A few quick questions from Just Imagine…
JUST IMAGINE: Your website shows us all the wonderful places you’ve visited as part of your book research. Have you always loved to travel and what comes first, the place or the book idea?
ABI ELPHINSTONE: I’ve always loved exploring wild places. Growing up in Scotland, that meant scrambling over the moors and jumping into icy rivers. But as I got older and my world grew larger, my explorations stretched further afield: hiking in the Dolomites; living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia; watching orca dive for herring in the Arctic.
I have a setting in mind before I write a book but it’s only usually while I’m on an adventure in that setting that an idea for a story comes to me. Certainly that was the case for Sky Song. The Arctic is a place shrouded in silence and, for the most part, locked in darkness but if I really listened when I was out there, I could hear the place whispering: the crack and pop of ice, the underwater clicks of the whales, the whir of ptarmigan wings over mountain peaks, the faintest hum of the northern lights as they rippled green and blue across the sky at night. And eventually, the idea of a kingdom ruled by an Ice Queen’s enchanted anthem wandered into my head and I knew then that I had the very beginnings of my fourth book.
JI: Can you talk us briefly through your working process? What is your favourite part?
ABI: I start every story I write by going on an adventure. Then, after I have explored the setting I want to write about, I draw a map of my fictional world because it is only when my characters start moving from place to place that a plot unfolds. Perhaps maps are such an integral part of my creative process because I’m dyslexic and I need visual prompts to anchor my ideas into a coherent tale or maybe it’s simply because my stories are quests and I feel I’m more likely to capture the essence of adventure – that thrill of journeying through unexplored lands – if I’ve glimpsed the forests, seas and mountains before my chapters take shape. Whatever the reason, I always draw my way into stories.
I go on book research adventures because, as John Muir said, ‘The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.’ I write because there is something exciting, daring and endlessly rewarding about inventing something that wasn’t there before you started thinking about it. And because stories are brave and hopeful and they help us navigate this baffling world. I have as much fun gallivanting up mountains as I do in my writing hut scribbling about thunderghosts; it’s just that the former requires fewer deadlines…
JI: You worked very hard for a long time before finally getting your first book deal. What advice would you give to would-be ‘first time authors’
ABI: I had 96 rejections from literary agents on the three books I wrote before my debut, The Dreamsnatcher, was published so I’d urge aspiring writers to keep trying and to keep honing their craft, even in the face of repeated rejection. And on a practical note, I’d say: carry a notebook with you everywhere and always say yes to adventures.
JI: In your travels to schools around the UK, do you notice a change in teaching practices since you were a teacher yourself?
ABI: I am constantly impressed and enthused by the innovation and creativity of teachers currently championing reading for pleasure. Where several years ago there might have been a dusty shelf in a classroom containing a few copies of Pullman’s Northern Lights now there are whole bookcases stuffed with children’s books, from the classics of writers like Pullman, CS Lewis and Eva Ibbotson to contemporary triumphs by authors such as Katherine Rundell, Piers Torday and Maz Evans. Walls are often plastered with exciting displays – Author of the Month, World Cup of Books, Author Visit posters – and I find this passion for reading and writing both heartening and hugely exciting.
JI: Did you enjoy working with the teachers on your ‘Schemes of Work’ for Sky Song & The Dreamsnatcher?
ABI: I compiled the schemes of work myself but it’s been very exciting seeing schools across the UK use, and adapt, the resources in their lessons. I also find it slightly ironic seeing my ideas being implemented in classrooms because when I was a child I was branded ‘unteachable’ and ‘prone to spasmodic outbursts of tiredsomeness’ by my headteacher – I don’t think anyone expected me to have an interest in the education system years later!
JI: Are there any plans to do more resources for schools like this? (Sorry, 3 questions in one there!)
ABI: Now I have a five-month-old baby, I (lamentably) have less time on my hands so I think it’s unlikely I’ll produce entire schemes of work for upcoming books but I would absolutely still like to create a batch of exciting, relevant and creative resources on every book (or series) I write.
JI: And finally, any sneaky peeks into future projects/trips/ideas?
ABI: I’m currently starting work on a brand new series and the first book involves a miniature dragon who is scared of heights, a Storm Ogre who can only say one word (‘chomp’) and three Drizzle Hags called Hortensia Quibble, Sylvara Buckweed, Gertie Swamp. Oh, and I really, really, really want to go to Alaska at some point…
Thank you, Abi for taking the time to answer our questions.
Author website: www.abielphinstone.com