Frances Hardinge: 'I always get a bit obsessive'

Published on: 19 September 2017 Author: Anna McKerrow

Since Frances Hardinge won the Costa Book of the Year 2015 for The Lie Tree, many a child – and adult – has been waiting with bated breath for her next spooky masterpiece. Now it's finally here, we just had to have a catch-up to find out more... 

Frances, your fictional worlds are always so rich and immersive. What in particular did you research for A Skinful of Shadows?

The book is set around the start of the English Civil War. Most brief summaries of that war seem to be a list of battles with dates. I was much more interested in all the aspects that don't end up in that list – the hardships of ordinary people, the way normal laws and rules break down, fear, confusion, hunger, and the huge unexpected chasms that suddenly divided people from their friends, neighbours or relations. And then there are the 'stealth' combatants – the spies, smugglers and political puppeteers working in the shadows.

When I'm researching a particular historical period, I always get a bit obsessive, and neurotic about the possibility of making mistakes. While writing this book, I ended up researching 17th-century cooking, espionage, surgery, the life of servants, "camp fever", apprentice riots, clothing, common superstitions, Christmas traditions, dancing bears, church-smashing, turnspit-dogs, the growing zeal for witch-hunting, and much more. The problem is, there's no such thing as "too much research". If you're not careful, you can end up researching forever...

What inspired you to write it? And how did the character of Makepeace come to you?

As usual, my inspiration came from various different sources. Little idea-fragments lurked in my brain and then combined until I had a story idea. But Bear took shape in my imagination early on. Hearing how badly dancing bears were treated, I imagined one returning as an angry ghost, unshackled at last and ready for revenge. The secrets of the mysterious Fellmotte family was partly inspired by the film The Haunted Palace, a horror movie I saw when I was young. An aristocrat inherits his family estate, but after a short time his personality seems to change...

At first, Makepeace herself was an awkward, slippery character, and I had trouble getting to grips with her. I knew about her strange gift (or curse), and the danger she would find herself in, but for a while it was as though she was hiding from me. Eventually, her personality started to become clearer to me – a spiky, distrustful, unregarded girl with a devastating temper hidden under her unremarkable exterior, and enough patience to outwit her powerful enemies.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I had many favourites, but the book I read the most times was probably Watership Down. It may have a bunny on the cover, but it's an epic saga filled with harrowing peril, war, rescues, betrayals, dystopias, myths, massacres, camaraderie, ingenuity and courage.

What other atmospheric, spooky books would you recommend for older children?

  1. Seaward by Susan Cooper

    My sister and I loved Cooper's Dark is Rising series when we were about nine, so we pounced on Seaward when we were a bit older. Two young people, both reeling from grief and trauma, are transported to an eerie other-world where they must journey together towards the sea. It's eerie, bizarre and dreamlike, with a misty sense of folklore.

  2. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

    This isn't so much a graphic novel as a collection of graphic short stories, all of them uncanny, disturbing and beautifully illustrated. These are dark fairy tales of the best sort, and you'll remember them again on your long twilit walk home...

  3. Doll Bones by Holly Black

    This is on the cusp between middle grade and YA, and it's partly about growing up. But it's also about a creepy and possibly haunted doll made of ground bones, who has her own agenda...

Topics: Interview, Features

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