Sydney-based author Jaclyn Moriarty is one of the world’s great, and most original, contemporary fantasy writers. Her young adult novels, including The Colours of Madeleine trilogy, cartwheeled into the cosmos. A middle-grade fantasy series Kingdoms and Empires followed with The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars, The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst and now The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere. Joy Lawn interviewed Jaclyn Moriarty for Books for Keeps.
Thank you for speaking to Books for Keeps, Jaclyn.
The four books in your Kingdoms and Empires middle-grade series develop as a series but each book stands alone. Who are the protagonists of each book, and could you describe the essence of each book in a few words. Please tell us a little more about the new book The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere.
Ten-year-old Bronte introduces the series: after a childhood of afternoon teas and butlers, her parents are killed by pirates, and her inconvenient adventures begin. In book 2, Finlay (an orphan) and Honey Bee (a private school girl) clash regularly while living through the Whispering Wars, and in book 3, Esther’s new schoolteacher is rumoured to be an Ogre.
Oscar, a free-spirited skateboarder, finds his way from our world into the Kingdoms and Empires, and gets busy trying to save an Elven city from being crushed by shadow magic.
Apart from the setting in the secondary world of the kingdoms and empires, how do the books overlap?
Bronte Mettlestone, along with her extended family, plays a key role in each book.
The Colours of Madeleine, your highly awarded YA fantasy trilogy, spirals around the fascinating notion of cracks between worlds. The second book is even called The Cracks in the Kingdom. How does this inkling of cracks between worlds continue in Kingdoms and Empires?
I love the idea of cracks between worlds giving glimpses of other possibilities. The first three books in the series were set in the Kingdoms and Empires, and I kept wondering if a child from our world might visit. Walking by the local skate park one day, I realised that the first visitor should be a skateboarder who’s unlikely to read fantasy or believe in magic, but in desperate need of happiness.
In Kingdoms and Empires, The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere returns to the format of the second book The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars with chapters written by two characters. Why have you returned to this structure, and how are Oscar (the skateboarder) and Imogen a foil to each other?
I think separate accounts reveal different details, and that truths arise from clashes between narrators. For me, it’s most fun if the two narrators seem completely different, as Oscar and Imogen do—they’re from different worlds, literally and figuratively—but are linked by a deep, common thread. Both have been neglected, and have developed self-sufficiency, and both are in need of a real childhood.
Your characters may annoy and argue with each other, but they are generally affirming and loving. Why?
During a doctor’s appointment the other day I mentioned that I have four sisters. ‘Oh,’ the doctor said, ‘you poor thing!’ That really startled me. (Apparently, she has ‘difficult’ sisters.) But I feel so lucky in my sisters! They’re my bonus best friends. And the fierce loyalty between Imogen and her sisters is inspired by that. Loving connections in books can be boring or sappy, but to me they are the point of everything. So I try to include them.
Of course, kids (and adults) can grow testy if they spend too much concentrated time together—especially if they’re hungry, sleepy, frightened and confused, like the children in this book. So there are also arguments… (My sisters and I used to scream the neighbourhood down when we fought.)
Your characters go on quests. What is your favourite part of a quest?
The part where the heroes are muddy, starving, cold and exhausted and stop at an inn for baths, a feast, hot chocolate by the fire, and a beautiful sleep in a huge four-poster bed.
What is your most original or fun creation in The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere?
I had fun creating the Elven City of Dun-Sorey-Lo-Vay-Lo-Hey (although I had to double check the spelling every time I mentioned it), the Crystal Faery Palace, and the town where pirates take breaks from pirating to live honest, suburban lives and join the Pirates Cricket League.
Which part makes you laugh?
I listened to a chapter of the audiobook the other day and laughed aloud at some of Oscar’s jokes. The actor voicing him was brilliant, but I still felt embarrassed to be laughing at my own writing. (Oscar is inspired by my skateboarding teenager who is very funny.)
Radish Gnomes, Sterling Silver Foxes and other magical creatures appear throughout the series. Oscar thinks that Radish Gnomes sound cute. ‘Little guys … the size and shape of radishes.’ What is your true opinion of radishes?
Ha! Well, I always thought of them as nasty, vicious things, which is why the Radish Gnomes are that way. However, I ate a salad with radish the other day and it was good! The radish added pizzazz! So, I made an error. Sorry, radishes.
Cross-stitch and crochet also feature in the series. Which do you prefer?
When I was ten, I had to cross-stitch a pattern for a school project. Mine was a mess. I pulled it apart and tried again. It was worse. Tried again. And again. By the time I handed it in, it was a crumpled, dirty old rag with random bits of frayed thread. Later, the teacher held it up to the class. ‘This is the worst cross-stitch I’ve ever seen,’ she said. ‘The person who did this was so ashamed they didn’t even add their name!’ (I’d actually forgotten to do that, luckily.)
As for crochet, well, my dad used to crochet shopping bags as a little boy. While researching weaving for the Spellbinders in these books, I asked if he could teach me. He crocheted a little blue-and-white bag, to demonstrate, and this is now one of my most treasured possessions.
So, I mean, cross-stitch or crochet? Hmm…
Throughout the series you have important things to say about climate change, refugees, child slavery, leadership, responsibility, neglect and choosing not to depend on technology. You couch these as part of inventive, gripping plots and skilled characterisation and relationship development. What would you most hope that readers grasp from either The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere or the series as a whole?
Thank you! I never set out to explore issues, although they seem to arise in stories themselves. Then I try to be careful not to lecture. The only thing I’d really hope readers of Oscar grasp is that they themselves are special and valuable people no matter how flawed or alone they feel, and that somewhere, there is a friend for them.
What is a response to these books that you have loved?
The illustrations by Karl James Mountford (and by Kelly Canby and Jim Tierney for the Australian and US editions respectively) make me cry with joy. Honestly, I sit at my computer weeping. For someone to respond to my words with such talent and beauty is a gift. Reader messages are also gifts (and often also make me cry). Two favourite lines from recent emails include (from a nine-year-old): ‘I love your books because they make my imagination go wild,’ and (from a twelve-year-old): ‘Come on, when is the next one coming out, I’ve been waiting, like, 20,000 years.’
What are you working on now?
I’m finalising the next book in the series: a girl named Lillian Velvet receives a pickle jar filled with gold coins for her birthday, and finds herself being transported into the Kingdoms and Empires for short, unexpected adventures. (Also, I just finished writing a time travel novel for grownups!)
Find out more on Jaclyn Moriarty’s website.
Joy Lawn is an Australian book critic. Specialising in children’s, YA and literary fiction, she reviews for the Australian newspaper, Books + Publishing and Magpies magazine. She has spoken about Australian children’s literature nationally and internationally and judged the Australian Prime Minister’s literary award, amongst others. She blogs as ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords.
The Bronte Mettlestone Adventures are published by Guppy Books, £7.99 pbk
The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, 978-1913101053,
The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars, 978-1913101121
The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, 978-1913101619
The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere, 978-1913101787