It’s a pleasure to announce that today is my spot on the Countdown to 5th June tour! For all of you today I have an interview with the lovely Nigel McDowell about his upcoming book, The Black North (Which is fantastic and a review of it will be up soon!). Hope you enjoy all the questions and answers!
The Divided Isle, once a place of peace and tranquillity, has been ravaged by war. Twins Oona and Morris live with their grandmother in a stone cottage in the quiet southern county of Drumbroken, but the threat of the Invaders of the Black North – the ravaged northern part of the island – is coming ever closer. When Morris, fighting against the Invaders, is kidnapped by one of the evil Briar Witches, Oona must journey to the unknown realms of the Black North in search of her brother.
She is accompanied only by Merrigutt, a jackdaw with mysterious transformative powers, and a treasured secret possession: a small stone in the shape of a plum, but a stone that reveals truths and nightmares, and which the Invaders and their ruler, the King of the North, seek more than anything. Oona must keep the stone safe at all costs, and find her brother, before the King of the North extends his evil hold over the whole island and destroys it forever.
The Black North has a very unique fantasy style – which I loved! – which book(s) and/or author(s) inspired you most?
The fantasy writing that I love is always odd. A bit weird, slightly off-key, and always pushing the boundaries of things. Philip Pullman was and always will be a massive influence on my writing (and on the work of lots of other writers, I’d guess!) – his daemon idea, just to take one example, is so strange and beautiful. And he makes it perfectly possible in the boundaries of Lyra’s world – I love that! Other books and authors I loved: have to include Mervyn Peake and his Gormenghast trilogy; Angela Carter and her fairytales; Philip Reeve, who is able to write historical fiction as well as he can write fantasy as well as he can write science fiction (I get the impression he can do anything, and brilliantly!), and also JK Rowling, a fantasy writer whose work is always focused on the humanity and humour in all of us, and on the special magical potency of love.
Tall Tales From Pitch End was your debut novel, is it a similar style to this one? Would you say your fans would like both of your books?
I’d hope that if a reader enjoyed Tall Tales from Pitch End that they’d also find lots to enjoy in The Black North! It is another dark fantasy adventure, about a character trying to find their way in a complicated and crumbling world. It has the same fairytale and folktale influences as Tall Tales. And has a distinct sense of Irishness in its feel and atmosphere. I think both books talk to each other in some small ways, and so I hope a reader could have lots of fun with both!
If you could only use ﬁve words, how would you persuade someone to read The Black North?
Five words! Okay – epic, magic, heroine, nightmares, adventure…
There was a lot of world-building and backstory in The Black North, how did you go about with your research for the book? Was anything based on reality or real myths?
I’m always seeking out and hoarding volumes of fairytales and folktales, particularly any of Irish origin. So the idea when I started writing this book was to incorporate some of those stories. Some I changed, some I embroidered a bit and embellished…but most I invented myself. And throughout the writing of the novel, I always had lots of books scattered on the bed (I write in bed – not as glamorous as it sounds!) about plants and trees and animals and the countryside, because the main character, Oona, lives in the countryside and grew up learning the names of birds and mammals and the uses of plants and flowers. I really wanted The Black North to have a feeling of wildness and adventure and possibility, and fairytales by their nature are full of twists and turns, transformations and revelations.
One of the things I loved about this book was how strong and stubborn Oona was. Was she a character that was based around someone you know?
Oona Kavanagh is so stubborn! I had trouble writing her sometimes because she was always so determined to go her own way…she’s quick-thinking, outspoken, decisive (perhaps irresponsibly so), and definitely knows her own mind. But there’s a lot of talk these days about “strong” female characters. It seems that if a girl is even remotely able to speak or fight or speak out or think for herself, we slap these labels on them – strong, feisty, independent. I find that a bit reductive. So when I was writing Oona, I had in mind my own mother and grandmother, and my partner’s mother and grandmothers. These were women who, when they were girls, had to cook and clean and work the land. Not because they were “strong” or “independent”, but because they had to: it was expected. They didn’t over-think – they had act on instinct. In The Black North, Oona has responsibility thrust on her – mother and father gone, and a grandmother who is ailing, and she has to take on the running of the household. I think there are lots of young girls in the world having to do just this – keep family and home together, looking after siblings, grandparents, perhaps parents. And that, I respect enormously.
I absolutely adore the covers of both of your books, but what do you think? Do you think they’re a good representation of your stories?
When I saw both covers for the first time, I thought they were completely beautiful! Such talented guys in the art department at Hot Key Books! The kind of clockwork gothic of Tall Tales from Pitch End, and the wildness and dark of The Black North – both are perfectly captured by the illustrator, Manuel Sumberac. I feel very lucky, very proud, and couldn’t be happier with how the books look on the shelf! Everyone should have a look at more of his wonderful work – www.manuelsumberac.com
I know which part was my favourite – it shocked me and saddened me – but what was your favourite thing about writing The Black North?
I’m pretty sure I know which part you’re talking about. Sorry. It saddened me too! Graham Greene talked about every writer needing a chip of ice in their heart, but it was the most gruelling and emotional thing, writing that scene. But there was lots of enjoyment in the writing of this novel too! Mostly because my debut, Tall Tales from Pitch End, was set in an isolated community, completely cut-off from the rest of the world; I spent so long in that particular world that with The Black North I really wanted to tell a story that travelled: across wastelands and mountains, along rivers and through ruined forests, meeting lots of different characters and creatures along the way, and dabbling in plenty of dark magic…that journey was very, very enjoyable to write.
Oona goes on a very distinct physical journey in this book but comes across many challenges. What difculties did you come across while writing this book?
Apart from all the usual worries and difficulties of writing, the thing that was most difficult was the thing I wanted most of all to accomplish – to show a young girl going through a physical journey that felt too like a transforming, emotional journey. A passage that felt something like the journey of adolescence – going from a comfortable place you know well and out into a landscape that is constantly shifting (and in this novel, it does that literally – the Muddgloggs, creatures made of earth, are remaking the landscape, moving mountains and
altering the course of rivers) and being changed by what you experience. I wanted the story to have a simplicity, but yet contain some complex revelations. But as always, it was much easier said than done!
Evelyn is a very interesting character, what did you like best about writing her?
Everything. I love the fact she is so changeable – her mood always on the move as she transforms, shifting between her guises as a jackdaw and an old woman. She is grumpy, filthy, bossy, secretive, unpredictable. But as Oona learns, Evelyn Merrigutt is also extraordinarily brave. Someone who read the book recently described her as “the heroine” of The Black North. I couldn’t disagree.
Are you excited for June 5th?
Definitely! There are some great books being published on the 5th June, and I feel very lucky to be amongst them. And of course, to have a second book out there in the world is a lovely thing. It will hopefully be the beginning of another exciting adventure.
What great answers! Thank you so much to Nigel for answering all of my questions and to Jim over at Ya Yeah Yeah for organising the Countdown to 5th June!
Next up on the tour, Katy Moran is visiting Raimy over at Readaraptor.
For the full schedule of the tour – and to catch up on the posts you may have missed, head over to the Countdown to 5th Junewebsite!