Costa Book of the Year winner, Frances Hardinge, talks to Cuckoo!

Wonderful YA author Frances Hardinge talks exclusively to Cuckoo about genre crunching, feminism and shares some top tips for young writers!

You’re the first children’s book winner of the overall Costa award since Philip Pullman way back in 2001. Do you think this is indicative of YA fiction becoming more respected?
Thankfully I think there has been a gradual sea change, and a growing appreciation of children’s and YA fiction. The idea of a crossover market is now more established, and many adults are less self-conscious about being seen to read, enjoy and appreciate YA fiction.

How did you start on your journey to becoming a writer, and what advice do you have for young people wanting to do the same?
I’ve been trying to write since I could hold a pencil. I finished a novella-length story when I was 13, but was too shy to show it to anybody. I only started sending off stories to magazines when I was sixteen.

During my twenties I took part in several writers’ groups. I wrote a lot, and gradually improved (receiving lots of rejection letters along the way). Eventually I got some short stories published, and won a couple of short story competitions. Then my friend Rhiannon Lassiter (who was already a published author) persuaded me to write a children’s book, since she’d realised that this would suit my writing style.

I began writing Fly by Night, and when I’d finished five chapters, Rhiannon told me I should submit it to a publishers. I didn’t think it was good enough, and refused, so Rhiannon stole my chapters and took them to her own editor! A week later I had a book contract.

Much like Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy and a lot of other successful YA, your novels are set in alternate worlds, yet ones not completely dissimilar to our own. Why do you think this fantasy element has become such a staple of young people’s fiction?
I think it’s partly because children’s and YA fiction don’t tend to have any particular snootiness about genre fiction. It’s accepted, explored and celebrated in rich and interesting ways.

How long do your novels normally formulate in your head before you put pen to paper?
This is very hard to measure! Sometimes ideas will lurk in my head or my notes for years, waiting for me to work out what they’re for. Sometimes it’s only when I find interesting ways to combine them that I come up with a proper book concept.

When I have the basic story concept, though, I’ll often spend over a month planning, researching, brainstorming and creating a rough outline.

The protagonist of The Lie Tree is 14-year-old Faith who has more in common with teenage girls of today, than perhaps those in the repressed Victorian society she belongs. Was it your intention from the start to create a piece of feminist fiction?
At first all I had was the idea of The Lie Tree itself, a plant that could feed on lies and offer fruit containing secrets. Originally I wondered about using it in a completely alternative and fantastical world, but nothing quite ‘clicked’. As soon as I thought of setting it in the Victorian period, the concept fitted immediately.

When I imagined my heroine as an intelligent Victorian girl with an interest in science, I knew that I couldn’t ignore the gender angle. She would inevitably have faced obstacles, rejection and discouragement in hundreds of different ways. It didn’t feel right to tip-toe around this or make light of it – that would have been unfair to all the girls and women who faced such barriers all their lives! So it became an important part of the story.

You’ve described The Lie Tree as part horror story, part detective story and part historical novel. Why do you think this sort of ‘mash-up’ works so well?
Well, genre-crunching is certainly a lot of fun! It gives you the freedom to play with ideas and tropes in new ways. I always feel uncomfortable and antsy if I feel like I’m re-treading old ground.

However, a lot of books are more than their label, even when they’re not an obvious ‘mash-up’. Even a ‘straightforward’ murder mystery may also be a story about grief, or self-discovery, or the triumph of reason. It’s natural for a book to be more than one thing.

Much of your work has a decidedly gothic tinge to it. What do you think it is about dark fiction that readers find so inherently intriguing?
For one thing, there’s something very invigorating about fear! But gothic stories and dark fiction open up a twisted fairy tale space where buried terrors, desires and ideas can come out to play. The rules buckle and bend, the unthinkable is suddenly thinkable. It’s quite liberating.

What new avenues do you imagine your recent prize-wins will open up for you, and by extension, other writers in the YA genre?
In my case, I have no idea yet! I’m still staggered by everything that has happened since the award ceremony. Right now you should probably imagine me riding a rollercoaster, and hanging on tightly to my hat.

I’m hoping that this win will draw people’s attention to the rich and exciting range of children’s and YA books available, and overcome some misconceptions. I would be very glad to see any children’s book win Book of the Year for this reason – but from a selfish point of view I’m really glad it was mine!

Frances Hardinge’s Top Tips for Young Writers

My advice to younger writers is usually:

1) Be stubborn
2) Don’t be afraid of writing rubbish. No writing is wasted – you always learn something from it.
3) Get feedback on your work from somebody you trust, and listen to it.
4) Read widely. The more ‘voices’ you encounter, the better your chance of finding your own.
5) Most stories and books benefit from cutting. It’s painful, but usually necessary.
6) You have nothing to lose from sending off your work. Go for it!

There’s a long list of writing tips here: