Thursday, May 6, 2010
An interview with children's author, Pat Walsh
It’s such a treat when someone you know becomes published. I think, as a “pre-published” writer, one rather hopes some of their good fortune will rub off on you! So it was with great excitement that I learned that Pat Walsh’s book, The Crowfield Curse, had been published by Chicken House.
I was fortunate enough to be in a small critique group with Pat several years ago. I knew the minute I read her work that it wasn’t going to be long before she was noticed. I also knew when I read the first few chapters of The Crowfield Curse (or The Crowfield Feather as it was then called) that Pat was writing a wonderfully lyrical and magical story.
The Crowfield Curse has just the right blend of everything – old magic, horror, suspense, thrills, fairies, monks and an orphaned boy with tremendous courage and compassion – and the Sight.
Pat’s characters are beautifully realised and depicted, from Will, the main character to Brother Walter, the hob whom Will rescues from a trap, from the mysterious Shadlok and his master, the leper Jacobus, to the monks of Crowfield Abbey. Together with rich characterization, Pat’s ability to evoke wonderful descriptions of the times (the story is set in 1347) brings the story vividly to life and it makes for an “unputdownable read”.
The Crowfield Curse is a story that will appeal to fans of Catherine Fisher, Dianna Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper and Steve Augard.
An Interview with Pat Walsh:
When I first started reading The Crowfield Curse, I hadn’t a clue the story would end as it did – and I found the ending, although absolutely right, unexpected. As the writer, did you plot The Crowfield Curse from beginning to end, or did the story, as is often the way, lead you to where it wanted to go?
When I began the book, I only knew it would be about an angel, found dying in the snow a hundred years before the story begins. I had no idea how the angel got there, or who killed it. I plotted out the first few chapters and was wonderfully lucky to be part of an online critique group who read and commented on the work as it progressed. (Thank you, Nicky!) Having that feed-back was just brilliant. After that, the story unfolded little by little. I would write a chapter or two and then stop and make notes as ideas for the next chapter presented themselves. The original ending of the book was different from the one that was published, but I wasn’t happy with it. After it was accepted for publication, my editor at The Chicken House, Imogen Cooper, asked me to look at the ending again. By that time, I had enough distance from the book to see what was wrong with it and put it right. If I’d worked out the plot of the story at the beginning, it would have made life a lot easier, but I just don’t seem to be able to write like that.
You’ve created a wonderfully sympathetic character in Will – has he been very alive for you as a character and in what way did he influence the “shape” of the story?
Will is a kind of ‘everyman’. He sees the strange world of magic unfold around him but is not a part it, nor is he involved in the religious life of the abbey. Hopefully, this allows the reader to identify with him. The reader and Will experience the magical and mystical elements of the story together, as outsiders. I’m fond of Will, he’s had a terrible couple of years and has come through them pretty well. Shortly after I began the book and was still trying to get to know my characters, I was on a train and a young boy of about fourteen got on. He was skinny and blond haired and was exactly right for Will. The poor boy is probably still telling his friends about the crazy stalker woman who sat and stared at him all the way from St.Albans to London!
You introduce a fascinating blend of medieval Christianity with the “old ways” of nature worship in The Crowfield Curse, which hints at how much has been lost in our understanding of the natural world. Is this something you personally feel strongly about?
It’s something I feel very deeply about. I look around at my small patch of England and see fields being developed for housing and new road systems, woods being cut down, orchards grubbed up. The ‘old ways’ are no longer a part of everyday 21st century life. We’ve become disconnected from nature in a way that has never happened before, and I think that’s a very dangerous thing. There are a million small, and not so small, tragedies playing out around the world every day. We’re losing rainforests at an unprecedented rate, entire species are being driven to extinction, oceans are being polluted, the list is depressingly long, and we’re not doing enough to stop it. We no longer respect nature and we’ve forgotten our place in it. OK, rant over.
I have to ask, given the way you seamlessly blend magic into the Crowfield world – do you believe in hobs and the fay – even if just a little bit?
I would love to believe in fays and hobs! I had an invisible friend as a child, and apparently I saw a leprechaun when I was five – though I don’t actually remember that. Since then, the fay have been keeping a low profile, but I live in hope…
Despite the dark elements of the story, which one sees in the Unseelie King, and to some extent in the Prior, you’ve nevertheless created a story filled with kindness, courage, compassion and ultimately hope. How important do you believe it is to create a balance like this in stories for young people?
It would be unrealistic to write a story that was relentlessly upbeat, full of good people doing nice things. A story with both good and bad characters is more believable and more satisfying. I think young people aren’t afraid of serious issues or dark elements in story, but they need a hopeful ending.
You work on archaeological sites and digs – to what extent does your “day job” influence your writing and do you find yourself more inclined to write historically based fantasy?
I’ve been involved with archaeology for most of my life, so it’s bound to have an effect on what I write. One thing I’ve always found, though, is that we can excavate settlements and pottery and other artefacts, but we can’t get close to the people. We can dig up their bones but we only get glimpses of the kind of people they were, what they believed in, what they thought, or even, once we get back to prehistory, what languages they spoke. Writing historical fiction is a way of putting flesh back on the bones. Writing fantasy with a historical background is a natural extension of that; it’s a way of exploring another dimension of those ancient lives.
The Crowfield Curse, as it currently reads, stands alone, yet there is clearly room for a sequel. Did you intentionally write a stand-alone novel or did you always intend to write more than one book? And if there is a sequel, can you tell us a little about it, just as a teaser?
I always intended William’s story to continue over several books. There are loose ends in the Crowfield Curse which are tied up in the next two books. The sequel, due out in early 2011, answers the question of what brought the angel to Crowfield Abbey a hundred years ago. It is a much darker book and deals with some disturbing ideas. There was one scene that made me feel very nervous as I wrote it, so much so that I had to get my coat and go and find a nice, cheerful coffee shop to sit in for an hour. With real people. I have since toned down that scene …
What has the road to publication been like for you – has it been a long slog or have you found it relatively easy to get published?
It has been a long, long slog! Like many writers, I have had my fair share of rejection letters. I have several unpublished novels taking up space on my PC, one or two of which I will rewrite one day. The rest are part of the learning process. I began the Crowfield Curse in 2007 and by a huge stroke of luck that was the year The Times/Chicken House children’s writing competition began. I sent off my book and it was shortlisted. It didn’t win (Emily Diamand’s wonderful book Reaver’s Ransom, now called Flood Child, won), but Chicken House decided to publish it anyway.
Several years ago, I was advised not to write historical fiction as it was very hard to sell, and not to even think about a fantasy based historical book, because publishers wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. I didn’t listen and went ahead and wrote Crowfield because that was what I really wanted to write. Luckily for me, The Chicken House are brilliant publishers who are willing to take a chance on work that does not have an immediately obvious market niche. I’d heard it said that getting published was often a matter of luck - getting your book before the right person at the right moment, and in my case that was absolutely true.
Who or what would you say are the key influencers of your writing?
Archaeology, the supernatural, myths and legends, and folklore have all been huge influences. I grew up with an Irish mother and grandmother who told wonderful ghost stories. When I was a child and teenager growing up in Leicestershire, we were the only family in my neighbourhood who celebrated Halloween - not the way it’s celebrated now but the traditional Irish way. We carved Swedes and turnips instead of pumpkins (not easy, believe me!). My mother baked a barm brack – an Irish fruit loaf, with a pea, bean, coin, rag, stick and a ring baked into it. What you found in your slice of brack would be a portent of the year to come. How none of us ever choked on a coin or got a bit of stick wedged in our throats, I’ll never know. And always, there would be ghost stories. My grandmother, especially, lived with one foot in this world and one in the next. How could I fail to be inspired by such a woman?
There are so many writers whose work I’ve loved over the years and who have influenced me and inspired me. I couldn’t begin to list them all here, but amongst them would be John Gordon, Robert Westall, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Neil Gaiman, Paul Magrs, Cassandra Clare, Holly Black and Tove Jansson.
And finally, where to from here for Pat Walsh?
After the Crowfield stories are complete, there are two books I want to write – one is a historical fantasy but it is very different in feel and setting from The Crowfield Curse. The other is a contemporary ghost story. I also have a picture book planned. And after that? I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to finding out!
Many thanks to Pat for doing this interview and I truly hope she goes on to more great things, she certainly deserves it!
Learn more about Pat Walsh and The Crowfield Curse on Pat's website.
Buy the book from either Amazon or Chicken House.
Read author Mary Hoffman's review of The Crowfield Curse in the Guardian