This interview was conducted via email so is text only.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by Dark Matter. What inspired you to take up writing as a career?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like writing stories. I wrote one of my first, Ebany The Mouse Goddess, when I was five , on my mother’s typewriter. I remember enjoying making up a world and escaping into it. All through school, I wrote stories, and I kept writing when I grew up. But I never thought I could “be an author” – that is, earn my living by writing, until much later, when I was in my thirties.
I can’t say that anything in particular “inspired” me to write. Writing’s a compulsion. It can be quite hard to say precisely why one does it. Maybe I do it for the same reason that I did when I was five: because I like creating imaginary worlds, which can sometimes feel more real than the real one.
Are there any particular authors who inspired you, both to take up writing and more recently?
All writers read a lot, and I‘m no exception. When I was a child, I was particularly inspired by Roger Lancelyn Green’s marvellous re-tellings of myths and legends – Greek, Egyptian, Norse, to name but a few. When I was older, I loved (and still do) many of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century writers: Henry James , Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But the list could go on and on.
Was there any family member or friend who particularly encouraged you to go down this path?
Looking back at my childhood, I can see that it helped enormously that our house was full of books, and that my mother read a lot. She would come with me to the public library and help me choose an armful of books, and often she would read what I was reading, so we could talk about it. Also, when I was ten years old, I had a marvellous teacher, Miss Dmitrov, who read us lots of different kinds of stories. I particularly remember an abridged version of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White which had us all on the edge of our seats.
Was it difficult to get your first book published? How did you go about it?
It takes most people years to learn how to write publishable stories, and I’m no exception. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was at University in the early 1980s, studying biochemistry. In my arrogance, I thought it would be easy! After all, I’d read lots of books, so how hard could it be? So I dashed off a “Mills Boon”- style romance in three weeks and sent it off. It was sent straight back with a printed rejection slip. After that, I took writing more seriously. But it was still many years and many rejection letters before my first book, an adult historical novel called Without Charity, was published in 2000.
You’ve written a number of children’s books, would you like to tell us about them?
My children’s series, The Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness, is set in the Stone Age, and it concerns the adventures of a boy, Torak, his friend Renn, and Wolf – who is a wolf. Like all my books, the idea came in bits and pieces, over quite a few years. When I was a child, I loved the idea of living like the Stone Age people: making my own shelter, sewing my clothes out of hides. And I was very keen on wolves. When I grew up, I read more about the Stone Age, and I tried to write a story about a boy and a wolf. But as it wasn’t very good, I shelved it.
It was meeting a mother bear and her two cubs in a remote part of King’s Canyon National Park in California that made me feel for the first time as if I really was back in the Stone Age. As she had cubs, the mother bear got extremely defensive, and came very close to me to warn me off. It was terrifying. Eventually, I managed to calm her down, and walked away. And afterwards I was exhilarated, because in a strange way, I’d felt as if I’d been back in time.
A few years later, when I was re-reading that old story I’d tried to write years before, I remembered how I’d felt when facing the bear. And suddenly everything I’d liked about the Stone Age came flooding back, and I knew that I would set my book in the distant past. My aim was simply to write a stonkingly exciting adventure series that would make each reader feel they were right there in the Forest, living the story alongside Torak, Renn and Wolf.
Dark Matter, your ghost story for adults, is a change from writing for children. What inspired you to change direction like this?
You know, when I decide to write a story, I don’t really think, ‘will this be for children or adults?’, I just concentrate on the characters and the setting. With Dark Matter, my aim was simply to write a ghost story which would scare the hell out of people. As I got into it, I realized that to do this, I‘d probably have to go a bit further than I could in a children’s book.
Incidentally, I’m not even sure that there is such a discontinuity with Chronicles. In Chronicles, I explored Stone Age beliefs about life after death, and drew on the beliefs of lots of different cultures about ghosts and spirits. In particular Scandinavian folklore, as that’s where the story takes place. So to me there is something of a link.
Where did you get your inspiration for Dark Matter?
I’ve always loved ghost stories, and I’ve wanted to write one for years. With Dark Matter, the title came about a decade before the story. I was reading a book on the origins of the universe, which mentioned dark matter: the invisible “stuff” which makes up most of what exists in the universe, but whose presence we can only infer. I knew this would be the title of my ghost story, but at the time, I had no idea what it would be about.
The setting came years later, when I was travelling by ship around Spitsbergen (or Svalbard, to give it its official name). It was summer, so there was this endless, eerie light, and the whole place was teeming with wildlife: seabirds, Arctic foxes, reindeer, seals, walrus, polar bears. That was overwhelming in itself, but we also put in at several abandoned mines and trappers’ camps. They were so desolate. What would it have been like to live here? I knew that at some stage I’d write a story about this, but I didn’t know what, so I simply took loads of notes and put it to the back of my mind.
Later, as I was finishing the Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness, I started thinking seriously about writing a ghost story. At the time, I was missing the Arctic, and suddenly I realized that Dark Matter would be a polar ghost story. This was hugely exciting, because I immediately saw my protagonist alone in his haunted camp. How would he cope with four months of darkness?
How did you choose the time period for Dark Matter?
The 1930s have always seemed a very strange time, with the memory of the Great War hauntingly present, and the threat of another war looming. But in fact, I settled on this period for Dark Matter in a more roundabout way. I knew I didn’t want to set the story in the present, because with the Internet and mobile phones, Jack wouldn’t have been as isolated as I needed him to be. But I didn’t want it to be too far in the past, as the historical setting might have been a distraction.
Then I hit a problem with the title. As far as I knew, the notion of dark matter had been suggested in the 1970s: much too late for my story. It looked as if I’d either have to update the story, or ditch my beloved title. Then I had the bright idea of actually checking when the notion of dark matter was first published. The answer is 1933, although the idea was largely ignored until the 1970s. So I got to set the story in the 30s, AND keep my title. Which, to put it mildly, was a relief.
Why set the story in the Arctic?
When I’m at the early stages of developing a story, I’ve learned to ask myself simply, “What do I WANT to write about?” This keeps me from over-analyzing and going off at tangents. So the short answer is that I set Dark Matter in the Arctic because I wanted to!
It was only as I was writing that I realized how perfectly it works for a ghost story. The Arctic is such a place of extremes: summer is a time of teeming life and perpetual sunlight, and winter brings dead stillness and perpetual dark. And there’s always that awareness of danger; the sense that the least little mishap could have lethal consequences.
In the Author’s Notes , you detailed your research, including a particular expedition . What drew you to this as a basis for the story?
There were several Spitsbergen expeditions in the 30s, but the one I’ve focussed on was The Oxford University Arctic Expedition 1935 – 6: a year – long expedition to the far north of the archipelago, involving ten men and twenty-eight huskies.
Obviously, I’ve changed lots. Jack’s expedition is smaller, in an imaginary location, and as far as I know, on the real expedition, nobody saw any ghosts. But much of the day-to-day detail in the story is based on the real expedition: their supplies (including that set of bone china) ; their wirelessing and meteorology; how they dealt with the huskies …
As well as the expedition , I also drew on two other sources: A Woman In The Polar Night, an account by a feisty trapper’s wife, Christiane Ritter, and The Diary Of Thorleif Bjertnes, a young Norwegian trapper. Both overwintered in northern Spitsbergen at about the same time as Jack. And what I find remarkable about the accounts of the Oxford Expedition, Ritter and Bjertnes is that they all mention the emotional effect of overwintering in Spitsbergen: the dead stillness of the dark months, and a feeling of menace and creeping unease. Something that occurs in both Dark Matter and Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness is the characters’ relationship with dogs or wolves.
How and why did you develop this for Dark Matter?
Isaak grew as a character as the story developed: partly because, once Jack is alone at Gruhuken, I needed him to have someone to talk to – and maybe partly because I’d just finished writing Chronicles, and was missing Wolf!
I’d been dog- sledding lots of times, and I did some more in Spitsbergen, but I also spent some time helping with the dogs: harnessing them, feeding them, and generally observing them. Isaak’s character came from two dogs I particularly liked, a young one called Borealis, who was very vocal, and a calmer, more experienced dog called Mirak. It was a bit of a wrench leaving them. And in case anyone wants to know, I would LOVE a husky of my own. But I’m not sure that it would love living in Wimbledon.
Your website says you’re not on the internet. How do you cope without it? Do you think this affects your choice to set Dark Matter in a pre-internet era?
I think the internet can be a wonderful tool for many people. For instance, one of my sisters is a doctor living in the Falkland Islands. She uses it a lot, both in her medical practice and socially. But for me, it would just get in the way of writing – particularly the email part of it.
Although you seem to avoid the internet, Dark matter includes details of the science of the time, including mentioning the development of the theory of dark matter.
Do you particularly follow scientific developments?
I do, but only in a popular science sort of way. I love reading Richard Dawkins on evolution, and books about the origins of the universe.
How do you research without the internet?
Well, I do my research in the way that people did before the internet I go to the British Library, and I go on research trips. The British Library means I can immerse myself for days in a subject, and the research trips give me more subjective experiences.
For Dark Matter, my own experiences in Spitsbergen really helped bring the story alive. Much of what Jack experiences on first seeing it comes from my visit during the Arctic summer: the black-faced polar bear and the abandoned guillemot chick; those brief, desperate moments when Jack thinks he’s lost… Again, I’ve used much of my own stay there in the polar night, when I went snowshoeing in the dark, and climbed a glacier in driving snow and zero visibility, and went dog-sledding. It was the time of the full moon, and I realized how paranoid Jack would be about the least shred of cloud drifting across the moon. And I got a strong sense of the unease you’d feel on entering a small, freezing cabin in the dark…
So in short, I go on research trips because it brings the story alive. And, of course, because it’s fun.
You comment in Dark Matter about what men are capable of when they know they won’t be found out. Is Dark Matter intended to be a moral story in any way?
No, absolutely not. I never write with any kind of “message”. In my view, that’s the quickest way to kill a story stone dead. Themes, though, are something else. And clearly, Jack’s story is about more than one kind of dark matter.
What direction is your writing taking you at the moment? What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m working on a new series for children, called Gods And Warriors, and I’m hugely excited about it. Like Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness, it’s set in prehistory – but at a slightly later time, and in a different part of the world. However I’m a bit superstitious about discussing a story when I’m writing it, so I think that’s all I’d better say about it for now. I’d also love to write another ghost story. I’ve got one or two ideas simmering in the back of my mind, but I don’t know when anything will see the light of day.
Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.