Going underground: Frances Hardinge at St Nicolas School

One of the lures of becoming a full-time writer is that it gives you certain freedoms in terms of how you work, and what you do from week to week. Children's author Frances Hardinge is no exception, although her ability to claim dangerous speleological activities and volcano hiking trips against tax seems to indicate an particularly devious, creative and resourceful mind.

We suspected as much, because - as far as we are concerned - Frances possesses a fearsome imagination which has produced some of the best books for confident readers that we sell in the shop.

By a huge slice of luck, Frances spends a large chunk of time in Oxford, so it was a delight to welcome her to Abingdon and take her into one of its best primary school's:
St Nicolas.
The school had certainly prepared well for Frances' visit, with the day structured around a talk given by Frances followed by some very creative workshops which inspired the children to come up with their own weird and wonderful characters.
The teachers and children made her feel very welcome as Frances told them about her books - and how she writes. Frances talked about her latest book 'A Face Like Glass' (which we have absolutely loved - read our review here - it deserves to be on every children's book award shortlist going, in our honest opinion).

The book tells the story of Neverfell, who arrives - dramatically - by falling (literally) into the life of Grandible (or rather, his cheese vat). Grandible is an artisan cheesemaker who lives apart from the rest of his underground society, the world of
Frances read from the book, as well as describing the wonderful world of Caverna, where artifacts are made to such a high standard, they possess remarkable and almost magical qualities, but where children are born without the ability to show emotions. They have to be taught facial expressions, and this means that everyone (or nearly everyone) is perfect at lying, and the world of Caverna is one of courtly intrigue and subterfuge.
There were some really imaginative questions from the children - no "where do you get you ideas from"-type questions here; seduced by Frances' wonderful storytelling style, we had some of the most imaginative questions I think I've ever heard from an author event:
  • Do you write each individual book, or are they photocopied?
  • Do you create a world inside your head which you can then enter? (what a great question!).
  • Is writing books fun?
  • and (my absolute favourite): What makes a great book?
The children were then set a specific writing task by Frances: to create a character. Given some guidance as to those elements most important in creating a character, the children went back to their classrooms and a formidable creative effort followed.

Frances joined in, ostensibly to help, but more often to marvel at the creativity and imagination of the children.

Here were some of the guidelines to think about:
There were some great creations. Amid all the evil super-villains ('Dylan The Villain' being a favourite, although 'The Annihilator' ran a close second) Frances was keen to emphasise that characters must have a weakness - characters without any weaknesses become very dull in a book...

The children regrouped in the hall to read out some of their creations. We had characters who burst into flames when they got angry, goblins masquerading as parents and trying to poison the children, slaves leading revolts - and all kinds of monsters, robots and regular folk with unusual powers. Sea serpents bursting out on demand and under command, that sort of thing. People who couldn't deal with loud noises, bright lights - or indeed, bad music (I think we can all relate to that, maybe not so much to the sea serpents?).

Frances shared other writing tips - and, put on the spot, left us with a few of the writers that had inspired her as a young child: 
Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield, lots of detective fiction and a favourite book: 'Watership Down'.

Unusually for June, it was hot and sunny outside, so we quickly decamped to the playground where Frances signed copies of her books:

It was an inspiring visit, just what we hoped for, and the St Nicolas teachers deserve huge credit for the amount of work and preparation that went into the event. Thanks very much to them, and also to Frances. I really hope we get to another event with her (and St Nicolas!) soon.

In the meantime, we were keen to catch up with Frances and her writing life, so she was put on the spot and asked the inevitable five questions...

Five Questions with...Frances Hardinge's Writing Life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on two books at the moment. The first is a changling story from the 1920s, but the second is altogether weirder. It’s a pirate story, but set on an otherworldly sea in a parallel world in which memories from our world take physical form in this world.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

When sending your work out, treat your rejections as triumphs, your rejection slips as trophies. Getting rejected means you are getting out there, it means you are making progress. Listening to criticism and making revisions is all part of the craft. It's a toughening up process, and you need a thick skin for when your books gets published!

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is the freedom – being able to set your own schedule, working when you like, getting up when you like. But the worst thing is: the freedom! Having the freedom to do anything means you need iron discipline to sit and write, sometimes deadlines seem far into the future. To counter this, I belong to two writing groups. One group meets weekly, and if I haven’t produced anything new by the time I go, I get laughed at. It's a great way of enforcing discipline.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work?

Well, I split my time between Oxford and Isleworth. I have a room in which I write in Isleworth (well, it's sort of used as a storage room) but I have a desk in Oxford and most of the writing gets done here. But there are other activities which I consider to be just as essential to the writing process. Every Thursday, for example, I do a 10 mile hike and this allows me time away from the screen and to think.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

Obviously the moment I landed a contract was a big breakthrough, but creatively it was my first ever reading in front of a bookgroup. I had written a short story, and we were all sitting around in a student sitting room. I was absolutely terrified, but started to read - and there was this absolute silence. Then about halfway through someone knocked at the door, and there was a collective groan because the story had been interrupted. At that point I realised that the silence was because everyone had been listening intently to the story, and at that point it dawned on me that perhaps people might be interested in what I might write. This was my real creative breakthrough.

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