Children’s Book Blog: Author Q&A – Sally Gardner on Tinder
Tinder is Sally Gardner’s first novel since winning the Carnegie Medal earlier this year with Maggot Moon. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Tinder Box, the book tells the story of Otto Hundebiss, a traumatised young soldier cast adrift from his slaughtered regiment during the Thirty Years War. On his travels he encounters a fiery young princess called Safire, a trio of werewolves and a fantastically creepy sorceress known as ‘The Lady of the Nail’. Sally’s dark, poetic prose is complemented by powerful – and at times rather violent – illustrations by David Roberts. I spoke to Sally about the genesis of the book and the pressure of following up a Carnegie winner.
What drew you towards the idea of adapting an existing fairy tale?
I love fairy tales. I always describe them as ‘the soul of the world’. I think if children and young people don’t have them in their lives, they don’t have the psychological space to play in. That’s what fairy tales allow you to do: to take a problem like jealousy, envy, boastfulness, or whatever, and look at it in a very safe environment. Even if it’s held by ‘once upon a time’ with a ‘happy ever after’, in the middle there’s always a huge conundrum, and you can go as far into it as you want to or stand as far back from it as you want to.
Why did you decide to adapt this particular tale?
I’ve loved this fairy tale since I was a small thing. I think the reason I loved it is because the main character is so genuinely naughty – he literally gets away with murder, but you go with it because Hans Christian Andersen tells it in such a droll way. But when I came to re-tell the story, I wanted to add something new into it. The anniversary of the First World War is coming up next year and I decided that I wanted to set the story during a war. I then discovered the Thirty Years War, which was so barbaric and hideous, and involved the whole of Europe. I knew right away it was the perfect setting.
Did you know much about it already?
No, but luckily I came across Peter H. Wilson. He’s a professor in Hull who’s written a wonderful book called The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, which was a great help to me. I’m not a historian. I always like to think of history as more like a puzzle, or like a patient on a couch rather than in the terms of facts and figures – I don’t think you ever understand anything that way. This war involved the Swedish, the Dutch, the Germans, the English – even Scotland. Everybody nibbled at Germany’s borders and in that time three million people died. Not many people in England seem to be very aware of it today, at least not until I tell them it’s when The Three Musketeers is set.
Your take on the tinder box story is very different from Hans Christian Andersen’s, notably in the way you’ve replaced the magical dogs in the story with werewolves. Why did you decide to reimagine it in this way?
I didn’t really want to tell his story again and I think dogs with eyes the size of saucers, millstones and cartwheels are very difficult to work into a believable story set in the Thirty Years War. That’s why I was so blessed in discovering the werewolf trials – these were real trials that happened in Germany around that time. Men and women were burnt for being werewolves – we did witches, but the Germans went in for werewolves, which is far more interesting.
There was a wonderful case about a man called Peter Stubbe, who confessed to eating hundreds of people. He was tortured in the most grisly way but he kept saying, ‘You’re doing the right thing because I’m a terrible man’. And he wasn’t alone.
What I always find funny is that people who use werewolves in stories today always have to have a full moon to transform, but actually they don’t need it. In ‘true’ legends of werewolves what you needed was a strip of skin from the back of a hanged man, which was made into a belt and given to you by a witch or a magician. It wasn’t inflicted upon you – it was a gift. But it’s like heroin; when you put it on you’re free, you’re wild, you can be anything and do anything, without morals to hold you back. You can tear the living daylights out of anyone you want to. I thought that idea of people getting hooked on being a werewolf was just fascinating.
There are quite a few allusions in the book to sex, and especially the main character’s insecurities about it. Why did you choose to touch on this topic?
I feel so sorry for boys because, in young adult books, they all know exactly what to do when it comes to sex – but I’m sorry, it really doesn’t work like that and it’s such a tough act for them to follow. Also, in Otto’s case, he’s so traumatised by the things he has witnessed in the war and he’s terrified that he won’t be able to make love to Safire. It’s not explicit, but it’s there, and it’s the fear I think many young men encounter.
Do you enjoy writing about boys? Maggot Moon also had a young male protagonist…
I think I can get into boys’ minds. I have a fabulous son and I was very blessed that all his friends used to come over and live in my house, so I had lots of grunting lads on sofas stinking the place out, and I really liked them. Lots of people are very rude about hoodies and young men, but I actually found them truly fascinating. They always reminded me of larvae before they become butterflies; you were just seeing them blossom and I loved that.
David Roberts, who illustrated Tinder, is best known for creating Dirtie Bertie, so I was astonished when I saw his illustrations for Tinder and how dark they were. Were you familiar with his work already?
I worked with him on Operation Bunny and we met and I really liked him. He came over for tea and I said to him, ‘I’m writing this book – would you be prepared to come out of your comfort zone and illustrate it?’ And he said, ‘You have no idea how long I’ve waited for someone to ask me that’. He cleared his desk for it and at the end he said he could hardly bear to let it go – he wanted to do more and more and more.
The illustrations work with the text in a way that’s quite unusual for a YA novel – did you and David have to work around each other to some extent?
Well, the designer was absolutely amazing at making everything work together, but both me and David had a very clear vision for this book. We’re both dyslexic, so we’re both very visual – we’re picture thinkers. Also I had been an illustrator, so I could understand how the pictures would fit in.
You’ve said in the past that you’ve found your dyslexia to be a benefit from a creative point of view. Can you tell me a bit more about how it affects your style as a writer?
I think being dyslexic has made me love words and the use of words and the role of language – I love words to have a beat. I think if you haven’t been able to read, you still look at words as objects. I can just see them as a nice shape or not a nice shape and think, ‘Oooh, that doesn’t work’, based on the shape of the word alone. What frustrates me is when people think dyslexia is just about bad spelling, when really it’s about a way of seeing. I hope I managed to get that across with Standish in Maggot Moon, because he sees the world in an extraordinarily imaginative way. He lives in a very grey, dead, lonely place, but he puts so much colour onto it in his own head.
Were you surprised when Maggot Moon won the Carnegie?
I was blown away. This whole year has just been unbelievable. I honestly never thought that Maggot Moon would get published, because when I showed it to people everyone said it was too violent. I knew I’d touched on a taboo, I knew I’d gone over the limit with killing a character in a playground, in the safe zone – that’s just not what you’re supposed to be doing. But I’d done it, so I just carried on. And when Standish was in the cell with Hector, I knew he was going to kiss him, and I thought, ‘Well, now I’ve definitely blown it’. But I decided it didn’t matter. Even if the book had never seen the light of day, it would have just stayed in my drawer and I’d have been proud of it.
The first book after a Carnegie winner must be a tough act to follow – is that why you decided to do something completely different with Tinder?
I was incredibly nervous about writing this book after all the attention I got for Maggot Moon. But it is completely different, and thank everything that it is. It took me ages to get rid of Standish, but then Otto started to take shape. What I wanted to do with him was to get that hundred yard stare, that voice that he’s obviously got a lot going on. He’s a clever man, but he’s so crushed by trauma, and I wanted him to have flare-ups that are totally irrational.
Both Maggot Moon and Tinder contain some very dark themes. Do you think it’s important for young people to read about things they might find disturbing?
Yes, I do. I’d never want to teach, and I’m not interested in handing out lessons, but I think, especially with Tinder, I’d love it to be an anti-war book and make young men think twice before going off to ruin their lives. I don’t think war is glorious. I think it’s one of the biggest disasters of mankind and nothing to be celebrated. It does and always will do exactly what it has always done out of the cook book – it only makes one recipe, which is torture, murder, mayhem, disease and disaster.
Check back tomorrow to see which book is lurking behind the ‘calendar door’ for December 21st and catch up on my previous recommendations here
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author. She is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel set in Hackney. You can follow her on Twitter as @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: carnegie medal, children's literature, David Roberts, Dirtie Bertie, Hans Christian Andersen, Maggot Moon, Otto Hundebiss, Sally Gardner, The Tinder Box, Tinder
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