Abi Elphinstone

Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. After being coaxed out of her tree house she studied English at Bristol University and then worked as a teacher in Africa, Berkshire and London. The Dreamsnatcher is her debut novel. In this interview Abi talks to Madelyn Travis about writing and inspirations behind her book.

Is Elphinstone a pseudonym? It sounds perfect for a children’s writer.

Actually, my family name is Elphinstone. It’s a really old Scottish name. If you go up to Aberdeenshire, the university was founded by a Lord Elphinstone – there are lots of Elphinstones round and about that area. When I got my book deal, my publishers asked what name I would like to publish under and I suggested that my maiden name is quite cool and maybe ‘children’s booky’. And they said ‘Elphinstone – you’ve got to use it!’

Did you always want to be a writer?

I loved reading and writing. I thought I might present TV programmes about children’s activities and adventures or that I might be a teacher, but I didn’t entertain the idea of being a writer. It seemed like all the writers from my childhood were stars in my head. I didn’t know that everyday people could write books. I started writing properly when I was 23. At that time I was in a PR and marketing job, which I hated. I was really bad at sales. So I quit and bought a one-way ticket to Africa. I wrote my first book, Up a Baobab Tree, and I taught there. After four months of writing and teaching I came back to England and decided that I was going to try to be a teacher and write at the same time.

I got 96 rejections, but the first person to give feedback was a big agent and they said, “There are glimpses of brilliance and can I see the whole manuscript on exclusive?”  Once they saw it they said I wasn’t ready to publish but that one day I might write something good. I wrote three more books that weren’t good and it was my fourth one that finally got there.

What was different the fourth time around?

I think at first I was focusing on getting a book deal rather than on writing a story that I wanted to tell. A lot of the rejections were generic, but some said, “There’s something about this voice”, or “You made me laugh out loud”, and I kept those comments in my head and kept going. But it was pretty bleak at times. It was only when I wrote a book that mattered to me, which was drawing on my childhood memories of camping up in the glen and swimming down the river on lilos or canoeing in the lochs, that I realised that this is as good as I can write right now.

I have a big family and we always used to build dens in the forest so I started thinking about that. I feel I really want to write about wild landscapes where children don’t live in houses, so I have Romany Gypsies this time, and a child-animal bond. The next series is about Inuits and a grizzly bear cub. I really enjoy children that live wild and have an amazing connection with animals, but not a pet. More like the Torak Wolf connection in Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother. I wasn’t one of those children who had an obsession with pets but when my dad took me hiking into the hills to look for an eagle’s eyrie, my mind would explode. It was amazing. I loved watching wild animals creeping up, or seeing a stag. Once we saw a wild cat with green eyes. There are only 35 of them in the UK!

So that was Gryff?

Yeah, it’s Gryff.

Wild animals fascinate me. I went on a safari in Africa for my honeymoon. I remember watching and watching. Every person with me had a camera and was taking pictures and I was the only one watching with my own eyes.

If your initial idea was to write about Romany Gypsies, you could have gone in another direction and written a realist novel.

The first review that came out said something along the lines of, “It’s a breathtaking fantasy”, and I remember thinking, “Is it a fantasy?” Because in my head it feels quite real. I know there are elements of fantasy, such as the witch doctor, but I like magic that has elements of possibility. It’s not a high fantasy. In my head it was a real story with sprinklings of magic, rather than a fantasy.

I went to hear Philip Pullman’s talk in Oxford on His Dark Materials. I spoke to him afterwards and I said, “I’m struggling with how to get my characters into the fantasy world. You cut it with a knife and you got your characters through.”  And he said, “You don’t need to be so original. You don’t need something huge to get them into the world. CS Lewis opened a door. It could just be a key. Don’t labour that point, just write it in a magical way.”

That started me thinking that I didn’t need to have another world. I could include all the things I wanted in my own world. I think that really helped. He wrote me a note that said, “Dear Abi, good luck in your search for the way through.” I’ve framed it and it’s in my writing hut in the garden.

Is the landscape based on Scotland?

Because I was researching the Romany Gypsies in England, I wanted to go somewhere in England with a lot of historical information on Gypsies, so I did lots of research in the New Forest.

Before I write I draw my setting onto an Ordnance Survey map. So I drew the map with Oak’s camp, and the river boundary that Moll crosses. In the New Forest there’s also a wildlife sanctuary with an enclosure for wild cats so I spent a freezing January morning watching wild cats eat and prowl and leap around.

But then there are also elements of the forest that I grew up in in Scotland. For the third book I’m going to take my characters home. We’re going to go to the Hebrides; Skye and Mull, up through Aberdeenshire and home.

The use of flowers and herbal remedies seems real, apart from possibly the mashed potato. Did you discover them through research or did you make them up?

The mashed potato is real. I read about it. I did a lot of research and some of it is from credible sources and books that I read on Romany Gypsies and some is from websites about the Romany traditions. However, because so many Romany traditions are linked to magic, you don’t know which ones they would believe in. Sucking on a hedgehog’s paw was meant to relieve toothache and passing a child through a broken ash tree would prevent rickets. The culture is so often linked to superstition that while some Romany Gypsies would think it was rubbish, others would believe in it, though as an outsider, I don’t know to what extent.

I did a lot of interviews with one of the last surviving Romany Gypsies, Pete Ingram. He lives down in Selbourne, Hampshire way. He taught me about his culture, things like how they would have carved the chrysanthemums and painted the flowers and how he would have made a knife and whittled down a catapult. He accepts that magic is part of their culture but he doesn’t believe it.

How did you find him?

I read a book called Gypsy Witchcraft and Magic by Raymond Buckland, an American. I emailed him to say how much I loved his book and that I had an idea for my own book.

I asked if he knew of any Romany Gypsies in England and he told me about his ‘old pal’ Pete, who painted Roald Dahl’s wagon for the film premiere of Danny, the Champion of the World. He explained that he doesn’t have a phone or email so I would have to write to where he lives in the forest and hope it got to the right place.

I wrote and he wrote back. I went down to see him and spent a day with him. He lives a very solitary life. He showed me all the old pots and stoves, the clothes pegs carved out of hawthorn and wicker baskets. He self-published a book called Wagtail Tale and I made reference to it in my acknowledgements. It’s a lovely book and you can really hear the way the old Romanies used to speak.

What you’re saying reminds me of Michelle Paver’s stories of how she brings her imaginary worlds to life. Do you feel that with doing this type of research you are crossing over into being a historian or an anthropologist?

Yes. When I went down to see Pete I felt like I was trespassing into something in which I really didn’t belong. I know that sometimes there is negative press about Romany Gypsies and I didn’t want him to think that I was twisting his culture. So I said very openly that I was writing a children’s book with elements of magic and that I wasn’t attempting a completely accurate portrayal. I did feel like a historian, but I think it gives it depth.

One of my absolute heroes is Michelle Paver. She goes out and meets the people, stays with Inuits. I’m staying in an igloo with Inuits for my next series. I want to really go and live it like they have. With interviewing Pete, my ideas that were Google images suddenly became so much more enriched. A lot of people, when they read the book, said they loved the sense of Romany culture. It’s such an inviting culture to go into. It’s appealing to children, it’s so colourful with the wagons and so interesting with the good luck charms that would ward off evil spirits: shards of mirror or lemon peel or nails. Children know those items and look at them differently now. A lot of children have read the book and said “I didn’t know that.” So it is like being a historian. I like that.

I take a long time over the research stage: going and meeting Romany Gypsies and watching wildcats for four hours in the freezing cold. Their bodies are like rippling silk. They leap from the tallest branches and then land in a crouch and they rip apart the meat with their claws and their teeth. I realised that Moll’s animal companion had to be really wild. He started as an owl called Cobweb and he was cute and he could do a backward bum shuffle moonwalk, but then I started thinking, “that’s Harry Potter all over again”. I wanted an animal that could fight on behalf of my main character, a bit like Lyra and Lorek or Torak and Wolf, a bond that isn’t perfect straightaway but grows. Moll never touches Gryff at the beginning then suddenly he touches her and their bond grows. The research helped me to understand wild cats because they are so rare and you can’t just go and see one. I show children a real wild cat’s tail when I do talks – it was found by a gamekeeper up in Scotland. I saw when I went to Michelle Paver’s talks that she brought in objects from her travels. So I bring in a catapult that I made out of hazelwood up in Scotland and I fire it and the pegs that Pete Ingram has carved. The kids touch these things that they can’t buy on Amazon or eBay. It’s a whole different world. People that made things rather than bought them or got them mass produced.

After the research, the writing comes quickly once I have planned it all out.

Do you have a writing routine?

I plot it in a big notebook by hand and then use a smaller notebook for individual sentences that I love. I love the rhythm of sentences. When I read for research I put Post-It notes on paragraphs that I’ve loved, so I use ideas and I rework them. I learn a lot from other authors. That makes me write better, looking at how brilliant people do it and trying to go a bit further or be a bit different.

I’m dyslexic, mainly with maths. With English the challenge is getting the story straight in my head and the planning element. I guess even if you’re not dyslexic it’s difficult, but it’s really difficult if you’re dyslexic because you cannot control it or get it into a pattern; the ideas are scattered, so that’s the reason I write something that is meticulously controlled. It’s the only way I can get a story out.

Tell me about your teaching background.

When I was in a school teaching it was in an 11-18 secondary school. After that when I started writing middle grades I did a lot of workshops for children of that age, so 8-12 is where I’m usually teaching now, and I run lots of workshops.

The scheme of work that you produced on The Dream Catcher must have taken a long time to write.

No, if you’ve taught for a while you know what lessons work well and what will interest children and what will stretch them and help them. It was fun to do as well, because I have taught so many people’s books in the classroom so to do lesson plans on your own book is quite fun. I just had an email from a school in London I did a talk at last week and they said they’ve ordered it as a class text and they’re going to teach a scheme of work. Quite a few use the first few lesson plans before I go in and teach the class. The first one is on the implications of the title and the front cover. Then there’s a research project on Romany Gypsies and one talking about maps.

Dreamsnatcher Scheme of Work

The cover is gorgeous, but quite young, so the prologue comes as a shock. It’s very dark!

I adore the cover as a piece of art. The gold foil and the layout and the trees and the fire and the wildcat: it’s beautiful. Thomas Flintham is hugely talented and has just won the Blue Peter Book Award for The Spy Who Loved School Dinners. I think the girl looks very young and this is a punchy story. What I’ve written gets a bit dark and whether that is reflected in the cover I don’t know.

Yes the prologue is dark. I wrote it last. I originally started with Moll waking up from a nightmare, which in itself is quite dark. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams and nightmares. I dream very vividly, so that is something I wanted to write about. But it’s only now that I realise quite how dark the prologue is. At 9+ they are usually okay, but possibly not at 8, This is a story about courage and bravery and ideals of friendship and family, so I think if you present children with those ideals and give them hope then you can go quite dark. Childhood is very dark at stages – life is pretty dark – so provided there’s hope, it’s okay.

Some people really like the ending and like the sense of closure with a few ends quite loose, and I think children quite like that, but a couple of bloggers didn’t want it to end there. They wanted there to be more of a twist and more darkness. Book two has a huge twist at the end. Still safe, but a twist. I think after everything that happens you need to be a little bit safe in the camp with the welcome back sign and the feast.

Related to that, one line really stood out for me as a strong dose of realism: “You’ve got to keep going no matter how unfair it gets.” That seemed like it really came from the heart.

I think I was quite upset when I was writing that. I’ve done some charity work and mentoring with children that have personal problems. Life is so unfair for them. Some fight, and they get up and they go to school and they try. They’ve got grit. I have seen a few that haven’t. I want to shake those people and say, “I know it’s awful, but this is your life and you’re only going to get one shot at it.” Life is so unfair and hard for so many people. My mum had a very tricky childhood and she came out fighting and now she’s a headmistress. You must never give up.

Thank you Abi Elphinstone for talking to Just Imagine.