The sequel to Frances Hardinge’s award winning Fly By Night has just been published. Twilight Robbery picks up the action three months after Fly By Night has ended but five years have elapsed since the first book was published. Why the delay? Caroline Sanderson talked exclusively to Frances Hardinge for Books for Keeps.
Frances Hardinge is already sitting in the gleaming white reception area of her publishers, Macmillan Children’s Books, when I arrive for our interview. I know immediately it is she, for just as in her publicity photo, she cuts a striking figure with her long dark hair and black fedora hat. Hardinge has always had a thing for headgear. ‘Even in my baby photos, I am pictured wearing hats.’ The black peaked cap she wore throughout her teens and at university was displaced only when her boyfriend bought her the now trademark fedora. ‘I like its film noir look. And it feels like part of my head. I think my personality is in my hat.’
We chat about work crises. I am facing down a week of looming deadlines, and Hardinge’s publishers are expecting the first draft of her fifth novel imminently. Talking as I am to a writer so obviously partial to the resonance of what things are called, it seems apt that the conversation turns to Opal Fruits (bags of which Hardinge, an Oxford graduate, reveals got her through many an essay crisis) and how they should never have been tamely renamed Starburst. And we both lament the passing of the yellow lemon variety. ‘I always liked the sharper flavours,’ Hardinge divulges.
Apt also because of what one reviewer said of Hardinge’s debut novel: ‘Fly By Night is like delving into a box of sweets with a huge array of flavours.’ This is the book which won Hardinge not only this plaudit, but also the Branford Boase Award in 2006. But its array of flavours might never have been delved into at all, had it not been for her friend, fellow children’s novelist, Rhiannon Lassiter. Hardinge – who previously had been writing short stories for adults – was persuaded by Lassiter to have a go at a children’s book. So she wrote five chapters of Fly By Night and let Lassiter read them, only to discover that her friend had sent them to Macmillan. How did she feel about that? ‘Well, I went “aarg” for about a week. It was a kind of purgatory waiting to hear what they thought.’ Her spell in purgatory did not last long however. Fly By Night went on to become one of the most talked about books at the Bologna Book Fair the following spring, and Hardinge signed multi-book deals with Macmillan in the UK and HarperCollins in the US.
Fast forward six or so years, to our meeting in the week the sequel to Fly By Night is published. Twilight Robbery is Hardinge’s fourth novel and picks up the action three months after Fly By Night has ended. It’s traditional for publishers’ publicity material to refer to any sequel as ‘long-awaited’, and Macmillan’s press release for Twilight Robbery is no exception. However, in this case they may have a point. Given the success of its predecessor, we have waited a long time for Hardinge’s follow-up by today’s serial publishing standards. Hardinge has been far from idle in the intervening period however, having written and published two unrelated novels: Verdigris Deep (2007) and Gullstruck Island (2009). Was the gap between Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery deliberate then? ‘Completely deliberate. After Fly By Night I had a strong impulse to do something different,’ says Hardinge. ‘I build up a head of steam of loathing for any book I work on. It becomes a sort of tyrannical mass of electronic words. Eventually, I forgave Fly By Night enough to do a sequel.’
Though the setting of Twilight Robbery has shifted from Mandelion to the sinister town of Toll, Hardinge’s heroine Mosca remains centre stage. But in this novel, she really comes of age too. In Fly By Night, she is the ragged little country girl, dragged along by events, trailing with Saracen, her ‘cadgebaggoting’ goose, in the wake of her silver-tongued but hapless employer, Eponymous Clent. In Twilight Robbery, it is Mosca who takes the events of the novel by the scruff, with Clent, and even Saracen taking more of a back seat. This, says Hardinge, was a conscious development. ‘Mosca spends much of Fly By Night being borne along by the current, and only at the end does she work out what a paddle is for. In Twilight Robbery she makes good use of it.’ ‘I’m tired of being kicked about like a pebble,’ the newly feisty Mosca declares. ‘It’s time the pebble kicked back.’
Frances Hardinge was born in Brighton in 1973. Given that time of birth is a crucial factor in the fates of the characters in Fly by Night and Twilight Robbery, it isn’t giving too much information to add that she arrived ‘on the 13th floor of the hospital, three weeks late’. According to family lore, this was because she ‘got into a book she couldn’t put down’. Both her parents worked in bookselling, and other family members in publishing. ‘Paper runs in the family,’ she says. Hardinge grew up in a ‘series of small, sinister villages’ across the UK, but when she was seven, she moved with her parents and older sister to a huge isolated house on a hilltop in Kent ‘that wuthered when the wind blew’. It made a big impression on a child who was already writing. ‘It was an old, ridiculous, grey, shambling place with stone eagles and peacocks, a real mish-mash.’ Hardinge was read to, and read widely from an early age: Roald Dahl, Tove Jansson, Leon Garfield, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Nicholas Fisk were her favourite children’s authors, from whom she quickly graduated to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.
Words have always been a source of wonder and fascination. ‘English is this wonderful, omnivorous source. I think of words as fossils with past histories and meanings all wrapped up in them. I love the music of words: I get sucked in by alliterations and internal rhymes.’ Hardinge’s love of strange names is immediately evident in her novels, where her dramatis personae rejoice in such tongue-tantalising monikers as Rabilan Skellow, Beamabeth Marlebourne and Aramai Goshawk. Place names are another source of inspiration. Don’t be surprised if Crowmarsh Gifford, a place in Hardinge’s home county of Oxfordshire, crops up as a character in a future novel. You heard it here first.
As well as providing a showcase for her talent for wordplay, not to mention her considerable imaginative powers, Hardinge’s novels also throw up some big questions for her readers to chew on. Fly By Night examines belief and lack of it; the nature of freedom, and how much of it we should sacrifice in order to feel secure. Twilight Robbery once again has a population in thrall to ridiculously outmoded beliefs, and subjugated by those in power as a result. It also features an underclass, whose members, by mere accident of birth, are condemned to come out only by night and do the jobs the day-dwellers do not want to do. Does Hardinge see herself in any sense as a political writer? ‘I am a storyteller, and story always come first. But it’s hard to write a book and not have it flavoured by your own passions and beliefs. I have bees in my bonnet and sometimes they come out for a buzz.’
Her writing is rarely didactic however. Hardinge is too keen to consider both sides of a question. An example of this comes towards the end of Twilight Robbery when Mosca and Clent are reflecting on the dramatic events they have just experienced. ‘To be young is to be powerless, but to have delusions of power,’ says Clent. ‘To believe that one can really change things, make the world better and simpler in good and simple ways. To grow old is to realise that nobody is ever good, nothing is ever simple.’ Mosca’s bones ‘scream at her’. But sometimes things are simple, she thinks. ‘Just now and then. And people are good.’ Both points of view are of course, true, and that is the power of their conversation. ‘What I’m saying to my readers is: think for yourself,’ says Hardinge. ‘Don’t take what anyone says on rote, including me.’ Yet with a heroine who instructs another that ‘the heart of being a radical is kicking up a hurricane,’ it’s hard not to be left with at least a fleeting impression of an author with subtly subversive tendencies.
At the end of Twilight Robbery, an uncertain future once again faces Mosca, Saracen and Clent as they leave Toll for pastures new, Mosca declaring herself on ‘borrowed time’ as she decides whether to accept a rather complicated job offer. So can we expect a return for the fly girl, born on the day sacred to Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butterchurns? ‘I do have ideas about what happens next. The territory of my books always stretches out beyond what I actually use, and there is still a sense of the wider realm beyond. So there is probably more Mosca to come. But not yet. And I’m definitely not writing a trilogy. I still don’t know how many books there might be in the series.’
Hardinge’s fifth book – first draft due soon, copious sweets permitting – is set in an alternative world ‘with strong elements of weirdness’. It is, she says ‘looking quite odd’. Her boyfriend is apparently very patient with the novel writing process. ‘At one point, to help with the plot, I made him come with me to learn to make cheese.’ The new novel will, I can reveal, also feature monkeys, and some Venus Fly Traps. It’s enough – as with Opal Fruits – to make your mouth water.
Macmillan Children’s Books, 528pp, 978-1405055390, £9.99, hbk
Read the BfK review of Twilight Robbery.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor. She is the author of Kiss Chase & Conkers, a book about traditional children’s games.