This process of loving and hating your work is something that perhaps all creative people can relate to, but maybe not with such specific stages. “This is a defined arc, and actually people around me can spot it. At one point my agent wrote to me and asked me how the current book was going, and I sent her a long email essay about everything that was wrong with it and I got a short email back saying 'oh you're at that stage, that's very encouraging.' And my boyfriend, I was talking to him about how I didn't know how far into my book I was and he said, 'Two thirds. You're two-thirds into it.’”
It’s always fascinating for me to know what sorts of books influenced an author that I like when they were growing up. Frances’ imagination leans to the positively baffling in its scope, and the catalyst for those ideas must come from all sorts of interesting places, but the writers she was brought up on must have had a lasting impact.
“I was very lucky that my parents both loved books and they both read to us. My mother very much when I was younger and then my father when I was older. Things like the Hobbit, 39 Clocks, Midnight Folk, Box of Delights; a lot of really good books. I got into Dahl early, loved Susan Cooper – he read us the whole of The Dark is Rising series – I loved Alan Garner. My introduction to science fiction was Nicholas Fisk. He writes science fiction for young adults and he is wonderfully unpatronising. He writes science fiction with the proper, dark, disturbing thing you get when you read good SF, and you feel like the world has been turned 30 degrees when you stop reading it. The adults are fallible; they will not solve all the problems, and children are not invulnerable.”
The adults in Frances’ books that are actually trustworthy are often the underdogs of society. The liars, the thieves, and the fast girls. In Fly By Night, Eponymus Clent is a conman, a liar and a thief, yet he is Moska’s ally and precarious friend. The Kleptomancer in A Face Like Glass is an insane burglar, who aids Neverfell in her revolution, and Violet in Cuckoo Song is a single girl in her twenties who likes parties and dancing (a very frowned upon individual in the 1920’s) who believes and trusts the word of two children over that of an adult.
“‘Trust may be in some cases too strong a term! There are a number of thieves and liars you can't trust. But they are people who are already somewhat outsiders and whose view on things may be a little bit more flexible, and who therefore can adapt and throw out their preconceptions. Some people aren't able to do that. I'm also interested in playing with expectation and the way you see different aspects of people in different contexts. I'm a cynical optimist, I'm aware of the flaws of humanity, but I love the unpredictability of my species. In certain contexts extraordinary things come out.”
These expectations are certainly turned inside out in Cuckoo Song, where the line between sentient beings and objects is very fine, and the moral implications of an unwilling imposter are explored. Objects – things that are personal and cared for – are imbued with the essence of the person that owns them. They can often grow to mean something greater than the sum of their parts.
“I see character in things and I'm interested in the way that other people do that too. As a species we're always walking around trying to see ourselves, and part of our imaginative tendency is to imbue the world around us with stolen characters. Obviously physical objects don't actually... develop spirits. But they do develop character in terms of our perceptions of them. The same goes for places. I'm fascinated by the way that we will suffuse objects with our own minds, with our own resonances, with our own associations. The way that even the physical way we wear an object like a hat becomes very much associated with evidence of our own existence, so it becomes an extension of ourselves.
Frances Hardinge on writing, our relationship to things, and how objects can define and reinforce our identity.
In the world of Fly By Night, writing is heavily policed. Only the stationers are allowed to print anything, as writing is thought to be so dangerous that an unsanctioned piece of prose could cause madness and mass hysteria. And so books themselves are feared objects, not to mention the rogue printing press that is terrorising the populace. In A Face Like Glass, the inhabitants of Caverna live in a strict hierarchy balanced around master craftsmen, who produce wonders and delicacies to amuse the Grand Steward. But away from these wonders, Caverna functions because of the drudges, the underclass who are treated as objects by the upper classes. This theme is carried into Frances’s new book, Cuckoo Song, where one of the characters is actually made up of objects that have been given life.
With such contrasting work, set in both completely invented worlds and our own, I asked if Frances had a tried and tested writing process.
“When I'm writing a book I start off with enthusiasm for it, and then I hate it, then my hatred goes through various stages, then it gets sent away, then I gradually start to forgive it for existing, then it gets to the point where it gets read by people at which point the stage fright kicks in.”
A lot of the books Frances mentions, like in her own work, look at this strange place that children inhabit, of being trapped somehow between the adult world and their own. Children often have to take power for themselves in order to navigate a world that adults are basically messing up.
“In the real world, adults sometimes get things wrong and do wrong things, and a lot of children and young adults actually genuinely find themselves in situations where they are disempowered but have responsibility. Being able to see the problems that need to be fixed without necessarily being given the authority to be able to fix them and having to find some way to fix them and survive the fallout.”
And often spurring a rebellion against an unfair hierarchy while they’re at it!
“I think again it's the same sense of disempowerment, the same sense of being underestimated. If there is a message (one hates the word) that runs through most of my books, it's ‘think for yourself.’ Don't let anyone tell you what to think, including me.”
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Until World Fantasycon 2013, I had foolishly never read any of Frances Hardinge’s work. A writer whose writing and opinion I greatly respect widened her eyes when she found out and told me it was probably for my own good that I quickly rectify the situation. I bought Fly By Night, a little dubious about the fact that it was a children’s book, read the first paragraph, and grinned. There is a wonderful feeling when within a few lines you recognise an author with whom you feel at home. Her description makes the world suddenly present and real, and her characters are idiosyncratic, surprising, and interesting. Her plots are rather more meandering (in a good way) and complex than I’d come to expect of children’s books, and at the same time exciting and totally compelling. In short, Frances Hardinge is a very, very good writer.
There is also an edge to her work, a darkness and a humour reminiscent of Dahl, with no condescension. The characters are not simplified for a younger audience; these are complex, multi-layered people, flawed and confused by the world around them. We asked Frances to be our featured author for this issue because her work often features interesting objects and artefacts (and because, well, we’re fans!). “With a number of my books, I look at people treated a bit like objects or objects that are anthropomorphised."
Cuckoo Song looks at these relationships to objects in a very literal, and frightening way.
“We have always wrestled with the idea of ourselves as physical objects. The really unnerving knowledge that we feel like these amazing world-filling, infinite things, [but] are remarkably dependent on these blibby blobby things that could go wrong, and that ultimately do go wrong. The fact that this particular character (in Cuckoo Song) is made up of these components and is gradually falling apart is partly a play on this basic fear. The fact that they’re borrowed parts is another sort of fear."
These fears really are brought to play in Cuckoo Song in a quite chilling, deeply disturbing way. The book reaches into you and starts unsettling anxieties you might have been cheerfully ignoring. But seeing this fear played out before you with characters having to deal with a much more literal embodiment of what is generally relegated to the subconscious, gives it a resolution that is incredibly satisfying.
‘A lot of my books are about identity, and what (this character) has is a lot of borrowed parts. I think we’re all a bit concerned that we are made up of components, other people’s components, that there is a lot of input from our parents. Things we’ve been taught, things that we’ve been told since our youngest age, the experiences we’ve had, our schooling, the people we’ve met, the quotes and thoughts that we think of as ours but might in fact be other things that we’ve just internalised; even our self-image is borrowed. So the question is, after you’ve got all of these components, and they’ve all been glued together into a person, is there something else that makes you uniquely that person? My answer would be yes.’
The sense of identity that Frances creates in all of her characters, whether minor or major, makes real, tangible, interesting personalities that are a genuine joy to spend time with. If you haven’t yet, don’t let the target audience fool you, go out and read Frances Hardinge.
Frances’ latest book Cuckoo Song, is available to buy now. Go forth and read it!