Books editor Claire Mabey asks the superstar children’s author and scholar a whole bunch of questions – including, of course, ‘what animal is your daemon?’
“There was Tolkien, there is Pullman and now there is Katherine Rundell. Wondrous invention, marvellous writing,” writes thee Michael Morpurgo on the cover of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel for children, a rip-roaring fantasy adventure called Impossible Creatures. It’s a stonking endorsement but the novel lives up to the hype: Impossible Creatures is charming, cinematic and carries with it the urgent message of the need for an immediate focus on, and deep care of, our wondrous natural environment.
If you are in any way interested in writing for children then you will already know Katherine Rundell by reputation if not by her many books. Her novels include The Wolf Wilder, Rooftoppers, and The Explorer: each one heart-filled, empowering of children’s bravery, intelligence and their particular kind of pragmatism in the face the imbalances the adult world can render. Impossible Creatures is the first of Rundell’s stories to revel in fantasy world (deliciously, The Archipelago, accessed via a beautifully original portal), but it has a thorough grounding in the essential work of science and observation, and in the timeless magic of children being tasked with saving the world (or, a world).
At only 36 years old, Rundell is also the author of multi award-winning biography of John Donne, called Super-Infinite (the success of which lies, in my opinion, in the way her writing carries a contagious, crackling wit and passion; the same electricity that her children’s books conduct through a reader), and the widely quoted essay ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’.
On the event (and it has been quite the publishing event: the marketing campaign for Impossible Creatures in the UK where Rundell lives has been a marvel to behold; taking in large-format 3-D billboards, a launch at the Museum of Natural History in London at which Charles Dance did a reading, model dragons, and fantastical Waterstones window displays) of Impossible Creatures arriving in Aotearoa, I stole some of Rundell’s precious time with a tumble of writing and imagination-related questions.
Claire Mabey: What inspired Impossible Creatures?
Katherine Rundell: There were many! Among them: the image of a girl with a coat that allowed her to fly, but only when the wind blows; an epic poem that John Donne began and abandoned in 1601 called Metempsychosis, about a soul that is born from the first apple of the first tree; and a childhood longing to go to a place where all the creatures of myth were real and alive: where I could meet them in their thousands.
How long had the world of Impossible Creatures lived inside your head before you came to write it down?
I went back to check – I sent the first email to my editor about it in 2016, and it hummed in the background while I worked on other projects and did research.
What kind of research did you do to create the marvellous bestiary of creatures featured in the book?
It was a long, often joyful, sometimes frustrating process. I made hundreds of pages of notes about the islands, and the creatures – I spent many happy hours in libraries, researching the magical creatures which we were, once, absolutely convinced were real: karkadanns and longmas and lavellans. Sometimes I couldn’t find as much detail as I wanted, and would have to go hunting into archives.
I loved the unexpected accounts I came across. We used to believe there were unicorns in the wild: which makes perfect sense, really, given that narwhals exist. The line between possible and impossible in the natural world is so very thin: there are so many things which seem like they should be glorious myths – giraffes, hedgehogs, swifts – which are true.
Which books and authors were the biggest influences on Impossible Creatures?
I was so lucky to be young at a time when the library was full of the masters of children’s fiction: Tolkien, C S Lewis, Ursula K Le Guin, Alan Garner, E Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman – and the older stuff too: Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, the old Norse sagas and Greek myths. I loved the Odyssey – especially in Emily Wilson’s new translation. I loved the scope that modern fantasy gave authors to write about urgent truths – about power, and loss, and endurance – in a way that also offered a thrilling adventure and a feast of delight.
Can you describe your writing process for us? Are you organised with a schedule or more of a write-when-the-energy strikes kind of author?
I try to write every day that I’m not travelling. When it goes well, it’s the greatest delight of my life. When it goes badly, I try to make myself leave the house or library, and breathe air – it’s an annoying truth that fresh, unrecycled oxygen helps.
Which animal would your daemon settle on?
I actually do know the answer to this – because Philip Pullman told me! But I’m going to keep it as a secret, just my own, for a little while longer. It’s something that flies.
What is the earliest book that you remember reading by yourself?
The first I remember reading alone and truly loving – rather than struggling through – was What Katy Did.
What three books would you recommend to adults?
Emma by Jane Austen, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
What three books would you recommend to ten-year-olds?
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, The Moomins by Tove Jansson.
What is your favourite line in all of literature?
I love this stanza, by Donne, from the Good Morrow:
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.
What does writing feel like, for you?
I find it a difficult joy: a way of pushing at the edges of what you believe you can imagine. And I find writing for children the most exciting form of challenge – because, when you love a book as a child, you love it passionately. You eat it whole, and it goes into your blood, and bones, and you carry it with you, long after you’ve forgotten the details of plot, for the rest of your life. So it makes writing for kids a thrill, and a duty: not to give them anything shoddy, or cheap, or dishonest.
What is the message of Impossible Creatures, for you?
I think it’s about the iron-willed cherishing that we owe the world. And the idea that, although the world is often harsh and cruel, it is infinitely worth our love.
What are you reading right now?
City of Stolen Magic by Nazneen Ahmed Pathak – it’s excellent.
Food is such an essential comfort and joy in children’s books: what would your ideal feast be, after an exhilarating and successful adventure (or partway through)?
Crab on hot buttered toast, with garlic mayonnaise and lemon, and chocolate ice-cream with cream to follow.