Interview with Lucy Christopher
- Do you have any tips for writing?
- Just do it. It takes a long time and a lot of patience to write a whole novel...but you just have to put the hard graft in. It’s as simple as that. You also need to keep the faith. I once heard David Almond speak and he said that when he was initially writing he would stuck a little piece of paper to his computer screen that said ‘Be Brave’, and I think that just about sums it up for me too. Be brave, keep hopeful and keep writing.
- Is there a certain time, place, or atmosphere that inspires you to write?
- Pressure, or when under the threat of a looming deadline, is normally the certain time or atmosphere that inspires me to write! But seriously, I have loads of places that inspire me to write. Traveling to anywhere really wild or remote or unique always makes me want to pick up a pen, and I’m generally more creative towards the end of the day (though I wish I were the other way round!).
- Outside of the world of literature, what do you do?
- I do loads of stuff! I lecture in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, I do lots of school visits about being an author, and I’m doing a PhD in Creative Writing. I also take time out to ride a grumpy chestnut mare called Topaz, am a part-time dog owner of a cheeky labradoodle, and I love to go traveling!
- When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
- I’ve always really liked writing; always writing stories for projects at school and getting good marks for English; but I never properly considered a career in writing until after I finished my undergraduate degree in Creative Arts at Melbourne University. After Uni, I tried to be an actor for a while but didn’t have much success. It was only when I looked back at my good marks in creative writing while at university and at my pretty ordinary ones for acting and theatre studies, that I decided that I better just stick to what I’m good at! So I enrolled in an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and moved to the UK to begin my writing adventure!
- Where do you get your ideas from?
- Everywhere! I think the best ideas come from just being open to the world - really looking and listening, and in trying to understand and be interested in as much as you possibly can. Ideas come from asking questions like ‘How does that work?’ or ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ Ideas come from being curious.
- Why is it interesting to you to explore a young person’s experience in conjunction with wild places?
- My strongest memories from childhood occurred in wild places.
For me, my sense of ‘home’ is all about plants and animals and being outside. I also think my early experiences of wild places helped to develop a lasting respect for nature as well as simultaneously increasing my confidence (from being quite a shy, Welsh child to becoming a brasher more Aussie one!) I think young people need wild places in order to develop their sense of home and their sense of self.
In my PhD in Creative Writing (of which Stolen was a part), I am looking at how other authors write about Australian arid landscape and for what purpose. I am interested to see how authors use wild Australian settings to talk about themes of identity and belonging.
Questions about THE KILLING WOODS
How did you begin THE KILLING WOODS?
The process of writing can be a little like walking through a wood. Sometimes the woods are open and sunlit, the paths well marked. At other times the woods are dense: dark and tangled with briars, the paths forced from the footfall of deer and badger. My first two novels, Stolen and Flyaway, were written, for the most part, in sunlit woods: I knew what I wanted to explore, and I could see my way clearly to their endings. My third, The Killing Woods, was a rather different process. This novel was ‘felt out’, rather than clearly planned: its story arrived as if by accident, glimpsed at now and then as one may glimpse a deer through trees.
I began The Killing Woods with a trip to a forest. At the Cross River State Rainforest in Nigeria, I volunteered at a remote monkey sanctuary. I followed elephant pathways up a dormant volcano to gaze down onto an endless canopy of swaying green. I filled a notebook with ideas of how I could represent the heavy heat and thick, damp smell of trees in my next novel.
Then I came home to South Wales and I couldn’t write it.
I wandered for hours in the woods behind my house as I tried to make my story work. Each time I came back to the same problem: I didn’t know the Nigerian rainforest well enough; I didn’t feel validated to write about it. As I walked past the leafless birch trees of winter in Wales and into its bluebell carpeted spring, my thinking changed. Perhaps I could, instead, write about woods that I knew and understood. Perhaps I could write about the woods I was walking in right then: the woods surrounding where I live.
I went into action. I took trips to the nearby Forest of Dean, I started riding my horse through the private woods near her stables rather than in the fields, and I convinced my neighbour to show me where an abandoned bunker from World War Two was hidden inside secluded woodland between England and Wales. Gradually, the story came.
How important is the setting to THE KILLING WOODS?
Much like the desert was integral to my first novel, Stolen, the woods are similarly important to The Killing Woods. They stand as a kind of liminal space: a zone where the characters can explore their subconscious, their urges towards fear and excitement, where characters can discover more of who they are. My exploration of the woods surrounding where I lived led me to this plot. It also led me to thinking about the process of creativity, realising that not all novels are like walking down clearly defined sunlit paths: that some have to be felt out, much like the process of walking through thick vegetation on a moonlit night.
Can you explain a little bit about the place of post-traumatic stress disorder in THE KILLING WOODS?
PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, is a medical condition that may develop after a person has experienced something traumatic. This could come in the form of a sexual assault, an injury, the witnessing of something horrific, or an experience that was life threatening.
In my novel, The Killing Woods, Emily’s father is suffering from PTSD as a result of the disturbing things he witnessed as a combat soldier. During the novel Emily recounts how her father, Jon Shepherd, experienced some of the most common symptoms of this disorder: recurring flashbacks, a blanking out of the event itself, a retreat into himself and a high level of anxiety. Jon Shepherd spends more and more time in the abandoned World War Two bunker in the woods behind their house, drawing dark, twisted images of death and the woods on its walls in an attempt to work through the pain inside of him. Emily and her mother do not know how to help him return to the strong capable father he once was, and there has not been enough general support since Jon was dismissed from combat. When Jon Shepherd begins the narrative of The Killing Woods by arriving out of the woods with the body of a dead girl and with no idea how it happened, it is assumed he murdered her. Jon has a reoccurring flashback of the last event he experienced in combat: where he accidently killed a civilian who was running to him for help. It is assumed that due to a flashback brought on by a thunderstorm, Jon Shepherd has done it all again.
I became interested in PTSD because I was fascinated by how a person’s personality can change completely as a result of an experience they’ve had. For combat soldiers particularly, the change often seems most extreme: fighters moving from being previously proud and capable protectors to being crumbling, scared and defenceless. As a writer I am always interested in extremes and in how people move between them. I am also interested in different states of reality that mental disorders, as well as substance abuse, may provide. And I am interested in uncovering a more fuller understanding of why people may do the things they do. I researched PTSD through talking to retired combat soldiers and through reading articles and books about the disorder. My account of the disorder is not based on any one true experience and is a work of fiction. I tried to get across the fear of what it may be like to live with a family member suffering from this debilitating disorder, but I admit it may not always be entirely accurate to any individual’s experience.
Questions about STOLEN
- Do you believe Gemma has Stockholm Syndrome in the end or is she seeing Ty as he really is?
- Aaah, I can’t answer that! That’s for the reader to decide!
- Even though Ty has kidnapped Gemma and we know that is wrong, it's hard to believe that he's entirely evil. What do you believe it is that has brought Ty to this point?
- There is no doubt that Ty is a troubled individual.
He is not an intrinsically evil person, however, and I believe that it is his life experiences that have caused him to become who he is. He is essentially a character who yearns for a sense of belonging and connection. I think this stems from his traumatic upbringing of being forcibly removed from his home and in not having any meaningful and loving relationships at an early age. He is trying to find belonging and meaning in his life in whatever way he can. The only belonging and meaning he seems to be able to find in his life is in his connection to land. The desert was the only place he ever felt comfortable, happy and free as a child. The desert is his escape, his safe place ... the place that made him feel free instead of confined.
Rather ironically, when he forces Gemma into this place he is trying to impart upon her its sense of freedom and safety that he feels there.
- If Stolen was a movie, who would you like to see play Ty and Gemma? (Any word on film rights?)
- I’d love Stolen to be a movie! When I write, I think in images so I can clearly see the book playing out as a film in my head. If I could change the past and bring back the wonderful Heath Ledger, he would have made a good Ty. Other (easy on the eye!) actors who might be able to pull it off could be Ryan Kwantan or Ian Somerhalder. As for Gemma, I think she looks a little bit like a mixture between the actresses Evan Rachel Wood and Kristen Stewart...though we would obviously have to find a British version!
As for the film rights ... there is currently interest from two production companies. Watch this space!
- Is there any one part of Stolen that was particularly difficult for you to write?
- Yes, the ending! I rewrote it ten times! I just couldn’t work out what would be the best thing for Gemma to do. In the end I just decided to try to be as honest as I could to what I imagined Gemma might be feeling.
- Is there any particular significance of the title, Stolen?
- I thought long and hard about using ‘Stolen’ as a title. Obviously the word ‘stolen’ has huge connotations in Australia and I was initially concerned that Australian readers may think the book was about the Stolen Generation, which it’s not. However, the book is about similar issues that may be associated with the Stolen Generation’s trauma; those of belonging and being forcibly removed from a childhood landscape...the idea of a person being displaced within an Australian landscape. And there is an allegorical link to the Stolen Generation. When Gemma says that “they kind of stole you too” she is linking Ty’s childhood experience of being stolen by the authorities to her own experience of being stolen by Ty, and yet she is inadvertently linking Ty’s experience to the forcible removal of the Stolen Generation from the Great Sandy Desert.
However, both of my characters are actually European imports and not distinctly aboriginal (though Ty does display an affinity and respect for the Walmajarri tribe that he grew up with). In this sense, I wanted to explore the idea of being both attached to and estranged from landscape from an Anglo-Australian perspective. I wanted to think deeper about the issues of being forced from and pulled towards this ‘interior’ Australian landscape, and, probably because I am also from European-Australian descent, I wanted to explore this from a viewpoint not distinctly aboriginal. I wanted my novel to explore the psychological feelings that go with forced removal from and longing for a place, rather than the legalities of a political act. I am actually quite intrigued as to how the title of this book is received by Australian readers.
- Stolen is written as a letter from Gemma to her abductor, Ty. Did you intend to write the book this way from the beginning or was it something that came about later?
- I was lucky, I guess. The first line of the book came to me one day - “You saw me before I saw you.” I went with it, just free writing on from there to see where it went. I got a little buzz of excitement when I realised that I was writing in the letter format. I’ve always wanted to write a book in the letter format. This book in particular needed a narrative style that was intimate and emotional, and the letter format suited perfectly. I also have had years of experience in writing letters, courtesy of growing up with a split life between the UK and Australia, so writing in a letter style came pretty naturally. Through writing in the style of a letter, I could get right up close to Gemma’s thoughts and feelings. And by doing so, I felt I could bring the reader straight into my protagonist’s emotional world.
I wanted readers to go on the same emotional journey as Gemma does.
- The lines of love and obsession are extremely thin in Stolen. We especially see this in Gemma's physical attraction to Ty. Did you intend for your readers to feel just as confused about Ty as Gemma was?
- I certainly did! I was confused as the writer when I wrote it, at times falling a little in love with Ty myself. I wanted the reader to be confused too. I also wanted to connect the reader as emotionally as I could to the book, and that meant trying to make them confused... just like Gemma was. Ty is not a clear cut character, just as the desert is not a clear cut setting... it was important for the reader to think about that.
- What made you choose the Australian outback as your location for Stolen?
- I’ve always wanted to write a book set in the Australian Outback. I’ve been obsessed with this landscape for as long as I can remember! I’ve travelled there quite a few times, first on camping trips when I was a young person, then on a camel expedition when I finished school, and later, as an adult when I was researching this book.
I’ve always been simultaneously terrified by this land, but also hopelessly in love with it. These are two powerful emotions to play with in writing - fear and love. I tried to echo these emotions when I wrote about Gemma’s feelings about Ty too. For me the outback is a ‘charged landscape’, and these things are always good to write about.
- Why did you choose to tell the story in the form of a letter?
- I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to write the book in the style of a letter from Gemma to Ty. In fact the first line of the book “You saw me before I saw you” was the very first line I ever wrote of this book. And it stayed there, like that, the very first line in the first chapter. I knew I needed a style that was intimate and emotional and intense, and a style that would grab the reader from the first page...the letter form seemed to fit this perfectly.
Besides all this, the narrative style was really easy for me to write. This is probably because I used to write reams of letters myself, as a teenager, and kept a regular diary - I’d had lots of practice in the form of letter writing from a teenage voice!
- Will there be a sequel to Stolen?
- I certainly would like to revisit Gemma and Ty's world one day, and yes, I do have a plot for a book related to Stolen all worked out in my head, ready to go. However, at present I am working on another novel for young people that is not related to Stolen to Flyaway. My advice though....stay tuned. It won't be today or tomorrow, but maybe soon, soon, soon.....
Questions about FLYAWAY
- How did the book develop?
- This book took a long time to develop and underwent an extraordinary amount of changes along the way.
There were times when I thought this book would never be published. And indeed, the version that is published is incredibly different to the original draft I wrote. This book started out as being called ‘The Long Flight’ and became the manuscript I wrote during my MA. It was originally about a grumpy 11-year-old boy called Adam and his relationship with his dad and with a friend he makes in hospital called Harry. It also contained a talking swan, or at least, a swan whose thoughts Adam could hear in his head.
After STOLEN was published, I embarked upon a huge rewrite of this book, changing my main character from Adam to 13-year-old Isla, changing Harry to a love interest rather than a friend, getting rid of the grandma character altogether and making the swan mute .... well, making the swan not able to talk to Isla, rather than a Mute Swan. The swan, of course, still stays importantly as a Whooper swan.
I completely rewrote the book in a matter of months, trying desperately to cram in any new research I needed to do as I went. So this book’s gone from being an incredibly long flight of development to a short burst of fluttering (where I changed everything around) at the end.
- How did you research this book?
- I used to work as a Field Guide for the RSPB so I had lots of access to thinking about and talking about wild birds. My job used to be taking young people around nature reserves and showing them what’s there. It was a fabulous job, and it taught me lots about how important nature can be in young people’s lives.
I also read lots of myths and stories about wild swans. The more I looked into this, the more I found. Swans are really well engrained in our lives - in our myths and stories, even in our sayings.
To research the hospital stuff, I spent a bit of time wandering around hospitals and talking to a fantastic social worker called Dan who works in the teen cancer unit in Cardiff. One of my best friends is a GP, too, so she also got asked rather a lot of questions!
- What do you hope readers will take from Flyaway?
- I want them to take a sense of hope. A sense that yes, life can be really hard sometimes, but with the right attitude and faith and ‘flock’, then sometimes, just sometimes, it can turn out OK in the end. I also would like readers to think about what family and community means to them. I’d love them to think about their own flocks - What are they? Do they include animals as well?
I’d like them to think about the value that their flock and community bring to their lives.
- Where did the idea for Flyaway come from?
- This book has been a long time in the making. Its original impetus happened way back in early 2004 when I was doing the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. I remember being stuck with my writing, and I was sick in bed with the flu (which didn’t help!). So I wasn’t getting very far, and probably because of this, I started procrastinating. I started listening to what was being talked about on the radio that was on in the background. There was a program talking about migrating whooper swans; talking about a new study being done to see what happens to these birds when they migrate. It seemed no one knew much about this - they didn’t know what route these birds took when they flew, or how long it took each bird or even where (or if) they stopped along the way. It was a mystery. I think one of the radio presenters actually called it ‘a long flight of faith.’ This started to interest me. And, for some reason, perhaps because I was sick, I started to think about the comparisons that a bird’s migration might have with a long-term illness. Much like a migration, if you have a long-term illness no one knows for sure if you’re going to get to the other side of it or how you’re going to get there, or how long it’s going to take. It’s also a long flight of sorts... often too associated with feathers and wings and whiteness and cold - things like white hospital sheets, pale corridors, cold medicine .. that kind of thing.
So it was originally the images of birds and migration merging in my head with thoughts about long-term illness that prompted me into first thinking about this book. There seemed to be so many interesting comparisons that I wanted to explore.