because they weren’t simply ‘gymkhanas and rosettes’ stories but actually explored the connection between animals and us. I still re-read them now.
So what book do you wish you could give your ten-year-old self and why?
In lieu of my last answer, it would have to be ‘The One Dollar Horse’ by Lauren St John. I adore this book now and would’ve devoured it then.
Thanks so much to Emma for taking the time to answer my questions. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of ‘In Darkling Wood’!
If you want to find out more about Emma and her books check out her blog.
Interview by Andy Shepherd