From the archives: Interview with Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
This interview with Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, the multi-award winning author and illustrator of 11 picturebooks and 3 novels, took place over coffee and cake in The Happy Pear back in 2013. Marie-Louise had recently published Hagwitch, a darkly enchanting dual-narrative novel that went on to win the CBI Book of the Year Award, and had just finished working on a picturebook, The New Kid, which was published the following year. We had a rambling and thoroughly enjoyable chat about the lore of 18th century Dublin, the process of researching an historical novel, folk tales and superstitions, and the universality of feeling like an outsider.
Q. All three of your novels to date have explored different periods in history to some extent. Part of your new novel, Hagwitch, is set in Tudor London, your previous novel, Dark Warning, is set in Georgian Dublin, and Timecatcher features a character from the thirteenth century. What is it about historical fiction that appeals to you?
A. I have always loved history and I love the kind of history you need for books: how people lived, how people worked, what they ate, and the differences between then and now. The first historical book I did was The Long March, which was a huge job of research. That is one of the attractions for me; I do love doing the research. I love having an excuse to go into a particular era in history and look at it from all angles and just saturate myself in it, so that’s definitely a draw.
Q. Dark Warning is currently nominated for the CBI Book of the Awards. It draws on lore from 18th century Dublin and on the supernatural and features a colourful cast of characters. How did the idea for the book come about?
A. It started with Billy in the Bowl. I was about eight when my grandmother told me about him and it was a story that was passed on to her through oral history. Billy sounded to me as an 8-year-old to be this hideous man with no legs who went around murdering young women. When I went to research him for Dark Warning, I discovered accounts of him being this handsome charmer who, unusually for beggars in Dublin at that time, could beg in his own area. The local serving women adored him and would keep scraps from the table for him, so he was fed in his locality of Stoneybatter. I read an account that described him as having long hair and being quite strong, and he obviously had the gift of the gab. I came across a version of events in which he didn't kill the women but strangled them to the point of passing out, and he seems to have accidentally killed one woman. So at this point he’s becoming a tragic figure, coupled with the fact that he had gambling and drink addictions. One thing I did change about him was his age. He was probably quite a bit older so the trajectory of his story is shorter, but I wanted him to be a teenager as he’s friends with Taney who is also a teenager.
Q. Dark Warning obviously involved quite a lot of research. Can you tell me about that process?
A. When I went to research Billy I couldn't find much on him. I discovered he was never hanged for what he did. He was caught and became something of a celebrity in jail. People paid to go in and see him, which is tragic too. The reaction of the 8-year-old me to my granny’s telling of it was to have nightmares, but as an adult when I looked into it I just thought: what a tragic life. The research on Georgian Dublin was just huge. At one stage I had so much research that every time I went into the city I was seeing it as a Georgian cityscape. I was seeing the Dutch Billy houses that had been Georgianised. I spent a couple of months doing research and so I was steeped in it before I sat down to write. I am a planner and I’d had the bones of the story in my head for some time, but I need to be able to see the world I’m writing about. I can’t write it if I can’t see it. I have to be able to move around in it. It’s important to me that the research doesn't get in the way of the story. I need to know the period so well that it almost ends up between the lines somewhere and I sometimes find when I’m writing that little bits of info I never thought I’d use just emerge in the story. I went to a talk by Morgan Llywelyn years ago and I always remember her saying not to fall in love with your research. It’s terribly tempting. It’s very easy to want to show off on the one hand and teach on the other and, of course, you can’t do that or you lose the story.
Q. In your new novel, Hagwitch, there are two very disparate narratives: Flea is a male character living with a theatre company in Tudor London, and Lally is a fourteen-year-old girl living on a puppet barge in the present day. Did you write their stories simultaneously or separately?
A. I plotted them simultaneously. I had an almost chapter by chapter breakdown, which was very flexible, but that way I could see where I needed to make the two narratives meet and where I would show something in one story that’s mirrored in the other even though it’s not necessarily shown there. I needed to stay in one world at a time, so the stories were written separately. The pace is different in each. One is first person present-tense; the other is third-person past tense. I’d have gone nuts if I did the two at the same time! There was so much research involved in both stories, and even though Lally’s story is set in the present day, she lives on a barge and works with puppets. I completely sunk myself into Tudor theatre, so I was absolutely ready to write Flea’s story and I spat that out in two weeks. I had to make a decision on how far I’d go with the Tudor English and it was something I was careful with. It was one of the things that came up with my previous books. Some readers like the stylised language and others find it gets in the way, so I decided not to push it too much in Hagwitch especially since I had two narratives, so the reader’s already doing quite a bit of work. I also discovered that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were actually going out of everyday speech at that point, but that it was still in the plays. It was actually considered to be more of a country form of speech in Tudor London by that time.
Q. Lally has had quite an unusual upbringing. She grows up on a barge in the company of puppeteers, not going to school, not having friends her own age. Was she inspired by anybody in particular?
A. I’d like to say I invented her but my cousin Sarah is a puppeteer and she sent me emails when she was over training in London on a puppet barge. I was picturing Sarah on the barge with the puppets and then I started thinking about what it would be like for a kid being brought up in that environment. The people who started the puppet barge, Juliet and Gren, did in fact bring up their daughter, Kate, on the barge and when I went over to research I met her. I asked her what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old living on a barge, and she said exactly what I was expecting: that it was hugely embarrassing to her at that age, having to say that your parents ran a puppet theatre. She told me she was eight when she did her first show and she barely remembers ever not being up on the bridge working the puppets. Now her own two sons are puppeteers and they too have been brought up working with puppets.
Q. The Tudor narrative is based around a playwright, Master Waller, and his company of men. Are they based on an actual Tudor theatre company or are they entirely of your own invention?
A. They are completely fictional. Flea was one of those characters who just sprang to life, along with his name. The characters from the company just produced themselves but I did have to do the research around them. I didn’t know how Tudor theatre worked. Research told me that it wasn’t that easy to be a theatre company, that you had to have a sponsor, and there were a lot of laws around it. In order to have this Master Waller character I made the decision that he was going to have money and that was how he could cope with not being much of a success, because he wasn’t going to be able to force his plays on to the stage. Also, plays had such a short life in those times. Most plays would maybe only have a run of two or three nights. Shakespeare’s plays would go on being played several times a year, but Shakespeare couldn’t stop another company using his play either. It was a free-for-all and plays were written on the hoof almost. Literally, they went into production as they were being written. It was all very much done on the fly and a lot of the plays weren’t written down. It’s really only by luck that we have Shakespeare’s plays today, just luck that some of the people who worked with him recognised his genius, wrote down the plays and had them printed after he died. But, of course, we don’t know if some of those words aren’t his. We can assume that most of it is his but there may be quite a bit that isn’t.
Q. The thing that binds these two narratives is the witch within the Hawthorn, the eponymous Hagwitch. How did you come to write about Hawthorn folklore?
A. I’m starting to realise my grandmother had a lot of influence. She lived with us for about ten years from when I was aged six and she was a big storyteller. I came home from school one day and I had picked a bunch of Hawthorn flowers. I remember walking into the house and handing the bunch to my granny, who never raised her voice, but yelled at me to “Get those out of the house!” She didn’t tell me why but I ran out and dumped the flowers and later that day when I said it to my mother she told how it’s supposed to be very bad luck to bring the flowers into the house and that old people still believed that. So that was my first introduction to Hawthorn as a fairy tree. Over the years I developed a huge interest in folklore, which I suppose is why it comes into my books, it finds its way in because I love that sort of thing. The idea for Hagwitch really came from Sarah telling me about what she was doing in London on the puppet barge and thinking: what if someone carved a puppet out of Hawthorn wood. It was the coming together of those two things.
In Mediterranean folklore there are different stories and superstitions about Hawthorne. In the UK and Ireland stories are quite similar: people don’t like cutting it down and even to the present day it can be quite difficult to find someone who’ll agree to cut down a Hawthorne tree. When I was researching I found a lot of people saying their parents wouldn’t let them bring the flowers into the house. One of the things that struck me was the double nature of it. On the one hand there's the witch that’s supposed to live in it and the thorns are very long and sharp and dark, but then there are these beautiful white flowers. I was intrigued by the idea of the tree bestowing either harm or gifts and in Hagwitch this witch within the wood is a muse who both feeds you and feeds from you.
Q. Lally is coming of age on this puppet barge and, like Taney in Dark Warning, she’s something of an outsider. What is about outsiders that appeals to you as a writer?
A. I suppose the funny thing is that all of us think we’re outsiders. Even the insiders think they’re outsiders and particularly when you’re a teenager. I remember meeting someone I went to school with years later and she mentioned how I’d been part of the ‘in-crowd’, which I had never felt. I had my little crowd that I had always thought I was on the edges of. But of course looking back, we all thought that. Feeling like an outsider seems to be a universal thing.
Q. You now have ten picture books and three novels under your belt. What are you working on next?
A. I've just finished a picture book called 'The New Kid'. It was great to be working on a picture book again as I hadn’t been painting in years. It's about a new kid on the street. Four kids living on this street are told to let her play with them and it’s about what ensues as they try to size each other up. It’s about making friends, and maybe initially not going to make friends, and how that plays out. I was afraid I’d have forgotten how to use acrylics and how to mix colours, but luckily it came back quite naturally. There were a few things I was a bit rusty on, but I had Michael (Emberley) there to pick up on things, and similarly I’d look over his shoulder and tell him when a character’s legs were too short. I'm working on a new novel now and The New Kid should be out some time next year.