Big read and reviewed Talina in the Tower (link to be added when she’s pressed publish, sigh!), kindly supplied to us by Orion for that purpose. And then we got to interview the author as part of her blogtour! How fantastic is that?
So, Big’s questions first:
1. How do you decide on a storyline?
It’s a different process for each book, but it always starts the same way. I never do anything, even have a bath, without a notebook beside me. I am always scribbling ideas for storylines and jokes and threads of conversation into that notebook. Many of those ideas end up in my novels but very few of them are strong enough to support a whole book on their own. You know when THAT idea comes, because you cannot leave it alone. You hear a special kind of humming in your head, because it is so full of angles that need following up. But in the meantime, you keep hold of the little ideas as they may tie in with the big one, and enrich it. I’ve just handed in the next book after Talina. So now the notebook is devoted to the one after, and I’m at the delightful free stage of ‘anything might happen’. For example, I’m interested in the idea of freshwater mermaids living in Venice’s wells. While charming, that is a static idea: it’s not going anywhere. So it is not yet a storyline. A storyline must have a problem or a danger that can only be resolved by your main character. I’ll soon start hearing that particular character’s voice in my head, and then it will become clear exactly what kind of scenario needs to be designed to test him or her (or both of them) to the very limit. The freshwater mermaids may stay quietly down their wells, or they could come into the story.
2. How do you think of names for your characters?
My books are mostly set in Venice. So when I am walking down the street I write down any interesting names I see on people’s doorbells. I also flick through the Venetian telephone directory. And I find names in the history books I read for research. I saw a lovely one today: Almoro. I think that he will be in my next book. Perhaps Almoro will annoy a freshwater mermaid and get a mermaid malediction?
So names are easy. And Italian names are lovely because are so musical. The problem is finding ones that are short enough not to clog up the text.
The main boy character in Talina in the Tower is called Ambrogio. That’s the name of a dear Venetian friend’s brother, and I love the sound of it. Altopone, the rat, is a joke. He is a bit of a tough guy, so ‘Altopone’ rhymes with Al Capone, the notorious American gangster. ‘Topone’ is the Italian word for rat, or big mouse, so the joke is doubled in that language. ‘Doctor Raruso,’ the scholarly rat who recites a song, is a variation of ‘Caruso’, the great Italian singer. Albicocco is the name of a marmalade bully-boy cat: this is the word for ‘apricot’ in Italian. ‘Bestard-Belou’, the meanest of the bully-boy cats, is a gift to a friend, who was treated unkindly by someone called Belou.
3. Talina in the tower is based in Venice in 1867. How much research did you have to do?
I have been writing about Venice for the last fourteen years, so research is a continual process for me. You build up a background pool of knowledge. I had extra help with Talina, however, because one of the characters in the book is a real historian, Giuseppe Tassini. He wrote a wonderful book called Curiosità Veneziane – Venetian Curiosities. It tells the story of every little street, lane and palace in Venice. And when I say story, I really mean story. Tassini had a storyteller’s gift of making everything seem fascinating. I take his book with me everywhere and it brings the streets alive.
Of all my books, Talina in the Tower is the most fantastical and magical so far, so I did not need to research so much about Venice, except that I spent some time in a place that is rarely visited – the island of Quintavalle at the north east of the city, where Talina is the only child, surrounded by dozens of loving grannies who all want to adopt her. I looked up old maps to see how it would have been in 1867 – and discovered that most of it was covered by orchards then. In another book, I found that in past centuries Venetian women really did put their babies in baskets and dunk them in the water on very hot days: naturally that became part of the plot! I read books about the social behaviour and body language of wolves, to make sure that the Ravageurs acted appropriately. I also had to find some old French slang words for them to use, as the Ravageurs pretend to be French. I needed the names of fancy French dishes from the nineteenth century because the Ravageurs are very greedy. Their names are also antique slang – such as Frimousse, which means ‘a vicious face’ and Lèche-bottes, a ‘boot-licker’. I had to find out the heights of the various bell-towers in which the action takes place, and make sure that they were still standing in 1867. I discovered that – in Venetian mythology – witches can be created only on Christmas Eve. I also found the scorpion curse, by which you put a strand of your victim’s hair in a pot of sand with a scorpion. When the scorpion suffocates then your victim also does. I read old Italian travel and cookbooks for the names of sweets and candies that were popular at that time. That was quite enjoyable, though it made me hungry. I also walked around Venice, finding homes for all my characters, so I could trace their journeys across the city in my mind.
4. When did you want to start writing?
I always wanted to write books, because I always loved reading them. I never, ever wanted to do anything else, except, for a short while, to be an archaeological reconstruction artist, as I used to be quite good at drawing. But then I discovered I’d have to live uncomfortably in tents and get dirty, so I quickly decided that writing was better. I worked in journalism and publishing for quite a few years before I wrote my first book, so always with the written word.
Thank you for such interesting questions, Big!
And then I got in on the act too
How do you ensure that ideas/ language are suitable for your projected audience age?
I don’t ‘write down’ for children. I use the same ‘writing head’ as for my adult books. It is mainly the subject matter that differs. (In my adult novels I deal with medical history, dark emotional issues etc).
So I don’t automatically flinch away from using an interesting word in a children’s book. But I try hard to contextualize ‘difficult’ words so that they can be understood. I see this as making a gift of a nice new word to an interested reader. I feel this way myself about my own second language, Italian: when I read a word I don’t understand, I can usually work it out by the context and then I am happy because I have acquired a lovely new word that I’ll never forget. If I have to look it up in a dictionary, the strange thing is that I may well forget it afterwards.
I have help with this process of course: a wonderful and very experienced editor, Fiona Kennedy at Orion, plus a team of child readers who kindly check my manuscripts. I ask them to tick anything they like, and also to put a wiggly line under anything they don’t understand. I explain that it is MY fault, not theirs, if they didn’t get something I wrote, and it is up to me to make every sentence work properly. I would hate to discourage a child by making them feel that their reading skills were inadequate for a book.
Another thing I learned to do with children’s books was to speed up. You must keep something happening all the time. You can introduce some very challenging ideas so long as you keep it interesting and pacy. Talina addresses some quite strong issues like the rights of children, enslavement and wrongful attitudes to animals. But it all unfolds at quite a speed. As pace is so important, my child readers are also asked to mark where in the book they put it down and wandered off to have a drink or watch television etc. I want to see where I tested their patience. Again, I feel it is my problem to fix.
I also use humour, where possible, help make important ideas more palatable to children. The bully-boy cats in Talina are funny and aggressive, but they are also pathetic characters who basically just want a home. And the Ravageurs’ evil is tempered by their ridiculousness.
Is it more difficult targeting a book to a particular age or does it happen naturally?
When writing for children, you always write about children. Once you are seeing the world through a child-character’s eyes, it becomes an instinctual rather than an academic process to target the book to their age.
One of the subjects of Talina in the Tower is anger-management in situations where you feel powerless, and this is something that kids rising nine to twelve are definitely dealing with. Children are very sensitive to being put down or having their opinions undervalued. Talina in the Tower also deals with negative gender-typecasting: the Ravageurs treat their females as if they are stupid and worthless, so Talina has to teach the lady Ravageurs how to recover their self-esteem.
I voice a lot of animals, ghosts, creatures in my children’s books: the historical fantasy genre suits me very well, and I think it suits child-readers. Their brains are permeable and accepting. If it feels logical, and it feels good, and they are enjoying the ride, then I think they’ll go with it.
I have an adorable nephew of ten (hope he doesn’t read this!) and a lovely god-daughter of the same age. I think I know what makes them laugh, and what keeps them interested. So I like to think I’m writing something that they’ll enjoy.
Do you have any tips for parents in how to get children reading and writing?
You don’t have to be alone! Make friends with your local bookshop. Many of them, especially the Independents, have activities and plans for getting children interested in books and helping them experience pleasure in reading and interacting with the written word. I recently curated a series of blogs from booksellers about all the things they do for children (Bookseller Sundays on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure). We were all amazed at the dedication and creativity of those booksellers.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your lovely site.
And thank you so much Michelle for taking the time to provide such thoughtful and interesting answers.
I’ve really enjoyed being part of this tour, and I hope you’ll all explore the other sites that Michelle has visited to see what else ppl have had to say about Talina in the Tower.