The shortlist for the 2016 Costa Book Awards features four novels for young people, each accomplished and very different. The judges admired Francesca Simon’s YA novel The Monstrous Child for the way ‘an ancient anti-heroine is given a fierce modern voice in this story of gods, monsters and growing up’. Costa judge Anna James interviewed Francesca Simon for Books for Keeps.
The Monstrous Child is a book that stubbornly resists categorisation. It’s a retelling of the myth of Hel, the goddess of the underworld, casting her as a sarcastic teenager angry with her parents and her lot in life, and with a huge crush on recently-arrived in the underworld god Baldr. It’s written with a stark lyricism that feels almost like verse, and a pitch black sense of humour. It’s quite the shift from the books that made Simon’s name, the Horrid Henry series: ‘It just came from my gut,’ she explains. ‘It very much caught me by surprise. It means so much to me; it cracked something open while I was writing it and I just went for it.’
Although Simon’s interest in myths and legends is long-held (she studied medieval history and literature at university and has explored the Norse gods in previous books for younger readers), the idea for The Monstrous Child came to her out of the blue: ‘I would never have had the idea abstractly but I was on the subway in New York and her voice just came into my head and it said ‘You’d think after my brother the snake was born they’d have stopped at one’ and I just knew who it was and that became the first sentence of the book.’
Once she had Hel’s voice, Simon did do some more research; both into Hel but also from some more unlikely sources, especially when it came to Hel’s relationship with Baldr: ‘I wanted to channel that feeling of girls who worship bands like One Direction. So I watched a documentary about their fans and it was all about how they felt that the band made their lives worth living - that complete fantasy relationship and the terrible poignancy of it. So it’s about survival but also about being hopelessly in love with the most beautiful boy in school. It’s about being so wounded but so fierce.’
When it came to the more traditional research, there’s relatively little to be found about Hel. One of the problems Simon came up against was that she has a heroine with rotten legs who can’t move easily confined to one, very grim, place: ‘You have to avoid it being too static; if you can’t move physically you have to move imaginatively. How do you get a sense of forward motion while someone is just sitting on a grave mound waiting. I actually wanted a section where there is one word per page to get across the slowness of her world, but my publisher nixed it!’
Simon isn’t actually a big planner when it comes to writing: ‘I do a lot of research and writing in notebooks, and then I do a one page of what needs to happen, but I have no idea how I’m going to get there. For me it would be like painting by numbers to plan so much in advance - I think I would be too bored.’
Editing is the part of the process that Simon really loves: ‘I’m quite good at turning the editor off to allow myself to write the bad first draft, but once I’ve got something, that’s the bit of writing I really enjoy. That point when you realise it’s going to work, that you’re going to have a book and I spend months editing.’ One of things Simon was particularly conscious of while editing was repeated words: ‘My father, who’s also a writer, read it and he said ‘Well Francesca, I think this is the best book you’ve ever written but I think a few putrids go a long way!’ and I did a word search and I found I’d used the word putrid 26 times so I took some out!’
While writing it, Simon was entirely focused on the character but when she read it back after it was finished, she was interested by what else was there: ‘I realised after I wrote it that there is so much in it about women and girls and their ideas about their bodies; that feeling that you are monstrous, that huge discomfort in your own body. When you use myth as a framework it gives you permission to write about all kinds of other things that bubble up. I love book where lots of things collide.’ This leads us on to the book that Simon is currently reading, recent Guardian Prize winner Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle: ‘I love the idea of putting a story about knights and quests and castle onto this really dangerous, stressful estate,’ she explains. ‘It’s a brilliant idea, it’s basically a medieval story but in a bang up to date way.’
Simon is an avid reader, and always has been: ‘As a child I had three library cards because I was reading two books a day! I volunteered in my school library basically so I could get first dibs on the books that were being returned. I’m really passionate about the whole library thing, it makes me really angry,’ she goes on. ‘And having a trained librarian is so important, a volunteer can stamp out a book but it’s that guided reading - it’s someone who can say ‘I noticed you really liked this, have you tried that?’. The library is such an incredible place to be; I’ve never met a children’s writer who didn’t basically live in a library.’
Anna James is a writer and journalist. Her debut children’s novel book Pages & Co will be published in October 2017 by HarperCollins.
The Monstrous Child is published by Faber & Faber, £7.99 pbk.