Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced Muh-cork-run) is not a household name, like that other British children’s mega-author you might have heard of. But Geraldine is actually more prolific and has won far more literary awards than that other celebrity writer. She’s penned more than 170 books published in over 60 countries, and won both the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Costa Book Award three times. Twice, she’s won Britain’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book prize, the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Medal. Geraldine’s work spans picture books to adult fiction and includes plays, bible stories, fairy tales, and retellings of myths and classic tales. Perhaps best-known for winning the bid to write Peter Pan in Scarlet, the acclaimed sequel to J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s book, Geraldine has been called the finest children’s author of her generation.
Her second Carnegie Medal came this past summer for her latest children’s novel, Where the World Ends (Usborne Publishing, 2017). In this gritty, lyrical tale set in the 1700s off the coast of Scotland, a boatload of impoverished boys and men are left on a remote sea stac, a massive column of rock in the middle of the ocean. Their job is to hunt birds and collect eggs for their island back home. It’s dangerous work, but it’s only for two weeks. Except…after three, the boat has not returned. Stranded on an unforgiving rock in the middle of the Atlantic, the men and boys realize they must try to work together to figure out how to survive…or not.
The Guardian said this of Where the World Ends: “Harshly beautiful, and stark with near-despair, this is an unsettling, deeply original historical novel.” I can’t agree more. If you haven’t read Geraldine McCaughrean, what are you waiting for? Enjoy these witty, candid, and knowing insights on writing and publishing she was more than willing to share with us.
Where the World Ends is based on a real event. How did you discover the remote St. Kilda Archipelago off the coast of Scotland and the true story the book is based on?
I read about St Kilda—and many other islands—in Judith Schalansky’s lovely book An Atlas of Remote Islands…and islands are very inviting to write about. My daughter (who gave me the book) was keen to write a play set in St Kilda. When she got a sudden chance to go there, she came back full of how strange and beautiful it was, and told me all the anecdotes about its past, thrusting books at me to read. One contained the mention of a bunch of men and boys marooned on a sea stac one summer. It really was no more than two sentences—no names, no details. Clearly the lives of islanders were so fleeting and unobserved that such events were not considered extraordinary. I pounced on it, the perfect trellis to grow a story up. With so little known, I couldn’t be told “You’ve got it all wrong: it wasn’t like that at all.” Above all I found myself thinking, “Whatever did those boys think had happened? How did they feel? How did they cope?” So, I wrote the book, to find out.
Lord of the Flies must have floated through your mind as you wrote this new book. As you were writing, did you consider how readers might compare the two and how you wanted yours to be different?
My first thought was to write a sort of ‘reverse’ Lord of the Flies in which these boys (because they were gentle, God-fearing boys), attempt to create a perfect society on their shard of rock in the face of the adults losing their nerve and behaving badly. But it just didn’t work. With everybody pulling together, there was no tension—no villain but the sea and the weather. They needed separate natures and characteristics, and for inner tensions to develop. So, I just created the boys and let them loose to see what happened.
In your Carnegie Medal acceptance speech this summer, you said, “We master words by meeting them, not by avoiding them….Having a large vocabulary is a weapon against the world, without it children will lose not only an understanding of literature but also their ability think, reason and delight in words.” The British press said you were protesting the “dumbing down” of children’s literature, particularly at the primary school level. How did you feel about the coverage of your speech? What did you hope it would accomplish?
The newspaper/internet coverage was an awful experience. On the day of the ceremony, I spent an hour in a noisy green-room trying to give interviews to a succession of newspapers who wanted me to “expand” on my speech—i.e. say something controversial they could get a few column inches out of. I’ve never‘slammed’ anything in my life (except perhaps a door). I never used the words‘dumbing down’either. And yet there I was, slamming the book industry for dumbing down…Worst of all was the headline AUTHOR SLAMS JUDGES—Who? Those lovely people who had just given me a wad of cash and a gold medal and renewed my career prospects? Anyone reading that must have thought, “Ungrateful cow!” I know I would have, if I’d read it. The actual gist of my speech was: thank goodness for CILIP whose shortlist proves the literary novel is still alive and well, and we authors are allowed to use complex vocabulary and architectural sentences. But of course, that never made it into the press coverage. I realise that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s kitty litter. I’m banking on it. Nice elderly authors wrote to the press endorsing my whingeing…and saying how much better-written books were in the old days, but that hardly made me feel better.
I love words, and if there’s one thing getting older has taught me, it’s that if I like something, a lot of other people do too. Children love meeting odd, new words. I’ve always enjoyed words. I was brought up in a house full of them. When I’m writing, it’s like I’m in a bubble bath full of tingly words and I revel in them. So, I’m afraid I don’t tend to “make things easier” for my reader with regard to vocabulary. I figure that if I enjoyed meeting a word, the reader will too, especially if it’s unusual, mellifluous and euphonious.
There IS a move in publishing/education these days to make books simpler and simpler, so that children won’t find them too difficult. But I think that’s like feeding them cabbage water, in case they might find strawberry sundae too rich. I think it’s very, very important to gift children a large vocabulary as early as possible, when their brains are receptive, so that they have the wherewithal to think, express themselves, form opinions and not fall prey to snake-oil salesmen and fake news. But I was certainly not using my profession or ranting against the dying of the light, while wearing my new frock and clutching a lovely gold medal.
You were chosen to write the sequel to Peter Pan in 2006. Can you tell us how that came about, and what it felt like to follow in J.M. Barrie’s footsteps?
Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children announced a worldwide competition to find the lucky author. Entrants had to be published authors, put forward by a literary agent or a publisher, and had to submit both a synopsis and a trial chapter. I only went into it for fun, never dreaming I would actually get the job. I wrote half of chapter one and part of a chapter in the middle of the book (to show how it would be when the action got moving). I wrote a synopsis too, although authors do not very often abide by a synopsis; it is a shame to know how everything is going to end before you begin!
So many reporters have asked me if I was “daunted by the prospect of treading in Barrie’s footsteps” that at last, I surrendered to fear and trembling. But then I thought, well, what’s the point in being daunted? A book is only fun to read when it is fun to write. So, I decided just to have fun, to shut out all thought of Barrie reading over my shoulder, to forget that some people were saying I should not be writing it, to forget how many people I had to please. After that it was easy, because Neverland is such a great place to spend time.
You have won more awards and been short-listed more times than I could count. What do you think your award-winning books have in common? Was there one prize that was sweeter or more memorable to win than the rest?
Happily, the books that won things were all so different from each other that I can’t think of anything they have in common—unless it’s the ‘style’ thing—making the words and sentences enjoyable as well as the plot. I never can understand just why they have won. I do try to write stories unlike anything anyone else has read… but that isn’t what worked the trick for Harry Potter, is it? Wizard schools have been done a dozen times before.
Bizarrely, my retelling of A Pilgrim’s Progress won a ‘Best Book to Keep Forever’ category from a panel of young judges. The audience watching looked as astounded as I was. I hadn’t prepared anything to say, as I thought it was never going to win. Then—blow me down!—it won the overall prize, too, and I had to make a second speech as I accepted my fragile glass trophy. But generally, I win prizes where the judges are adults, not children. I get the impression that adults love my books but children can take or leave them—except the very readerly ones who are looking for something out of the mainstream. Largely (and reasonably, I think) children like to know what they’re getting before they start.
Economically, my career suffers a lot from my trying NOT to write the same book twice. (My Mum gave me the worst peace of advice ever when she said, “Never boil your cabbages twice, dear.”) Luckily, for most of my career, I’ve had publishers that aren’t secretly after the next big trilogy set in Fairyland with possible spin-off toys, costumes and film rights. (Not that I am averse to earning loads of money: my daughter’s an actress and I’d like her not to starve if I can help it.)
This summer’s Carnegie was quite life-changing. My books—even Peter Pan in Scarlet!—were all passing out of print. I was getting convinced that, when I died, I’d have nothing left in print to prove I ever lived. So, I was quite down. Then the Carnegie. And suddenly my career need not have risen, waned and gradually petered out. I’m still in the game! My concentration came back, my optimism increased. Okay, so still nobody’s ever heard of me in the Big World, but in the little pond that is Children’s Literature, my scales are glistening gold again.
Before this Carnegie came along, though, my sweetest memories were probably of the US Printz Award. It was so utterly astonishing. The White Darkness is my favourite baby. I had no idea, when I wrote it, whether anyone would consider it a novel, let alone publish it. My own editor said, “I don’t know what people will make of this—it’s a bit odd—but I like it, so I’ll publish it.” It is the only time I’ve written anything based on my own experience of life. It was a wildly intense experience, writing it. I rediscovered how it had felt to be a teenager—the full embarrassing ghastliness, the bright colours, the emotions that hit you like a motorbike coming out of nowhere. I remembered what it was like to be in love with Love, the mere idea of it. (The research I did for it is the only research that has ever stayed in my head after publication.) And then this phone call from America, while I’m standing at the sink washing up. A call made on a speaker phone in a room full of excitable American ladies in New York. “Congratulations! You’ve won the Printz Award!”
Why? I wanted to ask. It’s about an oh-so-English girl freezing to death in the Antarctic, in love with a dead explorer most Americans have probably never even heard of. What did I know, at 55, about today’s teenagers—in America!—how they feel about Love ? (Chances are, I was just a really gauche, backward child at 14, with an over-active imagination. Certainly, everybody else seemed to know an awful lot more than I did.) But here was this major prize! And reviews—ah those cherished reviews!—from teenagers in places like Omaha saying, “I thought I was the only person who felt this way….” Maybe I’d produced not only my favourite baby, but a comforting, empowering book!
You’ve been writing for more than 30 years. Do you ever run out of ideas or get stuck? Please tell me you suffer writer’s block occasionally, like the rest of us!
I’m definitely slowing up. I used always to have the next book in mind when I was halfway through the current one, but right now I don’t know what my next book will be about. I have finished another, since Where the World Ends, and I’ve enjoyed writing it so enormously (more than Where the World Ends, oddly) that I know I can’t ever give up this writing business. Whether it will get published is quite another matter. I set it originally in the US, centering on the catastrophic floods of 1927, but my publisher read the first 20,000 words and got all shifty and silent so I knew something was wrong. It turns out that my sin was that of “appropriation”—i.e. I was writing about racial injustice without being black myself. I tend to think that so long as someone writes about injustice and does it well, it doesn’t really matter what they are—the story is all—the author remains invisible and therefore without colour. But I know when I’m licked, so I translated the whole story to an invented country, and no character is anything but indigenous to that non-existent place. Except for the dogs, I suppose. There are dogs. It doesn’t have a title. I called it Bad News, but try putting that in the subject heading of an email.
Writer’s block? Every time! Halfway through every novel, I hit a point when I lose all confidence in it. Is anyone going to want to read this? Is it any good? Am I kidding myself that it’s working? So, I give it to someone to read (usually my daughter) and if they say, “Yes, and? What happens next?”—then I know I’m alright to go ahead. The block lifts.
What do you think the future holds for children’s literature?
I rather hope it will cheer up a bit shortly. It’s definitely got more grim and gritty lately—and worthy, too, with titanic efforts to right the wrongs in the world and make young readers grow up into responsible citizens who will save the oceans, love one another, end war, mend the ozone layer, and be endlessly tolerant of tragedy. I’m not really being flippant. I do think that the major virtue of fiction is as an escape from an unacceptably horrible world to somewhere problems are solvable and right wins through every time and the sun is warm and horses are waiting with stirrups of gold and tails like waterfalls and a roadmap to Adventure clamped between their teeth. What with junior grade books being made anodyne and YA books turning ‘hard-hitting’, ‘gritty’ and ‘heartbreaking’, I wonder how juniors are ever going to manage the leap between the two kinds. With Where the World Ends, I was as guilty as the rest of pedalling unremitting gloom, so I’ve resolved to get back to humour and joyful escapism over the next couple of years and hope that a trend emerges towards thrill, euphoria and happy endings!
Right now, commercial publishers—I mean the purveyors of stuff that sells—have sold their soul to the devil and are churning out series books of no merit…fairies, dragon and magic-paying packagers to supply the books and paying such a pittance for it that they bankrupt the packagers. They are making larger profits and paying lower royalties to their authors—when they are not paying six-figure advances to debut authors, gambling that one will be the next Big Thing. Authors are in despair. Libraries and bookshops are closing down everywhere. Schools are saving money by getting rid of their school librarians, and the ability to buy any book second hand on Amazon for a penny is ruining the book trade and author royalties.
So maybe the true future of Story will ultimately consist of people reading old books to destruction, then sitting round a camp fire telling each other stories as they did in the days of Gilgamesh. Great story, Gilgamesh (though a bit on the grim and gritty side.)
About Geraldine McCaughrean: Geraldine was born in 1951 and grew up in North London. She studied at Oxford University’s Christ Church College of Education, Canterbury, and worked in a London publishing house for 10 years before becoming a full-time writer in 1988. Today, she lives in Reading, England, with her husband.