PaperBound caught up with author Sam Thompson to chat about his first book for children, Wolfstongue.
Could you tell us a little bit about your novel, Wolfstongue?
It’s the story of a boy called Silas who is bullied at school because he has speech difficulties and is very quiet. One day he meets an injured wolf, and discovers a hidden world called the Forest where animals can speak. A struggle is going on between the wolves and the foxes: the foxes’ leader, Reynard, controls everything with his clever talk, and has turned the wolves into slaves in his underground city. Silas wants to help his wolf friends escape from the foxes, but to do this he will have to face his own struggle with words.
Readers may recognise some of the names in Wolfstongue from Reynard the Fox stories. Can you tell us a little bit about how you were inspired by these, and share any other inspirations behind the book?
Reynard the Fox has appeared in many different stories over hundreds of years, including a cycle of medieval European fables which were my main inspiration. Reynard is a trickster — a bit like Loki, Anansi or Br’er Rabbit — who is always getting himself in and out of trouble with his clever schemes, and he invariably gets the better of his rival Isengrim the Wolf. One reason I wanted to write a Reynard and Isengrim story was that I sympathised with poor old Isengrim, and I felt he deserved to be more than just the victim of the cunning fox! Further inspiration came from all the books I’ve read and loved about children going into hidden worlds, from Alan Garner’s Elidor to China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. And I took lessons in language from books like Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – writing that is so clear and simple that it feels like myth. I hope Wolfstongue has some of that spirit.
This is your first novel for young people. We’d love to know what came first: did you always plan to write something for this age group, or did the idea for Wolfstongue come first?
Actually what came first was my own young people. When my children got big enough for me to read them books with chapters, I rediscovered a lot of childhood reading that I hadn’t thought about in a long time, and in turn that got me inspired to write: I find writing usually follows from reading in that way. And then the idea for Wolfstongue came together when one of my children was having trouble with his speech. I found words difficult when I was small, and really I still do; I wanted to give my son a story about the power and danger of words, and how we get to grips with them.
Wolfstongue has been described as a fable, with references to the relationship between humans and the natural world, and to some of the more troubling times in our past/present. How did you decide what to include, and what do you hope readers take from the novel?
I didn’t really have to decide what to include, because the story led the way. Once I had the wolves and the foxes and what happened between them, the other ideas flowed in. I do hope the book gives readers a way of thinking about how humans relate to the world beyond ourselves, and how we might use our language to speak respectfully on behalf of things that are silent.
Are you writing, or planning to write, anything new for this age group?
I’m working on a sequel to Wolfstongue, provisionally titled The Fox’s Tower. I’m feeling very excited about it and would love to tell you all about the story, but I’d better keep it to myself! Writing a sequel is rewarding because it lets me dig deeper into parts of the story that I only began to uncover in the first book.
If you could pass on a writing tip to an aspiring young writer, what would it be?
If you’re like me, you started writing for the joy of it. Then, when you got serious about writing, it turned out to be very difficult. Joyful and difficult: it’s okay for writing to be both.
What are your top book recommendations for young people today?
I would recommend omnivorous reading. The most wonderful thing about being a young reader is that you can read anything and everything – read adventurously and ravenously and discover for yourself what you love. My best memories as a young reader are memories of investigating the shelves in my local library, taking down whatever looked intriguing: books I’d never heard of, books I didn’t understand, books that seemed strange or scary or like they weren’t meant for me. It’s all yours to explore.
How would you sum up your novel in three words?
Fox, Wolf, Child.
Sam Thompson grew up in the south of England and now lives in Belfast. He is the author of the novels Communion Town and Jott, and his short fiction has appeared in Best British Short Stories 2019 and on BBC Radio 4. He teaches writing at Queen’s University, Belfast. Wolfstongue is his first novel for children, published in May 2021 by Little Island Books.
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