Abi Elphinstone’s debut children’s book, The Dreamsnatcher, is a bit special. It’s my Book of the Week this week, and you can read the review here. The Dreamsnatcher wasn’t sent to me by a publisher for promotion or review, I merely stumbled across it when going through the entries for next year’s Red House Book Awards. The blurb appealed and I read it before ‘testing’ it on the children. It had quite a hold. Then Abi and I started tweeting and she kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.
MinervaReads: You’re obviously very influenced by reading the works of Phillip Pullman. What other influences would you cite – for me the gypsy qualities in Moll were also reminiscent of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden?
Abi: Ha! Yes, I adore Phillip Pullman’s books. Northern Lights, together with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, were the books that made me believe in magic and Pullman even wrote me a little note wishing me luck in my writing when I started out six years ago.
I learnt how to write action scenes from reading Michelle Paver’s books, particularly the brilliant Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden inspired me to create a Romany gypsy girl with spirit. Oh, and Moll’s slightly ‘off the wall’ nature comes from reading about truly unique heroines like Mina from David Almond’s My Name is Mina and Sophie in Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers.
MinervaReads: The natural imagery and surrounding landscape are key to your story. Do you see this as a growing trend in children’s literature – and did you purposefully set out to make the setting vague and unknowable so we don’t know which country Moll is from?
Abi: Having grown up in the wilds of Scotland, I think I’m naturally drawn to stories set in remote landscapes – and whenever I go walking in the highlands or swimming in the Fairy Pools on Skye, I can’t help but feel there is so much magic buried away up there. I’m not sure if there is a trend emerging with children’s writers focusing on natural landscapes but I adore any book that does, like The Black North by Nigel McDowell and The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse most recently. I’ve got plans for a series about an Inuit girl called Eska and a grizzly bear cub next but as with The Dreamsnatcher, I won’t give specific place names. I deliberately wanted my setting to be vague (even though I did much of my research in the New Forest) because that way children can dream up the story anywhere.
Abi at the top of a mountain in Skye
MinervaReads: How did you get published? And did it take a long time for you to write The Dreamsnatcher?
Abi: From the ages of 24 – 28, I wrote three books. I sent each one out to a smattering of literary agents and I think I racked up 96 rejections in total. I guess that’s what happens when you dash out stories that don’t matter that much to you… A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. So I kept writing, I went to literary festivals and writing workshops, I read more and more children’s books, and most importantly, I re-worked my ideas and style until they were the very best that they could be. I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and wrote every spare second I could until there were literally no words left inside me! Then I sent off The Dreamsnatcher to one agent, Hannah Sheppard – and she signed me. Although the rejection process was painful, it taught me a lot about humility, determination and creativity.
MinervaReads: Some of the imagery (the burning of the hand at the beginning) is quite unsettling and frightening. What’s your view on the use of frightening imagery in children’s books?
Abi: Yeah, I scared myself when writing about Skull quite a few times! But I think that as long as you offer children hope – and virtues like bravery, friendship, tolerance and kindness set against the evil you present – then you can go quite dark. I mean, Tolkien totally terrified me as a child but Frodo and Samwise Gamgee taught me to be brave – and I think that kind of lesson is worth being scared rigid by Black Riders for.
MinervaReads: The character of Moll is so well defined. Have you always had her in your head as a sort of alter ego or did you mould her as you wrote the story?
Abi: Hehe. Moll is basically me: ‘a ball of misdirected enthusiasm’ (that’s how my brothers describe me). She’s energetic and adventurous but hopelessly headstrong and pretty impatient – and she almost always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But she means well and she’s fab with a catapult. Moll was the easiest character to write because I just kept scribbling down what I’d do and say in the situations she got into. It was a LOT of fun.
Abi, as a child
MinervaReads: One of myy most treasured possessions is a set of the His Dark Materials trilogy signed by Phillip Pullman to my children. What’s your most treasured possession?
Abi: My teddy. It goes everywhere with me. He even went on my honeymoon. Wow, that’s embarrassing seeing that sentence in actual typed letters on my computer screen. Oh well.
The cover for The Dreamsnatcher was designed by Thomas Flintham