In the second of our posts in the run up to Conference, we are delighted to be talking to Katherine Rundell, who will be the after dinner speaker on the Friday evening.
Emily Beale, from the North Somerset book group, was thrilled to have the chance to ask Katherine some questions.
Q: The settings for each of your books are so diverse – the rooftops of Paris, the wilds of Africa, the concrete jungle of London and frozen forests of Russia. How do you do your research for each book?
I’m technically an academic by training, so I love research: I love the idea of a picture coming into clarity like wiping away mist on a window. I’ve been to all of the places I’ve written about: I spent a lot of my childhood in Zimbabwe, I climbed rooftops in Paris, I stayed with my grandfather is his home in St Petersburg and I live in London. The book I’m writing at the moment is set in the Amazon rainforest, and I went there in 2014; that you can get somewhere so wild in only 24 hours feels like a very beautiful magic trick.
I also watch a lot of documentaries; I think quite visually, and it helps to see the world in motion. But most of all – I guess unsurprisingly, as I’ve been a nerd, a looker-upper of things all my life – I read a lot of books about the place: historical accounts, diaries, textbooks, fiction.
Q: Your books all feature strong female heroines – who were your most inspiring females heroines whilst growing up as a reader?
I loved Philip Pullman’s Lyra, who is so brave. I loved Charlotte, in Charlotte’s Web, for being so wry and so intelligent and so graceful. I loved Katy, in What Katy Did, for being so loveable and so ungainly. I loved all the women in Diana Wynne Jones’s books: especially Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle and the Living Goddess in The Lives of Christopher Chant. And, because we had a lot of audio books in the house, I met a lot of great female characters before I would really have been old enough to read the books; Jane Eyre, Lizzy Bennett, and most of all, Jane Austen’s Emma.
Q: What inspires you to create such vivid characters? How do you transfer them from your mind to paper?
The books I loved as a child were all character-driven rather than plot-driven: I fell in love every week with a new heroine or hero; I stole their best lines, I ate what they ate and tried, for a memorable week, to dress like Cassandra Mortmain. I wanted to make characters like that; what Henry James would have called ‘round characters’ – and so, like most writers, I have pages of detail about each character that never made it into the book, but which it was useful to have near.
Q: Do you have a favourite – Sophie, Wilhelmina or Feodora?
I think that’s too hard! I loved writing all of them. Also, I saw each very clearly as I was writing, but am always interested by the gap between the girl I saw and the girl on the page: sometimes, the girl on the page is better and sometimes flatter; they’re always close, but never quite identical. I guess that’s the core of trying to write people into life; my Lizzy Bennett is never exactly the same as your Lizzy, and the same applies to writers as much as readers.
Q: What advice would you give to young readers and writers? Is there anything you would go back and tell yourself as a young reader or writer?
I would tell young readers and writers; read everything – read things you think you won’t like and re-read the things you adore; read advertising copy and film scripts, history books and comic books. Ignore people who roll their eyes at your reading choices; they don’t know in what ways even quite small books might be transforming and growing inside your head.
And, some advice I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce give: keep a diary, but instead of recording what you did, write a single funny sentence you heard, or fascinating thing you saw. Then, at the end of the year, you’ll have 365 interesting things written down.
I would tell myself: be better at keeping a diary. Don’t waste so much time on the internet. Don’t try dressing like Cassandra Mortmain.
Q: How wild does your imagination run? Do your editors occasionally have to rein you in?
Very occasionally! But my editors have been fantastic, especially Ellen Holgate, my editor at Bloomsbury. With The Wolf Wilder, I had gone into immense detail about how Wilding would work, to the point that the book read as a How-To guide. Ellen and I agreed that children need a plot that pulls you along by the wrist, so we cut forty pages; it hurt, but it was the right decision.
Q: Which of your characters are you most like? Does wildness run through your veins?
I grew up quite a barefoot, unbrushed-hair kind of child. I like the idea that we’re all a little bit wild animal: animals who can love, and do mathematics. Will’s story is the one based most obviously (though only very loosely) on my own childhood, but Feodora is probably most like I was: stubborn and awkward and hopeful.
Q: Have you fully grasped the impact of your books on young readers? The story and language is so accessible and as a librarian I have found that every child, without exception, I have given your books to read has devoured them and finished by saying ‘that it was my favourite book ever’!
This is absolutely lovely to hear! I do get wonderful letters and pictures from children, and am always so delighted, but part of me can never quite believe they’re not just being polite. But, the books I read between the ages of eight and twelve were the ones that stitched themselves into the fabric of my heart, and I am so honoured to think that my stories might do the same for someone else.
I think that’s what’s so wonderful about writing for this age-group: there’s the chance to give a person whose mind is expanding every day new ideas and new perspectives to play with, maybe even, very occasionally, new courage and new confidence. I hope very much someone, someday, tries to dress like Will, or Sophie, or Feo.
Thank you so much to Katherine for taking the time to answer our questions and to Emily for posing them. ‘The Wolf Wilder’ is Katherine’s latest book.