Louise Ellis-Barrett recently had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Kessler about her beautiful and recently published North of Nowhere, read on to hear more about this and Liz's other magical stories.
You have written a number of books now, many with a nautical theme, is this inspired by your location or does it have a more longstanding connection than that for you? I grew up in a seaside town and have always had a sense of the hugeness and the power of the ocean somewhere nearby. I love the sea and I love boats and always have done, so I know that this inspires a lot of my writing. The fact that I now live by the sea once again does inspire my writing – but yes, this love for the sea is also pretty deep for me and is part of what makes me tick.
North of Nowhere is not your only standalone novel but I believe that it is unusual for you to write stand alone books. Do you find series easier or did this story just lend itself to being a one off? I love doing both. I love Emily Windsnap, as she started everything off for me, and I love revisiting her story and writing books in that series. And Philippa Fisher was such fun to write, and moved me into new areas with the kind of subject matter I covered. But I also wanted to write some standalone books, and am very grateful that Orion have let me do that too! I absolutely love time slip stories, and my intention is that there will be three of these in total over the next few years, each dealing with time slip issues in a different way
When you set out to write a story how much do you plan in advance and how much is left to the whims and fancies or even personalities of the characters themselves? I am the biggest planner I know! I spend a long time planning and I don’t begin writing my story until I’m happy that I know what’s going on from start to finish. But that isn’t to say I don’t let my characters have any part in determining the plot. They are part of what guides me through the whole process – they just do more of it in the planning stage than the stage where I write the first draft. But even then, they do still surprise me along the way!
North of Nowhere is a very accomplished story of entwined lives and histories, read and understood on one level, I think, by adults, and on another by children. Did you feel this as you wrote it? Thank you. I didn’t think about whether it would be read and understood on different levels by adults and children. I just wrote it in the way that felt right for me, and for the story. But I know that adult friends have enjoyed A Year Without Autumn, so I’d be absolutely delighted if they enjoy North of Nowhere in the same way.
There is one narrator in the story, Mia, and she speaks for herself, and I feel Dee. how easy was it to create their voices, making them unique and yet similar? The important thing is to get to know the characters as well as possible. I do quite a lot of work on this before I start writing. Once I’m as familiar as possible with my characters, their voices tend to come quite naturally. If it’s worked in the way that I hope for it to do so then that’s great!
I love the way in which you have chosen to use narrative and diary entries to tell the story, it is real time and yet also not. Which was the hardest part to write?
The hardest part of this story was getting the continuity right. With a quite complicated time travel situation, I made lots of mistakes and left lots of loose ends trailing, originally. Thankfully I have a wonderful editor (Amber Caravéo at Orion Children’s Books) and she hopefully spotted all of these before we went to publication.
Were you a diary keeper as a child, or did you ever, as Mia, feel that you just needed a friend who was coming from the same place as you - if that is not too personal a question? I think this is a key element of the book and one that young readers will very much warm too, it is a theme and a feeling that I think most will have at some point whilst growing up. I started writing a diary when I was about nine or ten, and continued to do so for about ten years. It was a massive part of this period for me and was the way that I tended to organise and understand my feelings about a lot of things. As to the second question, I probably did feel that I wanted to be understood and wanted someone coming from the same place as me. But then, I think most of us do!
Do you put much of yourself or your own experiences, friends and places you know into your writing or do you try to keep it as depersonalised as possible? I think somewhere between the two. I never intend to put people I know into my characters, but the odd trait does creep in. And I never intend that my characters are a reflection of myself, but I often get told that certain ones are! For me, writing a book isn’t an autobiographical experience, but it is one that involves putting something of yourself into it. Margaret Atwood once said ‘There’s always a drop of blood in the cookie’ and whilst I don’t think I’ve ever actually cut myself whilst baking cookies, I understand what she means and I think she’s right.
Was the story difficult to write and plan? How long did it take you to get it all right? I am trying I suppose to ask you about the plot twist at the end without giving the story away! It was very difficult to write and plan. Probably the hardest yet – and I remember feeling pretty drained and exhausted once it was done! It just took so much thinking to make it all work. The plot twist at the end was always part of it for me. One thing that I love about time travel is the circularity (if that’s a word!) of it. It’s not about time moving forward in a linear way, but about the past, present and future all being able to affect and impinge on each other, and that’s what I hope you really feel happening in this book.
Have you ever considered writing for adults or are you very happy with children's fiction? Is there more scope for the imagination and storytelling with a children's book? I love what I do and I love the audience I write for. Right now, I don’t have any plans to change it. I can’t really compare how much scope there is compared to a book for adults, because I haven’t tried to write a book for adults! But what I do know is that writing for children allows me to write with the imagination, plot and characters that I really enjoy.
Do you take inspiration from the people you meet in your author capacity or more from the world around you, where you live and stories or folk tales that you hear? I can take inspiration from anything and anyone! In terms of stories, it’s quite often a place that I visit that inspires an idea for a book. This has happened at least three or four times. But it can also be a memory, a tale that someone tells me, a person I pass in the street – anything. The important thing is to keep your author antennae fresh and in good working order so that you spot these moments of inspiration when they come along!
I found myself drawn to Mia and to an extent Dee but I felt that the adults were very much on the periphery of the story, there because children need them and they were an important part of the back story but not needed for the main action. Do you like to have an adult voice in your stories to remind children they need adults? No not at all. I try to have all the characters in a book that feel right for the story. In a children’s book, I think it’s important that the children are at the centre of the action, but if there are adults who are relevant to the story then I don’t have a problem with them being there too.
Mia seemed to me to be older than her years in her reading f situations and yet very young too. Her age is not given but I imagined her to be 11 or 12. Do you purposefully avoid being too prescriptive about ages?
I didn’t realise Mia’s age is never mentioned. I thought it was! She is thirteen, and as she says early on, is in Year 8 at school. I don’t try to avoid anything about ages – I actually try to be quite clear about it!
Are you a big reader of children's fiction or do you prefer to keep it safely as your day job and then resort to adult literature? I read all sorts – children’s, YA, adult. As long as it’s got a good story and is well-written and holds my interest, I don’t mind what it is.
North of Nowhere is a clever and intriguing title. What came first, the story or the title? The story, by a long way. It took a year of driving all my friends and fellow writers mad before one of them finally came up with the perfect title for me. (And she has a thank you in the book for doing so!)
Do you have a title in mind that you would one day love to use? Do you have a favourite book title from a book written by someone else? Gosh. Short answer is no on both counts!
Who is your favourite author from childhood and what is your favourite childhood book? Did you read the type of books you write? I didn’t really have a favourite author as such, although I did love a lot of Enid Blyton books. A couple of favourite books from my childhood would be The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and The Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton. I don’t know if they are the kind of books I write, although I think there is quite a bit in common. Ordinary children living in a contemporary world but with a bit of magic coming into their lives in one way or another.
Who is your favourite author now and what book is currently on the top of your reading pile? I still don’t really have a favourite author! I just like reading whatever I want to read at the time. Right now, I’m reading a YA book, How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, as a bookshop friend recommended it. Before that, I read Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) and next in line will probably be one of the books given to me in a book swap with some fellow children’s authors!
Thank you for all your great questions, and thank you for having me here at Armadillo J