Thursday 23 April 2015

Never Ignore A Possible

Andy Shepherd interviews Katherine Rundell

I have to admit to being a little late to the party when it comes to Katherine Rundell. Despite all of the buzz, I only read ‘Rooftoppers’ and ‘The Girl Savage’ at the beginning of this year. I have however made up for lost time by becoming a bit of a Superfan. I think the scream when my advance copy of 'The Wolf Wilder' arrived went supersonic.

So I was over the moon when Katherine agreed to do this interview and many thanks to her for her wonderful answers.

‘Rooftoppers’ was such a success, how did it feel embarking on your next book? Did you get the dreaded follow-up book fear and, if so, how did you overcome it?

I did! But perhaps not so much follow-up book fear as just plain writing-fear: I always swerve between thinking it’s working and thinking it’s so bad that my own mother will cease to love me in disgust. I haven’t found a way round it, except keeping going and telling myself I can edit later. An editor said to me, once: ‘you have to get to the end in order to begin.’

That sounds like great advice, I may have to stick that to my desk!

In 'Rooftoppers', Charles often says to Sophie ‘Never ignore a possible’, and it’s become a favourite phrase in our house. Can you name the best or most interesting ‘possible’, which you never ignored? Did it lead to something as exciting as it did for Sophie? 

That’s lovely to hear! Thank you. I guess the biggest possible was writing my first book - which I wrote never believing it would be published, because I needed to see if I could do it. Mostly, though, in adult life, I meant it to be about living boldly – speaking love, taking risks.

It’s not at all obvious but part of the inspiration for Rooftoppers came from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is about a mother thought dead and re-discovered, and the base-note of that gorgeous play is: bequeath to death your doubt and indecision, live.

Oh! And night-climbing, one of my favourite things, is all about wagering your safety against the promise of beauty – that’s part of what possibles are about.

There is already a huge buzz about your new book ‘The Wolf Wilder’. Can you tell us a little bit about the new story? Where did the inspiration for it come from? 

It’s about wolves, in Russia around the time of the two revolutions. It’s a bit darker than ‘Rooftoppers’ - I wanted to write about a child opening her eyes and learning that the world is huge, and worth fighting for, which is why it’s set in a big landscape. And I love wolves – I met one and she was electric.

Talking of landscapes, the settings in your books are incredibly evocative, do you rely on imagination and research or do you like to visit the places you write about?

I visit them whenever I can. I think there’s so much that you won’t discover unless you go. For instance, the next one will be about the Amazon, and I spent my Waterstones prize money on going there, and there was so much I wouldn’t have known otherwise – for instance, what the river water tastes like when you accidentally inhale it, what the floating petrol stations look like, how to catch a piranha. My grandfather used to live in St Petersburg; my uncle and cousins still do, so I know Russia a little. I love its immense and wintry beauty.

What surprised you most about writing the book?

I wanted to write a mother and child interacting, which I’d never done before – ‘Rooftoppers’ is technically about mother-hunting, but for me it’s all about Charles – and I found mother-daughter much harder to write than father-daughter dynamics: despite admiring my own mum more than anyone else in the world, so it was an interesting challenge.

And, also - I’m always surprised by how hard it is! I loved writing it but I always think it will be easier and quicker than it is. My editor at Bloomsbury, Ellen Holgate, is a mixture of a fairy godmother and a straight-up saint, to put up with me.

So do you prefer to write stand-alone books or do you have ideas for books that may have sequels or become series?

My favourites as a kid were mostly stand-alones, so that was what I gravitated towards – someday I’d love to try a series, but not yet.

As writers we read because we love stories, but also because through reading we can become better writers. Which writer or books have you learned the most about writing from?

Ooh – difficult question! I had access to a wonderful, crumbly and old-fashioned library in Harare as a kid – some of the books were taken out so rarely that the fines were listed in shillings - and I just read my way around the children’s section and then into the adults’ - so I was walking always alongside the lives of books and I think it was those books en masse, rather than individually, that taught me about how sentences work. But specifically, I think I learnt a lot from E Nesbit, Eva Ibbotson, and from Philip Pullman. I am miles and miles from them, though. I still find my writing very shaky and limping.

Well I may have to disagree with you there! But following on from that, what book do you wish you had written?

Ah - there are so many! Alice in Wonderland, most of all. The Moomins. Five Children and It, Pullman’s Northern Lights, Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Millions, or Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life. Or, for an adult’s book – Emma, or Nabokov’s Pale Fire, books with huge brains and huge love for the world under their satire.

What character from any book would you most like to be and why?

I’d like to be Phileas Fog, and see the whole world in 80 days. And I’d quite like to be Feo, in The Wolf Wilder. I’d like to be tough down to my bones, and to ride wolves.

If you weren’t a writer what could you see yourself doing?

I think, realistically, I’d be an academic, which is technically my day job – I teach Shakespeare at Oxford. But I’d have loved to be an acrobat, or fly a bush plane through Southern Africa.

And finally, a couple of questions from my sons! 

Which character in your books do you like the most? 

In “The Girl Savage’, I love Will, who is based on a mixture of people I love and is also the me I wish I was; and in ‘Rooftoppers’, I love Charles, for reasons that are not suitable for children.

If you could have a super power what would it be? 

I would fly! I would see the whole Amazon jungle from the sky, and fly through storm clouds, and skim above the river with my feet in the water.

Thanks so much, Katherine. I’ve loved hearing your thoughts and after being lucky enough to get an early copy of ‘The Wolf Wilder’, I can safely say this Superfan is here to stay!

The Wolf Wilder is due to be released in September by Bloomsbury. Click here to find out more about it.

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