Monday, January 26, 2009

Michelle Harrison Interview

Author photograhed by Charlie Hopkinson

Michelle Harrison is a young Simon & Schuster debut novelist who wrote the fantastic The Thirteen Treasures. Michelle works as an editorial assistant at a publisher, she is 28 years old and currently lives in Oxfordshire with her partner (Darren) and a badly behaved cat, Pepper.

1. You are clearly very fond of what you do, both as writer and illustrator. Do you have any favourite writers and artists that influenced you in your own career?

Artists such as Arthur Rackham, Alan Lee and Brian Froud have all influenced my artwork style, particularly where fairies are involved. With writers it’s harder to pin down specific influences, as I read so much. I think to an extent you can take something away from everything you enjoy, but writers I’m especially fond of are Roald Dahl, Julie Hearn and Eva Ibbotson.

2. What was the very first thing you did when you heard back from S&S that they have decided to publish The Thirteen Treasures?

I was taken to the pub by my agent and treated to a glass of wine! I then spent the rest of the day telephoning relatives and friends to share the good news, and staring at the Simon & Schuster catalogue, wondering what my book cover would look like.

3. Tell us more about The Thirteen Treasures and can you hint about its upcoming sequel (if you’re allowed!)?

The Thirteen Treasures has been described as ‘dark faerie fiction with a classic feel’, and I feel this sums the book up well. It’s quite a dark story as it deals with secrecy, betrayal and revenge, and at the centre of it all is 13-year-old Tanya, a girl who has the extraordinary ability to see fairies. Most strands of the story are tied up at the end of the book, but there is one plot element (with one character in particular) that’s left unresolved. The sequel is going to lead on from this strand, and will be from this character’s point of view, though all the characters from book one will be part of this story.

4. Tanya and Fabian are two very different character types, with Fabian being the more dark and strange of the two. They represent different points of view – the believer and the unbeliever – how difficult was it to maintain the two views, to let the characters ring this true in your novel?

I didn’t find it at all difficult to maintain the different viewpoints of Tanya and Fabian, as both of their characters felt so different and so clear to me in my mind. I was aware that there would come a point when Fabian would be faced with a choice whether to believe what was happening to Tanya, and so I knew it would have to be something major that presented him with this choice. Fabian is a very scientific person, but a small part of him – perhaps the capacity to ‘believe’ that adults tend to lack – still remains. Tanya can see this because of Fabian’s feelings towards the gypsy woman, Mad Morag, who is rumoured to have powers.

5. What came first – the characters or the storyline?

It was a bit of both. The character of Tanya was my true starting point - I named her after my niece. I knew the main theme of the story was to be Tanya’s persecution by malicious fairies, and that the setting would be the creepy, shabby manor house, but many aspects of the story developed as I was writing it. The fairies were the second lot of characters that I developed, while Fabian, Warwick and Amos arrived with me only as Tanya arrived at the manor for the first time. Red’s character was the last to make it into the book – I had initially been saving her for my second book, but decided to introduce her in The Thirteen Treasures as I felt the story was in need of a stronger subplot.

Art by Brian Froud

6. Did you do a lot of research into the world of fairy and its associated myths and legends?

Yes, I did a fair amount of research. I have an ever-increasing collection of books on fairy folklore and legends. A number of things I discovered made it into the book, such as the methods Tanya uses to deter the fairies from bothering her. I also came across the legend of the Thirteen Treasures, which is closely linked to Avalon, the fairy realm, although I’ve adapted the legend to fit with my story.

7. Have you ever been anywhere as odd and mysterious as the manor house you describe in The Thirteen Treasures?

Elvesden Manor is a mixture of several odd places I’ve been to. When I was young I visited an old farmhouse that belonged to a friend of the family – it had a really creepy cellar, and was full of dressers crammed with stuffed game. Another place that sticks in my mind is a pub in Essex where a staircase next to a fireplace is blocked off halfway up – this was the inspiration for the servants’ staircase at the manor. The forest that surrounds the manor – Hangman’s Wood – is based on an area of woodland of the same name very close to where I grew up. It’s much smaller than the forest in the story, but it has the deneholes that inspired the ‘catacombs’ in The Thirteen Treasures.

8. Did you do drawings of Fabian and Tanya whilst you were writing, as an aide memoire, to yourself?

I didn’t do any sketches as reference, but I drew several pictures of Tanya when I thinking about what kind of illustrations to put in the book. After following my agent’s advice I decided not to include any of the human characters on my illustrated letters, in order to allow the reader to imagine them fully.

9. What is your writing day like?

I work a full-time job, so all my writing is done in the evenings and at weekends – and frequently in the library at lunch times, these days. And whenever I write it’s usually supplemented by endless cups of tea.

10. Do you write to music / do you do soundtracks for your characters?

I’ve never thought of having character soundtracks, but I like the idea of it! On occasion I listen to instrumental music like the Edward Scissorhands or The Lord of the Rings soundtracks, or Loreena McKennitt’s music before I write or between breaks, but generally I find anything with words too distracting while writing.

11. What do you do to relax and unwind?

Reading or watching a film always helps me to unwind, but as I’ve got older I tend to like being busy most of the time.

12. What does it feel like, being on the other side of the spectrum now, as an author yourself? Do you feel famous?

I’m over the moon to be a published author now – it’s been my dream since I was a teenager, and I know I won’t ever forget what a challenge it was. Many writers find it difficult to break into publishing and I was no exception.

I don’t really feel famous - my work in publishing has involved meeting and working with other authors and illustrators who have been published for many years and are seasoned professionals. I still feel very new to it all!

13. Will you be touring to promote The Thirteen Treasures?

I have several events with schools lined up, and a launch party at the Stafford branch of Waterstone’s where I used to work as a children’s bookseller.

14. When did you find out that The Thirteen Treasures has been shortlisted as one of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and what was your reaction?

I knew about the shortlisting back in October but had to keep it confidential until the press release in January – which was difficult as my instinct was to tell anyone who would listen! It means a lot to be considered for this prize as I remember reading the shortlists when I still worked for Waterstone’s. To now be on the shortlist feels amazing.

15. What advice do you have for other budding authors out there?

Definitely to read as much as possible – it’s the best way to know what’s being published and to see how successful stories are constructed. Practise writing, even something simple like keeping a blog or diary is a good way to start, and always go back to see how you can improve your work. Getting someone you trust to give some feedback on your work can be really helpful. Finally, keep at it, don’t give up!

Michelle's website and more information on The Thirteen Treasures can be found here.

Competition News!

Michelle's lovely publishers have agreed to let me offer a copy of The Thirteen Treasures to give away to celebrate, not just its release, but being put on the shortlist for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Now that is, as they say, made out of "awesome".

So, the rules are as before: UK residents only, one entry only per person/household, duplicates will be disqualified. Use the email address to the right to enter - send me an email, subject line titled The Thirteen Treasures with your name and address. I'll let the competition run for a week, from today, with the closing date being Saturday, 31st January. I'll announce the winner - randomly chosen by our dog Sparrow (he is a genius) - on Sunday morning. If you are the winner, I'll send you an email to let you know.


Anonymous said...

I've got a copy of 13 Treasures now. My mate simply said, "You love Holly Black's Tithe so you're bound to like this." And, it has a gorgeous cover.

Great interview. Michelle seems very laid back ... I'm sure she'll inspire in the schools she visits.

lichtfus said...

Great site, i am a fan of Brian Froud.
I work in art too.
You are welcome in my homepage.

See you later.