We teamed up with Emma Stanford who reviewed The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold (and beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold) in a previous PaperBound issue and put together a few questions for the author. Read the interview below, or in the latest issue of PaperBound here.
Could you tell us a little about The Worlds We Leave Behind, and the inspiration behind the story and illustrations? Did it start with a setting, a character or something else?
The Worlds We Leave Behind is a strange, slightly dark, slightly creepy, slightly odd story about a boy, Hex (short for Hector), who gets in some trouble down the woods, meets an old lady and her dog in a cottage that shouldn’t exist and gets offered a bargain that could change his life. I think that’s probably all I could say about the story without saying too much.
The inspiration for it came from the previous book Levi and I made together, The Song from Somewhere Else. That was a story that I wrote and which the publisher (Bloomsbury) went out and found an illustrator for (which was Levi, obviously). And what Levi did with that story, and what the designer (Andrea Kearney) made of the book-as-object, was utterly delicious, dark and moody and beautiful. Naturally people asked if we were going to do anything else together…
And, a few books later, the thought came of taking one of the minor characters from that book and letting them have a go. And so Frank (the main character in The Song…) had a little brother, Hector. What if, I thought, time had moved on five or six years, so that he was now the age Frank had been when she had her adventure (10-11)? And how might he react put through some of the same sorts of difficulties she was?
The previous books, The Imaginary and The Afterwards (both with Emily Gravett), and The Song…, all have some sort of bargain at their heart. In the two books with Emily the ‘villains’ of the books have made supernatural bargains to allow them something they shouldn’t have, and in the first book with Levi, a boy called Nick’s dad has made a bargain with a secret agent to bend the rules… This time, I felt, I could look at one of these bargains being made, with an outer entity.
And so the thought of someone offering Hex the chance to get his own back, to have his revenge on someone who’d hurt him, who’d wronged him… that seemed a good starting point. And the story grew and changed and spread and got pruned and eventually sort of fitted in and around that original thought, and ended up how it looks today. (Thanks to plenty of work with my editor Zöe Griffiths, who asked the important questions and made me stretch for the answers.)
What is the process of working with an illustrator like? When did you start collaborating? Were the illustrations created after the story was complete, or did they develop along with the story itself?
Since Levi lives in Australia and I’m in the UK, we’ve only met, in person, a few times. But when we have met we’ve got on well, and although he’s a decade younger than me, we have enough childhood loves and experiences in common (me growing up in the pre-internet ‘70s/’80s, he in the pre-internet ‘80s/’90s) that we have a shared understanding of the sort of story we’re making, and the atmosphere we want to give. Although the story is ‘modern’, in that there are mobile phones and computers, it’s still very much rooted in our shared ‘80s memory, I think.
And so, where The Song from Somewhere Else was written without knowing who would be illustrating it, this new book I wrote specifically with Levi in mind. So, although it isn’t a collaboration in the sense of ‘coming up with the story together’, it is very much a collaboration in that I was thinking, ‘What do I want to see Levi draw?’ as I went along, knowing the visual language and atmosphere of the previous book. It was as if he was sat on my shoulder as I wrote and tinkered.
And then, a few weeks before the first lockdown, Levi happened to be in the UK, and he had a spare afternoon so he came over to Reading, where I live, and we had a cup of tea, and we sat in my shed and I told him the story, face to face, and that was a really lovely moment I’ve not had with anyone else.
And so, then he gets the ‘finished’ manuscript and goes away and makes his art. And I get to see it at various points and simply be amazed, moved and feel immensely, intensely lucky to know such a man with such a talent!
Time is used in a very unique way in this book. Did this bring up any issues with structuring the story at all? If so, how did you overcome them?
Because of how The Song from Somewhere Else had been structured (days instead of chapters), this book was obviously going be the same, which meant you’ve only got four days for the story (Monday to Thursday, plus evenings/nights), so it’s actually very linear. Things happen in the order in which they happen, and so that’s quite simple.
Although there are some wrinkles (trying to be spoiler free, one might allude to alternative timelines), there is no back and forth time travel or paradoxes to be negotiated (I think of something like Gareth P. Jones’ No True Echo (which I read after seeing it mentioned in a review for The Worlds…), where it’s proper mind-bending timelines folding in around themselves, past and future and present in a big timey-wimey complex)… none of that. Just things happening one after another.
What are your top three tips for aspiring young writers and illustrators?
I think my two tips would be unsurprising ones. Firstly, read books. For one thing, reading books is a great way to fill your time and take yourself to all sorts of places and times and viewpoints you’d not otherwise get to visit (or to see places, people and times that you do know, but with fresh eyes), and secondly, if you want to be a writer, by seeing how other people do it you’ll get a feel for how to do it, or how not to do it…
And my second tip is, if you don’t feel like writing, don’t, and don’t beat yourself up about it. You don’t have to write every day. Sometimes you’ll write loads, and sometimes you won’t Sometimes ideas will pour out of you, and sometimes they won’t. Don’t worry, don’t panic, don’t beat yourself up. You’re allowed to not write.
My third tip is have a bath whenever you can. It’s a good place to read, and it’s a good place to think.
A.F. Harrold is a poet, performer and children’s author who has written funny and spooky books for all ages and gotten to make art with some of the finest illustrators of the age, including Chris Riddell (Things You Find in a Poet’s Beard), Emily Gravett (The Imaginary), Joe Todd-Stanton (Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space), Mini Grey (The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice) and Sarah Horne (the Fizzlebert Stump series).
His two books with Levi Pinfold, The Song from Somewhere Else (winner of the Amnesty International/CILIP Honour, 2018) and The Worlds We Leave Behind are good things.
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