Sunday, 20 June 2010

Interview with an Author: GILL ARBUTHNOTT

Hi Gill and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy,
I live in Edinburgh with my husband, two children, and Leonard the cat. I teach Biology part time at a secondary school (though people tend to assume I must be an English teacher since I write!) and write whenever I get the chance.

I’ve been writing since I was in primary school, and have been a published author since 2003. I write fantasy fiction for children, and popular science particularly aimed at reluctant readers.


Orphaned as a baby, Nyssa can only dream about who she is and where she comes from, but with the arrival of dark strangers, her past is revealed.
Nyssa has a hidden tattoo that bears one half of a secret message. No her future depends on finding the other half, written on a twin she’s never known, and the truth of the words that mark them.

"It completely won me over," says bestselling novelist Eva Ibbotson, who praises the 'steady forward thrust of the narrative, the dramatic landscapes, and the feisty heroine'.


What inspired you to write THE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER?

I’d written three contemporary fantasy novels set in Scotland, and I wanted to see if

a) I could create an imagined world that seemed as real as the real world

b) I could write a fantasy with no supernatural elements at all. I particularly wanted to create a truly appalling villain, because I didn’t think my villains had been scary enough up until then.

I also wanted to aim this book at a slightly older age range, so that I could explore some darker themes.

THE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER is set in a wonderfully created fictional, historical setting of Shadowmen, Keepers and island races. Did you do any historical research to help create your world? If so, do you enjoy this part of the writing process and were you influenced by a particular historical period?

I did very little research. I have a brain like a sponge, and so much has sunk into it from reading so many books over the years, that I found most of what I wanted already in there!

I was consciously using the Greek islands as my model for The Archipelago in the book, as it’s an area I know and love. Santorini was the inspiration for Thira, and is associated with the Atlantis myth, so that all fitted very naturally.

I do enjoy research: in fact it’s all too easy to get carried away by it and either forget to write the book, or put in far too many facts, just because you know them. The most unlikely things become fascinating: I got quite obsessed with the history of London Docks for a while (though not while researching Keepers’ Daughter, obviously), and probably still know more about them than is entirely sane...

I deliberately didn’t try to fix Keepers’ Daughter in a well defined historical period. I thought I’d leave plenty of space for the readers’ imagination to fill in the details!

When creating your fictional world do you think it’s important not to load the narrative down with too much information? That sometimes, less is more? How do you decide what to include and what to leave out?

Yes, absolutely. The reader plays a very active part in creating the world they are reading about, whether it is real or imagined.

I’m very aware sometimes, especially when reading historical fiction, of the research poking through the story, and I wanted to try to avoid that. I think a good rule is, ‘If you can leave it out, then do.’

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for THE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER?

It felt like half a lifetime! KD started out as two books, then one publisher asked me to combine them, but didn’t take ‘Shadowmen’ as it was called at that time in the end. It must have been well over two years from picking up the pen to start chapter 1 to signing the contract with Chicken House.

THE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER is being published in several countries. How does it feel to see your books being translated into other languages and being sold around the world?

It’s amazing! Almost as exciting as the first sight of my very first book in a bookshop.

I’m following reaction to The Keepers’ Tattoo, as it’s called in the USA, with great interest.

Of course, since I don’t speak a word of German, I won’t be able to do that for the German edition, when it comes out in November.

I’ve been very lucky with all the covers for this book. The cover is incredibly important to the book’s chances of doing well.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of THE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER?

There was quite a bit of rewriting. I work from character through to plot, and as a result, the plot was too thin in places. In particular, I hadn’t fully thought through the legacy of the Keepers, and the rebellion. It can be frustrating having to change things, but in my experience, the end result has always been well worth the effort. After all, everyone involved is trying to produced the same thing: the best possible story.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I’m afraid I’m not much of a planner. I have to write the story to find out what happens! I’d get very bored if I had everything planned out, and would probably never finish writing the book. However, the lack of planning means I usually have to do quite a lot of rewriting, as the plot develops on the hoof, so quite often the beginning no longer makes sense by the time I reach the end.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

No. In fact, my kids haven’t even read all my books now they’re published! Their tastes are not for the sort of books that I write, and actually, I think that’s no bad thing. They don’t get put in the awkward position of feeling they have to like them.

I’m pretty secretive while I’m actually writing, and the first person to see a draft of a book is almost always my agent, Kathryn Ross at Fraser Ross Associates.

What made you want to write for a younger audience? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I wrote two adult novels (one fantasy, one SF), which gathered an array of rejection slips, then started writing another adult fantasy novel. To my surprise, I found that the story was turning into a children’s novel. To my even greater surprise, the first publisher I sent it to (Floris books) offered to publish it. I decided that perhaps I was supposed to be a children’s writer, and now that I am, I would say it’s the best job in the world.

I do enjoy reading children’s/YA books. There is a fantastic range out there, of very high quality. I find I’m disappointed by well reviewed adult books much more often than by children’s books.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I always read a lot of fantasy/SF. Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Tolkein, Asimov, Ray Bradbury...

But I was the child who would read pretty much anything. I probably read more ambitiously as a teenager than I do now. I remember reading War and Peace in a week...

You’ve written several books both fiction and non-fiction. Could you tell us about your other books?

My first three novels were contemporary fantasies set in Scotland, the first two (The Chaos Clock and The Chaos Quest) in Edinburgh and the third (Winterbringers) in Fife. They were for a slightly younger audience than The Keepers’ Daughter.

The Chaos Clock:
Kate and David are eleven year old best friends. In Edinburgh, where they live, time is coming unstuck and the past is breaking loose. They find themselves caught up in a war between the Lords of Chaos and the Guardians of Time, centred round the mysterious Millenium Clock.

The Chaos Quest:
Eighteen months have passed since the events of The Chaos Clock, when Kate and David become involved in the battle for time again, this time in a race to prevent the Lords of Chaos from tricking the Stardreamer into losing her power.

Josh’s summer holiday in St Andrews isn’t looking too promising when it gets so cold that the sea begins to freeze and his only companion is an eccentric local girl, Callie. Then they find the journal of an 18th century teenager who writes about a Kingdom of Summer and find themselves threatened with an unending winter unless they can stop the Winterbringers and restore the balance of the seasons.

My non fiction books are children’s popular science books aimed particularly at reluctant readers, with the publishers Barrington Stoke. There are three out at the moment, and the fourth ‘ Life Story’ (about DNA and genes) comes out as an ebook in August. That’s something I know very little about, so I’ll be fascinated to see how the whole thing works.

Crazy Creatures:
Mice that glow in the dark... 
Lizards that shoot blood...
Deadly slugs... 
And the frog that can kill 1500 people!

Mad Scientists:
The man who ate everything... 
The world’s most deadly inventor... 
And the cat that’s alive and dead at the same time...

Germ Wars:
The germ that killed 27 million people... 
The green fungus that can save lives... 
And the 8 year old boy who became a risky medical experiment...


Could you tell us about writing non-fiction for children? Do you think your experience of working as a Biology teacher has helped your writing in any way?

What’s lovely is that it’s such a total change from writing the novels. The biggest difference is length: a Barrington Stoke book is about 5000 words. The Keeper’s Daughter was 104,000!

The research is great fun, and while I obviously have a good background knowledge from my teaching, I still learn lots of new things. I think the teaching background helps too in that I’m used to trying to get quite complex ideas over in as clear and simple a way as possible.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

Oh yes, and I still do. There’s no use getting into this writing business if rejection is going to crush you. It does, of course, but you just have to stick the manuscript in a new envelope and send it out again...

It’s useful to remember that you haven’t been rejected by the whole world, usually just one or two people, and you only have to think of all the rejected books that have eventually gone on to be massively successful...

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I’ve been writing with a view to being published since the mid 1990s. Feedback from rejections is invaluable: these are the people who know what works.

The greatest improvements to my writing since getting published for the first time come from listening to what children tell me during school visits etc. They tend to be very honest, which is scary, but also fantastic, as they have no qualms about telling you if bits of your book are boring or confusing! I hope that listening to comments from my readers – and publishers - helps me make each book better than the last one.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

  • Don't keep talking about it, just get on and start writing. And don't say you haven't got enough time. You have, if you really want to write.
  • Read and read and read. And then read some more. Think about what makes you enjoy a particular writer or book.
  • Be patient. You are unlikely to find success overnight. Or in a year.
  • Be persistent. Don't be put off by rejections, but do pay attention to any advice in the rejection letter if you’re lucky enough to get a personalised one!. (It may not feel lucky, but it is...) Keep going.
  • Enjoy your writing! If you don't, is it likely anyone else will?

Are there any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Thanks for interviewing me. I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions!

The Keeper's Daughter ~ a tall tales & short stories review

Gill Arbuthnott has created a vivid, atmospheric world inhabited by intriguing and fully-formed characters that really came alive for this reader.  Although the book feels firmly grounded in the fantasy genre; a heroine on a quest; a mysterious race of people with strange powers: a giant library of hidden rooms and secrets guarded by mysterious priestesses; a cruel oppressor called the White Wolf and his evil Shadowmen; there are some intriguing and disturbing themes woven into the narrative.  

This is an adventure story with a real heart that also deals with some very serious issues.  Without revealing too much of the plot, the author has dealt sensitively with mental health problems, self-harm and child abuse.  She touches on slavery and the power of propaganda, even prostitution, but all these things are handled with subtlety and integrity.  And interestingly, and for this reader it made for a refreshing change, Nyssa, the heroine of the novel doesn't become involved in a romance.  She is an independent, strong-willed girl who makes her own decisions and knows her own mind.

An intriguing, deceptively complex novel that offers plenty of twists and turns for a satisfying, quest driven adventure.  



Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Fascinating interview, always so good to learn about how other writers write and their road to publication! Thanks for sharing, Gill. Tracy, thanks for another excellent interview!

Tracy said...

Thanks Nicky - glad you enjoyed it. :)

Clare said...

Thanks for another fascinating interview, Tracy and Gill.

(It's a wee world indeed. I bought "Winterbringers" for my daughter when she was younger only for OH to look at it and say, "I knew Gill when she was at school"!)

Tracy said...

Thanks Clare and what a small world!!

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