Ten Questions with Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge is the author of Fly By Night, a novel I described as “an imaginative and creative adventure story with an interesting philosophical/historical question weaved in.” The bio on her official web page is a little vague:

Frances Hardinge is a writer who wears a black hat. Notoriously unphotographable, she is rumoured to be made entirely out of velvet. Sources close to Frances who prefer not to be named suggest that she has an Evil Twin who wears white and is hatless. This cannot be confirmed.

The folks at Harper Collins help fill in the blanks a bit:

Frances Hardinge spent her childhood rambling around in a huge, isolated old house in Kent that “wuthered” when the wind blew and that inspired her to write strange, magical stories from an early age. She studied English at Oxford University, where she was a founding member of a writer’s workshop and won a magazine short-story competition. She recently returned from a yearlong round-the-world odyssey. Fly by Night is her first novel.

Fascinated by the blending of ideas and story in a young adult book, I thought it would be interesting to ask Hardinge a few questions. Via the magic of email I was able to do just that and she graciously answered them. They are reproduced below with my questions in bold.

1. This is your first novel. How did Fly By Night (FBN) come about? Did you get an agent, make a proposal, and sign a contract, etc. or something different?

The way in which I acquired a contract was a bit more eccentric than that, and certainly came as a surprise to me. One of my best friends is the children’s author Rhiannon Lassiter. When I had written the first five chapters of Fly by Night, she told me that they were good enough to show to an editor.

I, however, was convinced that they were better suited to burial in an unmarked grave. Rhiannon became understandably tired of my spinelessness and took matters into her own hands. She kidnapped my chapters, refused to give them back, and marched off with them to her own editor. A week later, to my astonishment, I had a book contract offer.

2. Have you always seen yourself as a writer/author? Was writing a novel always something you thought you would do?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want intend to become an author. I still occasionally stumble across my first literary efforts, many of which tend decidedly towards the grotesque.

3. The “moral” or argument at the end of FBN seems to be the necessity of the “Marketplace of ideas” – that everyone must be allowed to argue for their own view of Truth and that in the end truth will win out. Is that an accurate or fair reading?

Yes, that’s pretty accurate. I’d say the ‘marketplace of ideas’ doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the truth will out, but is probably the best way to give it a fighting chance. If there is a moral it’s probably something along the lines of “read everything, question everyone, write what you like and let others do the same.”

4. Why did this topic or issue seem important to incorporate into a young adult novel? Did the idea for the story and the ideas come separately or together?

I certainly didn’t set out to write a manifesto disguised as a children’s book. From the start Fly by Night was designed to be a yarn that would be fun to write and to read. The ideological themes developed quite naturally from the story. The setting for Fly by Night developed because of my fascination with the power, danger and importance of unfettered words, but it’s also a topic upon which I have certain views.

5. Too often writing about “important” ideas means dry and serious. Yet FBN is whimsical and downright silly in parts while still addressing serious ideas. Did this force you to balance story and ideas; the darker side of the story with the lighter side; etc.?

To be honest, I don’t seem much incompatibility between the ‘important’ and the comical. After all in the real world grim or significant events often have a touch of the surreal, absurd or grotesque about them.

6. When you were writing did you have an age level in mind for your reader?

While I was writing it, I was imagining a reader of about 11 or 12. The book is currently being marketed at the 10+ age group.

7. How much research went into FBN? Did/Have your travels impacted your writing?

The research for FBN was actually quite a lot of fun. Whereas historical novelists have to pay rigorous attention to date and detail, I had a lot more freedom because I was creating a fantasy setting. I could trawl through historical accounts in search of the perverse and the peculiar, mix them with my own wild imaginings, and then stitch them all together according to whim.

Traveling has certain supplied me with a lot of ideas and images I wanted to set down on paper. The Realm in FBN was partly inspired by a holiday to Romania a number of years ago. My more recent journey around the world has left me with an enthusiasm for volcanoes, and I’m currently writing a book in which they feature heavily.

8. FBN is full of poetic and evocative descriptions of people, places, and things. And the story is clearly about a lover of words and books. Were you an avid reader when you were younger? What authors inspired and influenced you?

Yes, I was an extremely avid reader. Authors I enjoyed as a child include Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield, Lewis Carroll, Alan Garner, Nicholas Fisk, TH White, Phillippa Pearce and Richard Adams. I also really enjoyed Treasure Island and the Sherlock Holmes stories.

9. You had a blog as part of the initial publicity campaign. Do you read literary/book
blogs? How do you think the Internet has changed the world of books and writing?

I never used to read literary blogs, but over the last year I’ve started looking at them with increasing interest. The Internet has undoubtedly changed the world of writing. I doubt I’m alone in loving books as physical objects, and preferring to read from the page rather than the screen, so I’d be surprised if eBooks replaced paper books any time soon. However the Internet has made self-publication much easier, and I find it very exciting that countless people can now make the fruits of their creativity available to the entire world. The Internet is the great graffiti culture, and I think it’s rather wonderful.

10. What is next for you, a sequel?

I’d like to write a sequel to FBN, but I probably won’t do so for a year or two. At this stage I have already written my second book, which takes place in a contemporary setting, and I am currently well into a third novel, set in a different fantasy background.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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