Roland Chambers is a writer, illustrator and storyteller. He is the author of a biography about Arthur Ransome and the children’s stories, Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody and Nelly and the Flight of the Sky Lantern.
His new series features Billy Shaman – a shaman by name and by nature, who embarks on a voyage of self-discovery from the museum that is the former home of scientist and explorer, Charles Darwi., It’s an exciting adventure, told with wisdom and humour.
In the first adventure of the series, Billy travels to the Arctic Circle, where he meets an Inuit girl, Ahnah, a Greek explorer, Pytheas and a powerful shaman, Sedna.
Roland dropped into The Reading Corner to tell Nikki Gamble all about it.
Today, my guest is Roland Chambers. Roland is a writer, illustrator, and, above all, a storyteller. His most recent book is The Adventures of Billy Shaman: The Rage of the Sea Witch.
Thank you so much for joining me today. This is a really exciting book, and I’m thrilled to be talking to you about it.
Oh, thank you so much for inviting me.
You have written children’s books before. Nellie and the Quest for Captain Peabody and Nelly and the Flight of the Sky Lantern. There was quite a lot of adventuring on pirate ships and hot air balloons. I can see a connection with this current series. Did the idea come out of those earlier stories?
It did, in a way. I wrote a biography of Arthur Ransome, the children’s author of Swallows and Amazons, and he loved adventuring.
And then I wrote Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody for my daughter Nelly, who had just been born. I suppose it was influenced by that exploring idea. Nelly’s father is an explorer, but he might as well be a writer because he disappears for long periods of time and lives a fantastical life.
And I so enjoyed it that I then thought I was going write a book just about explorers. And then I thought the history of the ‘discovery’ of the world is such an amazing story. Who the great explorers are, how the maps were drawn, who goes down to the bottom of the sea, who goes through the forests and discovers the coastlines of new continents.
It’s such a huge story, and it’s so difficult to decide how to tell it. Who are the great explorers and who discovered who? Initially, I thought I would write it as nonfiction but I changed my mind and decided to write it as fiction. Then you can play, more, with these ideas. I suppose that’s how it came about.
That’s a good lead-in for us because Billy’s parents are explorers too. And they do that wonderful thing for children’s story – they go off and leave him. They go exploring over the summer. They don’t even go exploring together; they have their own expeditions. Billy’s not at all interested in exploring – at least at the beginning of this story.
Tell us where they leave him.
So they leave him in the Charles Darwin Museum, which used to be Charles Darwin’s house. And I guess they leave him there because Charles Darwin was himself obviously a great scientist, but also an explorer.
Billy doesn’t like explorers because he’s rebelling against his parents. They are, like a lot of great adventurers and probably quite exciting people but they’re also quite selfish, and they just don’t want their son to get in the way. So, they leave him in this very boring museum full of dead specimens.
It doesn’t sound very auspicious when he arrives, and they put him in the care of two characters that are called Mr. And Mrs. Cript. The name has a gothic sound to it. You immediately think that they’re not going to be the most caring of caretakers.
The crypt is a place where you keep dead things. I think Charles Darwin was an amazing man. He’s such a complicated person with an extraordinary mind. The fact is that he went sailing around the world, and what he brought back with him were thousands and thousands of dead things, which he put in jars and pinned to cork and stuffed with sawdust. And he looked at them very carefully, and out of them came his theory of evolution and, lots of other ideas as well.
And Mr. And Ms Cript just seemed like it’s the perfect surname for a museum curator. Someone who’s just in charge of all the dead things.
Down in Charles Darwin’s cellar is the Spirit Collection, which is an enormous collection of glass jars full of amazing things like little octopuses and shrimps and bits of seeding and stuff, all preserved in clear alcohol. I think there’s something super creepy about a dark cellar full of shadowy jars full of the dead.
Charles Darwin’s house was one of the first things I wanted to talk to you about because the house is really a character as well in this story.
At first, I thought you had visited Snowshill Manor. Have you ever been? It’s a wonderful National Trust property that used to belong to Charles Wade an avid collector of things. It’s a bizarre collection. He collected Samurai suits and 15th and 16th-century baby walkers, among other things. In the end, he couldn’t live in the house anymore because it was full of his collections, so he went to live in the garden shed. And at first, I thought, that’s what you’re writing about. And then I realised the museum is Charles Darwin’s former home. Is it open to visitors?
It is, I think, one of the joys of writing fiction, and maybe one of the perils is that you get to make things up. A lot of the things that you make up are altered real things. And so the house is a bit like that.
Charles Darwin lived in Kent when he returned from his voyage. He and his family lived in this lovely house in Kent. He kept his specimens in the house, and he did some of his experiments, observations and writing there. And he and his wife raised their children there.
The garden was full of plants he was breeding with each other and trying to work out like how you get different kinds of plants from different parents and stuff.
So that is true, that’s real. And that house did become a museum,.
However, the way that I’ve organized the house is entirely, to suit my own imagination and interest.
It’s a hybrid. So, various things about the house definitely aren’t in the real Charles Darwin museum. And then other things are. A lot of the contents of Charles Darwin’s house have been dispersed to other museums. In fact, most of his collection of specimens have landed up in various places around the world. I’ve kept them all in the museum and I’ve made the museum much more gothic and creepy – there are bats up in the attic and there’s something strange in the garden.
So Billy has been left by his parents. There he is with his suitcase, and he goes into this garden where something starts talking to him – Charles Darwin! Tell us about the Galapagos Tortoise.
So Billy’s really quite depressed at the thought of spending his entire summer holidays alone in a museum that apparently has no visitors. And the first night, he’s kept awake by what he thinks is an invisible giant snoring in his bedroom. So he doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
The next morning, he spends some time Mr. And Mrs. Cript, and they’re not very impressed. Then he goes out to the garden, and he gets lost and he’s so depressed at this point that he finds this boulder in the vegetable garden, and he kicks it and hurts his toe. He then climbs up onto the boulder and starts crying.
And then the boulderer comes to life. And, in fact, it’s not a boulder at all. It is a 200-year-old giant Galapagos tortoise that Charles Darwin brought back to England from the Galapagos on his voyage around the world aboard The Beagle. The tortoise had barely hatched from the egg, but he grew and when he was too big to trundle around the house, he put him in a vegetable garden, where he’s lived ever since.
And the thing is that this tortoise knew Charles Darwin in person. They became very good friends. In fact, they were such good friends that Charles Darwin started to call him Charles Darwin. because he said that talking to the tortoise was like talking to himself,
It’s a very engaging voice.
Where does the fox come into the story?
Before Billy sets foot in the garden, he finds that the museum has many specimens and collections of various artefacts from different cultures. (That’s an invention.)
In one of these collections – the Inuit collection – he discovers a very beautiful ancient necklace. On the necklace, are hung five carved animals, and one of them is an Arctic fox with its tail missing. And the night following his meeting with Charles Darwin, Billy falls asleep. and dreams of Charles Darwin’s Spirit Collection, which is a collection of things in glass jars. He imagines walking through these glass jars in his sleep.
And he sees some of the elements of the adventure to come. And one of those is an Arctic fox. It’s suspended in alcohol inside the jar and it’s looking at him through the glass. But it looks so lifelike that Billy is sure it’s alive. He has to tell himself it’s not alive. It’s not alive. But then the fox blinks and that’s the beginning of his adventure.
I think a good cue to hear a bit of the story.
Good. So, this episode comes directly after Billy’s dream.
Billy is a shaman. His name is Billy Shaman but he really is a Shaman. He just doesn’t know it at the beginning of the story.
Part of the story is finding out what a shaman is. One of the things that a shaman does is that they can cross between the spirit world and the physical world with no difficulty. In Billy’s case, when he thinks he’s dreaming, he’s actually in the spirit world, and he’s the spirit fox.
And then, when he returns to the real world, this spirit fox follows him, and when he comes to, it’s sitting at the end of his bed. And then it jumps off the bed and drops out through the door. Billy must make up his mind if he wants this adventure or not.
And so that’s where this chapter starts.
If Billy had stayed where he was, there would be no story to tell. There’d be no adventures of Billy Shaman or new ways of looking at old things. Sometimes, a single person can change everything, but Billy would not have been that person if he had not followed the fox.
So, did Billy follow? He didn’t stop even to put his feet in his slippers because actually, he had no slippers and no dressing gown either. He went out of his bedroom dressed only in the pyjamas his dad had given him for Christmas, which were decorated with cactuses. Although you may feel that these details are unimportant, you’ll see that they matter.
Many explorers have discovered too late that simple things, a pair of socks, a box of matches make the difference between life and death. In the corridor, his guide was already trotting ahead down one flight of stairs and then another along the corridors, past rooms with useful signs. The finch collection, meteorites, moths, and butterflies in the dark.
The fox’s white fur shone like a lamp in the moonlight. It almost disappeared, but it never hesitated or allowed Billy to fall too far behind. Now and then it looked over its shoulder to make sure he was still there. Until it stopped by a door that Billy recognized. Inuit collection read the sign, and Billy knew what was inside because he had visited the room already.
He remembered the necklace and the comb and the empty suit of clothes, but now a breeze blew around the door. So cold it froze his breath. And there was a noise too that made him think somebody had left a window open. It was not reassuring, but when he looked at the fox for some sort of explanation, he gave nothing away.
It stared back at Billy with its bright black eyes and then with the swish of its white tail. It walked inside. This time, Billy did hesitate, and even the greatest explorers have felt that way as they boarded a ship or cut the anchor rope of a hot air balloon or set out into the wilderness at the head of a train of mules.
Behind him was the warm air of summer. Blowing in through the window in front was the cold air of an unknown world, but it was the cold that drew him. In the corridor. Billy had stood in silence. Everything had been quiet inside the room. The storm raged. It filled his eyes and mouth. It roared in his ears. It swallowed the ceiling and walls. When he turned to find the door, it had gone, and the fox, his guide, had deserted him. It had disappeared into the shrieking chaos that bit through the thin cotton of his pyjamas. Now you will see what I mean when I said earlier about the little details, what a difference a pair of slippers would’ve made, or a nice warm quilted dressing gown or any dressing gown.
Billy had nothing but his pyjamas decorated with the cactuses his dad had picked out especially. Cactuses so close to the North Pole. If Billy had jumped out of an airplane without a parachute or hurled himself off a ship into the mouth of a whirlpool, he could not have been more frightened or helpless.
His death was all around him. It was already happening to him. And yet pressed into the snow at his feet, somehow resisting the ferocity of the storm were the footprints of the fox. They led away from the place where the door had been, and when Billy followed, he had no choice, they took him to a safer place.
Billy thought he saw a spark as though a match had been struck in the whirling blizzard. And as he came closer, the spark became brighter. It was a fire. Beside the fire, a girl was sitting wearing the clothes of an Inuit hunter.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘I’m Billy Shaa,’ but his mouth wasn’t working properly. The words came out all wrong.
‘Are you a spirit?’ she said. ‘Are you angry with me?’
He shook his head.
‘Then why are you here?’
Billy couldn’t think what to say. He didn’t know how his brain had frozen.
‘Get in,’ said the girl. ‘Get in here or you’ll die.’ She offered him a corner of the blanket she was sitting beneath and moved over to make room.
You illustrated the book too. The illustrations are integral to the text. So I wondered if you waited for the page layouts to come before you did the illustrations.
There’s a very brilliant art director, Jessie, and she is just great at understanding how her story flows through pictures as well as text. So Jessie and I worked pretty closely together on this book. I’m glad that she had the time to give me because I’d never done it like this before. I’ve illustrated a children’s picture book for younger children. I didn’t illustrate Nelly. And although I really loved the illustrations, I realized that I wanted to illustrate myself.
And so, to answer your question, I did lots of drawings before the layout was ready. But Jessie helped me think about the layout, and once I’d got the steer from her, then I started to be able to play, more myself and begin to understand what was possible and what wasn’t possible.
So why the Inuit room? Why did you start here?
That’s such a good question. And the most honest answer is that it just popped up in my mind. But I think on closer inspection, the reason is it’s a way of telling the history of the discovery of the world; the world that we understand when you look at an atlas.
There were all kinds of people living in different places, but those maps were drawn on the back of particular people’s expeditions and adventures. But the thing is that maps are odd things themselves. There are lots of ancient maps that you couldn’t really use as maps.
To answer your question, the Inuit are the people who live inside the Arctic Circle, to make it very simple – too simple. One of the first major European expeditions was by a Greek explorer called Pytheas, who sailed up into the Arctic Circle. And when he came back, he talked about things like the sun burning at midnight and the stars being in different places and the sea ice behaving in a really strange way.
And everybody just said, rubbish, nonsense, you’re a liar. But as European people followed in his footsteps, they realised he was telling the truth. But the thing is that the maps that Pytheas drew of his expedition and the book that he wrote about it were all lost.
The reason why I chose the Inuit collection and this particular moment in the history of the discovery of the world is that the place that Pytheas discovered became an enormous mythical place. Nobody knows exactly where it is. He called it Thule, which means north in Greek. And It could be Greenland, it could be Iceland, it could be Norway. Nobody knows. And I love that because I think such an important part of exploration is the discovery of wonder – the sudden arrival into a state of newness. And so it’s this constant refreshing. That is the most important part of exploration.
Charles Darwin was a scientist, and he was interested in getting things precise and so was Pytheas. He was interested in astronomy and nighttime navigation. But that sense of just being present at the creation of the earth like you are the first person, you’re like Adam and Eve. That’s not particular to a place. You just are here now. That’s why when Billy goes to the north, it’s just white, like a page waiting to be written. And that’s why it was such a great place for me, to start this whole series of adventures.
So while Billy is at the Arctic Circle, he meets a girl called Ahnahand the Greek explorer, Pytheas, who is a bit of a trickster… He’s not to be trusted.
To have that unbelievable optimism and that confidence that whatever comes at you, you’ll always be able to find a solution, always be able to find a way through. Often goes with. let’s say, a moral flexibility. And I think it’s really to acknowledge the fact that many of the men and women who ‘discovered’ the world were complicated people. A lot of stuff they did wasn’t great. And yet some of it was amazing. It is important to look at the whole thing in the round. So, in the case of Pytheas, he’s very keen when he goes back home that people should believe where he has been. But he needs proof, and Billy and and his new friend Ahnah are that proof. He’s very keen that they come back with him. And in fact, he comes very close to kidnapping them.
It is interesting, isn’t it? The concept of exploration is quite egocentric.
That’s obviously a theme in this book. Yes. At one point when it becomes clear that no one knows where Thule is, Ahnah says I’ve never heard of it and I live there. It is egocentric, but it’s something we do all the time.
Any child who goes out into a strange place feels like they’re discovering it for the first time. When you’re a child and you go and stay at a friend’s house in the countryside you feel like the first person that’s discovered it. If you live in the city and maybe you’re the first one to wake up in the morning, and you go out to the garden before anyone else has woken up, it is as though you are the first person who’s ever been in that garden.
Even if it’s nonsense, that’s how it feels. And so it is egocentric, and yet it’s how we operate. It’s what people do. And the flip side of that in the books I’m writing is that Billy is a shaman. And it’s part of being a shaman that you don’t just discover things. The whole point about being a shaman is that you are profoundly capable of empathy, to the point where you can actually become an animal, or you can talk to the dead. And I think that’s a super important part of the imagination, which is also to do with exploring.
Tell us more about shamans. Do we see them in different cultures around the world?
Yes. It felt like a bit of a jump, Charles Darwin on the one hand, shaman on the other. But, they’ve got quite a lot in common. Shamanic culture comes from animistic culture. Basically, all over the world, before what we think of as theistic religion, almost all cultures had a tradition where they believe that the whole world is alive.
Not just ordinary living things, plants, animals, but rocks and water and the sky and, the whole thing is singing the same song. A shaman is not a priest and shamanism is not a religion. A shaman is someone who is very receptive to the universal spirit that speaks through everything. And there are shamans in the Inuit culture, there are shamans in Siberia. The Druids were shaman-like.
The thing these shamans from different cultural traditions have in common is that they can travel into the spirit world. They can go down to and talk to the dead when they’re in a trance. Time is all present, past, the future because the whole thing is happening simultaneously. That’s very important to me when I’m telling this story because it’s quite important that Billy be able to travel backwards in time.
But because he is a shaman, he’s going to come to realise that actually, he’s not so much travelling in time as travelling through the spirit world
The idea that time is not linear has a lot in common with contemporary physics.
I’m really glad you think so, Nikki, because I feel that’s true. Part of the idea of being a shaman is that there’s a commonality with all animals. You know that humans aren’t better than animals. They’re just another animal.
When Charles Darwin was studying the history of life on earth, apart from the fact that he realised we all came from a common ancestor, he felt that what he called the highest, animals (mammals) had their brains wired in a very similar. Their faces, eyes, ears, nose, their sensory connections are very similar. He felt humans understood much more about what animals felt than people wanted to admit, especially when doing unpleasant things to animals. As a result, Charles Darwin became a vegetarian and stopped believing in a Christian God, in a straightforward way. When his family went to church on Sundays, Charles Dar would go for a walk.
So I’d like to feel that these connections with science go beyond quantum physics and relate to a modern biological view that is quite similar to the kind of animistic or shamanic view.
We have wonderful museums. The British Museum is an incredible place to visit. But they are full of things that don’t belong to us as a nation. It’s an interesting point for children to consider. Was that in your head as well when you were writing?
Yes, very much very much and in fact, it’s Billy’s rather daunting job to return all the unhappy spirits of the things he fins in the Charles Darwin museum to the places where they belong.
So one of the main themes, in this book, would be the idea of belonging, which has a double meaning.
On the one hand, there’s the idea of where you belong in terms of your home. But there’s also the sense of belonging in terms of something that is owned by someone. Those two things have an interesting relationship to one another because there could be no exploring, there could be no exchange of ideas, and there could be no evolution, if people didn’t travel around and compete, for things that they love.
But on the other hand, there’s this sense of integrity and respect that one has to have for the stories, people and things. And that often gets lost, I think, when people are taking a shortcut to knowledge or wealth.
And so that’s something that I find it’s so interesting and it’s really such an important part of this story to think, what is it to belong? And who does a thing belong to – if anybody? Then you try and find a way of getting it back there and healing. The idea is that you could somehow journey back and do that thing that people always dream of, which is to heal something in the past.
Often it isn’t possible, but in my story, Billy tries to heal some of the damage that’s been caused in the process of collecting all these things together.
One of the things that’s collected is story.
We have a creation myth – a story within a story. People have different views about telling stories from other cultures. Whose story is it to tell. Is it appropriation, Was that something you thought about too?
There’s a lot of anxiety now and rightly so about who gets to tell stories. But I think it depends how well the story is told. And then people get to judge.
The whole idea of a shaman is that they feel something so intensely that they become it. And that is what an author tries to do. And if they fail, then they’re not read, or they’re accused of clumsiness or bad intentions or whatever. And that is right. When you write something down, and it goes out into the world, you should be judged. You are, judged by your readers.
Now, sometimes that judgment goes too far. The worst thing that could happen, is that people are not permitted to express a view. There are certain situations in which they shouldn’t be allowed to express a view if it causes violence. But I strongly feel that it is the job of an author, to try to get it right, to try and tell a wonderful story, to make people fall in love with that story and to live it for themselves. That is the whole purpose of writing or almost any kind of art.
So what I want to know now, without spoiling it for us, what happens to Billy next?
In the next story, Billy is kept awake by somebody crying. In investigating who is crying, he finds the classroom where Charles Darwin’s children took their lessons, and on the teacher’s desk, he finds the hoof of a horse that has been hollowed out and turned into an inkwell. Which is horrible but it’s also a very beautiful object. Without wanting to ruin everything this hoof belonged to a horse called Ox Head which was named after Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus.
Objects that are made from animals, tiger skin rugs, ivory trinkets are problematic. They are often made from animals that have been hunted and killed as trophies.
What is the place of very old artefacts like this in the modern world, is it more disrespectful to get rid of them or to keep them?
A stuffed polar bear would be a terrible thing to throw, but it’s a terrible thing to have it too.
I totally agree. I think the difference between philosophy and writing stories, is that philosophy tries to generalise, to, a bit like the law. But in a story, you have the luxury that this is not a generalisation.
To try and stop poachers from taking the tusks of elephants and turning them into expensive nonsense, the people who are trying to protect the elephants made a huge pile of tusks, millions and millions of pounds worth of ivory, and they burnt it.
And the question is, was it a waste of ivory or an effective way of discouraging the poachers? I think that was a good idea. It’s a way of saying, we’re going to burn what you think is money.
But in another case, you could have a tusk that came from an elephant that was part of Hannibal’s train crossing the Himalya Mountains. You would never throw a tusk that away.
In my story, this hoof belongs to a horse that was in the war of the heavenly horses. The war of the heavenly horses was between the emperor Woo of China and the Dayuan, which was the easternmost city of Alexander, the Great’s Empire. The war was fought over these amazing horses that Emperor Woo called the Heavenly Horses because he’d seen them in a dream. The horses opened up the Silk Roads and made it possible for the East and West to speak to each other.
This horse’s hoof inkwell, which is a fiction, is used by Darwin as an inkwell, which he uses when he writes his theory of evolution. I want it to be in all these different worlds. And you wouldn’t throw away an inkwell like that, but you might return it if you find out who it really belonged to.
It’s been fascinating talking with you today. It really has been a pleasure.
Roland Chambers: Thanks so much for inviting me, Nikki. I’ve loved talking
About The Adventures of Billy Shaman: The Rage of the Sea Witch
Shaman by name and shaman by nature – Billy just hasn’t found his magic … yet.
His selfish, globetrotting parents abandon him for yet another summer in Charles Darwin’s strange, museum-like house, where Billy stumbles across a 200-year-old giant talking tortoise named Charles Darwin, by the famous man himself. Charles D, the tortoise, knows every inch of the house and every artefact in it, and he’s keen to help Billy realise his powers and set him on the path to adventure. A beautifully carved Inuit ivory necklace is the first object that whisks him back in time to the shrieking chaos of an Arctic blizzard to meet its rightful owner, a girl called Ahnah, her shape-shifting grandmother and the mysterious explorer Pytheas.