Hilary McKay on historical fiction: 'History is our roots, it grounds us'

Published on: 10 November 2019

Writer Hilary McKay talks about her two most recent books and why she's drawn to stories of magic and hope, whichever era they're set in.

Tell us a little about The Time of Green Magic and what inspired you to write it...

Very simply, the story is about a newly made blended family moving into an old house, and the magic that happens there. But really, that’s only the most shadowy outline, a charcoal sketch on a wall. What brings the sketch to life (I hope; I really tried, I hope it works) are books and wilderness.

I used some of the old books that entranced me in my own childhood, and I used the wilderness that I have loved all my life. There is magic in both, even if the books are only half understood, and the wilderness is an ivy-covered wall.

Read our book review of The Time of Green Magic

A story about magic and mysterious old houses is very welcome at this time of year! What is it about old houses or haunted houses that fascinates us so much, do you think?

It’s the differentness, I suppose. And the accumulated layers of time. History, and the knowledge that other unknown people have stood where you are standing now and seen a different world. It’s the invisible imprints of the past that you feel on the back of your neck…

Why are children's stories about magic so important – and why do we keep writing them?

Stories about magic are stories about the "What if?" And "What if?" matters so much. It’s the way out of the confines of present reality. It’s the way to open eyes and minds, and say, ‘Look, it doesn’t have to be like this.’

Also, it acknowledges other powers than human powers. Stories about magic give us hope, and I think it’s true hope, and that’s why we keep writing them. For everyone, not just children.

Louis summoning a mysterious visitor from his bedroom window reminds us of Peter Pan visiting Wendy. What are your favourite children's books, and do you think they influence your writing?

That is such a hard question! If I told you a favourite today, it would be different this week. There are old ones that I return to: lots of Joan Aiken, Where the Wild Things Are, T H White’s The Once and Future King, and ones I’ve recently discovered: Michelle Paver, Kiran Millwood Hargrave. 

I am sure they influence my writing. I don’t know what doesn’t, that I let into my world.

What was your absolute favourite book as a child?

I don’t know. I was a child a long time and I read a lot of books. Perhaps The Tailor of Gloucester.

Congratulations on your huge success with The Skylarks' War! As this is the time when we focus on remembering the World Wars, what is important for us to remember about those that made the ultimate sacrifice – and those who lost them?

Thank you! It was astonishing the number of friends those Skylarks made. 

I think the thing to remember is that they were us. People just like us. Many of them hardly knew why they were there. They were caught into it, like fish in a net. And they didn’t want to make ultimate sacrifices, they wanted to live. And those who loved them didn’t want heroes, they wanted their sons and daughters and lovers and friends to be safe. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that almost anything is better than one nation setting about to slay the strength and youth of another nation.

I would absolutely hate anything I have written to seem like a justification of war.

Read our book review of The Skylarks' War

Clary's quest for education in The Skylarks' War is a fascinating one, and reminds us that the situation for women, especially poor ones, at that time was difficult. Why is it important to remember (possibly) lost and marginal stories, especially from points in history which have one predominant focus?

That’s two questions in one!

About education, first. I think the answer is quite simple: you tend to value something more if you know what it cost.

Not so very long ago, an education for girls, that was as good as their brothers had, was not on offer. They had to fight for it. As the older ones achieved it, I love, I absolutely love, the way they turned around and hauled the younger ones up behind. Most honourable women, and of course we should remember them.

The lost and marginal stories... I suppose they were the stories of the lost and marginal members of society who were the majority in the days before reading and writing were for everyone. Marginal members of society dragged the Sarsen stones to Wiltshire, mined the lead ore that roofed the cathedrals, serviced the scholars of the universities.

Are they worth remembering? I don’t know. I do know that not much more than a hundred years ago, half my own family could hardly read or write. I would have been a lost and marginal then. So that’s a thought. I’m not sure that it matters much though. Humans think too much of themselves. In my unhumble opinion.

Do you think that historical fiction provides something unique for the writer and reader? If so, what is it?

I think, history is our roots, it grounds us. It’s how we got here. Historical fiction is a way of making it accessible. It shows a stage on which we might once have walked.

For a writer, it’s a gift in one way, because the stage is, as it were, already set. You don’t have to invent it. On the other hand, you can’t alter it. So you better get your research right!

Read our book review of The Time of Green Magic

Check out more historical fiction for older children and teens

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