Franny Billingsley, a former bookseller, is the author of three much praised novels: Well Wished, The Folk Keeper, and, most recently, Chime. We spoke to the author about her two careers, her writing process, and her new novel.
Your last novel, The Folk Keeper, appeared 12 years ago to great acclaim. Why so long between it and Chime?
While I was still working on The Folk Keeper, my daughter was five and my son, Nathaniel, was two, and I read one of the changeling stories to Miranda and it was terrific. It was from Maid of the North: Feminist Folktales from Around the World. When I finished it Miranda said, "You should write a novel about that story," and I said, "Yes, I really should," so I tucked that idea away.
I kept writing The Folk Keeper and Nathaniel kept growing and growing but he didn't speak. He was four years old and he still didn't speak. I had been taking him to doctors and somehow those two things came together for me. I thought, "Here's my story." I have a kid like Nathaniel who doesn't speak, but is very musical, and the fairies, they don't care about speech but they love music, so they steal him away and put a changeling who looks just like him but can talk in his place and nobody knows. His parents just think that he's turned a mental corner, but his sister knows that he's been stolen and her job is to go to fairyland and get him out.
So I thought it was a great idea and I still do, but the problem is I couldn't figure out the geography of fairyland. I did so much research on traditional fairylands, on weird environments with bizarre stones and ice and lava, but every time I tried something new, I could tell that I was just smearing Franny Billingsley on top of it. It wasn't organic to the story.
I kept writing it but I just couldn't ever figure it out. At the same time, as Nathaniel grew up, he started to speak. So that initial urge to write about my son evaporated and I never could figure out fairyland. What I realized about myself is that the geography and the magic have to work just right together in my stories or I can't do it. I'm not really sure what finally made me think of swamps, but I moved the story to the swamps. I made the protagonist older. I gave her a twin sister who's sort of disabled, and then I did all this reading on the English Fenlands. There actually was a Boggy Mun who didn't like the draining of the Fenlands and who would pull people down into the bogs to their deaths. So I thought this is it, I've got it! This is how my protagonist is going to try to save her sister. It's not going to be from fairyland; it's going to be from the swamp creatures.
Once I found a geography, I could write it. I think that for some people geography is not so important, but for me, and for a lot of fantasy writers, the geography absolutely has to make sense in terms of the magical context or else you just can't go anyplace.
Can you discuss your writing process? How do you go about starting a novel?
My writer friends and I talk about the kinds of writers we are and some of us are plungers and some of us are plotters. I happen to be a plunger. I have an idea; usually I start out with the idea for the complication. For example, in Well Wished I knew that my protagonist was going to be stuck in the body of another girl who couldn't walk and that she was going to have to find her way back to her own body, but I didn't know any of the magical mechanisms. And in The Folk Keeper, I knew I was going to have a girl who was half selkie and that she was going to discover who she was, but I didn't know anything else. So I plunge in.
One of the first things that any reader of your work will notice is the beauty, complexity—dare I say, eccentricity—of your language. What does such language add to the story you're trying to tell?
I grew up in a household that was filled with Scottish and Irish ballads. So I think that the complexity and the melancholy and the languor of them has kind of gotten into my bones and that's the way I write. Now what does it contribute to my books? I don't know; I guess I would say that those are the kinds of books I like to read, books with vivid images and lots of mist and velvet cloaks and stuff. It's not as though I'm setting out to do that; it's just who I am.
How do you know when a book is finished?
I think it helps to have a good editor. I was sending around Chime to find a good editor and I did find one [Kathy Dawson]. It was close to being finished, but it was really kind of unwieldy. She wrote me letter after letter and it just got closer and closer and closer. And then she said, "It's ready." I trust her. If I have an editor who I can trust, then I'm very lucky. I could probably go on writing forever and I would wreck it past the point of no return, and then start taking it apart.
Relatively few fantasies are set in the early 20th century. What made you decide to set Chime during that time period?
Just as I had a hard time figuring out where to set it geographically, I also had a hard time figuring out when to set it. But once I figured out that I wanted the swamp setting, I decide to use the traditional tales of the Fenlands but have the spirits revolt against the engineers coming in and draining the land. I could have set it 100 years earlier because they've been draining the fens for ages, but I got to thinking about what it would be if you have all of these swamp spirits, you have a relatively isolated place that's just now being invaded by trains and engineers. This is where the Old Ones are going to come into conflict with technology, and probably technology is going to win. That just seemed very interesting to me. It's kind of the tipping point for magic.
The heroine of Chime is quite convinced that she's a bad person. The protagonists of your other novels are also rather thorny characters. What attracts you to such problematic protagonists?
I think what it does is it gives them energy to go ahead and do things that are foolish and get themselves into trouble and keep turning the cogs of the story. I say cogs because I was recently giving a lecture about how a book is like an elegant and efficient machine. Each cog needs to turn something else and, if it doesn't, it should be taken out. So I think that my characters' kind of hard-headedness and also their vulnerabilities make them do things which are often foolish but which push the story ahead. If you have characters who keep themselves too safe, then it's hard to write a story.
In Chime, with Briony in particular, I knew that I wanted her to have been told a lie basically for a long time and have come to believe that lie. I just thought that manufactured memories were very interesting. She then had to believe that she was a terrible person because she was told this terrible lie about herself. This provided the catalyst, I think, for the whole book. She's got to take care of her sister Rose, because she was so wicked to Rose. When I think about what cogs turn other cogs in the book, that obsession—that she has to take care of Rose because she was so wicked—leads her to do almost everything that happens.
For many years you worked in a bookstore in Chicago. How, for better or worse, has being a bookseller affected your writing?
I think, frankly, not very much. I worked at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park and sometimes I would see all of the books coming in and I would think, "What the hell am I doing? There are so many books out there; why should I write another book?" Sometimes I would overhear kids talking about the books that they liked and maybe that would influence me a bit. When I write, I have my head in my own box and I keep it there, so I don't know that working at the bookstore really affected my books. It certainly helped me understand the world of publishing, which was terrific, but in terms of the way it steered my book, I can't say that it would have been any different.
Why did you leave bookselling?
Because of Columbine. It was 1999 and there I was at the bookstore and Columbine happened. My daughter was in fourth grade and I just thought, "I have to be home with my kids." So I quit and we sort of struggled along for a few years and then my husband got a job teaching at a college in the northern suburbs of Chicago and things improved.
Your Web site mentions your love of Hans Christian Andersen, and your first two novels are filled with references to The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid. Does Chime have a similar source in Andersen's work?
I don't know that it does, except maybe in its melancholy. More important for Chime were the ballads that my father sang me. I think that all of those ballads, the structure of them, the bittersweet nature of them, has gone right into my books. I can't thank my father enough; he sang me two songs every night and sometimes they'd be these long ballads with 32 verses. I grew up knowing an amazing number of stories, accompanied by these gorgeous and haunting tunes that aren't part of our modern culture. They're very Gaelic. I think that was really important to me; I would not be the writer I am if he had not sung me all those songs. So, thanks Dad!
Besides Andersen, what other writers have influenced your work?
When I was a kid, I just read and read. We were lucky enough to have gone to England and had a whole bunch of Penguin Puffins books, like The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, which is hilarious. I would love to be able to write a book like that, but I don't know that I have a humorous bone in my body when it comes to writing. Once on a Time by A.A. Milne. I read a lot of old, old fantasy stuff. The Carbonelbooks by Barbara Sleigh. Then when I got a little older I loved Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I was a big fan of romance and when I got a little bit older I would read a Harlequin romance or a Georgette Heyer novel and then David Copperfield, and then another genre book and then Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy. I was that kind of reader. One book that I loved was I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I loved voice and that book had it in spades. And then of course I grew into loving Jane Eyre.
I never was really a Tolkien reader. I liked The Hobbit well enough, but I think that his world is too big for me. I like smaller, more contained worlds and books that are more character-driven. I like books with a small kind of magic. I did read The Lord of the Rings for the first time when the movies were about to come out and I have to admit—I know I'm uttering heresy here—but, you, know two wizards are battling and I could never figure out why one of them won. I didn't know what the rules were exactly and that always kind of drove me crazy. I like to know what the magical rules are. I need to know why somebody might win.
If you were still in bookselling, and you had to handsell some new fantasy to kids or their parents, what would you sell them? Besides your own books, of course.
I very much like Kristin Cashore's books. I like Catherine Fisher's Incarceron; it may be a bit more complicated then the books I tend to love, but I liked the characters very much. I loved the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve; those are fantastic! Then Jonathan Stroud also; I love, love, love the Bartimaeus series. Those are so witty and so smart. I love the demon Bartimaeus and I love his footnotes; I love everything about him.
With so much time between books, can we still ask: what's next?
You can and you may! While I was writing what turned out to be Chime, I got a couple of other ideas for books. I took notes on them and I tucked them away. Then, as I was finishing Chime, it came to me that these two books belong in the world of Chime. They're not sequels; you're not going to see Briony again. I think that I'm done with her story and she's done with me. They're going to take place, like Chime, in a world of developing technology and magic. I think that the second book is going to be called Shadow, and is going to be set just after the Great War. The third book, I think, will be called Cloud and set in the future. Of course all of us are going to be dead by the time these are published!
Actually, knowing the background, having figured out the Old Ones and an alternate Britain, that all has helped a lot so I won't have to slog through so many decisions. I know what the geography needs to be. I do think I know where Shadow is going, so we'll see. Maybe I might have a little bit of hope. I take my vitamins and I exercise, so I might live for a long time.
Chime by Franny Billingsley. Dial, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-8037-3552-1