Absolute Vanilla interview

There are few places in the world imbued with such a strong sense of myth and magic as Ireland.  So when I “met” children’s author, Che Golden, on Facebook and then discovered she’d recently published the first book in a trilogy which is brimful of Irish folklore, I knew I had to read it.And what a read The Feral Child was.  A dark, gripping and pacy adventure, filled with vivid, often frightening, richness, The Feral Child is a book I could have finished in an evening, but put aside for two more because I didn’t want it to end.  It really has been a while since I enjoyed a middle-grade novel as much as I enjoyed The Feral Child, and so it gives me great pleasure today to introduce Che Golden to talk about The Feral Child.

 ‘They take human children and leave changelings in their place… stolen children go into the mound and we can’t follow.’

Her parents dead, Maddy is sick of living in Ireland, sick of Blarney and sick of her cousin Danny, one of the nastiest people you could meet this side of an Asbo. Mad as hell one evening, she crawls inside the grounds of the castle, the one place she has always been forbidden to go. Once inside, she is chased by a strange feral boy, who she suspects is one of the faerie: cruel, fantastical people who live among humans and exchange local children for their own.
When the boy returns to steal her neighbour Stephen into his world, Maddy and her cousins set off on a terrifying journey into a magical wilderness, determined to bring him back home. To do so, they must face an evil as old as the earth itself…

I lived in Ireland for a while and the thing that always struck me was the deep-rooted sense of myth and magic.  As someone who spent some time in Ireland as a child this must have had a profound impact on you.  How did it affect you and how has it subsequently influenced your writing?

It had a huge influence! Blarney village was much smaller when I was a child and we had this huge medieval castle brooding over us. Being a tourist village with such a well-known legend at the heart of it in the form of the Blarney Stone, I suppose I was bombarded with snippets of Irish fairy tales and superstition that was marketed at tourists. The Irish still work a lot of pagan rituals into their daily lives as well, Halloween being the most obvious. Wandering around as a very sticky six year old with my dog George, I just got caught in the blast. My grandmother bought me books on Irish myth and legend and it was very easy to transport them all in my mind to Blarney. I think that’s why I love Melissa Marr’s urban fantasy so much, because that is how I dreamt about faeries when I was a child. I didn’t want to be anyone else but me, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but Blarney but I did desperately want to see unicorns in the grounds of the castle and to lift up the branches of a fuchsia bush and see tiny faeries clinging like ladybirds to the leaves. It was all too easy to imagine when the air was turning blue with night and we were being called for our suppers, that there were other little feet keeping pace with ours and black eyes with no whites were watching us from the bushes as we ran down country lanes. For me, the witching hour has always been twilight, not midnight. That half world between day and night when night things get stronger, when things of the day have that last desperate burst of strength and the sense of menace grows as you prepare to survive until dawn.

Did you have to do much research for The Feral Child, or did you know it all already?

I probably should have done more research than I did in the beginning. It started out as an expanded version of a daydream I had of myself as a hero when I was a child, populated by all the bits of faerie tales, Irish,
Nordic, whatever, that I really liked. Once the second and third ideas came along and it turned into a trilogy, the books started imposing their own structure. The initial, messy ‘chuck in all the bits I like and see what happens’ approach of book one would not have continued to work. I had to focus on one set of myth and Irish was the obvious choice. It has made life a lot easier as the books move more and more into Tír na nÓg and the legends of the Tuatha de Dannan have given bones to hang a plot on. There have to be clear rules, even in fantasy. I think I drove everyone crazy in Quercus, rewriting when I should have been editing. Having said that, there are some things readers might find out that I clung to. There is no Dagda in my stories, instead the most powerful male Tuatha is a horned God and looks a lot more like Herne the Hunter. That’s deliberate, because I love all those legends of Cernnunos, the Lord of the Forest, who was worshipped as a god by the Gauls, so there! I also have good reason to have a Lord of the Forest in the books as readers will find out in book three. Plus, anyone who knows their faerie tales will know that Glaistnigs are Scottish. But again, my story, my rules!

One thing I would say though, is research the stuff you are familiar with. I had one line in the Feral Child on the first page that described the Blarney Castle as a Norman keep, because that was how my mother, who had been born and raised in Blarney, described it. But its not, it’s a genuine Celtic castle and I would have looked a right fool if that had gone to print, as I explained my mother when I rang her to point out that she had ruined my book! So even if you are sure you are right, do the research anyway and know you are right.

What creature or being of Irish (or other) mythology most appeals to you, and why?

I love selkies and I would like to have a go at writing a selkie novel. I love the tragedy of the legend, the longing that makes men steal a selkie woman’s skin and trap her on land, or the desperation of a childless woman that drives her to the edge of the sea to weep tears in the water and call a potent selkie male. They are stories about gentle beauties, the selkie women and the mixed blood children, caught between two worlds and yearning for the sea until they sicken. When I see seals sun bathing on rocks, I can imagine a flash of white skin amongst them, or the flick of long, water-soaked hair as a brown head turns away from prying eyes. One of my favourite images I saw in a book once was a baby in a cradle being pulled over the waves by two ordinary seals, while his selkie mother looked on lovingly.

What was your initial inspiration for the book?

The book originally started off as a short story. I was always being told off for going into the grounds of the Blarney castle on my own and my grandparents would tell me the faeries would take me. The idea of stolen children and changelings is quite strong in Irish mythology so I wrote a short story about what might have happened on one of the many, many occasions I did what I should not have done. What would happen if all those stories turned out to be true?

Maddy, your main character, is a poignant creation – at once tragic yet embraced with the kind of feistiness and courage that only a hurting child can hold.  What were your influences in creating Maddy and how does she resonate for you personally?

If there was one conscious thing I was trying to do when writing book one, it was to try and voice the inward struggle of the child of immigrants. Often, children of immigrants do not feel at home either in their host country or their parent’s country of origin. This is because too often immigrants take about the auld country as ‘home’ and hold themselves and their children aloof in the country they now live in. I saw this all the time growing up – people who talked constantly about going home, even if they had lived in Britain for 40 years, children who had only visited Ireland during school holidays talking with strong regional accents, learning Gaelic and Irish dancing and only dating Irish people when they got older. In Britain, the Irish act more Irish than the Irish! This not a uniquely Irish experience, friends of mine whose parents are Chinese or West Indian have said the same thing. But for the children who feel a sense of place in Britain and not Ireland, this is very disconnecting. They end up having no sense of home so home becomes the people around them. What happens to a child when you take that away? Home is important for all of us but for a child who is not yet able to be independent, it is everything. Despite the fact she has a roof over her head and people who care for her, not feeling grounded and safe means Maddy has nowhere, not even in her own mind, where she feels able to rest. So her grief and rage drive her on, making her a hounded creature. Maddy needs to feel at home, not just in Blarney, but in the make up of Ireland as a whole. She has rebelled against a family she feels do not welcome her by identifying herself only as British, so having to acknowledge that Ireland is where she is FROM is hard for her to do. Even if she has no plans to make Ireland her future, its part of her past and she needs to reconcile that if she wants to be happy.

Maddy is referred to as a feral child in the novel – and this obviously gave rise to the title.  Can you explain that aspect of the book a little?

We’re animal people and we’ve adopted a lot of nutters over the years, in particular a little black mare everyone on our yard used to call Walking Evil. I think feral animals are the most difficult and dangerous to work with as they have no fear and no respect for people, putting them on a collision course with humans that often ends in violence. I also think that when you win their respect and develop a relationship with them, they turn out to be the most rewarding. I think this pretty much sums Maddy up and it is her feral nature that is also the key to her heroic side. It is also what keeps her on the outside of her family and the wider community around her, always looking in.

Maddy has the “sight” – in other words, she can see the faerie world.  Do you or would you like to believe this world genuinely exists and that there are those who can see it?

I would love to believe in the Sight and even more, to have it myself. I think there is always a basis for legends and God-like beings like the Tuatha did exist once. Whether they are still with us, I don’t know. I say I don’t really believe in faeries but then I find it all too easy to imagine them, so I guess I do. Otherwise, why on earth would I spend so much time thinking about them? 

Irish mythology runs deeply through your story and you blend the faerie world seamlessly with the modern world.  How relevant to you believe folklore and mythology to be in contemporary story telling, and why?

I think folklore and mythology are a big part of our cultural history and history impacts on the present, always. If we want to understand who we are now, we have to understand where we are from. It is always fun to reinvent old stories and present them in new ways but it also keeps children in touch with their cultural heritage in a fun, non-educational way and that can only be a good thing. It is like Halloween – it really makes me angry when Christian groups go on about it being devil worshipping or when you hear people saying its importing an American tradition (where do you think THEY got it from?). It is not, its an ancient, Celtic festival and KNOWING its traditions and histories when we celebrate it every year, however you choose to do it, keeps that history alive and for those of us with Celtic blood, keeps us in touch with our history. The Celts who created the art they are largely remembered for now, were warriors, they lived in tribes and worshipped very different Gods before the advent of Christianity. We remember them when we switch off all the lights on October 31 and wait for the sun to go down before lighting candles, when we say a prayer for our dead, when we stuff ourselves with food and drink, when we trick or treat and then when we put milk and bread on our backdoor step as an offering of respect and peace to the faeries cavorting on the night of misrule.  It’s part of my Irish heritage and I pass it on to my children as part of theirs. I think it is incredible that these traditions have survived for thousands of years and they should be celebrated as a direct link to the past. The Feral Child trilogy is my small contribution to keeping that history alive.

 The Feral Child is the first book in a trilogy; can you give us a small hint of what’s yet to come?

Well, it gets darker! Fachtna, the villain in the first book, proved to be a real hit, so you see a lot more of her and she grows as a character. I also have a new villain, Meabh, who towers over Irish mythology as the Queen of Connaght. She is reinvented in The Unicorn Hunter as the Queen of Autumn and is madder than a bag of snakes! Maddy also discovers the family has a rather ugly guardian faerie in the form of a little banshee called Una, who is addicted to Tayto’s crisps. Maddy finally gets to meet the courts of the Tuatha monarchs in the Unicorn Hunter and understands why the Sighted are so frightened of them. A disaster in book two means the barrier between the mortal and the faerie world is breaking down and faeries are beginning to get through whenever they want, as the world slides toward an eternal winter and a second famine looms in Ireland. The Tuatha demand Maddy be the one to sort everything out, partly because there is something special about her, partly because she was gobby at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong person. Finn mac Cumhaill, an ancient Irish hero and his band of Fianna, are also resurrected for The Unicorn Hunter. Book three, which currently has the title The Raven Queen, is all about Maddy settling old scores once and for all. As the Winter Queen runs amok, Maddy travels back into Tír na nÓg to topple her from her throne. But she finds herself outnumbered by Winter and outmaneuvered by Autumn. So in desperation she does the one thing she was always told NEVER to do – she travels to Hy Brasail, a mist-shrouded Isle where the Morrighan, the oldest and most powerful of the Tuatha, sleeps and dreams of Tír na nÓg. It is her dreams that weave the immortal world of the faeries, given their power by human emotions that seep into the faerie world. But Maddy is not waking a sleeping beauty. The Morrighan was known in Celtic legend as the scald crow and she was the Goddess of War. Maddy finds out what happens when you wake War and set it on Winter.

I know you’ve already finished the first draft of that third book, so any thoughts on what you might write after that?

I am researching and planning a book called Starling’s Bones at the moment. Its set in a city of small gods that looks like Bath but a Bath whose surroundings are still in the grip of an industrial revolution, vast acres given over to hellish factories that grind out their wares day and night while belching smoke into the air. The golden heart of the city is given over to a wealthy priest class, ruled over by the Borgia family, who have never fallen from power. It is fermenting with social unrest and the economy is largely dependent on industry, church tithes and the buying and selling of relics. The relics are good business, good propaganda and are even used to wield military power. The story centres around a group of street children, who have run away from the factories their parents now live in as serfs, due to falling into debt. They spend their lives scavenging for food and dodging child catchers until they find a girl who has an unnatural strength, no idea who she is or where she came from and no human emotion. They name her Starling, after her iridescent hair and discover by chance that Starling has another gift. She can see the ghosts of the bones, which means she can tell which relics are fake. This makes Starling a very important person to the ruling class and one they have to find quickly. But somewhere deep inside Starling is another secret and she is desperate to find out what it is. As the street children hide Starling in the labyrinth of the factories, she struggles to unlock the secret of her own bones.

As you can probably tell, I am very excited about it and dying to get started. Identity is a key part in this series again, except this time, its about children who are considered to be the dregs of society passing on the very best parts of being human to some one who has no idea what being human means. I think its great but my agent could think it is rubbish once it is done! I am also planning a book for six to nine year olds, called Chocolate and Brown. It will be based in Ireland again and it is about a little girl, Maya Brown, whose parents have decided to go back to nature, which means all natural foods with no e numbers, but even worse, no sweet treats. Now, Maya would rather sell her parents to white slave traders than go without chocolate so she is not best pleased. What she doesn’t know is that there is a little faerie, a boggart, living in their new house and it has a very sweet tooth too. Together, they form an unlikely alliance. I have written a pony book for six to nine year olds that my agent is looking to place with a publisher, called Mulberry. It is based on that little black mare I mentioned previously. Despite the fact she managed to terrorize a yard of 80 horses and vets wanted danger money to go anywhere near her, she formed a very intense relationship with my older daughter. The book is a fictionalized account of that very special bond with a fantasy twist in that the girl can hear animals talking, much like Dr Dolittle. I wanted to write a pony book that showed how frightening riding can be when you are not confident, what little horrors ponies really are, and yet there is something about riding and ponies that makes some little girls get back in the saddle, time and time again, bruised, battered but determined. It is written in the style of Dick King-Smith and I have tried to make it funny.

Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?   What have been your biggest lessons and do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

My journey was quite easy in hindsight. I did not try to get published and really only dabbled in writing, despite being told by teachers and university lecturers that I had talent, until I studied on the MA in Writing For Young People at Bath Spa about three years ago. It was wonderful, to be part of a warm and supporting environment and I really felt like a writer while I was on the course. Then I left and had serious withdrawal symptoms. I basically sat around, depressed and at loose end for a few months, tinkering with The Feral Child and waiting on tables for a living. Bath Spa funds an anthology for graduates every year, which is a collection of samples of everyone’s novel, that is sent out to agents and editors and then students organize a party to which the same agents and editors are invited and they can meet anyone whose work they are interested in.  My agent, Laura Cecil, had read my sample in the anthology and came along to meet me and talk about The Feral Child. She asked to see the entire manuscript and three weeks later, she took me on. Three weeks after she took me on, Quercus offered me a three-book deal, which is rare these days. So I have had it very easy. Mulberry is still looking for a home 16 months after it started doing the rounds! I suppose the biggest lessons I have learned are to have faith, write a lot, read a lot and have patience. Nothing happens quickly in publishing so you do have to learn to leave things in the hands of others and get on with your life. But above all, mind your manners. Publishing is a small world with a high turnover and that junior member of staff you were rude and ignorant to today will get promoted in a couple of years and they will remember you did not treat them nicely. I am not speaking from experience, by the way! Also, desperation is never attractive. No one likes someone who hassles them all the time and its tedious socializing with people who just want to sell you their book or bring every conversation around to their book, that you can buy for just 2.99 on Kindle, right now! While it is important to be persistant, stalking agents, editors and authors to the extent that they start wondering if there is enough in petty cash to hire a hit man, will not do your career any favours.

Laura Cecil, Che Golden’s literary agent, was kind enough to also offer some insights.

As an agent with an exclusive interest in children’s fiction, what was it particularly about The Feral Child that caught your attention?

It was scary in a magical way that I think children particularly enjoy.  I love fantasy and it is unusual to find a writer who has an original take on the genre and who has their own voice.  I also love books with an Irish setting and I’d been to Blarney, so I knew the background.

And, if it doesn’t put you too much on the spot, what is it about Che that made you want to represent her?

She was someone with great potential as a writer of fantasy for children and I thought she would also be able to promote her books well both to children and to the adult side of children’s books: librarians and critics. When I met her, I thought we could work together and we found the same things amusing.

As an agent, what is it that you look for in both a client and a piece of work before you consider representation?

A story that catches my imagination and is written with an individual voice.  This is usually fantasy as I have a natural liking for the genre and have been successful representing it.  In a client I look for someone who is going to commit themselves to writing and someone I like.  As an agent you work so closely with your clients that you have to get on.  If you don’t like a client, it won’t work out, even if you admire their work.

Many thanks to both Che Golden and Laura Cecil for agreeing to this interview.

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