Katherine Rundell is the author of The Girl Savage, Rooftoppers (winner of the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Fiction Prize), The Wolf Wilder and The Explorer. She is a tightrope walker, a Fellow of All Souls College, and has completed a doctorate on the poetry of John Donne.
Imogen Russell Williams interviewed Katherine about The Explorer for Books for Keeps.
You’ve written about running wild in Zimbabwe, climbing over Parisian rooftops, and riding wolves in Tsarist Russia. What drew you, this time, to the Amazon?
I think it was a few things. One of them was another book – Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, which I read when I was a child. I had very rarely been so in love with a book, and never so in love with the world of a book. I longed so much for that kind of green wildness, and that longing never really went away. Then I won some money with the Waterstones Children’s Books Prize, and I suddenly had the capacity to go anywhere in the world, and I knew that I would want to write a story based on this journey. And I thought the best place for a story is somewhere extraordinarily beautiful and dangerous – a place where you can discover life, and also accidentally die – a place that [the characters] fall wildly in love with, but also are aware is not unambiguously on their side. Nature isn’t on anyone’s side.
And what made you set it in this period – in the early twentieth century, between the wars?
Partly, I wanted to write about a specific kind of aeroplane, that was only available at a specific time. And it also had to fit the era of explorers – the pith-helmet-wearing, moustachioed explorers of the past. I also wanted a world in which there wouldn’t be the difficulty of technology – I didn’t want [the children] to text their parents to come and get them – so it had to be in the past. And it had to be a kind of world where people still ventured out into the unknown. The book partly explores the difficulty of that – I wanted it to be a book about the damage we do, as well as the glory there is to be found.
How important was it to you to tell a new story of exploration, rejecting the idea of the ‘civilised’ investigating the ‘savage’?
It was absolutely at the core of the story. By the time I was a child, we had already understood that a lot of exploration had done great harm – it had decimated huge swathes of the population. So I wanted to make it very clear that you can explore the world without damaging it, and that it is imperative to do so. Percy Fawcett, the real-life explorer who went looking for the city of Z, was a radical, in that he argued for treating indigenous people with respect, and refused to fire on them; and his compatriots thought he was crazy. That says a lot about the mistakes that we made at that time. The Amazon is still at risk, and it urgently needs us to rally and help it – because if not, we’ll lose the most beautiful thing in the world.
What sort of research did you do?
I am a nerd by inclination and a scholar by training, so – a lot! There’s a brilliant book called Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming, which is an account of a young man going out into the unknown – and then of course I read a lot about Percy Fawcett and people like him. There’s a book called The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which is a lovely account of his search for Percy Fawcett. And then I also read a lot about the animal life of the place, to try to get it as real as possible; and when I was in the Amazon, I took a lot of notes. Our guide in the Amazon was a brilliant young man who had been a nurse, and a motorcycle mechanic, and he had spent a lot of time living with indigenous people, so he could tell us a lot about the wildness around us. He taught us how to build traps, he taught us how to coax out tarantulas from their holes, how to fish piranha – but also, the names of all the birds, the nature of all the wildlife. So I came back from the Amazon with this huge book of notes, and that stood me in very good stead when I wrote the first draft.
You’ve mentioned Eva Ibbotson and Journey to the River Sea. Were there any other authors or books that influenced you?
Yes – Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, which is about a boy surviving against the odds, and the intricate detail of his day-to-day. I loved, as a child, stories of children surviving completely against the odds, and the minute details of how they did it. There was also a non-fiction book that I was completely obsessed by, called Don’t Die in the Bundu, a how-to guide for not dying in the bush in Zimbabwe. It has brilliant little diagrams of how you get water from a cactus, and how you can collect the morning dew, and how to light a fire using metal and a piece of flint. I memorised the whole book through reading it again and again and again – I was sure that as a kid the day would come that I would need it. That day has never yet come, but I’m not dead yet, so you never know!…But this offer of bravery that these books make – they suggest to you that you too would live, you too would explore. To be told that as a kid is a lovely feeling.
This is the first time you’ve written from a boy’s perspective. Was that challenging?
I would love to say that I found it as easy as writing a girl, and that would be a lie. I found it slightly more difficult. There were moments when I wondered what the effect of being brought up in a world that expects boys to behave a certain way would have on my boy character; what pressure there is to be brave that perhaps there wouldn’t be on a girl in the 1920s or 30s. So it was a more intricate act of imagining than it would have been with my characters Feodora or Sophie or Will [Wilhelmina] – all of whom have a great deal of me and my best friends when I was a child in them. I know what it is to be a young girl better than I know what it is to be a young boy. But I also believe that the core of a child, the heart of them, is not determined by their gender but by who they were born, who they have become. So much of it seems to me that a brave boy in peril and a brave girl in peril would act in very similar ways. And I wanted Fred, my main character, to be brave – but brave as a child is brave, brave with doubts. I do think humans are more, rather than less similar, than we give them credit for; and I wanted to make that clear in the book.
Fred is described as ‘sensible’ in his school reports. But neither his school nor his father really see the inner him – the Fred who consists of ‘hunger and hope and wire’. Do you think this is true of many children
I do. For me, that’s one of the five most important sentences in the book. I think children feel that they are not given credit for what they could do if they were allowed to let rip a little – [given] a little more freedom, a little more trust. I think a lot of children feel that they could do real things – that they could be extraordinary, if they were just given a little more rein. And I don’t mean extraordinary as in surviving in the Amazon alone – but kids are very capable; they endure, they’re tough, they’re witty, they’re sharp, they have good instincts. Obviously they don’t know everything about the world – but there’s that line in Journey to the River Sea: ‘Children can lead large lives’ – and I believe that to be true, both of children in books and of children in real life. I would love a world in which we all conspire together as a society to find places in which children can be wild.
What would you most enjoy about living in the jungle?
The thing I most enjoyed while I was there was the nature of the beauty around you. It’s almost literally unbelievable – these things should not exist. Pink wild river dolphins, and bright, bright scarlet macaws. And we went swimming, and because of the floods, there are drowned forests – so you can swim past trees. It feels as though it were invented, rather than as if it had grown. And that, I don’t think would wear off – I think that ravishing beauty would be quite something to live alongside. But I also know that it’s easy to romanticise a place – it’s a very difficult place to live for many people. And also, while we were there, I got completely covered from head to foot with mosquito bites, to the point where I looked like I had a skin disease – I ended up with almost a hundred mosquito bites, many of them in places that a bikini covers – just horrifying! So not all of it is heaven, but enough of it is heaven to make it completely glorious.
Imogen Russell Williams is a journalist and critic specialising in children’s books.
The Explorer is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.