Piers Torday looks a bit like his twitter avatar, which in turn looks a bit like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). That’s not an insult, in fact he refers to it himself, and I can concur that he’s definitely friendly, and is building up to be a colossus in the world of children’s literature. Winning the Guardian Fiction Prize in 2014 for The Dark Wild, which is part two of his Last Wild trilogy, the third book, The Wild Beyond, was released into our wild on April 2nd, and is a literary tour de force. Read my review here.
I have to admit something. I was in love with Pier’s first book before I had even read it. My son, who devoured only information books, was hooked into fiction by The Last Wild – the first book he read that he really physically wouldn’t put down. Then I read it, and understood why. I read a great many children’s books – this one is destined to be a classic.
Piers Torday grew up in Northumberland – where he claims there were more animals than people. His mother ran a children’s bookshop, and she even had Roald Dahl come visit, which probably gives you a good background if you want to write children’s books (with lots of animals inside!) Piers kindly took time out of his busy schedule ahead of his book launch to answer some of my questions, as I wanted to delve further and find out how the big ideas in the trilogy were born.
The Last Wild trilogy deals with human impact on the Earth. Did you set out to write a book based on the environment?
PT: Yes, right from the get go, the Last Wild trilogy was conceived as a way of writing about the environment, climate change, humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the “sixth extinction”, for children. I wanted to find a way of asking questions about our role as self-appointed stewards of the planet, our hypocrisy over our sentimental attitude towards some animals (e.g. pets) and our capacity to destroy/consume other species and habitats at a rapacious rate, and ponder how different we really were to other creatures. I didn’t want to lecture children with statistics about sea levels or temperatures, as that kind of high statistical science, whilst pertinent and all too real, still feels at one remove emotionally. I was writing about animals but, obviously, I also wanted to deploy them as a metaphor for the planet at large – giving it soul and identities we could care about. I am an author, not a scientist or politician. I make no claims or have no answers but I do think, especially for the next generation, the questions are worth asking.
Did you always want to write for children specifically?
PT: It was always a possibility but not an overweening aim. I loved reading as a child, and made no distinction between “adult” and “children’s books” before I became a children’s author, gobbling up modern classics such as Harry Potter and Northern Lights as eagerly as the new Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel. But it wasn’t until my first attempt at novel writing contained several talking animals as characters that my agent wisely pointed out it was definitely a children’s book! I am now so happy writing children’s books, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do anything else, and always feel a bit disgruntled when people ask if I will one day write adult fiction. Not that I won’t, but I resent the somewhat condescending implication that writing for older readers is in any way a graduation, rather than simply a sideways shift in genre.
How much did your parents influence your writing? Ie. Your father himself an author and your mother running a children’s bookshop?
PT: I don’t know if they influenced my actual writing directly, other than creating the best possible environment for it to develop. It was wonderful spending my early years on a bookshop floor – that is one of my earliest memories, and to this day I associate bookshops with security, safety and happiness. Which is lovely but bad for my wallet! They read out loud to me continuously, and introduced me to many of my favourite authors – Lewis, Herge, Jansson, Tolkien etc. Tolkien taught my dad at Oxford and his myths always had a special place in our household. I think to a degree my father’s love of that world, combined with growing up in Northumberland, meant that many long walks in hills, dales and forests helped shape my childhood imagination to see a remote rural landscape as one filled with adventurous possibility.
Did you always envisage writing Kester’s story as a trilogy?
PT: I always had images in my head of various scenes with various characters, all of which feature in all three books, but it was only as I was writing them that the trilogy structure became clear. I can only see one book ahead at a time, but I knew the story was always too long for just one book, and the third book became very obvious to me while I was writing the second one.
Your villains are all very distinct, very different. Do you have any precise influences for them?
PT: I always try and make my characters as distinct as possible – I think it’s particularly important in children’s fiction and I also think visualising the characters is key for them – it’s not just about personality, especially with villains. Captain Skuldiss, the animal catcher, was based on the Child Catcher from the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who terrified me as a child, but his funny way of speaking is borrowed from my Hungarian great grandmother who was formidable but not similar to Skuldiss in any other way. As a child I always enjoyed villains who had a special gadget or weapon all of their own, which is why I gave him supersonic crutches. Dagger, in The Dark Wild, is based on a family member’s large white dog – who couldn’t be sweeter – but who is visually very striking. Fenella, in The Wild Beyond, is my attempt to create a female villain in the grand Disney style of Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Mother Gothel from Tangled. I imagined all her dialogue as the lyrics to a big musical number! I wanted her to be scary but also have something of the pantomime about her. But the main villain, Selwyn Stone, I wanted to be as real and normal a person as possible. Because real people do bad things as well as cartoon crazies.
As the books go on, it becomes more frustrating for Kester not to be able to talk to humans. Was it frustrating as a writer to have a main character who didn’t speak to other people?
PT: You bet! I’m never doing that again… and in first person, present tense too. It was a challenge, though, and I enjoyed the pressure of having to reinvent ways round it, and it was a good focus for finding the voice, especially in a debut book. I’m very proud of having survived the experience with my sanity intact but next time, there will be speaking!
In your acknowledgements you mention that the animals didn’t always talk. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
PT: The Last Wild, way back when, began life as a sitcom about growing up on a farm, believe it or not. A TV colleague suggested that it might be better if the animals – cows, sheep, hens – talked, and that got me thinking and re-reading Animal Farm, and then I abandoned the sitcom idea altogether and wanted to write something about animals revolting against human authority. That became The Dark Wild, but it was the seed from which the whole trilogy grew.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
PT: I would be a Koala bear. For one thing they are asleep for 91% of the day, and also, look at them! Who wouldn’t want to be that adorable?
Anthony Horowitz talks about writing a book about a grownup Alex Rider. Would you consider the possibility of writing about a grownup Kester?
PT: Never say never!
Concerned about finding my next great book, Piers tells me that he is writing a new children’s book, but that he is sworn to secrecy. It will be published in October 2016, and will be a stand-alone novel, maybe with illustrations…He’d better not delay. I’ve marked my calendar already.