Frances Hardinge - Fantasy Worlds


Bump off the parents – we’re talking writing, of course. Yesterday I heard Frances Hardinge give a talk at Newcastle University. The talk was advertised as ‘Fantasy Worlds’. Hardinge did not disappoint as she explained how knowledge of her worlds is a key part in her creative process.

Hardinge opened by reading from The Lie Tree. The book is set in the 1840s, when theories of evolution became widely accepted within the scientific community. Hardinge noted that although we now think of religion and natural science as separate spheres, many scientists of the era were amateurs – people with the time, money and education to pursue science as a hobby. As such, a number of scientists were also clergymen.

When asked why she wrote for young people, Hardinge replied that she remembers being old enough to question the generally accepted truth, but young enough to be underestimated by the adults around her. She described it as a ‘questioning age’, and said it was a pity people usually grew out of such curiosity. The Lie Tree is about a protagonist and a society waking up to the lies around them.

Hardinge also suggested it was easier to cross genre boundaries in children’s fiction.

Asked whether she considered herself a political author, Hardinge replied that she does not set out ‘with a bee in her bonnet’ but that the bees ‘are allowed to creep in’ once she is writing. She spoke about the amount of detail she likes to know about her worlds before she writes - much of which never reaches the reader. Once she knows a world and its political structures, she likes to ask how those structures might be exploited. My favourite example of ideas born from such questioning – and an example Hardigne gave herself – is from ‘A Face Like Glass’. People in Caverna are born without the ability to learn facial expression. Having established this, Hardinge realised that the number of faces available to you would depend upon your social class. The underclass in Caverna are taught a handful of expressions fit for obedience and servitude. The upper classes hire facesmiths to teach them new expressions, and aspire to be first to wear the next fad.

It was noted that many of her works are set at times of revolution. Hardinge said she was fascinated by societies at a point of change, and how different people reacted to that change. She talked about the myth that revolutions come to a neat end. The aftermath of a revolution can be a time of precarious compromise, with different parties looking for different outcomes and society having to agree upon a new norm which everybody finds acceptable.

Hardinge said there was a point in all her novels when her characters had to ‘make the jump’ – she said she hoped it was not apparent to the reader beforehand which characters would jump safely to the other side and which would metaphorically plummet as a result of facing this moment of change.

Audience questions included ‘how do you name your characters?’ and ‘what would you advise young writers to do about the problem of parents?’ Hardinge replied that her naming systems were different in every book, and often part of the information she formed about that world prior to writing. In ‘Gullstruck Island’, people live in fear of angering a volcano. Children are named in imitation of nature in the hope that if the child goes missing the name can be called and the volcano might mistake the name for a natural sound.

On the question of parents, Hardinge said it was usually advisable to ‘get rid of them’, as parents and guardians tend to save children from peril – and peril is important to plot. She suggested they did not have to be dead, but at the very least should be wrapped up in problems of their own. Otherwise, the character should not have a relationship with the parent which would allow the parent to intervene before the plot began.

The talk was held on 8th of February 2017   at Newcastle University in association with Seven Stories. For those of you do not know, Seven Stories is the National Centre for children’s books. As well as being a museum, it also holds the largest dedicated archive of material associated with children’s books – from author’s notebooks to fan mail written by children.

Many thanks to Frances Hardinge, Seven Stories and Newcastle Universtiy Depertment of English. 

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