Thursday, 2 June 2011

Helen Stringer - The Midnight Gate - Blog Tour - Fantasy, Reality and Belladonna Johnson.

It has been a real rush to get this post up in time as part of The Midnight Gate blog tour, but here we are . . . . finally! Thanks to Helen for getting this post to me to highlight and promote this eagerly awaited second book, which has just been published by Feiwel and Friends (early May) in the US. However, it is due to be published in the UK at some point, but no release date has yet been confirmed. 

I hope you enjoy Helen's post on Fantasy, Reality and Belladonna Johnson.

Life is full of little ironies. You know, things like moving to Los Angeles to go to film school and get into “the business” and then ending up writing books instead. Books set in England…where I haven’t lived for decades. 

So here I am, two books into a series set in a place that I visit quite frequently but is slightly frozen in time for me. For example, the school that Belladonna and Steve attend is based on my old school in Liverpool, which used to be three Victorian houses joined together with rickety-looking passages, and one block-like new building. Last time I was home, I drove by the old place and barely recognized it – the houses were still there but the old netball courts have now vanished under a mass of even newer buildings. I hope the assembly hall is still the ballroom from one of the houses (with the rotting plaster stars on the ceiling that I mention in Spellbinder), but I doubt it.

Some friends back in the UK expressed surprise that I set my books there and not here in the US, but they shouldn’t be – distance has a way of clarifying the memory. Things that we might not notice when they are part of our everyday experience become so much more significant when we are far away. 

Take cold, for example. I live in California now and have done for many years. Cold for me these days is anything around 70°F (20°C), which isn’t actually cold at all.  When I go home in the winter I not only feel really, really cold, I’m also much more aware of what it is to be genuinely freezing. Sitting in California, with its tediously cloudless skies, I get positively nostalgic about leaden skies, unrelenting rain and the ability to see your own breath. Which is why Spellbinder is set in the north of England in October and Midnight Gate the following February. (The coldest I have ever been was staying at my sister’s in Liverpool one February – the pipes froze and the indoor plants had frost on them!) 

The same thing applies to places. Most of the places in the books are based on real ones in the UK, sort of conflated into a single imaginary town. There are huge chunks of Liverpool, mixed with Kendal (which has some fantastic street names) along with various additional bits of Cumbria and North Wales. Morcambe Bay will be coming into play in book three. Seeing them all in my mind’s eye rather than out of the window allows me to focus on details, the essence of the places, rather than being overwhelmed or restricted by the reality.

And then there’s language. When I was trying to break into the entertainment business I spent years absorbing the idioms and rhythms of American speech in order to write believable American dialogue. With Spellbinder I had to write English characters again, so the Americanisms had to go. This was surprisingly difficult!  One of the things I did was return to British spelling to sort of get my mind in the groove, but as my main publisher is here in the US, we still had lots of discussions about which “Britishisms” were acceptable and which had to go because readers wouldn’t understand them. For example, in the books Steve plays football, so there was a rather lengthy exchange about whether that should be changed to “soccer” for the US. In the end they decided it didn’t really matter and stuck with “football” (thank goodness!). Elsie’s Edwardian expressions caused some controversy, too. “It’s a bit of a rum do,” in particular!  Of course, you’d think that this would make dealing with the UK publisher easier, but no – they noticed all the “Americanisms” that somehow still snuck through. You can’t win!

The story I am working on at the moment is set here in America. It’s about 100 years in the future, but still recognizably the remnants of the contemporary USA. I’m back to the American language I spent so long learning, but sticking with places other than the one where I currently live, relying instead on my memories of Century City, Lake Tahoe and Virginia City and the endless ribbons of road between them all. Places that, for all their familiarity, somehow feel much more fantastical than anything in Spellbinder and Midnight Gate, including the Land of the Dead.

Book cover and artwork are by the amazing David Wyatt Images are subject to copyright.

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