Wednesday, June 9, 2010
A cosy chat with children's author, Lucy Coats
The inimitable and rather wonderful Lucy Coats is another children’s author whom I was lucky enough to “meet” on Facebook, and I’d like to think we “just clicked”. Lucy is brilliant – funny, feisty and a wonderful children’s writer. As I read the bundle of books Lucy so kindly sent me I kept asking myself, “Where was Lucy Coats when I was a child?!” It strikes me as totally unreasonable that she wasn’t around then!
Lucy has a passion for mythology which weaves itself through all her storytelling, because Lucy is not just an author, she’s a storyteller of the very best kind. Her stories, from the obviously mythological like the Greek Beasts and Heroes stories to the sublimely magical Hootcat Hill show her fascination with the power of myth.
It was when I started to read Hootcat Hill that I knew I was in trouble though. Trouble of the very best kind. I didn’t want to finish the book. I wanted it, instead, to go on forever and ever and ever. I wanted to read it as slowly as possible, savouring each delectable morsel. And it was then that I realised why. Hootcat Hill reminded me so strongly as my favourite book from childhood – Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse - the book which JK Rowling has said had the most profound impact on her wanting to be a writer.
I so enjoyed doing this interview with Lucy, it was like sitting down and chatting with a favourite friend, all that was missing were the tea and scones, or nice bottle of red wine... So, given this is a lengthy interview, but a fun one, I suggest you get yourself a cup of tea (or whatever you fancy) and settle down to chat with us.
Okay, Lucy, I have to ask this one, given what I’ve just written: Are you familiar with the work of Elizabeth Goudge and if so, do you think her writing has influenced your own in any way? And what is it about her work that holds such appeal for so many children’s writers?
You couldn’t have asked me a better question, Nicky. I am indeed familiar with Elizabeth Goudge—in fact, she would be right up there in my Top Ten Writers of All Time. Like you, I adored The Little White Horse as a child, but my own favourite was The Valley of Song, now sadly long out of print, (and I’ve never come across anyone else who’s read it). It has the same perfectly magical feel as LWH, but with the added bonus of a door to another world. Tabitha, the practical, messy and determined heroine, is who I named my own daughter after. There’s a real sense of wide-eyed childlike innocence and wonder about The Workshop behind the little door in the quarry—and some great mythological references, which of course I love. It’s a book I should very much like to have written myself. Other Goudges I couldn’t do without on my bookshelves are Towers in the Mist, which taught me so much about Elizabethan England (as well as introducing me to Walter Raleigh’s wonderful poem ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’), and Henrietta’s House (part of the City of Bells cycle). I want to live in that house SO much!
What is it about her work we all like so much? I think the way she deals with language is part of it. Her descriptions are so lush and lyrical that they are almost edible, and yet she never overdoes it. Her characters have a goodness and luminescence about them which is enchanting (in the literal sense of the word), but they are in no way ‘goodie-goodies’ as many of the other child characters written at the same period are--instead being endearingly human in their failings. There’s just a perfect lightness of touch about her writing which I would certainly aspire to emulate—that you compare me to her in any sense has made my head swell to twice its normal size, and I am overjoyed!
I don’t ever think much about being influenced by other writers, really. But if the concoctions in my ‘cauldron of creation’ are, in part, the sum of the books I have read and loved immeasurably, then Elizabeth Goudge would certainly be a rare and marvellous ingredient in the brew.
You have an undoubted passion for mythology – not only Greek mythology as you show in Greek Beasts and Heroes but in all mythology – from what does this passion stem and when did you first discover the importance of mythology in your own life?
I must have been about seven when I was given a copy of Stories of King Arthur illustrated by Harry Theaker (and priced at seventeen shillings and sixpence, which just shows how ancient I am). That set me on the quest for anything to do with Arthur and his gang. But the two books which led me into Greek mythology and hooked me forever were given to me by my grandmother, who had been given them by her own mother. They were Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (A Wonder Book), and Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes both published in the 1850’s. What they taught me was that although some of the same stories were to be found in each book, it was possible to tell them in completely different ways. Those were the books which showed me that storytelling had the potential for infinite variety, and that myths were the ultimate stories to tell—or to plunder for material.
How important do you think it is for children today to understand mythology, and why?
Hmmn. I don’t know that I do think it’s important for children to understand mythology itself, per se. Not in the scholarly sense, anyway. What is vital, though, is for them to understand at a young age that the myth stories themselves are full of wonder and excitement—and that many of the bestselling books they read (say Harry Potter), films they watch (like Percy Jackson or Clash of the Titans, or How to Train Your Dragon), or PSP games they play have drawn on those same Greek myths for inspiration, so it’s fun to know the originals. Also, if they have a good grounding in the stories, if they know who Heracles is, and what the importance of the Trojan horse was and all that, it makes understanding so many things—everyday phrases we don’t even think about— so much easier. To give a fairly recent modern example of that, let’s say the family computer crashes and a child wants to know why they can’t play on it. If they know about that same Trojan horse, they will immediately understand why the Trojan worm which sneaked into Dad’s email is so-called. Mythology, whether we realize it or not, permeates our lives on many levels and it is vital for us to give our children the keys to unlocking its frame of reference.
You’ve recently been running a series of interviews on your blog, Scribble City Central, in which you conduct “Mythic Interviews” with other writers influenced by mythology. Have you found there is a common thread amongst authors as to the power of mythology and what do you think makes mythology so powerful in storytelling?
I haven’t yet found anyone I’ve interviewed who has disagreed with me that mythology is a powerful force—and most authors I’ve spoken to seem to feel it has had some sort of influence on their writing, whether it be on characterizations, or plots, or something vaguer and more indefineable. I think its storytelling power stems from the fact that mythology deals with all those archetypal parts of human nature we all find so difficult to manage (and I include the gods here too, because although they are deities, they also have very recognizable human reactions to events). We are always looking for clues to decode the whys and wherefores of why people act the way they do. The myths at their deepest level provide this, and where the gods are involved, of course, the consequences are bigger and louder and more terrible, which makes it all very fascinating and compelling reading (or listening).
Is there a particular myth, irrespective of culture, that stands out most for you and why?
The Wild Hunt is the one which I would pick above all others, I think. There’s something about the unbridled anarchy of it all, which I find incredibly appealing. Herla or Herne or whatever you want to call him riding into the heavens, with his red-eared white hounds before him, and all the heroes following him through the night sky towards the red of dawn—give me a horse made of wind and cloud, and I am SO there! I just adore the idea of that one uncontrolled thread of Fate which allows all the others to be woven safely into the tapestry of life. Call me weird—I don’t care!
In Greek Beasts and Heroes, you do something quite remarkable by distilling the essence of the myths into morsels which are manageable for young children. How did you find the process of taking what are often quite complicated themes and making them so accessible?
The one thing I had to remember was not to be frightened of the weight of history. I could have been terrified of walking in the footsteps of Homer and Ovid—but in the end myths are just stories which belong to everyone, and moreover stories which are made to be retold and refashioned by any storyteller with a voice and a passion for the material. So often I am asked, ‘But how did you deal with the incest/murder/violence/adultery/bestiality?’ etc. I suppose that what I really do is to take the kernel of the story—strip it down to its heart if you like—and go outwards from there, using what is appropriate. Children are very accepting, and in all the years I’ve been doing school visits and talking about myths, not one child has ever commented on or asked about the fact that Zeus has children with so many women (or nymphs or goddesses!) who are not his wife. They don’t comment on the fact that he’s married to his sister either. We, as adults, look at the myths in a different way because we have a different knowledge base. Children don’t mind if the ‘difficult stuff’ is left out or skirted around because they don’t know it was there in the first place. All that can come later, when they’re ready for it and if they want to explore further.
Of the stories contained within Greek Beasts and Heroes, is there one that stands out for you as a favourite and why?
I loved writing about the Fates. I’ve done years of shamanic training, and the maiden, mother and crone aspects of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos tap into all that. It’s a myth which has echoes in so many cultures, and I like its simplicity even though I am not necessarily won over by the theory of predestination. I’m quite enjoying my transition into the crone phase, by the way. It means I can let loose my inner crankiness and bite people who annoy me. Snip! Snap!
Aside from Greek Beasts and Heroes and Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths, you also explore Celtic myths in Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment. Do you see yourself writing about the mythologies of other cultures at some point?
The short answer is that I’d love to. There are so many other wonderful stories out there which are crying out to be retold—I have on my shelves all sorts of learned tomes on Aztec, Inca, Toltec, Hindu, Japanese, Icelandic, Inuit, Scandinavian, African and Aboriginal myths. But—and believe me I have tried—there is currently no real market, except in the illustrated gift area, and publishers are wary (in the current climate) of commissioning anything expensive to produce which is unlikely to get a co-edition. Greek myths are the default option for UK schools (and sometimes a bit of Norse for variety), so that’s what they publish. Personally, I’d much prefer to see a wider range of cultural myths available to children in a readable and non-worthy form—but it’s an uphill struggle to get them out there. It’s one of my hobby-horses that children in the UK should know the myths of their own land, and that’s what I tried to give them with Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment. Needless to say, Celtic myth is still not on the school curriculum!
In your incredibly magical novel Hootcat Hill one sees elements of so many different mythologies all deftly woven together – did you plan the story to unfold with all these different mythological elements or did they just happen?
I’d be lying if I said there was a Great Mythical Masterplan for Hootcat Hill. The characters all just appeared in my head as I wrote, and I found myself saying, “Ah!” and “Ooh!” and being constantly surprised at what and who turned up. There was Cernunnos—I found myself being quite wary of him and his wildness when he roared out of his cave on Cerne Tump—and Rhiannon, who floated in so lightly that at first I didn’t know who she was or where she had come from. Robin McKinley (another of my favourite authors) says that her ideas come down from the ‘Story Council’, and that there’s nothing she can do about what she’s given. It’s a bit different for me. I have a bubbling ‘cauldron of creation’ in my head. Characters simply float to the top and manifest. I have no clue who they are until they arrive, but I’m always glad to see them. Sometimes they have names, sometimes they don’t and I have to find them one. Fidget Reedglitter didn’t—I found hers in the Fairy Name Generator. Mathafurd Llewellyn did, though I didn’t know till much later that he’d been a harper at King Arthur’s (known in Celtic as Artur Mac Uthair) court. Gladysant was my tribute to T.H.White’s Sword in the Stone, though I still have no idea where those girly pink wings appeared from. Names are very important to me, and I often put mythical puns or meanings in them which (probably) no one ‘gets’ but me. Linnet’s surname, Perry, is a play on ‘peri’, the Persian word for fairy. Petroc Miles is strong and dependable—like St Peter the Rock and like a ‘miles’ which is the Latin for soldier. Fay Morgan is pretty obvious—and Tyto Hullart is too, if you know about owls. Wayland Smith is one of my very favourites, and he came out of my love of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies (both written in my grandmother’s night nursery at Batemans, which Kipling bought from my great-grandfather). All right, all right, I’ll stop now!
I think I see something of Lucy Coats in Linnet Perry, the heroine of Hootcat Hill – there’s all that feistiness and courage and being willing to be a little different. Do you think all stories are a little (or a lot) autobiographical?
Yes, I do think you’re right about that, Nicky. I’m sure there are almost always small aspects of oneself in the characters one writes. I suppose Linnet does have more than a little something of me in her—though perhaps the courage is more one of the grown woman’s characteristics than the child’s—I was shy and not at all brave when I was her age. In part she also reflects my daughter (a very feisty young lady now, but one who was being badly bullied at the time I wrote the book). I certainly understand about the lonely only child part of Linnet—I just wish I’d had a Petroc (or someone like him) as my friend and confidante. I think that’s another part of character creation—sometimes we write things the way we wish they could have been for us—a sort of writing therapy, perhaps!
There is something in Linnet Perry that I think appeals to many children and to which you pay homage – that feeling that they have a special “task” assigned to them in life, that sense that their life’s journey may just be a little magical. This is something that growing-up often erases. How important do you think it is to foster this form of self belief in children, if you indeed seeing yourself as doing that, in whatever small way?
Children are all beings of infinite potential, in my opinion, but some walk a hard path through no fault of their own. Fostering and supporting their dreams is incredibly important to me—and what are dreams if not a kind of magic? As a writer, what I can do is to put my characters in recognisable situations (such as bullying) and show them learning the tools for getting through to the other side, and that it’s ok to make mistakes on the way. Being forgiven for those mistakes is important too. Perhaps that might help a bullied child to have more self-belief—to know that they are not alone and that someone out there understands—even if it is via the medium of a fantasy novel. Also, I firmly believe that reading stuff which is clearly set in an imaginary world or place can spark imagination and keep that sense of wonder alive—not just for children, but for grown-ups too.
In Hootcat Hill you tell the story of the destructive force of the worldwyrm who is awoken by young Tom Bickerstaff’s greed, coupled with Linnet’s magical abilities to overcome the wyrm. It seems to be very much a metaphor for our own world – oil drilling, greed, corruption potentially resulting in the destruction of Earth. It might also be a metaphor for the Gaia mythology. Did you deliberately want to draw this sort of parallel – is it how and why you set out to write the story – or did it evolve as you went along? Do you think you have created your own “mythology” in the telling of this story?
Will you believe me if I say that you’ve pointed out something about my own story which I hadn’t even recognised in a conscious way? But now that you DO point it out, I know immediately that you are right! It certainly wasn’t a deliberate thing at all, although the state of the planet (and the current dangerous combination of oil and greed which is on the news each day) is a continuing and very real worry to me and has been for years. But the subconscious is a powerful tool in writing—stuff comes out that one often doesn’t realise is there till later, as evidenced by your perceptive comments above! Now I’m wondering what else there is that I haven’t noticed….
Perhaps I did create my own ‘mythology’—there’s certainly a huge backstory to Hootcat Hill. Stuff I know, but which doesn’t necessarily need to be overtly mentioned in the book itself. Linnet’s England is a sort of world next-door but one. It has rules and stories of its own, some of which are the same as our world’s, some of which are slightly skewed. What I loved about writing this book was the freedom it gave me to play around with mythological stuff I already knew and to make it my own. There were no rules about how the story ‘should’ go, and that was very liberating—the worldwyrm takes inspiration from Nidhogg, the dragon from Norse myth who gnaws at the roots of the world, but is in itself a new creation with its own story. Iddrasgyl is from the same Norse source, but again, a nod in the direction of, rather than directly ‘borrowed’. Writing like that, shaping and weaving entirely new stuff from a whisper of the old, is what I like doing best, really.
You also, in Hootcat Hill, compare old magic to new “magic” i.e. technology – there’s a divide and also a coming together. What are your own personal views on the old vs. the new and do you really think they can work together, or even sit side by side, in our modern world?
“Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” was what my granny used to say. And also, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are amazing new inventions arriving in our world every day. Advances in medicine which mean that thousands of lives are saved; labour-saving devices; communications faster than blinking. I appreciate these marvels, don’t get me wrong. They make my life easier, healthier, safer. But I do think that we ignore the simpler things of the past at our peril. ‘Old-fashioned’ seems like a sort of insult sometimes—but I have many brilliant and old-fashioned things at home which work perfectly in conjunction with my more modern gadgets. At the most basic level, just because I am using a computer doesn’t mean I don’t have a pencil and paper with me at all times! We have all forgotten so much, and lost so many skills (both for survival and for making things). It worries me a great deal that this is so. Linnet is a country girl—she understands about growing vegetables and the rhythms of the seasons. The way a seed turns into a plant which bears fruit which feeds us—that’s old magic, if you like. But the crop can be helped along by the scientific understanding of which nutrients the soil needs to make it grow best. So yes—I’m all for partnerships of old and new!
You write for a range of ages for younger children; but which age most particularly appeals to you as a writer and why?
I started off writing for very young children, because my own children were tiny babies when I began, and my writing ‘grew’ with them. Now they are nearly grown-up teenagers, and I’m very drawn to YA fiction at the moment because it gives me scope to deal with difficult subjects more honestly and to write for children on the cusp of adulthood. Discovering YA faery-lit as a genre has been a revelation to me recently, and has sparked a lot of new ideas which are simmering away nicely in that cauldron I mentioned. Really, though, I don’t mind what age I write for as long as I’m having fun doing it (and I almost always am).
To steal a question from your own “Mythic Interviews” – if you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
Ooh! You thief, you! Now I have the tables turned on me, what shall I say? I could pick Athene or Brigid—goddesses of creativity and wisdom, and choose the power of enthralling storytelling. Or I could pick Herne as my father, and choose the power of green things to heal the earth. But I think, instead, I shall be a bit selfish and pick Hestia, goddess of the hearth, for my mother and ask for the power to wave a hand and have a permanently clean and shining house (with delicious food including chocolate always in the fridge), so that I never have to do housework, laundry or go shopping ever again—and can instead concentrate on writing, cooking (but not washing up) and hugging my family and friends (terribly important). Perhaps I could also ask Hestia for the loan of a house-elf or two on party nights (who would obviously be loved and treasured mightily—I am no Malfoy)!
Your ‘first proper job’, to quote you, was as an editor in children’s book publishing. What drew you to children’s writing and which job do you think is easier – being an editor or a writer – and which job is more fulfilling? (Yes, this may well be a trick question!) Would you ever want to be anything else other than a writer, and if so, what?
Well, I loved my job as a children’s editor. I learnt so much about books, about what made a good one and what made a bad one (slush piles teach you that pretty quickly). I also learnt about the technical side of things—the production and how the actual making of a book works, but also the sales, publicity and marketing and how important all that is. I fell into it, really, and had a large slice of luck. There was a job in the children’s book department which came up while I was on work experience, and I had read a LOT of children’s books, so managed to talk vaguely intelligently, I suppose—enough to land it, anyway. I hadn’t written for years—due to a bruising experience with a now-deceased writer-in-residence at university. Being around all those books and all that creativity on the part of the authors I was working with made me want to start writing once more, and I quickly found out how much I loved it all over again. I stuck to poetry at first, and then ‘graduated’ to picture book texts. When I got the wretched Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had to stop being an editor because I couldn’t walk upstairs or function properly, it seemed natural to keep on writing. Actually, I think it’s what kept me sane. So I can’t really answer your trick question, because editing was great at the time and very fulfilling, and now writing is. One simply evolved from the other. I couldn’t NOT be a writer now—it’s part of my blood and bone and being. However, if I absolutely had to pick an alternative job, I should have one of those little country restaurants in France, which open four days a week at lunchtime and where you eat what’s on the menu that day. I do love to cook for other people and to entertain them with food made with love and care and ingredients I have grown myself. Greedy, you see!
Many thanks to Lucy Coats for agreeing to do this interview – I look forward to reading more of Lucy’s books, because I know I’ve hit a winner and found a very special storyteller. Moreover, I really, really look forward to meeting Lucy in the real, 3D world, in the next few months!
To learn more about Lucy Coats and her books, visit her website
Visit Lucy’s blog, Scribble City Central
Lucy’s books can be purchased at Amazon.co.uk.
You can follow Lucy on Twitter
Or you can join Lucy Coats’ fan page on Facebook