Michelle Pauli catches up with Vashti Hardy, author of Brightstorm and Wildspark, to talk fantasy worlds, STEM role models for girls, and My Naughty Little Sister.
Vashti Hardy makes creating a fantasy world just sound so much fun. Of course, it comes across in the meticulously realised worlds in her books – last year’s Brightstorm and the recent Wildspark – but in person she almost fizzes as she describes the pleasure of shifting perspective, bending the rules and creating a new and vivid past and future. All of which, inevitably, shines a light back on our world and how we do things.
‘The nice thing about creating a fantasy world is you decide which rules and problems you’re going to import into the world and you can decide which problems you might like to lose from your world,’ she explains over a cup of tea in a café near her home on the south coast.
In Brightstorm, her first rollicking steampunk adventure in which twins Maudie and Arthur go on a perilous expedition to the frozen South Polaris in an air ship led by explorer Harriet Culpepper, the problem is gender inequality. What would a world in which gender has never been a barrier to achievement look like? The result, in an award-winning book that has been described as Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights for middle grade, is a wealth of female characters who are also accomplished engineers and inventors.
Continuing the theme in Wildspark (a standalone novel set in a new world – the Brightstorm sequel is due out next year), Prue Haywood is a whizz at mechanics who runs away from the family farm to become an apprentice at the secretive ‘Guild’ in London, where incredible technology is being used to capture the spirits of the dead in the realistic bodies of mechanical animals, known as personifates.
Written quickly – the first draft took just three months, fitted in between Hardy’s full-time job as a digital marketer, embarking on publicity for Brightstorm and family life with three teenagers – Wildspark is an even more inventive and accomplished novel than Hardy’s debut and tackles big questions around technology and morality: where do we draw the line between what is possible, permissible and morally right?
However, while it is brilliantly techy and inventive, Wildspark also has a heart. Prue and her family are grieving the death a year previously of her brother, Frances, and she has to make a number of difficult and painful choices during her apprenticeship that the reader agonises over alongside her.
‘Wildspark grew from a big what if – what if you have ghost machines? So it didn’t start from a place of character, but then it becomes about finding that connection between a concept and giving it soul, which is what I did with Prue and Francis. It seemed very logical to have someone who’s lost someone at a young age in a world where you’re dealing with ghosts,’ Hardy explains.
‘There’s always a nice tension between you as a writer and the characters and you go along in this journey together and see where they take you but you’re pulling one way and they’re pulling their way. It’s a fascinating process. I think it’s like a tapestry sometimes. You’ve got all these threads behind the tapestry that, as an author, you’re weaving and pulling together. At the end of it you want to look at it and see this picture that’s your final book and you don’t see all the tangled threads that you’ve been struggling with behind the scenes,’ she says.
However, for Hardy, creating the world always comes first. She has established a set of practices to help develop new worlds for each story. First of all, there must be a map and pictures.
‘I try to feel the world, see it in my head and make a world that feels like somewhere you can travel to. Then I listen to music – soundtracks – because they take you on that emotional journey. I’m quite time-poor at the moment, so on my lunch hour I can go for a walk, have my headphones in listening to something and I can feel what the scene is like or what the emotion of it is. So if I’ve been at work and want to write something when I get home I’ll put the music on and it’ll get me back into that world much more quickly.’
The other essential tool is a blurb that Hardy writes at the very start after imagining the story as a finished book.
‘It helps me pick out what the core things are – what the core journey of the character might be, what might be unique about that world, what’s different,’ she says. ‘I’ll revisit is as I’m writing as things might change but it sets the right direction and it helps me do it in a more efficient way – am I still keeping to the core of what I’m trying to do or am I going on a tangent with something that seems like a great idea and all shiny and wonderful, but may not be right for the characters?’
Brightstorm has been embraced by primary schoolteachers, covering as it does science, geography, art and more – plus inspiring STEM role models for girls – and it is likely that Wildspark will be similarly warmly received in classrooms. As a former teacher, Hardy is delighted. She is keen to credit the role of teachers in her own life for the path she has taken, from early years teachers who took her class to the local library at a young age, to the headteacher who read My Naughty Little Sister stories in assembly and an inspirational English teacher in secondary school who introduced her to writing journals and let the class borrow his own books.
‘I think if any one of those things wasn’t part of my experience, I probably would never have been an author because I didn’t really believe that it was something that someone like me could do. We didn’t have much money for going to exciting places so my imagination was my adventuring – I’d go into a book and read my way into something adventurous and exciting.’
A turning point was at the age of about seven when a teacher read the fantasy tale Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation out loud. It was a powerful moment.
‘That was me hooked on books. Now when I go into schools, I always say to children, if you haven’t found that book, just keep looking, keep asking for recommendations because when you find the book that just does it for you, there’s no stopping you.’
Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.
Brightstorm and Wildspark are published by Scholastic Children’s Books, £6.99 pbk