The Magic Hour
David Wolstencroft interview: David is a screenwriter who has notched up a number of BAFTA awards, including one for the TV spy drama Spooks. He has also written two spy thrillers, Good News, Bad News and Contact Zero.
In this episode, Nikki Gamble chatted to David about his debut children’s book The Magic Hour, a thrilling and pacy magical adventure.
About The Magic Hour
Eleven-year-old Ailsa Craig is always late! To everything – her own birth, school, and even her own house exploding! Although it is certainly better to be late for that than early…
But then, one day, Ailsa discovers the secret of a lifetime: An extra hour in the day. The Magic Hour, which exists in a fantastical, parallel Edinburgh, accessed at twilight. As she explores this extraordinary place where anything seems possible, Ailsa can’t believe her luck.
Her grades improve, and life seems to be on the up – even the popular kids start liking her. But messing with time can have desperate consequences. When Ailsa discovers that the extra time comes at a terrible cost, she must battle the sinister forces at work and save herself, her parents and the world.
Note: this transcript is edited for readability but preserves the meaning and content of the recorded interview.
Nikki Gamble (00:18):
My guest today In the Reading Corner is David Wolstencroft. He’s a screenwriter who has notched up a number of BAFTA awards, including one for the TV spy drama Spooks. He’s also written to spy thrillers, Good News, Bad News, and Contact Zero. Today we’re talking about his debut children’s novel, The Magic Hour. It’s a thrilling and pacey magical adventure. And as the title indicates, it’s a novel in which both time and magic are important. But before talking about those themes, I invited David to read from the beginning of the story.
David Wolstencroft (00:54):
So there are 60 chapters in The Magic Hour. It’s my debut children’s middle-grade novel, and I’m writing the second one at the moment. And the idea is that they all have 60 chapters because they’re locked into this time idea. Anyway, this is chapter one,
‘The Girl Who Was Late’. There is never enough time for anything, particularly when your house explodes. Elsa Craig knew this all too well. She was always the one who was running behind getting into classrooms, swimming lessons and birthday parties, always apologizing, explaining, promising that next time ‘cross her heart’ things would be different. Born two weeks late, that girl, went the family joke and she’s made a habit of it ever since. It happened so often. she even had a catchphrase, sorry I’m late, she’d say, I didn’t get here on time. Time was a puzzle to Ailsa.
David Wolstencroft (01:48):
Some weeks moved like sludge. Others were all fizz and bubbles. There had been an entire year when the world felt like a steel trap where hours felt like days and months melted into forever in better sunnier moments. Her nose deep in a good book a summer holiday might breeze past before she even knew it. On the chilly Scottish night that we meet her, however, time wasn’t moving at all. It was frozen. And so was she rooted to the spot, staring up at wisps of smoke. This is Ailsa’s story, so we’ll cover the basics at speed, the quality of her character, loyal, kind, nostalgic, stubborn, and late, as you’ll recall. Her interests, science books and most of the things in between. The hour of her birth, midnight stroke of. Her general appearance, tall enough to reach the ground with chaotic curly hair, of which she was very proud. Glasses usually sliding down her nose hat, yellow knitted, eyes green, curious, and the name of her, two cats, both called Steve for reasons that cannot be adequately explained here. As for the rest, you’ll just have to pick it up along the way. Because, well, exploding houses come on, that feels like something which deserves our attention. Plus, as you probably know, there’s actually no speed limit for books. So we can go as fast as we like
Nikki Gamble (03:12):
There’s so much packed into that chapter and I think we are going to get the chance to unpick quite a lot of it. But I’m going to start with Ailsa. She’s described as somebody who’s ‘floating around the boundaries like a lonely balloon.’ She’s described as something of a shapeshifter, which might become significant as we go through the novel. Tell us a little bit about Ailsa and how she came to be the protagonist of this story.
David Wolstencroft (03:44):
Well, as you probably can guess, I’m obsessed with time and I have a child of my own who is sort of grown up and I’m feeling quite nostalgic at times. And those two things combined brewed in my head. And so Ailsa sort of arrived and announced herself. Edinburgh’s a very welcoming city in general. I wanted somebody who wasn’t from Edinburgh but came in and sort of had to adapt, which is something that I’d experienced in my early life, that sort of relatable sense of being not from where you are growing up and being around people who have deep, deep roots there. And you feel on the outside. And then I thought, well, she’s trying to process all this, and she’s got divorced parents and she’s sort of between things, she’s a tween, I guess, in demographic terms. So she’s, she’s a girl who’s trying to find her place.
David Wolstencroft (04:32):
And when you’re trying to do that, that there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things you need to do because there’s all this other stuff, this kind of iceberg under the surface. So I wanted her to be funny. I wanted her to be somebody who not necessarily speaks her min. Again, when you’re from somewhere else, you are just getting the measure of a place. And so that sense of she’s always in a hurry, she’s always late. So she’s sort of making a name for herself at the same time. And she’s from this semi-scientific family. So she knows that there is order in the world. The scientific method was this note that her grandmother gave her. Her grandmother was a scientist, and it helps her navigate the world even though she’s late in it. So I think that’s sort of where it came from, somebody who’s curious about the world, but hasn’t quite put her feet on it yet.
Nikki Gamble (05:25):
It’s interesting because as you say, that comes from partly being an outsider, but there’s also a sense in which it’s true for all children her age. They’re all trying to find their place in the world. And she does remind me of another character from children’s literature for whom there was great curiosity, and that’s Alice in Wonderland, and the names Ailsa and Alice are very similar. Is that coincidence or not?
David Wolstencroft (05:51):
It is, actually. I’ve always liked Ailsa Craig. I grew up in Scotland. And so whenever I learned about Ailsa Craig it just seemed like a character’s name in a book. So it wasn’t intentional. But I do understand. I mean, Alice in Wonderland is the Pangea of any two-world story, right? It’s about this world and then the portal, wherever the door opens, if it’s a rabbit hole or, in this case, a slightly less mythic portal. There’s nothing intentional there. But that’s very flattering to hear that there’s an echo
Nikki Gamble (06:21):
There’s a resonance, I would say, an echo or a resonance. But you don’t feel that you’re reading a rewrite of Alice in Wonderland.
David Wolstencroft (06:30):
Nikki Gamble (06:30):
But there are connections. You know, the white rabbit is always late. He’s got, he’s watch, and he’s always running.
David Wolstencroft (06:37):
Nikki Gamble (06:38):
So I get little connections coming through.
David Wolstencroft (06:41):
I hadn’t thought of that.
Nikki Gamble (06:42):
But as I said, I did not feel that I was reading Alice in Wonderland. It just kept triggering memories.
Maybe we should think a little bit about that idea of time, which is so central to this book. We have more idioms about time in our language than anything else. Quite a few of them are peppered through this book. ‘Every second counts’. ‘I never seem to have enough time.’ Even when you talked about holding the book in your hand – the time that it takes to read the kind of magic that there can be years or just seconds in a novel.
David Wolstencroft (07:19):
Nikki Gamble (07:19):
And it is a preoccupation at this point in history. We are fascinated by time and what that might mean. So I’m interested to know what triggered that for you.
David Wolstencroft (07:31):
I think it’s taken me a long time to get there, but I realize time gives life meaning. Because when life is infinite, there’s no significance to it. So it compresses it into meaning pretty much. When my daughter had just started her year one class, she had walked past her kindergarten playground and commented on how small everything was. I thought, ‘My god, you’re still tiny, but you’re nostalgic.’ And that sense of time having meaning for a child; you’re in this childhood where every day is significant because it’s a major proportion of your life.
David Wolstencroft (08:17):
As you get older, of course, days become less proportionately significant, but time itself becomes more significant because there’s less of it. But I think the idea of it being the heartbeat of stories too. I work in TV and film, where you have the ticking clock concept. You either have a limited number of options, or you have a limited number of seconds or hopefully both in an exciting story. That’s how the engine works. And so I think the idea behind this was to write something about time with a compelling character. And there’s a very juicy, relatable dilemma about this extra hour in the day. What would you do with it?
David Wolstencroft (09:10):
So there’s a page-turning aspect to it, which was deliberate, and it comes naturally to me in general. But that sense of you better hurry up and find out and don’t miss anything. And there are certain things that I’m not telling you yet, and you’re going to want to find out what they are, which is kind of what being 11 is like. You want to hurry up and be older. So you’ve got agency, but at the same time, you are sort of hanging onto enjoying being a kid at the same time. So, I think that that’s all wrapped up in why time appeals to me. You know, I think losing a loved one suddenly hits you, and you realize it’s like, a cold water hose on you. You’re like, ‘Oh, right. That’s what life is, and that’s what life was. And now this is how much I’ve got left. What am I going to do with it?’
Nikki Gamble (09:53):
‘What matters in life is love. And the memory of these moments means they will never die.’
David Wolstencroft (10:00):
Nikki Gamble (10:02):
Children and adults, as you’ve expressed so clearly experience time in different ways. When I think about some of the classics, Winnie the Pooh, and we’ve mentioned Alice in Wonderland there’s an element in those books that speaks to an adult and speaks to a child. And when a child revisits that book, when they get older, they see it in a different way,
David Wolstencroft (10:24):
That’s the plan for this book. You may as well swing big when you write. And you can’t help but put yourself into the story. So definitely, it’s the sort of book I would’ve loved to read when I was 10, but now that I’m in my fifties, I would still find the story appealing for different reasons. All the best books, try and do that. I imagine a parent reading this book to their kid too. And the kid might turn and see their parent or guardian reading to them and wonder why they’re getting a little dewy-eyed at some point. The sense of nostalgia or the importance of time is lost on some kids, and the significance only accrues through life experience.
Nikki Gamble (11:06):
There was a great article written years ago by Victor Watson about what makes a children’s classic. And he talked about it being the love between a parent and a child. And that is often around elements of time and how we perceive it, And I thought that was fascinating.
David Wolstencroft (11:25):
Well, that’s perfect because it’s quality time. I made a point of reading with my daughter every chance I got because I wanted there to be on some level when she was older and perhaps I wasn’t around that she could be reading and there’s some deep plumb line back down to, ‘Oh yeah, this is something that I used to share with my dad.’ How can a classic story not be about time since it’s literally the most important thing that’s flowing through everything we do every day? It’s just the most precious thing, and we’re all wasting it, and we’re all doing things in modern life that are supposed to be preserving it but are draining it. It does feel like that.
David Wolstencroft (12:10):
I’m sure I’ve had conversations over glasses of wine with friends and talked about what it feels like – like things are just starting to tumble out of control. Are we in a shopping trolley going down a slope? Why does it feel faster now? It’s the same feeling you get when you go into an old church and see those footfalls in the stone. It’s literally the size of a human foot that’s trod over the threshold for thousands of years. It’s more moving to me than seeing stone that has been eroded by rain, which is still beautiful.
Getting back to the story, Ailsa has lost her grandparents, and she’s concerned about the mortality of her own parents and the world in general. The stakes get bigger and bigger when she discovers an extra hour of time and then discovers it has a price. You know, we’re not equipped to look at the big time. We’re only equipped to look at generational time as humans, That’s why governments are generally useless because they don’t look at things with the kind of distance that needs to be dealt with.
And then imagine being ten, experiencing time but not having much agency. You are taken too point A, to point B. You are told where to sit and what to do. And so your experience of time is regimented by grown-ups.
Nikki Gamble (13:23):
Let’s talk about the other word in the title, which is ‘magic’. Maybe tell our listeners a bit more about the beginning of the plot.
David Wolstencroft (13:35):
All right, so Ailsa grows up in Edinburgh. She’s not from Edinburgh, but she’s adjusting to school life. She lives between her Mum and her Dad. She doesn’t have any time. She’s always late for everything. But all these kids at school seem to be completely together and utterly prepared for everything – immaculate, perfect. And there’s this sense of privilege – and attitude – well, why wouldn’t you be perfect too?
The story starts as her house explodes, and we find out why later. But in the rubble, she’s looking for possessions of hers. And she comes across some of her books that are charred. And she finds the shed, but there’s another door to the shed that she hadn’t noticed before. And from there she stumbles into this strange, otherworldly place.
David Wolstencroft (14:22):
She thinks it’s just another part of Edinburgh, and she doesn’t know how she got there. And then it turns out that there is this parallel world in Edinburgh known as the Middle Market. You know, you’ve got the Old Town and the New Town, and this is like the Middle Town of Edinburgh, which is full of creatures and personalities from Scottish folklore. This bubble of eternal time has been there forever – before humans. And within this world of the Middle Market is an extra hour in the day. You can imagine 24, and then this extra hour is like a little bubble at the top of the 24. That’s the 25th hour. And if you are in the circle of knowledge, you can go to this hour, experience an hour of your time, do things that nobody else can do, finish your work, learn a sport, read or sleep, whatever you want to do. And then go back to your time and no time has passed.
David Wolstencroft (15:15):
There are lots of connections to old stories like Rip Van Winkle and, in Japan, Urashima Tarō. There are lots of these stories where it’s simply eternal faerie time. The fay time, the sidhe as it’s known in this book. So she just stumbles upon all these characters, and she sees Credenza there. Credenza is a friend from school who is the immaculate one – the perfect girl. And she realises that’s how all these people do it. There are all these famous people who experience this extra hour. And of course when she comes home, everything’s great. Until the point when she realizes it has a cost. And I won’t spoil that for you, but it has an extremely profound and deep cost. There’s a sense that humans will do whatever it takes to feel good without the consequences. When Ailsa and her friends realise what they’ve done, there is a very limited window of time to solve it before everything goes extremely bad.
Nikki Gamble (16:19):
Yes, whenever you meet anything from the other world, the other side, the sidhe or the Brollachan, you know, you’re not in for a completely smooth ride.
David Wolstencroft (16:29):
The Brollachan is an entity from Scottish football that I’ve been fascinated with for years. You don’t wanna mess with the Brollachan; that’s all I’m going to say.
Nikki Gamble (16:38):
There’s a melding in this book of rationality, science, logic (you’ve mentioned the scientific method), and fantasy. Both science and fantasy are concerned ultimately with trying to express ideas. I think you grew up in a family with a father who was an esteemed astronomer. So did that impact your view of how these things fit together?
David Wolstencroft (17:09):
Kind of, though, bizarrely, my Dad, my late father, I should say, bless him, didn’t really have the scientific method as a means of parenting. It was quite the opposite. He would be doing the washing up and looking at the suds spiralling into the plug hole. And I’d know that he would be looking at a galaxy far, far away in his head.
It was more that I’ve had some teachers in my life who were profoundly smart at locking me into the pleasure of logic and the pleasure of the method, and the pleasure of algebra. And the sense that you can simplify a complex thing into a more simple thing. I love the idea of this girl whose grandmother is a scientist, giving her a map to life, which can be expressed basically as, – if you come across something weird, break it down and experiment, observe, and then go back again
David Wolstencroft (18:12):
Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns when you’re a kid. And so I would’ve loved to have the scientific method embedded in me a little bit more when navigating all the things that I had to navigate when I was Ailsa’s age. Everything has rules. Even fantasy has rules. And that, I think, makes everything feel like it has mistakes. You can’t just click your fingers; a magic invisible dragon comes down, deals with everything, and leaves. It’s less interesting to me as a storyteller. I like things that are relatable, even if they are in a completely different world. We do that in TV in particular. If you’re writing something not set in this universe, you must have the mythology, right? You have to have the rules of engagement written down so things are consistent. It’s very gratifying that that’s something that you picked up in the book. Because it was very important to me,
Nikki Gamble (19:12):
Writing for screen or television is very different from writing a narrative, a story in which your personal voice will be the thing that carries it. And I love the voice in this story. I would describe it as s a third-person narrator – an intrusive narrator. It has footnotes, and it’s vocalized through Ailsa’s viewpoint…
David Wolstencroft (19:43):
With the Brollachan and Monroe sometimes, but only for effect. Most of the book is with Ailsa.
Nikki Gamble (19:49):
I’m just interested to know if that voice was purely intuitive or whether you had to work at finding the voice for this story.
David Wolstencroft (20:01):
I will be honest. It’s how I’ve always written prose. I did it when I was 10, writing short stories in English and getting encouragement from my teacher, who had been to school with Douglas Adams, my favourite author at the time. Harry Quinn was his name. And I just remember being absolutely thrilled that I had a personality of any sort at that age. If you’ve got anything, you hold onto it. So it just has always come naturally to me that tone of voice. The challenge was making sure that it didn’t intrude into the narrative. I’m a big believer in rising action. You don’t just take time out for a joke or comment, or footnote. I think one of the footnotes lambasts you at one point. It says, ‘Why are you looking down here? There’s a really exciting thing happening up there!’
David Wolstencroft (20:46):
I wanted it to be as completely me. I just wanted to be honest about it. Maybe, the second book I’m writing now might have a little bit less of the footnotes, but frankly, I can’t stop them <laugh>. It just sort of happens.
In the process of writing a script, there’s a lot of lovely white space. It’s like regular haiku of scenes. You’re looking for an economy of expression. A book is different – you have to do all the lifting yourself. I wrote two adult thrillers when I had a show on the BBC many years ago, an espionage spy show. And I wrote these spy thrillers that were fun to write but quite tiring.
David Wolstencroft (21:32):
Writing is about knowing what to write down, right? That’s the challenge. How you write it down, and how you express it depends on the medium. It sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but it’s true. You just change the way that you approach expressing the story. So in a script, you can cut away and show, not tell. But in a book, you also have to tell, in my opinion. And I think there is an opportunity to go into the character’s interior world. You talk about the world of psychology and soul and feeling and the unsaid. And I think that’s important, particularly if you’re a kid and you maybe don’t have the skills to say everything you want to say, but you certainly feel it
Nikki Gamble (22:12):
Interesting. I mean, I’m not sure that the reader absorbed in the story would necessarily pick this up, but as I was reading it, I became very aware that as we moved into the story, particularly as we head towards the climactic moment, those footnotes recede and the narrative takes over.
David Wolstencroft (22:33):
Nikki Gamble (22:34):
Until we get to the very end,
David Wolstencroft (22:35):
<Laugh> Yes, the end is like a bonus reel. But that’s good because the whole point of the book is it’s an exciting read. It’s 60 minutes of the missing hour that Ailsa finds. And how on earth is she going to solve this terrible problem? The prime directive for me was to write something exciting and to write it so that it that is thrilling and full of holding onto important information as much as I could conceal it. That’s the whole point of a thriller – the incomplete information and dilemmas. And so trying to have a piece of children’s fiction that hits that squarely yet is about a big theme. I used to joke that I was writing À la recherche du temps perdu and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the same time.
Nikki Gamble (23:26):
One of the ways in which you achieve that is through short chapters – they almost run like scenes. And I wondered whether that was from your screenwriting.
David Wolstencroft (23:37):
Probably, yeah. It’s over 70,000 words. It’s not a short book, but I wanted the feeling of it to be snappy. And I just have a general tempo when I write – enter late, leave early, that’s the mechanism that’s supposed to be operating. Kids are engulfed by TV, narrative – quick cut, all that stuff. Books are not supposed to be like that. And The Magic Hour isn’t really; it just gets to where it’s going in a different way than maybe other books. And I wanted it to be like a ‘ just one more chapter’, kind of book.
Nikki Gamble (24:13):
You also get the prize for taking one of my favourite words and personifying it. I love gloaming. It’s my favourite time of the day, and I love that word, <laugh>.
David Wolstencroft (24:24):
Same. Same. Oh, I’m very pleased about that. Yeah. The gloaming was probably the second personality who introduced themselves when I was thinking about this book. My memories of Edinburgh are all in that time. Because if you think of the colours, the silver of an old lock and the purple of the heather combined in this beautiful twilight, which is the portal to the next world, if you like.
Nikki Gamble (24:58):
I’d never thought before of a daytime and a nighttime gloaming. I love that idea.
David Wolstencroft (25:05):
Opinion is divided. If you had a Scots dictionary to hand, the definition might have gloaming as more of the evening. And there’s another word for the morning. I can’t remember it right now in Gaelic, If you’re entering or leaving it, it’s still a door.
Nikki Gamble (25:24):
You know, it reminds me of that painting in the National Gallery, which I always go and look at just for the lighting. Carnation Lilly, Lilly Rose. Do you know that?
David Wolstencroft (25:33):
I don’t, but I can picture it already. <Laugh>.That’s the thing about saying something is in that palette. You just know it. And I think wonderful; Alicia did a beautiful job with the cover to evoke that sense of the place in between, which is where you are when you are 11. All kids of that age are in the gloaming a bit.
Nikki Gamble (25:57):
You’ve hinted at a second book
David Wolstencroft (25:59):
Nikki Gamble (26:00):
I expect you can’t tell us a lot, but can you tell us anything?
David Wolstencroft (26:03):
It’s called The Infinite Minute. I think I can tell you that. At the end of book one, there are some loose threads which are quite concerning. It deals with a different part of time and a different psychological consequence of time.
Nikki Gamble (26:19):
We all need something to look forward to. And I’m pleased that you’re sticking with the world of children’s books,
David Wolstencroft (26:25):
Thank you. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in writing. Hands down.
Nikki Gamble (26:31):
And thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure and an education.
David Wolstencroft (26:37):
<Laugh>. Oh, same here. Thank you, Nikki. Very much.
Thank you for listening.
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In the Reading Corner is presented by Nikki Gamble, Director of Just Imagine.
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