Frances Hardinge is a British children’s writer, with her writing career starting after she won a short story magazine competition. Frances Hardinge studied English at Somerville College, University of Oxford and was the founder member of a writers’ workshop there. Her debut novel, Fly By Night, won the 2006 Branford Boase Award and was listed as one of the School Library Journal Best Books, while her 2015 novel The Lie Tree won the 2015 Costa Book Award, the first children’s book to do so since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001. Frances Hardinge has also been shortlisted and achieved a number of other awards for both her novels as well as some of her short stories. Please enjoy my interview with Frances Hardinge.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
“I write kids’ books.” Sometimes I immediately follow this up with: “Full length novels for older kids – no pictures.” That’s to pre-empt the inevitable question about whether I ‘just write them or draw the pictures too.’
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s been sitting neglected on my shelf for years, and I thought I should finally get round to it.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I have hazy, happy recollections of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, but one of my most vivid early memories of independent reading was encountering James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. On the first page, we’re introduced to James and his idyllic life with his lovely parents… who are both then unexpectedly eaten alive by a runaway rhinoceros. It was a wonderful moment of mood whiplash, and I realised that this wasn’t going to be like other books. Anything could happen. It was exhilarating.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
I would recommend that they search around and find the book that speaks to them. It won’t necessarily be the one that their teachers recommend or their friends like, or their parents give them. Maybe it’ll be nothing but a joke to other people, or perhaps it’s sitting neglected with its covers ripped off on some library shelf. But it’s waiting for them. Books are a very personal business. There isn’t any one ‘right book’ for everyone.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my first, but I do still have a handwritten story I wrote when I was six years old. It’s only half a page long, but it features an attempted poisoning, a character faking his own death, and the villain falling to his doom off a cliff. My stories already had a touch of darkness…
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
When I was eighteen, for a single day I tried working as a door-to-door double glazing salesperson, paid commission only. I didn’t get any commission, because I couldn’t bring myself to pressurise people into signing up for something they didn’t want. The older salesperson who was supposed to be ‘showing me the ropes’ kept detouring via as many pubs as possible, and eventually threw up in a car park. At the end of the day, I quit.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Be stubborn. Keep writing even when you don’t feel like it, and even when you’re sure it’s coming out ‘wrong’. No writing is wasted. Even if what you’re trying doesn’t work, and isn’t fit to show to other people, it’s good practice and will be a stepping stone to creating better work.
Read widely. The more ‘voices’ you come across in books, the better your chances of developing a voice of your own.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
No! I read quite a lot, particularly when I’m on trains and planes, but I’d love to read more! I’m always aware of the hordes of books in my house that I haven’t read yet, and I don’t have the willpower to give them away…
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
I think it’s helpful to read books that challenge you, surprise you and turn your ideas of storytelling upside-down. I also think it’s useful to be self-indulgent sometimes and read the sort of books you know you’ll enjoy, just so you don’t lose sight of the fun of writing and reading.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
My favourite book when I was ten was Watership Down by Richard Adams, and it’s probably the book I’ve reread the most. It was my first epic saga. I’ve never been a fan of over-powered protagonists who win easily. The heroes of Watership Down earn every victory the hard way. The odds are stacked against them, and everything around them is a threat, because they’re bunnies.
When I first read it I was gripped by the story and characters. Now I notice the beauty of the language, the myth-making, and all the clever little ways in which the rabbit society is fleshed out. The best books you can come back to at different ages and discover something new. Each time it’s a slightly different book.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I’ve given Un Lun Dun by China Mieville to several friends.
Who would you say are the three writers that continue to inspire you?
Three authors that made a huge impression on me as a child, and continue to inspire me, are Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Leon Garfield. Needless to say, there are many others…
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Fantasy, but ideally weird and original fantasy. I also have a weakness for mysteries.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
I find it hard to imagine such a world, and I think I’d find it harder still to live in it, though I’d suddenly have a lot more storage space.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Wilkie Collins, though he may be an unfair choice since he’s been dead for over a century. His less well-known works are hard to find now, but I always pounce on them when I come across them.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
I think we always need Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. A sense of absurdity gets you through most things. Alice is our reminder that the world has a crazy beauty, even when it’s giddying, surreal and a bit terrifying. (It’s also a reminder that when authority figures seem to be talking nonsense, it’s often because they’re talking nonsense.)
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
So many books have had a strong effect on me, it’s very difficult to single out one book. However, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was definitely a formative influence. I loved its anarchic black humour, its surrealism and the way it broke all the rules. There was also a feeling of recognition – a sense that I was being given permission for my own off-kilter sense of humour and view of the world. (I had a similar jubilant feeling when I read my first Terry Pratchett a couple of years later.)
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Yes, hundreds! I’d definitely mention A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair by Nicholas Fisk, Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd, Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, and many, many others…
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
In the short term, I will be researching for my next book, so I have several non-fiction books on early submarines and deep sea creatures waiting for me. After that, I will continue ploughing through the unread books in my house – a mixture of classics, fantasy novels and YA/children’s books.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
“Word Witch”, perhaps. To be honest, though, I don’t think I ever would write an autobiography. Fiction is an easier way to write honestly.
Image credit: David Levenson