In a recent radio interview, I was asked, ‘Is it difficult to make the transition to children’s books from serious literature?’ I had expected the question – or a question something like it – but not the word `serious’ in there. It irritated me. It implied that writing fiction for children was somehow not serious, or at any rate that I didn’t take it seriously. I replied that the transition as I saw it was not from serious fiction to non-serious fiction, but from serious fiction of a complex, many-layered genre to another kind of serious fiction, more simple, more constrained, tidier and shorter, but still with an overtly serious purpose – to delight and to illuminate.
My recent (adult) novel, The Swimming Pool Season, is primarily a story about love, but it is also a story about families, about belonging in families, about the ways in which people’s sense of belonging – to families, relationships, places and ideas – alter and constrain their sense of themselves and their aspirations. Journey to the Volcano, the first book I completed (not the first I’ve started) for children, has these very same concerns at its centre. I chose as my central character a young boy, George Lewis, who finds himself in the middle of a ‘tug of love’ between his reserved but loyal English father and his more volatile and emotional’ Sicilian mother. The book follows George and his mother to Sicily and charts George’s attempts to fit in with and learn the ways of his extended Sicilian family – his efforts, in fact, to belong to them, while’ at the same time worrying about his father left alone with a dull job and an empty house in London. It’s a ‘journey book’, not only in the sense that George does in fact travel to a different culture and encounters all kinds of behaviours and customs that he doesn’t fully understand, but also in the sense that both George and his parents journey towards a better understanding of each other’s concerns and priorities and of the complexity of the emotional ties which bind them not only to each other, but also to friends and relations outside the little nuclear family.
I think it would have been possible – and this would be my extended answer to the interviewer who categorised children’s fiction as non-serious – to have taken virtually the same plot-line and the same characters and made an adult novel from them. In choosing to write this story for younger readers, however, I also realised that my approach to the actual writing of the book would have to be very different and that much of the trickery and experimentation that helps’ make the writing of novels such an absorbing endeavour would have to be set aside before starting. My editor at Hamish Hamilton, David Grant, was diligent in pointing out the traps into which `main list’ authors can fall if they assume that writing children’s fiction after writing adult novels is likely to be easy. It isn’t easy, in my opinion, because so many of the tools the novelist employs, particularly the use of metaphor and verbal games, no longer help the story forward and are therefore inappropriate. Instead of taking up a position outside the narrative, the better to embellish it, the children’s writer has, somehow, to burrow into the narrative, making absolutely certain that it arrives in recognisable shape, that no false trails are followed unless they are clear ones and that tight control is ,’ maintained.
One reviewer has said of my adult novels that not a great deal happens in them because `emotion is action’. i.e. what the characters feel and the shifts and changes in those feelings carry the narrative’ forward; and this may be more true than I’m disposed to believe, – What is certain is that in setting out to write a book for children, I was in no doubt about the importance of happenings, and here, I think, lies the single great difference of approach. In constructing a novel; I never construct a plot; the plot emerges, always with the characters leading. In constructing Journey to the Volcano, I sat down and thought out the plot from beginning to end and forced the characters to come with me and bring that plot about. Once or twice, the characters became mulish (notably the rather anarchic character, Norridge, George’s English grandfather) and refused to follow where I led, but in the main, they came with me from Point A to Point Z; and the story I’d intended to tell was told.
I’m now about to begin another children’s book. It’s interesting to note at this point that although I have three-quarters of the story in my head, I don’t have an ending. The question I need to ask myself is, shall I make certain I know what the ending is before I start, or shall I – in the high-risk way that I like to write novels – ‘earn’ the ending in the process of writing the story? It’s possible that having completed one book for children (thus reassuring myself that I can do it) I’m now disposed to work on the next one in a more dangerous way. If I do this, will the next book be less successful than Journey to the Volcano, or will it have an extra little dimension that will make it more compelling? A difficult question, surely. Easy it isn’t. Serious’ it is.
Journey to the Volcano, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11651 1, £5.95.