Geraldine McCaughrean’s novels for young people are never – or almost never – set in the same place. Her new book, The Middle of Nowhere is a case in point. Set in Australia, deep in the Outback it tells the story of Comity whose father runs the telegraphy post at Kinkindele. The death of her mother, and her father’s grief leave Comity to manage the station, supported only by the friendship of Fred, an Aboriginal boy. It is a situation that makes almost impossible demands.
Why – when she herself has done very little travelling – does Geraldine choose such exotic backgrounds as Madagascar, Mongolia, Ancient China and the Antarctica? ‘I don’t like to repeat myself. So I am always looking for different subjects’. However, the choice of Australia had a slightly different genesis since it was partially inspired by a visit Geraldine made to that continent. She wanted, she says, to convey the enormous, empty beauty of the place and the sense of isolation that living in the middle might engender.
However, it was not the only inspiration. I asked Geraldine how she comes up with her amazingly different stories and heard how she squirrels away ideas, ‘I have a story box, an ideas box in the corner of one bedroom. Into it goes any idea… If it survives a year and I am still thinking about it, then I know I want to write about it’. In this case it was telegraphy. She had had the intriguing image of an old lady knitting, her different coloured wool stretching out around her. This became a telegraphist receiving and forwarding messages- and perhaps meddling with them, as Pepper does in The Death Defying Pepper Roux. Visiting a booster station in Australia confounded some ideas, but exploring isolation and its effect became the inspiration to continue. Further research then suggested another theme; the connection between people, underlined by her heroine’s unusual name. ‘I try to find the most arcane bits of history… I discovered those booster stations were being set up shortly after the Afghan War, every book I read, mentioned how all the natives hated the Muslims, the Muslims hated the natives and the white men hated everyone – so the book was to be about comity, about getting along. Prejudice has been around for ever…and the only way to eliminate it is to stand up to it; not to engage in it. That is how Comity came to be called Comity.’
An important feature is the friendship between Comity and Fred. I wondered if she had felt any anxiety in using a young Aboriginal as a central character and through him introducing the myths of his people, and indeed on occasion, the language. Though Fred reflects the development of a new Australia, when he is facing possible death, it is to his own background, to the myths and language of his people, that he looks for strength and comfort. These myths permeate the narrative. ‘ I love myth because it is about the big stuff …like death, and religion and who made the world’ Both Fred and Comity use their myths to explain their world and they do so indiscriminately, never questioning differences or similarities. ‘I wanted this kind of collision, different people’s myths and beliefs all coming together among this group of friends – the power of story to let you rise above things.’ Stories connect all the disparate communities in the book; everyone has their story to tell, everyone indulges in Awake-Dreaming.
Adults, especially parents, frequently fall short in Geraldine’s novels. Does this worry her? ‘I don’t think it hurts to tell children that parents are people in their own right’. They all have their own stories. The relationship between Comity and her father is a good example of this. He is desperately flawed but you don’t actually lose sympathy. ‘I wanted Comity to begin to feel disgust for her father when he is likened to a rodent, but then Fred explains with the myth about people who are ‘curlew cursed’ and can’t come out of doors.. ..And Comity is so grateful because he makes it right for her to love her dad again.’ The power of story.
‘the older I grow the more taken I am by character’
The novel is full of wonderful characters. What comes first I wonder, the plot or the character? ‘Character – the older I grow the more taken I am by character. The stories grow out of the character not the plot. I very rarely have a plot idea, it is too confining. If the story grows out of a place and character, I will get as much enjoyment as the reader.’ Dialogue brings her characters to life and there is a strong sense of the theatre running through the narrative. ‘It is because I have been writing plays’ Geraldine explains. Indeed she loves listening to a story rather than reading. This feeds into her writing with its strong awareness of how words can clash together. ‘Yes, yes’ she exclaims with enthusiasm. Style – and Geraldine’s style is both distinctive and exciting – is important. ‘Writing a book is like writing a symphony. Style is the equivalent of orchestrating a piece of music, making it more than a tune and giving it the whole range of the orchestra – you have more colours in your palette to paint with – it’s the counterpoint that makes it feel satisfying.’
The Middle of Nowhere is not a cosy story. There are some very dramatic and tragic events. Nor is the reader spared. Yet comedy is never far away. The image of British soldiers ineffectually trying to shoot through train carriage windows is both comic and terrifying and is just one instance. Does the tragi-comic nature of life interest Geraldine, I wondered? ‘How could you possibly be a writer without being conscious of absurdity? Even in the most dreadful moments there is the element of the absurd.’ Geraldine describes herself as ‘an entertainer’. There’s a strong visual element embedded in her storytelling; and she acknowledges that, as a huge fan of cinema, she has a very visual imagination. But in the end it is words that excite, ‘I love words’ she declares.
This is what the reader is left with; not just a story but a complete performance that will transport the reader to the other side of the world to meet new friends, face new challenges. Thank you, Geraldine.
The Middle of Nowhere is published by Usborne, 978-1409522003, £9.99 hbk.