Sit down with a cuppa and enjoy our Q&A with Geraldine McCaughrean, winner of this year’s 2018 Carnegie Medal for her novel, Where the World Ends.
Congratulations on your well-deserved win! It’s been 30 years since your previous Carnegie win for Pack of Lies. How do you think the landscape of children’s literature has changed in that time?
The subject matter has got much braver; authors have felt able to tackle any subject, however ‘adult’ or harrowing. There are more ‘issue-based’ books and fewer straightforward adventures. The age appeal has risen – which is a shame from the point of view of shadowing groups, because I think fewer books than in the past are suited to the slightly younger independent readers.
In your acceptance speech, you highlighted the importance of language in children’s books, warning against the limiting of vocabulary through a new focus on ‘accessible’ prose for younger readers. Could you tell us a bit more about your use of language in Where the World Ends?
I don’t knowingly set out to fancify my text. It’s just that I hear the words in my head as I write – as you probably do – so I like to try and make sentences and vocabulary pleasing on the inner ear. They say that Shakespeare wrote the way he did because he went to a Grammar school – not English grammar, but the grammar of the classical languages – and had absorbed the rhythms and rules without knowing it. Not that I in any way liken my or anyone else’s writing style to Shakespeare, but I tend to think that if the ancients minded about the ebb and flow of sentences and people have gone on minding for a couple of thousand years, we’d be daft not to go on trying to make text enjoyable for more than its simple content. Wouldn’t you rather ride down one of those fairground slides-with-the-wave-form-humps than be dragged over a gravel path on a mat?
Do you think a book can ever be too difficult for children?
Oh yes. There are plenty of books I’m loath to read myself because they’d make me feel stupid, so I can see full well how children could be put off reading by ‘difficult’ books. Archaic language takes a lot of chew-before-swallowing, and books which were written in the days when there was nothing else to do with your evenings would read as excruciatingly boring to readers now used to a fast-moving plot.
Vocabulary that may be unfamiliar of course needs to be used sparingly. In context, most new words can be perfectly well assimilated, but new words in the company of even more new words become just a bewildering forest of nonsense. The adult equivalent would be the business section of a financial newspaper, or most computer manuals.
Where ‘difficult’ means ‘difficult content’, opinion’s split. Personally, I do believe in maintaining a difference between adult and children’s literature. I don’t think we have a right to put any idea or image into young people’s skulls which may lodge there for ever, unwanted and unbearable. Sensibilities are so much more acute in the young than in adulthood when life tends to desensitise us. Recently, I watched a documentary about the First World War and one particular story about one particular soldier seared itself on my brain and wouldn’t heal. I’d hate ever to be guilty of doing that to any teenager.
The children in Where the World Ends show a great resilience throughout the novel. Resilience is something that feels particularly important today, in light of everything currently happening in the world – the contrast between those who are displaced and those who are comfortable and well provided for. Do you think children in the UK today have the same capacity for resilience?
Everything from selfies to Twitter probably prove that we are a more egocentric, egotistical species than we used to be. We have a sense of entitlement and self-importance quite beyond our deserving. So, no, frankly. I don’t think, in the same situation, our young would cope nearly as well as lads whose lives were distinctly dispensable and who saw frequent premature death in a very close-knit community.
The current state of the world simply reduces us all to helplessness. Being aware of all of the misery all of the time (whereas in the past we used to know about one at a time) has largely done for Christianity, optimism and compassion. …But then I am 67 and most 67-year-olds think the world is going to hell in a handcart – have done for thousands of years.
The only difference is that the 15-, 20- and 25-year-olds didn’t used to.
In the book, the children are pitted against nature, seeking ways to overcome its dangers and challenges. However, they also show a lot of affection towards the birds of St Kilda, often more so than one another. How do you view the link between the children and the natural world in the story?
The boys of St Kilda were so close to being birds themselves that their relationship with them must have been strange. Birds were the staff of life, more so than bread. But white birds announced a coming death, bird oil cured their cuts and grazes, giant auk were witches, petrels warned of storms. It’s hard to convey a spiritual/superstitious mindset that we don’t any longer have, isn’t it? Structurally, within the book, the sea was almost a villainous character, while the birds were so much of a salvation to the boys (especially Quill) that, somehow, they evolved from things-to-strangle into rescuers.
Religion – or faith in something otherworldly – is also a theme that underpins the book; the characters turn to their faith in times of extreme pressure. Can you tell us a bit more about how you chose to represent the religious aspect of the novel?
Someone once asked why God always turns up somewhere in my novels – I hadn’t noticed till then. A while back, Not the End of the World was widely mistaken as anti-religion, though my sole object was to say that ‘Whatever God is, it’s too big to fit into the head of one man without getting seriously bent out of shape’. It’s much the same here: Col Cane is a self-serving zealot but little Euan is completely sincere. The Kildeans were very devout, seamlessly absorbing a vestigial paganism into their Christianity – gentle souls. To be honest, I had to misrepresent them a bit, just to get a villain and make Murdina seem like a breath of fresh air among rather dour Kildeans.
Which contemporary writers do you like to read? Are there any authors or recent works (for children or adults) that have particularly influenced you?
Influenced, no. I hope not. Because that would mean what I wrote afterwards was unoriginal.
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hills is the last book which blew me away, but I’ll never write as well as Spufford. He’s my style hero. I’m indebted to the Carnegie shortlist for After the Fire – and for Wed Wabbit which was a breath of stylish joy amid some excellent but rather harrowing reading.