We’re thrilled to bring you this Q&A with Nigel McDowell, author of Tall Tales From Pitch End, which has just been shortlisted for the Essex book Award, and which Kate loved when she reviewed it earlier in the year. Read on to find out more about Pitch End, Nigel’s inspirations and what he thinks about the importance of storytelling.
P.S. Have you listened to the first episode of Adventures With Words Young Adult Edition yet? There’s a competition to win a signed copy of Tall Tales From Pitch End, but you must listen to the exclusive Tall Tale featured in the podcast to be able to answer… You’ll find the podcast and competition here!
AWW: Pitch End is a really curious village – is any of the way you imagined and described it based on somewhere you’ve lived?
N McD: It’s a question of beginnings: Tall Tales from Pitch End began with an image of a boy, Bruno, sitting on a rock on a grey beach. He was weeping, and he was surrounded by people who were ignoring him; who couldn’t seem to see him. This thew up all sorts of questions – why was he crying? Why couldn’t he be seen? Did he perhaps not want anyone to see him? – and a seaside town was implied in the image. At the time, I had been visiting a seaside town in Northern Ireland where my partner was born and raised. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it was ‘based’ on that town, but a great deal of its feeling, atmosphere, that potent sense of place that towns next to the sea have – it all went into the formation of Pitch End. But it isn’t an exact science, this business of making stories. There’s a lot of the Northern Ireland of my own childhood in this novel too, which was largely rural: the way the people of Pitch End speak, the way they see the world, the way their small community is divided, and the ‘rules’ of ‘decency’ they like to live by.
AWW: Similarly, one of the things I loved was the different families and great characters living in Pitch End. Were any of them inspired by people you’ve known?
N McD: No one in particular, though the almost ‘Greek chorus’ aspect to the thinking of the Pitch Enders, that kind of gathering of firm opinion and judgement – that’s something I grew up with, or at least I imagine it was. Pitch End is a place teeming with words and orders – from Elders and Enforcers, from Bruno’s Hedge-School teacher and peers, from the Rebels…and Bruno has to learn to discriminate between all the versions of the ‘truth’ he is being presented with. That’s a feeling I remember well from childhood: the confusion of being told how to live and at the same time developing your own contradictory opinions about the world, and learning how to reconcile the two without tearing yourself asunder.
AWW: The book of Tall Tales that Bruno discovers turn out to be a key to Pitch End’s past. When you were younger, were fairy tales, folk tales and tall tales important to you?
N McD: It’s the classic cliche of the Irish childhood – stories told around the fire, good craic, that notion of the ‘oral tradition’ of the Emerald Isle – but it is certainly true to an extent. For example, my father told us stories – usually about ghosts and which (alarmingly nearby!) houses were said to be haunted. Yet a great deal in Ireland is unsaid; much of its history is, frankly, unspeakable. And it is in those silences – in the spaces where things are unsaid – that things thrive, feelings are locked away, secrets buried, and where the real interest is. This is true of Pitch End, of course: the only interesting parts in the town are those forbidden to the townsfolk, and the truly important knowledge is what the Elders are desperate to hide, and the Pitch Enders desperate to shy away from. Bruno Atlas is an observer, a spectator, and this allows him to see what others can’t. It allows him, ultimately, to see the truth of things. The crucial question for him, in the end, is what he decides to do with that truth he has unearthed. His discovery of the Tall Tales is vital – he is introduced to the quietly revolutionary concept of imagination. And to me, as a child and teenager, imagination was vitally important too. I wasn’t a particularly unhappy child, I wouldn’t say, but the idea of a life beyond the one I was living was always a kind of refuge. Like Bruno, the promise of elsewhere was something I yearned for.
AWW: The way in which the book is written makes it stand out; it’s a very unusual style, with lots of imagery. Did you make a conscious decision to write in this style or was it something that came more naturally?
N McD: Style…it’s very difficult to answer that. I write as I see – the description, the observations of emotion, the notions behind it all, is what makes up my truth of being in the world. That is all I was trying to do, and is all that any writer can do – to make sense of their own world as they move through it. But if that’s too vague an answer: I suppose I like the sound of certain sentences from certain writers, and wanted to try and follow that. And I love poetry, which relies so much on imagery; on detail that is sometimes exquisitely abstract. I did want to bring some of that to this novel too. It’s what I admire in the books that I love, which I suppose leads nicely onto the next question…
AWW: There are lots of different ingredients that have combined brilliantly in this story. Do you think you’ve been influenced by any favourite writers when creating Tall Tales from Pitch End?
N McD: Always, you are influenced by the good, the great, and even the not-so-great. I could list dozens and dozens of writers, but who’s to say what influences mean most? But I can say that Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast trilogy was hugely influential – the language in those novels! The imagination of someone like Philip Pullman, and Margo Lanagan too. And so many Irish writers – John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, Colm Toibin…of massive importance too was a sense or Irish-ness I took from fairy and folk tales, from a collection edited by W.B. Yeats. The tone of voice those stories are told in informed the novel hugely, and in particular the actual Tall Tales that Bruno discovers.
AWW: Tall Tales From Pitch End is your debut; what was it about this story that meant you decided to write it? How did you find the process?
N McD: Something most writers say, but very true: I didn’t decide on the story, it decided on me. But at the same time, I knew from early on that it was an adventure story, was fantasy, and that was very exciting. The process was long, trying, exhausting…wonderful. I worked for eight years on this novel, and you don’t put that much effort into anything without believing in what you’re doing; without a lot of sheer pig-headed stubbornness, and a lot of hard work!
AWW: Lots of writers for younger readers are writing series at the moment. Is there any more to come from Bruno Atlas, or from his world?
N McD: A lot of readers have asked me this question, which is wonderful – the idea that they might want more from Bruno and Pitch End! Truthfully, I’m not sure. With all I’ve discovered about Pitch End and its residents, I’ve certainly thought, many times, about what happens next…but whether that means I should write it down, I don’t know. Does the world need another trilogy? I like the idea of starting each novel as something new and fresh. So I’ll say: we’ll see.
AWW: What can you tell us about your next novel?
N McD: Another dark fantasy adventure that I’m calling The Black North. It is set in a land called The Divided Isle. A military force has invaded, taken the North and laid waste. They’ve recruited all manner of dark creatures and magic for their cause, and installed a powerful King. The story follows a young girl from the South, Oona, and her comrade – a contrary and commanding talking jackdaw, who often transforms into a contrary and commanding old woman – as they journey across the Divide and into the ‘Black North’ to try and rescue Oona’s brother, who has been captured by the Invaders. After a story like Tall Tales, I wanted to write a novel where the characters were taken on an adventure across a great and treacherous distance, encountering various peoples and creatures, grappling with a lot of excitement and danger along the way! It will be published by Hot Key Books in June 2014.
AWW: Finally, how important to you think sharing stories is for young people, and for adults too?
N McD: Storytelling is a need, a desire, a necessity and the greatest source of joy we have. And myself, I couldn’t be without it! I don’t mean that only in the sense of enjoyment (though that is supremely important). I mean that without stories I’m not sure I’d know how to live. Becoming a human-being doesn’t happen when we’re born: it’s a journey, an adventure, and the stories we share – the tales that we tell each other – is how we learn to become ourselves. This is so very important during childhood and adolescence. As a teenager, reading is what made me. Without the words of other authors, I fear I’d simply have faded away. Without the words of other storytellers, I don’t know where I’d be now.
Don’t forget, if you’d like to win a copy of Tall Tales From Pitch End, listen to the first episode of Adventures With Words Young Adult Edition, and follow the instructions to enter the Rafflecopter draw… You’ll find the podcast and Rafflecopter draw here!