‘This is not the sort of book I ever expected to write’, says Anna Goodall of her debut, Maggie Blue and the Dark World, which has just been shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Children’s Book Award. Her book tells the story of a young girl called Maggie, who is living away from home with an aunt while her mother is ill with depression. Maggie has no friends at school, but feels a connection with Ida, despite the other girl’s mean treatment of her. When she sees Ida being dragged into another world therefore, Maggie is determined to save her. In the very dangerous adventure that follows, her main help comes from Hoagy, a charismatic, one-eyed talking cat. It’s an inventive and original fantasy, sharply written, with memorable scenes and characters. Andrea Reece talked to Anna about her book.
She may not have expected to write a book like Maggie Blue and the Dark World, but Anna Goodall always knew she wanted to be a writer. ‘I remember deciding that when I was about five or six’, she says, adding with a laugh, ‘Of course you’re very confident at primary school, things seem easy, and you get stickers for everything!’ She describes writing as ‘like a compulsion, the way I connect with the world even’ and filling notebook after notebook with stories. It wasn’t until she reached her thirties though that she thought she could really do it.
She signed up to do a course in scriptwriting, ‘I wanted to access a writing course, but I didn’t want to do a novel writing course for some reason.’ She puts this down to contrariness, laughing again. The course was really helpful, ‘What was brilliant about doing a film writing course is that structure is everything in films, everything has to be so lean and controlled, and I found that really exciting.’ Soon she was collaborating on projects with fellow students, but none of them were working out. At that point, she got pregnant, ‘I had terrible morning sickness and just literally sat around the house like a ghost. For a couple of months I couldn’t do anything. It was a bit grim, but helpful in the end because all the things that I was doing with other people fell apart and when I started feeling better, I just wanted to do something on my own; it felt like I had this strange freedom to write at that point. There’s something about being pregnant, you feel “Well, I am actually doing something already,” but I suddenly felt this free space to write in and it all came together at that point. Even writing a film script is often quite collaborative and I really just wanted to be on my own’.
Her path to publication was serendipitous too. An old friend was going out with the author Lisa Williamson (they’re now married) and Anna asked Lisa to read her manuscript. Lisa did and recommended it to editor Bella Pearson, who was then just setting up Guppy Books.
‘I was really fortunate to get to Bella directly’ says Anna. When we talk the two had just had a celebratory lunch, ‘I’m so glad that Bella gets to bask in the Maggie Blue Costa glory’ adds Anna, ‘She started the press two years ago and does pretty much everything herself. She’s a great editor and really believes in the books that she picks. We’re both very excited that the book is shortlisted – there are some massive publishers on the shortlist, and we really are tiny – yes, surprised and excited!’
Their lunch had also been to discuss book two, which takes Maggie’s adventures further. They’ll eventually form a trilogy. Writing her second book was ‘a really interesting experience’ says Anna. ‘I think because I was writing a sequel, I felt I had to control it. I always knew vaguely where I was going and I think I got a bit worried, trying to control everything. I wrote down everything that was going to happen in lots of detail and then I started to write it and I was so unbelievably bored! I just couldn’t write. I’d taken all the mystery out of it for myself. I got really worried at that point, feeling, “I don’t know how to do this.” And I just had to let it go. Just try and find new ways of writing it and to break it all apart again in order to write something. I found that fascinating.’ She describes how one of her favourite authors, Javier Marías, writes his novels page by page, without ever knowing what’s going to happen: ‘Once he’s finished a page he sends it to his editor and he never changes it again. That’s a whole other level of functioning though!’
We come back round to talking about book one, and her comment that Maggie Blue – a children’s book set in another world – is not the sort she ever expected to write. ‘I don’t know why I’ve done it really’ she says. ‘I did read a lot of books set in other worlds as a kid and I do think Philip Pullman was a big influence, not that it comes across directly in the book, but I found the way he just cuts between worlds inspiring. I think the story developed the way it has, because the Dark World represents a lot of things that I wanted to talk about; children’s books allow you to talk about a lot of difficult and interesting stuff in a sort of fantastical way and I needed that outlet, because if I talked about what the Dark World represents in the real world, that would have been too dark.’
The world that Maggie finds herself in as she goes to rescue Ida is very dark indeed, the natural world seems sick or dying, while a cruel and oppressive ruler is literally draining happiness out of wretched prisoners, Ida included. ‘I think the Dark World functions on a kind of psychological level’ explains Anna, ‘At least in terms of what happens when you repress who you are. It also represents what happens when you repress nature, when you live a life that is unnatural. I think I’m interested in that because it reflects very much how we live at the moment. I think there’s a connection between the wau we live and the prevalence of depression and mental health problems. I’m not trying to make any bold connections or offer any answers, but these are the questions that were interesting me when I wrote it.’
Book two will be out in 2022, and then she’ll be working on the third and final part of the trilogy. ‘And then I don’t really know, I imagine after that I’ll take a sabbatical. It feels that people write books so quickly now and I really struggle with that. I think it will take me a long time until I’m ready to have an idea that I really believe in again.’ Let’s hope it’s not too long. ‘No,’ says Anna, ‘Maybe I’ll just have a lie down, figure out what to do next!’
Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.
Maggie Blue and the Dark World is published by Guppy Books, £7.99 pbk.