Already well-regarded for his fantasy novels TIN and POG, Pádraig Kenny’s new novel, The Monsters of Rookhaven is winning him even more acclaim. The story of two children in a post-World War Two Britain, who find themselves in an other world and in a household of monsters, it examines the importance of empathy and understanding, while creating memorable characters.
Pádraig answers our questions on the book.
You say that you’ve loved monsters from an early age. Which were your favourite monsters as a child and what are the fictional monsters you most admire now?
On August 12th 1978 I sat down, at a time that was way too late for a young boy to be sitting up, and I watched a monster double bill on BBC2 that showed a sci-fi classic called Them which was about giant radioactive ants. From that moment I was hooked. I loved stuff like that and I couldn’t get enough of it. King Kong, dinosaur movies, the stop motion movies of Ray Harryhausen. There was a monster in the movie Forbidden Planet called the Creature from the Id which could only be seen when lasers were fired at it, that always stayed with me. In more recent years I’ve loved the work of Guillermo Del Toro. The Pale = Man from his movie Pan’s Labyrinth is an all time classic monster, and I love it because it just looks and sounds vile, like something plucked from the depths of a nightmare and made flesh.
What do you think it is about monsters that so fascinates us all?
I think monsters can be very potent metaphors and symbols. They can be ways of exploring our individual and collective psyches and our fears. On a very basic level they are the Other, something outside ourselves which terrifies us, but they can also be the parts of us that we’re unwilling to acknowledge. Look at Frankenstein’s monster, a man stitched together from dead people. Is there anything more monstrous to imagine than that? A shambling semi-human desperately looking to belong, yet shunned by society, even though he resembles us and is part of us. I always think about the 80s horror movie The Keep in which a group of Nazi soldiers are confronted by a monster and Gabriel Byrne’s Nazi officer asks it ‘Where are you from?’ and the monster replies ‘I am from you.’ I know it’s a bit on the nose, but again it’s what a monster can be, a representation of the worst parts of ourselves.
You write about a house full of some very scary monsters, yet the reader will like them. How important was that to you and how did you make sure that the family of monsters keep the reader’s sympathy, while still being scary?
The most important thing for me was to stress the monster’s human and emotional characteristics, that way the readers can empathise with them. Even if a character is made from thousands of spiders I wanted the reader to recognise something human in them.
What does writing about monsters allow you to do in your books – what’s the best thing about it from a writer’s point of view?
As I said they make great metaphors, and the fact that they are so different to us and yet like us allows the reader to almost recoil at first but then make the imaginative leap to understand them that bit more. And then there’s the extra possibilities of their talents. I loved writing Piglet in particular because you can do almost anything with him. He allowed me to open up the narrative and explore different perspectives because he’s vaguely omnipotent and sees and hears things others don’t, although he may not fully understand them.
The book is illustrated by Edward Bettison. Did you have a strong visual sense of what the house and its inhabitants would look like as you were writing the book. Did you share any of these? Did the illustrations make you see any of the characters differently?
People keep telling me that I’m a very visual writer, but I always feel that I use brushstrokes rather than detail. The reader always seems to see more than I do, but then I suppose that’s the beauty of writing. In terms of artistic input I didn’t really have any but I love that, because I love the idea of handing over my words and seeing what someone else’s imagination does with them. My job is done once I’d typed that last full stop, and Ed’s job was only beginning. I love what Ed has done. His work is so atmospheric and beautifully judged. I don’t know if I saw the characters any differently after seeing his illustrations, but I was delighted to get an insight into the way Ed saw them. I’d love to know how the readers see them.
What monsters in the real world scare you the most?
I don’t want to name names because it’s like giving them power, but there are quite a few people in the political establishment around the world who are stoking hatred and encouraging the othering of decent people with the help of their followers. My book is about empathy and monsters. Unfortunately I think certain real life monsters might be beyond empathy, and that’s partly why the villain I created in the book is so utterly irredeemable.
The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny, illustrated by Edward Bettison, is published by Macmillan Children’s Books, £12.99 hbk