What can our readers expect from your new novel Ante's Inferno?It’s an exciting adventure story for children (but teenagers and over enjoy it too) in which Ante finds herself on a journey through the classical Underworld, accompanied by her enemy, Florence, and by Gil, a boy who died in mysterious circumstances 100 years before the story begins. The question is – which, if any of them, will return?
The book is a blend of mythology and fantasy – how much did you have to research into these themes?I reread my favourite mythological classics, starting with Dante’s Inferno, then Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and parts of the Odyssey. These amazing accounts of the Underworld conjure up a fantastical world of their own – just look at the way the scenes are repeatedly depicted by great artists. Particularly inspiring (and shudder-inducing) are Gustave Doré’s illustrations of the Inferno.As far as research goes, I was more anxious about the historical side: the First World War battle of Passchendaele plays an important part and I read a lot about this to make it as accurate as I could.How did you manage to capture a child's voice so effectively?That you should ask that confirms that I did, which is very good to know! I think those pre-teen years of childhood never leave us. When I look back I can remember exactly how I felt as regards relationships with friends, enemies, teachers, what I loved doing, reading and so on. Incidents and worries that grown-ups might dismiss as trivial are anything but when it’s happening to you. Then having children of my own going through the same things, happy and agonising, brought it all back.
The book is aimed at children aged 9-12, do you have a preference for writing for children rather than adults?I wouldn’t rule out writing for adults but somehow I identify with the kind of thing I’d like to read if I were twelve again. I love the feeling that in the middle of a child’s ordinary everyday life something utterly strange and magical could happen and your characters would just have to deal with it. You can’t do this so easily with fantasy for adults (with the exception of wonderful books like The Time-Traveller’s Wife); usually the whole book – or series of books – is set in another world from the start. If I wrote for adults it probably wouldn’t be fantasy.
Who were your favourite reads when you were young?I loved fairy stories (and not just the well-known ones), Roger Lancelyn Green’s tales of Robin Hood and the siege of Troy, Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Narnia Chronicles, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, the Molesworth books, Finn Family Moomintroll, Just William, and a little-known classic called The Log of the Ark.\
Your inspiration came from CS Lewis and The Phantom Tollbooth, can you expand on this for us?CS Lewis was steeped in the English literary tradition which has strong roots in the great Greek and Roman authors. Hence the magical creatures populating Narnia are all drawn from classical mythology, just like the monsters Ante, Gil and Florence come across on their journey through the Underworld. The influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe must also be apparent in the very idea of a group of children stumbling into another world where they need all their courage and integrity to meet dangers and overcome them.Again, in The Phantom Tollbooth a boy finds himself drawn into a magical world but here he has to solve riddles and word problems to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom. The story is full of puns, jokes and wordplay, definitely inspiration for the Shopping Maul and Multivice Complex which constitute the first circle of Hell in Ante’s Inferno!
What ideas have you got for your next novel?I’m working on it now. It’s called The Tragickall History of Henry Fist and is inspired by the legend of Dr Faustus. Bullied by a scheming classmate, 13 year-old Henry finds a diary dating back hundreds of years which reveals how a boy in similar circumstances used magic arts to free himself. Henry is tempted to follow suit – with disastrous results.
To what extent can adults enjoy this novel?
I think if you manage to create a story that really works, with believable, interesting characters and a world the reader can lose themselves in, then you can enjoy it whatever age you are. Adults get the additional excitement of recognising some of the references to Dante and classical literature but the main thing is whether the story grabs them – which, judging by reactions so far from those who’ve read it, it does.
Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries said that she could see it as a movie, how did this make you feel as a writer?Over the moon! Because it meant I’d achieved what I set out to do, which was to make the reader feel they are right in there with Ante, feeling what she feels, seeing, hearing and experiencing with her this journey into darkness, across rivers of fire and lakes of ice, where snarling monsters in the upper circles give way to the horrors of modern warfare lower down ... I think it would make a fantastic movie. I’m sitting by the phone right now!
Given the distraction of video games and television, what does it take as a writer to capture a child's attention long enough to read a book?Funnily enough, I think the explosion of game technology is partly responsible for the current profusion of excellent writing for children. It has forced writers to go for high standards of economy and precision, making not only every scene count towards the plot but every word. To capture a child’s attention, writing has to be fresh, immediate, subtle; characters and scenes evoked with the lightest touch – to compete with other distractions, the writing has to be as good as the author can possibly make it. The fact that the fifty or so children who read Ante’s Inferno in draft all loved it implies I succeeded!Copies are avaliable from www.troubador.co.ukFemale First Lucy Walton