Nicholas Tucker interviews Anne Fine about her latest novel, Aftershocks.
Now aged 74, ex-Children’s Laureate and multi-award winner Anne Fine is writing as well as ever, with her latest novel Aftershocks coming out in February. This will be at least her seventieth publication, and as usual is nothing like anything she has written before. Interviewing her over the phone, I ask her how come she constantly breaks her own mould when writing for older children.
Well, I only write a book when it absolutely insists on being heard. Writing them takes such a long time and so much effort; you really must feel you have to do it. Simply repeating myself just wouldn’t work.
In Aftershocks Louie, a teenage boy, accompanies his engineer-father to a scene of utter devastation. This is in a non-existent Northern area whose colonised and highly secret inhabitants known as Endlanders have always been a law unto themselves. Louie himself has recently lost a much-loved older brother in a road accident. Unable to share his grief with his nice but ultra-defensive father and with his mother recently quitting the family home, Louie is very much on his own. How he comes through to a better conclusion for all concerned is what the rest of this fine novel is all about. Was this story prompted by anything particular in your life?
There had been some recent bereavement and grief in my wider family, and that was in the back of my mind. Then I read this article in The London Review of Books about the dreadful 2011 Tsunami in Japan and some of the strange things, including experience of ghostly visions, all dripping wet, reportedly seen after the event. And these two themes meshed; all of a sudden you get this nudge, ‘Write me! Write me!’
Louie is far away from home and a phone signal is unobtainable. Anne is not the only children’s author finding ingenious ways of separating her main young characters from constant internet chatter. He is also without any teenage company, male or female. Might this be a problem for girl readers seeking someone of their own sex with whom to identify?
I don’t think so. The two sexes are often very similar psychologically, and boys and men can be just as feeling as girls, even if less prone to showing it. Sometimes I have changed a main character’s gender after starting a new book and it really seems to make very little difference.
When plain-speaking Mum comes on in this story, I can’t help but see you immediately she starts talking!
I just can’t write about wet Mums! I see them all around me, too afraid ever to snatch the phone from their children’s grasp for a moment, and I simply can’t understand why. Jan Mark once said that you start with a finger of somebody then work them up into a whole character. But in my case, when it comes to Mums I always seem to be starting out from my own finger!
Have you ever had anything approaching a ghostly experience?
No. And if I ever did that would absolutely slay my view of the universe so badly it would be even more terrifying than whatever was happening. Because I am such a realist, such a rationalist, I really don’t want an experience that would in any way seriously challenge any of those assumptions.
And yet Louie does several times actually hear his dead brother giving him invaluable advice at crucial moments in the plot.
I’m not saying that other people can’t have such experiences, as I have known some who certainly claim they have. I don’t look down on them or Louie at all – I just don’t want anything like that happening to me.
You have been writing for children now since 1978. Has the experience of doing this changed over the years?
I used to think that the most important thing for any author was to work within the parameters of your own talent. But I am beginning to think now that the greatest skill is to work within other people’s penchant for taking offence, usually on someone else’s behalf.
So given these new constraints, do you think our Third Golden Age of children’s literature is showing signs of coming to an end?
Things move on, and it certainly becomes more difficult for me to write a book when in the process I am forced to bear in mind everyone who might choose to be offended and yet still manage to come up with something worth reading.
It’s always fun talking to Anne. Fiercely intelligent, passionate but able to laugh at herself, opinionated but ever open to argument, both she and her books have provided fearless and often exuberant company over many years. Any new story by her is an event, with young readers soon realising that she will always tell them things as she thinks they truly are. Long may she continue to enjoy as much as is still possible the literary freedom she has previously put to such memorable use.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Aftershocks is published by Old Barn Books, 978-1910646779, £11.99 hbk.