In the past five years, the novels of one English writer have been awarded the Whitbread, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, been shortlisted for the Carnegie, and won Ireland’s Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award four times. The writer is Kate Thompson, who concludes her trilogy about trouble on earth and in Tír na n'Óg, the fairy underworld, with The White Horse Trick. She spoke with Bookshelf from her home in Kinvara, a town in west Ireland where the books are set.
Were you setting out to write a trilogy when you wrote the first book in this series, The New Policeman?
No, it just happened. There’s only one set of books I’ve written that I knew was going to be more than one book at the beginning and those are the Missing Link books. I just loved the world I had created[(in The New Policeman], the fairy world where there’s no concept of time, no one ages, the sun is always shining, and decided I wanted to spend more time there.
The books are cleverly linked but they don’t read like installments. Was that your intent?
Well, the third one (The White Horse Trick) was sort of on hold while I did a residency in Bristol, studying climate change. I knew I would be writing a book when I finished that, I just didn’t know what it would be. But then, during the course of the year, I realized that climate change was what I wanted to write about and it fit in perfectly with these stories of the tension beneath the world underneath Kinvara and the world above.
Why climate change?
It’s just something that interests me. The program is funded by the RSA [the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts] and I was free to study any aspect I wanted. In Bristol, I had access to scientists and marvelous resources so it was a great opportunity to spend some time researching the current state of the environment, which is terrifying, isn’t it? Take this latest opening in the Arctic, which is because of global warming. What’s our response? We rush in there and create an even bigger opening.
You have had a fascinating life, working with racehorses, and in an orphanage in India, but you did not plan to be a writer. How did you come to write novels for young readers?
I came to writing because I joined the North Clare Writers’ Workshop, which met every week at Ennistymon Library. I was new to Ireland [Thompson settled in Ireland in the 1980s] and I wanted to meet people and have a hobby, and it evolved until I was taken over by it. We were living in County Clare then and the children were small and I would spend hours scribbling poems and stories. It became my passion.
You have since moved from Clare to County Galway.
Yes, but it’s not far. I can see Clare out my window. I’m right at the Burren. It’s a great county.
The plots in this latest trilogy are a very neat blend of old Irish mythologies with contemporary settings. Was part of your mission to make sure young readers heard those old legends?
It wasn’t a mission at all. What drives me really is that all those Lady Gregory and James Stephens stories. I just found them so absolutely wonderful I wanted to steal them. The idea of Tír na n'Óg as a place without time? How well that concept fit with the hurried lives we lead. I couldn’t help but try to work with that.
You’re referring to the plot of The New Policeman for which you won the Bisto for a record fourth time. [Thompson’s previous wins were in 2001 for The Beguilers, in 2002 for The Alchemist’s Apprentice and 2004 for Annan Water.] Is it true that when you won for The New Policeman they retired the trophy?
They still give out the award but, yes, when I won it for the fourth time the sponsors gave me the trophy to keep.
It's a wonder you are not a household name. Do you have a sense of your readership outside of Ireland and England?
Well the books have been translated into something like 19 or 20 languages so I do get e-mail from some very unexpected sources. What I tend to get from America is very enthusiastic letters and e-mail from librarians and schoolteachers, the gatekeepers, though I hesitate to use that word. I’ve never been a huge seller. I suspect the books are more on the literary side than the commercial. But what I do find enormously gratifying is the reviews my books get from the American press. They are so on the ball compared to anywhere else. It’s so satisfying to get a review that conveys the reader understood precisely what I was trying to get at.
What have you got for us next? Is there a new trilogy in the works?
I’m taking something of an extended break. There is a new book, Most Wanted, for the younger ones coming from Greenwillow in November, but my other love is the fiddle. Not just playing it [traditional Irish music plays a huge role in The New Policeman] but in buying old instruments and restoring them. If you are really interested, you can see my work at www.wildgoatfiddles.com.
Wild goat? As in the puka?
Not exactly. I needed a name for the business and I couldn’t come up with anything, so I took a walk and ran into a herd of wild goats.
The White Horse Trick. Kate Thompson. Greenwillow, $16.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-200416-1