Ananda Braxton-Smith is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to talk about being a writer and her extraordinary new book, Tantony and how she created it.
How did you become a writer?
I haven’t always worked as a professional writer, but I’ve always written. I wrote my first stories at about eleven; stories I chose to wrote, that is, not stories I had to write for school. My first paid gig, when I was sixteen, was writing scripts for Let’s Join In and Storytime, two radio (!) broadcasts for primary schools in the seventies.
I became an author by not giving up … and by not really being good for anything else. And by always writing even if I wasn’t being paid, thereby getting better at it and being ready for my opportunity when it came.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
I have to say I really do love the research. For instance, to write Merrow I had to find out how skeletons fall apart over time, what creatures live in the Irish sea, what skin disease could give you scales, and find somebody who knows the language the Vikings spoke. As well, I had to read lots of stories about mer-people, kraken, water-horses and other legendary beings. It was great!
I also love the surprises that turn up while I’m writing. The characters say and do such unexpected things sometimes.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
The sitting there alone, day-after-day, week-after-week, tippy-tippy-tapping at my keyboard, with a sore back and racked with uncertainty, while outside the sun is shining and people are going out to lunch and talking to each other.
What were you in a past life (if anything) before you became a writer?
I was a bad-tempered doctor in Victorian Edinburgh.
And before that, a bad-tempered monk in ancient China.
And before that, a spiky sea urchin.
Just a guess.
What is your greatest writing achievement?
Everything I finish feels like a great achievement. And everything I manage to turn out that is something like I first imagined it in my mind. I had never thought of writing novels (I like writing short stories best) so conceiving and writing Merrow was a surprising achievement even to me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m researching the Natural History of the seashore for a third novel in the Secrets of Carrick series. Merrow is the first in that series, and Tantony is the second. I am already half in love with anemones. And did you know sea-stars are carnivorous?
Do you have any tips for new writers?
You have to really, really want to write. Not be a writer, or be published, or be paid; just to write. You have to do it because you love it and it’s what you do. If you do it to be a writer or be published you’re likely to suffer. After that, I would say don’t make characters talk to each other unless they have something definite to say.
And write weather. Weather’s good.
Do your books have any consistent themes/symbols/locations. If so, what are they?
At present I’m preoccupied with the way characters grow out of their landscapes. So the Natural History of my settings (sea, bog etc) is a big theme, and all of nature just bristles with symbolism. Understanding where my people live helps me understand who they are, why they are as they are, and what form their supernatural creatures will take.
How many books have you had published?
I have three books out there. The first was a YA history of the bubonic plague called The Death: the Horror of the Plague. It covers 500 years of the plague in Europe up to the discovery of the microbe. The research for that was both fabulous and revolting.
What inspired you to write this book?
At the end of Merrow one of my more nosey, prying characters mentions the ‘twins down in Strangers Croft, poor things’. Well, that just got my own curiosity up about them. Tantony is a result of that curiosity.
What’s it about?
It’s hard to say in a few words what my books are about. This story concerns a pair of twins and what happens when one of them sickens and dies. The remaining twin must work out a way to live on, and help her family live on as a new kind of family … one now without one of its members. She takes a sea-journey out to an appearing/disappearing island and while out there finds many remarkable things. Some of which help, some of which don’t. But she learns how to go on without her other ‘half’. I guess it’s about becoming a whole person.
What age groups is it for?
Officially it’s for middle years readers, but as with Merrow it’s secretly for everybody.
Why will kids like it?
I’m hoping they’ll like the world of the islands, their characters and creatures, and will recognize the main character’s journey as she tries to make sense of life and death and families. Also, its got whales, gods and monsters … and a spooky bog.
Can you tell me about the main character and what you like/dislike about him/her?
The main character, Fermion, has just lost her twin brother. He has been sickening a long time and she’s had to grow up very fast to look after him, and to take on his duties at home. I like everything about her, even her initial extreme sulkiness. She’s a very determined person with a clear eye for other people’s feelings, though she’s a bit dim about her own. I like the way she lightens up, warms up, over the story as she learns to let her brother go.
What did you enjoy most about writing Tantony?
Researching the Natural History of bogs and their creatures. Finding out about the wacky and marvelous adaptations of life is always a pleasure to me. Then fitting the characters into that landscape so they were a bit like Natural History themselves was fun. And I liked it when suddenly I knew what was going to happen next. It sounds strange but often I had no idea.
What was the hardest thing about writing Tantony?
Not knowing what was going to happen next! It drove me crazy.
As far as the story went, writing the increasingly sad decline of the mentally ill twin was very hard indeed. And the increasing desperation of his sister as she tries to save him. I had dreams about them, poor things.
Tomorrow we’re reviewing Tantony here at Kids’ Book Capers.