Sweet Sixteeners Perdita and Honor Cargill recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Abi Ephinstone about her debut MG novels, THE DREAMSNATCHER (out now) and THE SHADOW KEEPER (February 25, 2016 from Simon & Schuster).
Abi Elphinstone grew up building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens in Scotland. She worked as a teacher in Africa, and England.
THE DREAMSNATCHER Twelve-year-old Molly Pecksniff wakes one night in the middle of the forest, lured there by a recurring nightmare – the one with the drums and the rattles and the masks. The Dreamsnatcher is waiting. Because Moll is more important than she knows…The Oracle Bones foretold that she and her wildcat Gryff are the only ones who can fight the Dreamsnatcher’s dark magic. Suddenly everything is at stake, and Moll, Alfie, a runaway from the enemy gang, and her friend Sid, are drawn into a world full of secrets, magic and adventure.
Perdita & Honor: THE DREAMSNATCHER has been a huge success, garnering great reviews and winning prizes. At what point did you know that you had a hit? And did that take away or (with book 2) add pressure?
Abi: Aw, that’s very kind to call THE DREAMSNATCHER a ‘hit’! I had no expectations in the run up to publication; I was just overjoyed that finally, after seven years of trying, there was a book with my name on it out in the big wide world. But it was exciting when the reviews started coming in (from the Sunday Times, Daily Mail, and Daily Express) and the wonderful Children’s Previews Editor for the Bookseller, Fiona Noble, said that the book was ‘a breathtaking fantasy that evokes the magic and adventure of classic’s children’s fiction’. But you can make a lot of ‘noise’ on Twitter and have superb reviews and still not sell books and so I was thrilled to find out our sales figures after six months – but even more rewarding was hearing that children loved the story and are really excited about the sequel. I didn’t feel external pressure when writing THE SHADOW KEEPER but I did put pressure on myself and I’ve tried to make the writing stronger, the world bigger and the adventure even bolder.
Perdita & Honor: Any tips for what authors can do for themselves to get their books noticed?
Abi: Since March this year, I’ve spoken at 97 schools. Before publication, I imagined that publishers would set up a few school events around the launch but when I realized this wasn’t the case, I set about it all myself. I found the relevant contact email addresses at the schools I wanted to speak at then I got in touch with a very clearly presented ‘information pack’ which included details of my book, my event and my fees. I’ve spoken at thirteen festivals since March and again I pitched for every one. I also wrote a scheme of work with lesson plans and that’s proved great for schools ordering in class sets. And I sent out forty SHADOW KEEPER proofs to my top contacts (bloggers, booksellers, librarians etc), complete with little bottles holding secret codes and brown paper packaging tied up with string – so that has created a pre-publication buzz which is exciting.
Perdita & Honor: Your books have an incredibly strong sense of place. THE DREAMSNATCHER takes children deep into the woods and THE SHADOW KEEPER will bring them to the sea and caves. What is your key to making place seem so real?
Abi: I spent a large portion of my childhood building dens: halfway up trees, in caves… There was something about those secret worlds, away from the prying eyes of adults and outside the confines of ‘inside’ and with my books I like to draw on different cultures that ‘build their world outside’. For my first trilogy I explored the beautiful Romany gypsy culture with characters sleeping in wagons in the woods and for my next series I’d love to explore Inuit settlements… With this idea of ‘outdoor place’ firmly entrenched in my head, I start every book by sketching a map appropriate to the culture I’m drawing on. I fill it with places I would have loved to visit as a child – forests, sea caves, mountains, islands, lochs, moors – and I imagine my characters going on a journey through that world.
THE DREAMSNATCHER started with a forest and a sprawling heath. Once I had that in my mind I climbed trees in the New Forest, built tree houses in giant oaks and carved whistles from elder. THE SHADOW KEEPER started as a hidden cave down by the sea and to build on that setting I abseiled 80 meters into a cave, dived for mussels, foraged through antique markets for smuggler pistols and kayaked through Norwegian fjords. My setting for Book 3 is the wilds of Scotland and to bring that alive I swam across lochs, braced storms on the moors and climbed crags to see golden eagles’ eyries. More recently, I’ve been living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia for an upcoming story and next year I’m hoping to run away to the Arctic to bring some more stories home…
Perdita & Honor: THE SHADOW KEEPER is published on February 25, 2016. How different does waiting for publication feel second time around?
Abi: I feel just as excited this time around. I don’t know if it ever feels ‘normal’ to see your name on a book you have poured your heart and soul into but I do feel slightly more organized this time around. I’ve made some fantastic friends – bloggers and authors – who have been brilliant in championing my second book. And I’m going back to visit nearly all of the booksellers, teachers and librarians I worked with this year for SHADOW KEEPER events next year. It’s hugely rewarding to see that all the hard work, all the five a.m. starts and back-to-back events this year, has provided me with a really strong platform to launch the next book.
Lightning Round Questions:
Maddest research for the books?
Flinging myself off a mountain in Brazil on a hang-glider (there’s a flying episode in THE SHADOW KEEPER and I wanted to see what it actually felt like to fly).
Favorite book when you were ten?
THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE by Joan Aiken.
Number of rejections before you got your book deal?
I had 96 rejections from literary agents on books before I wrote THE DREAMSNATCHER. Harrowing at the time but it’s taught me to appreciate every single moment of having a book out in the world.
Favorite question asked by a child on a school visit?
Are you Bear Grylls’ wife?
Nicest compliment you’ve received about your books?
A ten-year-old DREAMSNATCHER fan wrote me a letter that said this: ‘Every time I read a chapter I wanted to read more and when you wrote of the old magic and the amulet, I got a strange feeling in my heart. Sort of like a tingling feeling. I am your number one fan.’
Roast beef or Yak’s milk?
The sap from a larch tree. I ate it in Mongolia and it was like chewing on Christmas – all cloves and spice.
About the Interviewers:
Perdita and Honor Cargill are a mother and daughter writing team living in North London. Perdita used to be a barrister; Honor is studying for her A levels. Once they’d discovered the secret of mother/daughter collaboration (separate rooms and cake) writing Waiting for Callback together was enormous fun. Honor’s (limited) experience as a child actor gave them lots of funny material for their novels.
Perdita and Honor’s debut, WAITING FOR CALLBACK (Simon and Schuster UK, Winter 2016) is a contemporary YA novel. Fifteen-year-old Elektra lands an agent but instead of a fast track to the Oscars it’s all humiliating (and mostly unsuccessful) auditions in draughty church halls and occasional moments in weird student films – and her chance to ‘star’ in a real movie is ruined by an unfortunate and improbable case of mistaken identity…