Thursday 18 February 2016

An interview with Abi Elphinstone by Tizzie Frankish

With more at stake then ever before, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before its too late?

As a writer of Middle Grade and a huge fan of adventure stories, its is my pleasure to welcome Abi Elphinstone, author of The Dreamsnatcher and the soon to be released sequel The Shadow Keeper.

A thrillingly wild adventure – bold, breathless and beautifully told’ Jonathan Stroud

So, grab your catapult and join us on our adventure where we crack the secret code for  bringing stories to life, share secret pasts and save the life of a certain earthworm...

I wholeheartedly agree with Katherine Rundell, who said of the Dreamsnatcher; “An outstanding debut packed with suspense, adventure and heart”. What magic and mysteries can we expect from The Shadowkeeper?

I wanted to build on Moll’s world in The Shadow Keeper – to draw her out of the forest towards a coastline puckered by caves, waterfalls and fishing villages – and as her world grew, so did the magic. But I needed to make sure the fantasy elements enhanced, rather than detracted from, my seaside setting. Originally I thought I’d stop at kelpies and grindylows but because I tried to make the plot in this book bolder, and the sense of peril greater, I felt an unstoppable urge to add yet more magic. Cue grim whispers, cursed owls, spells uttered inside secret caves and codes read out in the Oracle Bones.

Sounds exciting. I cant wait to read more about their adventures... Moll is an impulsive and courageous character and if social media photos are anything to go by there is more than a dash of Elphinstone in Moll.  What was the inspiration for this feisty protagonist?

Writing Moll is like writing my autobiography one exhausting step at a time. I loved reading feisty heroines as a child (Lyra from Northern Lights, Maia from Journey To The River Sea and Bonnie from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and I expect the inspiration for Moll’s friendship with her wildcat, Gryff, came from Pullman’s Lyra and Pantalaimon, but ultimately what inspired my protagonist was thinking back to the fear, excitement and wonder of being twelve. I grew up with two younger brothers and a younger sister. If we were perched on a cliff top overlooking the sea, I made sure I jumped off first. There was a tone to set. If we were leaping over bamboo canes in the garden, I made sure I leapt higher than my brothers. And out of this fierce outdoor rivalry came Moll: plucky, determined and hopelessly impulsive.

Alfie is an intriguing character and I would love to know more about him. What has he got in store for us in The Shadow Keeper?

In The Dreamsnatcher Alfie runs away from Skull’s camp to help Moll find the Amulets of Truth and while writing my debut, I knew that Alfie’s past was complicated – that there were secrets he was holding back from Moll and Sid. But it wasn’t until I had written the first few chapters of The Shadow Keeper that I realised who Alfie was. I was walking down the street one day and everything about his past suddenly popped into my head. I didn’t have a piece of paper to write on so I took a leaf from a tree in the park and scribbled his story onto it (I still have that leaf in my writing shed J). I don’t want to reveal too much about Alfie at this stage but I can say that in The Shadow Keeper Moll discovers who he really is. And there are tears.

No! Not the tears... I’m a massive fan of animal sidekicks in books. In your series there is Moll and Gryff and Siddy and his earthworm pet. Was Siddy always saddled with an earthworm or did you audition other sidekicks for him?

In The Dreamsnatcher, I included an earthworm called Porridge The Second. I felt that non-stop witch doctor antics would have been a little overwhelming and an apathetic earthworm would provide a suitable antidote to the dark magic. But when I considered having Moll squash Porridge The Second in The Shadow Keeper, my editor (and numerous fans) begged for his life. He lives, in The Shadow Keeper, but remains in the forest and down by the sea Siddy adopts a crab, Hermit, who is terrified of absolutely everything. Even his own pincers. 

Ah Hermit sounds delightful... I loved reading The Dreamsnatcher and appreciated the hints of Pullman and Lewis, which reignited my childhood memories. Which book from your childhood had the biggest impact on you as both a reader and a writer?

It’s a tough call between The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. No moment in literature has affected me so powerfully as the moment Lucy Pevensie pushes open that wardrobe door – except, perhaps, Lyra riding Iorek over the Arctic ice plains. As a reader, these stories filled me with wonder and made me hungry for magic. Now, I read a lot of contemporary children’s books and they have definitely coloured how I write. Michelle Paver (and her excellent Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series) taught me how to write action scenes, David Almond showed me that magic doesn’t need to be all signing and dancing to be powerful and believable (Skellig remains one of my favourite books) and Katherine Rundell’s writing, particularly in The Wolf Wilder, makes me want to take time over every word I write.

There is much to be said about the trials and tribulations of ‘Second Story Syndrome’.  How did you find writing a sequel compared to the first book? And how is the third book coming along?

I found writing my debut hard. Very hard. As most people already know, I had 96 rejections from literary agents on the books I wrote before The Dreamsnatcher so it was a long and winding struggle to get my book deal. But weirdly, I didn’t find writing my second book that difficult. I had the world and my protagonist set up – and I had amulets still waiting to be found... The plot poured out (perhaps because I plan/sketch each chapter before writing) but I had to work much harder at the character progression. And Book 3? (here's hoping...) You’re not meant to know that there is a Book 3 because it hasn’t been announced yet but… I submitted it on Monday and it’s a northern adventure – full of mountains, lochs, castles, moors and kilts – and I absolutely loved writing it. 

Yippeeee!... So, what’s next after the Dreamsnatcher series?

Again, I’m not supposed to reveal too much at this stage but I can tell you that I’m doing an Arctic series next. I spent a few days in the Lofoten Islands, north of Norway, over New Year and have come back armed with stories involving orcas, polar nights and glaciers. I’ve got a few characters in my head, too – Eska, Flint and an Arctic fox pup who lives in the hood of someone’s jacket. 

You travel to the ends of the earth when researching your books. Why do you feel this is an important part of your writing process?

On the one hand, I travel because I am full of wonder at our incredible world and, as author John Muir said, ‘The world’s big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark’ but on the other hand, I travel because my adventures bring my stories to life. If I’ve learnt how to carve catapults from ash, sculpt knife handles from hazel, fashion bows from yew and fletch arrows with buzzard feathers with one of Britain’s last ‘real’ Romany gypsies I can picture my main character, Moll, doing the same. And if I’ve abseiled into a cave in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, I can imagine how Moll and her Tribe would feel encountering caves filled with stalactites and brooding shadows. I’m dyslexic and my processing skills are dreadful so I crave visual prompts throughout the writing process; my adventures spark the ideas for fictional worlds but it’s the maps I draw afterwards that anchor them into a plot.

I adore Narwhals (and Artic Foxes now that you mention it!) and a little birdie tells me that they may make an appearance in one of your books.  Can you give anything away?

Ah, the unicorns of the sea. Yes, they’ll be in the book. Scientists still don’t know why narwhals have a tusk but I’m pretty sure my heroine, Eska, is going to uncover the truth.

You are a huge advocate for Middle Grade stories. What do you love the most about writing for this age group?

I love the scale of adventure, the bravery of the children and, as I often say, the sense of wonder at the heart of these stories.

Quick fire questions:

I create my characters names by… glancing at cocktail lists, signposts, shower gels in TK Maxx and, rather morbidly, gravestones.

What comes first: the character or the plot? The setting.

My favourite word is… goblin.

The book I wish I’d written is… The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

If you could add anything to the school curriculum, what would it be? Starjumps. They’re good for the soul.

One thing you don’t know about me is… I once ate 14 pieces of toast – IN A ROW – at my friend’s house. I was 12 – and hungry.

Hiking or biking? Hiking.

My perfect day is … Walking across the Scottish moors.


Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic.

 So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. 

With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late?

The Shadow Keeper is published by Simon & Schuster Children's UK on 25th February and  can be pre-ordered by clicking on this link  

 A massive thank you to Abi for taking the time to answer my questions and for giving us a glimpse into her writing life.

Interview by Tizzie Frankish      

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