Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Vikings, Trolls and Granny Greenteeth: "West of the Moon" Blog Tour interview with Katherine Langrish

Katherine Langrish is an author we know very well here at Mostly Books, and tomorrow her new book West of the Moon is published. The book combines all the books of her acclaimed 'Troll' trilogy - Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood - but there's a lot more to it than that...

Katherine kindly agreed to be interviewed about the new book, so let's find out more behind the project, and her life as a writer...
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Hi Katherine, welcome to the blog.

You are a firm favourite here at Mostly Books, with the Troll series of books, and the fantastic Dark Angels – and (although you can’t see me!) I’m here holding an advance copy of West of the Moon. Essentially it’s all three ‘Troll’ books bound into one volume – but there’s a lot more to it than that: new cover design together with significant revisions and updates incorporated by you.

"West of the Moon is a fantasy set in the Viking period – around 1000 AD – and it’s the coming-of-age story of a young man, Peer Ulfsson, following his journey from ill-treated orphan boy to quietly confident young hero. Peer isn’t your typical hero-with-a-sword – he’s too poor to own one – and his experiences have left him with a tendency to be anxiety and self-doubt, but he’s quick thinking, fiercely loyal, essentially brave and good. (As one US blogger said to me, ‘Peer’s so sweet – how can you not fall in love with him?’)"

"The books begins like a tale told by a Northern fireside. I like to have a bit of everything in a story, so there’s humour and romance as well as danger and drama. And plenty of magical creatures, from the grotesque trolls, to the sinister water spirit who tries to lure Peer to his death, to the friendly but touchy little Nis (see my spot on yesterday’s tour for more about him!)"

"And Peer’s desperately in love with Hilde – but is she in love with him, or with someone else? Their adventures span continents and years, taking them from the troll-haunted mountain where they first meet, across the wild Northern seas and finally on an epic voyage all the way to Vinland (North America) on a Viking longship with a cursed captain and a murderous crew."

How does the single volume differ from the three separate books, and what changes have been made? Was this something that you always planned to do?

"To answer the last question first, it wasn’t something I could plan for, but I always hoped to be able to do it.  You could call ‘West of the Moon’ my ‘director’s cut’.  There are numerous small differences: I personally revised and trimmed the three Troll books for this edition – and I think it’s now tighter, pacier and an altogether smoother read.  No episodes have been missed out, the story is essentially unchanged, but it now flows in a more powerful and streamlined way from the first page to the last.  And of course I was able to cut all the bits of back-story which you have to put into separate sequels. (You know the kind of thing:  ‘But Harry was no ordinary boy. Ever since his twelfth birthday, when an owl had delivered him a telegram summoning him to Hogwarts…’)"

You’ve been rightly praised for drawing on a variety of Norse and Celtic mythology to create the world in 'West of the Moon'. Was there anything in particular that drew you towards this area when you first started to write, or was it just something that sprang from your imagination?"

I’m going into more detail on this question later in the tour, but briefly, I’ve always loved myths and legends, as you can see from a glance at my own blog!  And the Norse and Celtic stories are so close to home – the two strands of our homegrown British legends."

I couldn’t help being struck by the maps in the front of the book, in particular “Vinland”, which features prominently in the last third of the book. There seems to have been a lot of new research in recent years about the Viking discovery of North America – not to mention interest in what the arctic climate was like back then. Since writing the original books, have you received comments or feedback from readers – or has new research come to light – that you’ve taken on board in West of the Moon? How much scholarship have you had to do regarding the book, and how do you go about doing it?"

I did so much research! But no, nothing I’m aware of has come to light since the publication of Troll Blood in 2007 that would cause me to change my picture of the world of ‘West of the Moon’. I did a great deal of research over the course of the writing of the book. You have to remember the book is historical fantasy, not straight history, so in some cases I don’t mind the odd anachronism – the watermill in the first two parts of the book is not an authentic tenth century Norse mill, for example; but it would have been so difficult – and so irrelevant to the narrative – to try and explain the difference, I decided to go with the more familiar medieval variety."

"But there were some points where accuracy mattered very much indeed. I spent a week sailing a replica Viking ship on Roskildefjord in Denmark to try and make my characters’ voyage as realistic as I could. And the Native American parts of the book: settings, culture and folklore based on that of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, took me more than six months to research – often in the Bodleian Library – and I then had it checked by a world authority on the subject. When you’re handling the myths and legends of another culture, I think you have a duty to try and get it as right as possible."

How important is reader feedback to you generally, and your ongoing writing?

"Well, it’s always nice to hear if someone has enjoyed the books!  But – to my writing?  No, it isn’t important at all.  I write exactly what I want to write, and I never let anyone get involved in the process – in fact it’s rare for me to let anyone else even see it until it’s finished."

I’ve been lucky enough to see you ‘perform’ in front of schoolchildren – talking about modern mythology, linking it to the past – and often getting the children to act out sometimes gruesome Viking ‘events’ such as beheadings, which the kids absolutely love! I know that you started out as a ‘professional’ storyteller before becoming an author, and I wondered how important that background was to your development as a writer?

"I think it must have been very important – and the best evidence I can give is that, before I did the storytelling, I was writing stories and not selling them – and after I’d spent a few years’ storytelling, I wrote ‘Troll Fell’ and sold it, so the proof of the pudding…?"

"From oral storytelling, I think I unconsciously learned a lot about pacing and structure. And what works in a tale and what doesn’t. You hold your audience’s eyes, and you see straight away if they start to yawn!"

Your writing has been compared to authors such as Alan Garner, who has a reputation of being a challenging author (and who, incidentally, was never happy that his earlier books were ‘sold’ as children’s books). Do you write with children in mind, or do you simply tell stories and let other people worry about the age of the reader? Can children handle more complex plots and language than adults sometimes give them credit for?

"I’m very happy to be known as a writer for children and young adults, even though I know many adults who also enjoy my books.  Children are more than capable of coping with complex, layered narratives.  I know, because I used to be one.  I honestly write the stories I want to write.  I don’t worry too much about the age of the reader.  Some of the best fanmail I’ve ever had has come from children and teenagers who’ve told me ‘I never read a book right through before I read yours’, and this makes me wonder – since to read my fairly literary prose, they must be competent readers – whether the adults in charge of their reading have been offering them books which are too simplistic and uninspiring?  It’s just a thought."

Finally, for World Book Night we are challenging authors and readers to name one or two books that had a big impact on them when growing up, or books that they unhesitatingly recommend to everyone. Which books influenced you most when growing up, and which would you recommend without question?"

A book recommendation can never be unhesitating, because it has to be tailored to the individual reader. You have to know someone’s tastes before you thrust something at them. The books which influenced me? Many are now out of print, but – the Narnia books by C S Lewis, George Macdonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’, Lucy Boston’s gentle ghosts in ‘The Children of Green Knowe’, E Nesbit’s ‘The Enchanted Castle’, ‘Viking’s Dawn’ by Henry Treece, and ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’ by Rosemary Sutcliff, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Books’, and ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ – Kipling is one of Britain’s most brilliant short story writers, in my opinion…

But I think I’d better stop!"

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Katherine - you could definitely go on, those recommends are fab. Thanks very much for your time, and for (hopefully) giving readers of the blog lots to think about whether they are a reader or a writer.

West of the Moon is published by HarperCollins Children's Books on March 3rd, RRP £7.99. And of course, we will have copies in the shop...

Katherine's blog tour continues at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books on launch day tomorrow...

4 comments:

  1. The book looks fascinating - I shall look out for it!

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  2. Excellent post! And those are some of my favourite reads too. WoTM is SUCH a good book--would recommend to anyone.

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  3. Oh help, I've got another interview coming next Tuesday! I'd better make some new answers up...

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  4. A great interview, especially the bit about oral storytelling... its quite fitting really how you say storytelling developed your writing since it was such an important part of Norse and Celtic cultures... :)

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