Fleur Hitchcock graduated from Bath Spa University with an MA in Writing for Young people. Her books include Murder at Twilight, Murder in Midwinter and Dear Scarlett. Here she talks about her new book The Boy Who Flew, a mysterious, thrilling adventure story full of excitement and action…
Without giving too much away, I wondered if you could start by telling us a bit about your new book The Boy Who Flew?
It’s the story of Athan Wilde. Born in a possible historical past into a family of tailors, he resists the work his mother puts in front of him and instead becomes the apprentice of Mr Chen, an inventor. Together they have built a flying machine, but they have never flown it. At the very beginning of the book, Mr Chen is murdered, and Athan has to try and protect the machine and ultimately his precious family from the dark forces that would steal their invention.
How is The Boy Who Flew similar to Murder in Midwinter? How is it different?
Ooh interesting question. I’d never really thought about it before. Both stories are adventures. Both of them work off the idea of isolation of the main character. Both central characters are very fond of their families. Both of them have younger sisters. Both books play with who is villainous and who is not, but they are very different reads. Maya in Murder in Midwinter is a contemporary, savvy girl. A Londoner who is ripped from her comfortable home and placed in an alien environment. Athan in The Boy Who Flew, never leaves home but everything that was familiar becomes perilous. It has an historicalish setting – and it’s kind of grimy. Both of the books have settings which are really part of the story, but those settings are wildly different. Also, the mood of the pieces is different. Athan’s tale is relentless, his need to protect his family is everything, where Maya’s story is somehow gentler even though she is actually under threat of murder.
Can you describe the relationship between the main character Athan and his mentor Mr Chen?
Mr Chen is a master inventor, a master craftsman if you like, and Athan is his apprentice. But Mr Chen represents more than this to Athan. Athan is dyslexic, he’s never successfully been educated, Mr Chen is the first person who has really taught him anything and Athan loves what he has learned. From Mr Chen’s point of view, Athan is handy and adventurous and energetic. They suit each other.
“It’s a friendship borne out of mutual respect.”
The setting to the story is very murky and atmospheric – what inspired the setting and how did you go about creating the backdrop to the events?
I don’t think I even thought about it. I live outside Bath, but I have always lived in places with mediaeval buildings and ancient alleyways and collapsed bits behind the neat exteriors. I have always found the back of the Royal Crescent in Bath far more engaging than the front. These places have evolved organically and give off imaginary human stories that seep into my work. They’re fun to explore and fun to write about.
I wondered if the story was inspired at all by the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too high? If not, what other stories and authors have influenced your writing?
I can’t say Icarus was an influence, but I do love the story. I reckon that Joan Aiken’s reimagining of history and Leon Garfield’s human historical stories probably influenced me the most. Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken has stayed with me for fifty years and Leon Garfield showed the dark side of history – and made it human. Jack Holborn and Smith are still amongst my favourite books. And I love dark historical adult writing – Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor has stayed with me for many years, Rose Tremain’s Restoration is dark comic genius.
I loved the transformation of Athan’s mother – the final scenes, where she shows such bravery and courage, had me whooping and cheering! Can you talk us through her character development and growth?
I think that as a mother, and as a child, I have always been very aware of the conflict between parents and children that can appear brutal but is actually a form of love. Just as a duck will chide her ducklings so Athan’s Ma chides her children – and of course she’s given everything for them. Which means that when she is given the chance to be a woman whose children don’t define her, she jumps at the opportunity – which serves to drive a deeper wedge between her and her son. She is torn by this – and ultimately, no matter what she says, her love of her children is the greatest thing in her life. I love Ma. She’s almost my favourite ever creation.
I really admired Beatty’s strength and positivity and your exploration of her is both sensitive and complex. Can you tell us a little more about Beatty, the problems she faces and what sort of research you had to carry out to develop her character?
Beatty has what was then known as Infantile Paralysis – something that would now be called Polio. In her case only her legs are affected. Polio doesn’t always lead to paralysis, and the effects of the fever aren’t always permanent, but there is no cure, and in Beatty’s case, no recovery. Polio wasn’t a known illness until the late Eighteenth Century and so it is perfectly possible that Grandma in her deeply held superstitions would have genuinely believed that Beatty’s illness was the result of witchcraft. To a certain extent, even Beatty believes it’s the result of witchcraft. In terms of research, I have always been a fan of the Wellcome Trust Gallery in London, and the Hunterian Museum and spent far too long staring at horrible things in bottles of formaldehyde and reading terrifying descriptions of deformities and diseases.
There are some wonderfully sinister villains in the story. Did you enjoy creating them? Who do you think is the most destructive – Grandma or Colonel Blade?
Villains are always so much fun to write and these two were especially joyous. Blade is brutal and relentless and Grandma is toxic and corrosive. Both are inescapable. I think I began with Grandma being there, but not being utterly vile, but gradually, she became nastier. Blade was always going to be inescapable, like the killer in No Country for Old Men – I think I was channelling that, but Grandma evolved – perhaps in the end, it makes her extra vile.
The story zips along at a brilliant pace and is full of twists and turns. What did you edit out of the story to ensure it stayed so taught and exciting?
When I first wrote the first version of the manuscript, I suspect the story was far more ponderous. But by the time it reached the final version, huge amounts of description and even a character or two were on the cutting room floor. Then my editor at Nosy Crow, Kirsty Stansfield, got hold of it, and more cuts were made. Some unnecessary conversation disappeared and in the scenes where he’s looking for Beatty some convoluted chunks of plot had to go. The final piece is leaner and meaner – shorter than the original by 25,000 words. It hurt but it was for the best.
Do you remember how you felt when you saw the striking front cover by Ben Mantle? What do you feel his design brings to the book?
Thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. I had seen some earlier versions which I really liked the look of but until I actually had the printed thing in my hand I hadn’t appreciated how lovely it is. It adds a whole load to the book, giving it magic and a soaring feel that I think the book has, but might not be spotted in the earlier pages. There is also a pick-up ability in Ben Mantle’s work which has undoubtedly helped sales. I am a big fan.
What advice can you give to teachers who would like to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms?
Seeing an adult read is probably the single biggest influencer on child reading. If your parents sit and read books then fantastic, but so many don’t and so it ends up being a teacher’s role to set the reading example. Even better if that teacher is reading kid’s books. It means that there’s a conversation to be had about each book, one that’s nothing to do with attainment and achievement, but everything to do with pleasure. Reading those books aloud to the whole class so that everyone can access the words inside is the other half of this. It makes sooooo much difference. I was lucky enough to have teachers who read to us – even if you can read to yourself, it’s still enjoyable to listen to a book. And – You can’t ever read if you have no idea what the words are, and listening to them being read helps comprehension and rhythm and enjoyment. If a teacher doesn’t have time to read, use audio books when children are drawing. It’s only what professional illustrators are doing.
Are you happy with where you’ve left Athan or can you envisage returning to his world for a new adventure? I thought perhaps there could even be a prequel to The Boy Who Flew, exploring the life of the mysterious Mr Chen?
Much as I’d love to revisit Athan, I don’t immediately think I will. I do have an idea, but it’s such a massive effort to re-enter Athan’s world, I need a few years off! The idea of meeting Mr Chen as a child ( his first name is Isaac) is fun but I’d need to have another clump of story come and stick itself in place in order to spin a whole world.
Just now, I’m thinking Fire of London – it’s quite immersive, but a book should appear in about a year.
Finally, can you describe The Boy Who Flew in three words?
Adventure, Loyalty, Love.