Creating her new book The Song of the Nightingale was a long story explains Tanya Landman.
The thrill of receiving an advance copy of The Song of the Nightingale recently was overwhelming. The book had been years in the making, and to hold it in my hands – so superbly illustrated by the divine Laura Carlin – is a moment I’ll never forget.
When I say ‘years in the making’ I mean literally decades. I first heard the story when I was about twenty. I don’t recall exactly where or when but that image of a drop of gold on the back of the little bird’s throat fixed itself deep into my head and heart.
Fast forward to when I was almost thirty. I was living with Rod Burnett – an artist and a puppeteer who later became my husband. In the bedroom of our basement flat we were building a new show for the two of us to perform – a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale.
I remember the two of us taking a break and going outside to sit on the triangle of grass over the road. We knew the show was lacking something. The beginning didn’t quite work. It needed something else to draw people in. The story I’d heard years ago came into my head, and I told the bare bones of it to Rod.
‘Write it,’ he said.
And so I did, adding my own touches as I went (God having fish and chips for breakfast, for example. And seven spoonfuls of sugar in his tea.) We used it as the opening of the show with great success.
Fast forward again to me turning 40. Rod and I were living in Devon with our two boys and I was starting to write. Waking Merlin had been published by Walker Books and I’d submitted a whole pile of other ideas including The Song of the Nightingale.
My editor loved it, but it was problematic, she said. For various reasons creation stories are a hard sell. Was there another way of approaching it, she asked? Basically, I needed to write a creation story without actually mentioning God.
So many drafts! So many different ideas! Could the God character be Mother Earth, I wondered? Could she be Gaia? No…. that didn’t work either. Eventually I came up with a version that ditched the creation aspect altogether and just focussed on the animals being drab and colourless. Who better to brighten them up than a painter?
So now they had the right text, Walker Books needed to find the right illustrator. The manuscript sat, gathering dust, for another few years until after my fiftieth birthday. And then one day when I was at Walker Books for a meeting about a different book altogether my editor introduced me to the work of Laura Carlin. They were thinking of commissioning her to illustrate The Song of the Nightingale.
More time passed. And then came the magical moment when I saw Laura’s illustrations for the first time. It was the last time I was in London – on March 13th 2020 – shortly before the country went into lockdown. I had lunch at Walker Books and then the designer showed me the spreads. They literally took my breath away, and will have the same effect on readers.
The Song of the Nightingale by Tanya Landman, illustrated by Laura Carlin, is published by Walker Studio, 978-1406349399, £12.99 hbk.