Earlier this year when Frances Hardinge learned that her novel, The Lie Tree, had won the Costa Award for the best children’s book published in the U.K. in 2015, she was overjoyed. Soon thereafter, however, she was flabbergasted to discover that the Costa jury had chosen her novel as the overall winner of the Costa Book of the Year, defeating the winners of the Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Biography and Best Poetry Book Awards. Here, she speaks with PW about contemporary children’s books and their content, her influences, and what the Costa win meant to her.
So you won the Costa for Best Book of the Year.
So it would seem (laughter). I’m still prone to fits of uncontrollable giggling.
This is just the second time that a children’s book has achieved this, the other winner being Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. How did you find out that you’d won and what was your reaction?
I found out at the awards ceremony when they announced it. The Costa is not one of those awards where they let people know in advance. In fact, the second panel, which decides between the various category winners, made their decision earlier that day, about an hour before the awards ceremony. So nobody knew. They have to prepare five different PR releases, one for each semi-finalist, not knowing which one was going to be needed. The only thing I was certain of is that it wasn’t going to be me, because, as you said, a children’s book doesn’t tend to get it. The only children’s author who has is Philip Pullman, and I’m not Philip Pullman!
Well now you are.
Has winning the Costa changed your life in any obvious way, or is it too soon to say?
It has, but it’s hard to say how much. It’s been a bit dizzying, frankly, just the way people have been talking about me. I’ve gone from being an obscure writer who has a bit of a following to being established in what feels to me like a very small amount of time. Oh, and it hasn’t exactly hurt sales. I’ve seen them increase in a way that I didn’t ever think was likely.
The Lie Tree, which as its title implies, deals with the discovery of a magical and very dangerous tree that thrives on being told lies. The book also devotes significant space to rather arcane Victorian science, women’s rights, and other topics not usually covered in children’s novels. What initially made you believe that this material could be fashioned into a viable book for children?
First of all, actually quite a lot of subjects are getting addressed in children’s novels of one sort and another. There’s quite a lot of interesting stuff out there. In my case, I tend to assume that young readers can understand quite a lot, so if there’s an element that I think will make a story more interesting, I don’t worry that younger readers are going to have much more trouble with it than adults. I have included some quite serious things; some of my stories have included things that are actually quite dark, but I don’t think that any of those elements should be disqualified from appearing in a children’s book. My books tend to be a bit of an odd mix. There’s a part of my brain that’s always trying to make things more interesting. I can’t quite control the impulse to fiddle and make things more odd. I’m always trying to write something for a younger version of me, but also to write something that a younger version of me has never read.
Does the lie tree itself have a basis in folklore or myth?
You get a lot of magical trees of various sorts, and certainly any Victorian character who comes across this tree is going to be thinking at the back of their minds about the biblical Tree of Knowledge. It’s also based on a real tree, certain aspects of it, that supposedly will actually burst into flames on a hot day. Off the top of my head I can’t remember the name of it. The lie tree itself, though, that was the first thing I came up with. It came to me when I was on a hike. I was on Richmond Lock and I knew that I had a kernel of an idea that I could turn into a story. I just had to figure out how. It didn’t come to life properly for me, however, until I thought about it in terms of a Victorian setting.
The Lie Tree shares with The Amber Spyglass a willingness to tackle complex moral issues and make them accessible to children without watering them down. Is this part of your intent? Do you see your work as in any way like Pullman’s?
Pullman is a giant. I don’t think that I’m in his league, few people are, but he gives us something to aspire to. First and foremost, I tell stories. There are things I care about. There are aspects of the world that concern me, that fascinate me, or that I think are worth exploring, and when I’m telling stories these issues come out. I don’t feel the need to stop them from coming out because I’m writing for children, but I don’t start out with a political manifesto and then find a story to serve it, if that makes sense.
What other children’s writers do you particularly like or see as influences on your work?
I can’t remember all of the children’s writers that I read when I was young, but I read like crazy so there are quite a lot of influences. It certainly helped that our parents read to us. The Dark Is Rising books by Susan Cooper, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, and Puck of Pook’s Hill by Kipling, The Thirteen Clocks, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield, Catherine Storr, murder mysteries, Victorian novels. When I was old enough, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.
Who do you particularly like now among children’s writers?
Meg Rusoff, Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd. A Swift Pure Cry by Dowd is harrowing in places and bleak, but so compassionate.
Is there any one children’s novel by another author that you particularly wish you had written?
Watership Down, which I read at age 10. A true epic.
Unlike some writers who seem to revisit the same territory on a regular basis, your novels are very diverse. That being said, do you see yourself as having any favorite themes that you return to again and again?
One of the reasons my books are so different from each other is that once I’m done with a book, I’ve generally fallen out of love with it. I may even hate it. In any case I want to write something as different from it as possible. There are certain themes I return to. though. I don’t like unfairness and am fascinated by the mindset that allows some people to treat others unfairly. I’m also fascinated by questions of identity.
Why are these themes important to you?
When I see something wrong, I want to understand it, rather than just decry it. I want to get inside it. My books aren’t manifestos, but they are explorations and attempts to gain a more nuanced sense of the topic.
What attracts you to the writing of fantasy as opposed to realistic fiction?
Fantasy is what I like to read. I have done some realistic short stories, but fantasy allows me to tell more extravagant and colorful lies! You can describe powerful emotions realistically, but sometimes fantasy does it better. It takes us outside of our assumptions about the world and opens us to new ideas. I find it liberating, freeing.
We live in a world where more and more writers of fiction for children are producing sequels and trilogies and even hepatologies. Your first novel, Fly by Night (2006), led to a sequel, but all of your other books are standalones. What are your thoughts about sequels and series and are you likely to do another one anytime soon?
I have no aversion to series as a reader, but as a writer I get sick of things. I’m a restless writer and find it easier to commit to something new. I have no more sequels planned for my books, but I want the reader to feel that the world of each of my novels does continue after the book ends. I might write another book or two about Mosca, the heroine of Fly by Night, someday, though I have nothing currently planned.
What are you working on these days?
I’m doing another YA novel for Macmillan U.K., an historical [book] set during the English Civil War. All I can say is that it features an ancient and dangerous family and an angry and dead bear.
The Lie Tree. Frances Hardinge. Abrams/Amulet, $17.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4197-1895-9