An interview with the writer Michelle Harrison, first published in Death Ray #19. She writes fairy-based YA fiction. It’s pretty good.
Michelle Harrison has just won the Waterstone prize for Best Children’s Book. Must be good eh? We chatted to her about fairies and growing pains in the land of the East Saxons.
Essex and the Fey, not two things that might immediately spring to mind in a word association game (Maybe they do. Maybe your psychiatrist is taking notes right now as the words pop into your head and run, unstoppably, out of your treacherous mouth…), but Harrison marries the two to great effect in The The 13 Treasures her award-winning story about a big old house, generational misunderstanding and proper nasty folkloric fairies, fairies the heroine, early teen Tanya, can see, which is far less fun than it sounds. Comparisons between 13 Treasures and Spiderwick are inevitable, but these have been favourable ones, and the book has just won the Waterstone Prize for Best Childrens’ Book.
Harrison is an Essex gel herself, hailing from Grays in the west of the county. Elements of the area she was raised in make up the fictional landscape of Tickbury where the action unfolds. 29 now, she’s in publishing herself, with a day job as an editorial assistant to a children’s book publisher, but by night she writes tales of modern-day enchantment. She trained as an illustrator (the illuminated capitals at the head of each chapter in The 13 Treasures are her work), but has been writing since she was fourteen, though it was art that sent her off down the fairy path…
“When I was in my first year of illustration, it was an HND at Stafford college, I was studying quite a lot of different artwork by different people, but the ones that really jumped out for me were the like the fairy artwork,” she says. “We did a module on Victorian fairy art, and our tutor showed me some work by Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud, really gorgeous illustrations. But some of them were really quite dark, like Brian Froud, his fairies are quite sort of troublesome, and that’s where I got the idea from.”
Froud admitted to DR that he ‘experiences’ fairies. Does she?
“No, sadly. Actually, maybe not ‘sadly’. They’re probably more trouble than they are worth. But I’d always be interested to see one. I haven’t had any luck so far, and I do wear a lot of red anyway [one of the methods of scaring them off], so that probably keeps them away!”
Her fairies are troublesome alright – five pages into the book, one of them threatens to render the heroine an imbecile if she doesn’t stop writing about fairies in her diaries – the sort of nasty, spiteful, rulebound magical troublemakers you find nicking babies. And that old fear of our rural ancestors, that some pixie would swap their little darlings for a changeling, forms the crux of the plot.
One of the strengths of the book is that its setting – ivy-choked Elvesden Manor and Hangman’s Wood with its mysterious ‘Deneholes’ – are intimately described, so much so that they’re almost a bit Alan Garner in their seeming verity. But, unlike the old Cheshire master’s dead-on landscapes, The 13 Treasures does not accurately describe some corner of England.
“No, unfortunately not!” she laughs when we ask her if she used to live in a house like the one in the book. “I grew up in a council house actually! But I have always fantasised about those sort of houses. They’ve always had an appeal to me. I did visit a friend of the family who lived in quite a big country house, and that had these big dressers with stuffed game on things on it so I think there’s possibly some inspiration there. I made most of it up,” she says. But little bits and pieces of Essex found their way in. “There’s a pub near Brentwood called the Boar’s Head that has a blocked off staircase which is exactly like the one I described in the book. That’s where the inspiration for the servant’s staircase [a secret stairway that plays an important role in the book] came from.”
Hangmans Wood, and its ‘Deneholes’, is a real place also, being situated in Harrison’s hometown of Grays.
“It’s a really small area of woodland, nowhere near as vast as the one in the story, but it is called Hangman’s Wood. It’s opposite a playing field where’s there’s a swimming pool. Me and my friend used to go there after school swimming, and one night we decided we’d go into the woods and see what these ‘Deneholes’ were about. We’d heard lots about them, and my mum had always said to me, ‘Don’t you ever go into those woods, you’ll be in a a lot of trouble if you do. Obviously we went in there! It was just really eerie, you’ve got these massive holes in the ground surrounded by these railings. It was just something I wanted to put in there, it was something that I had always remembered. I found it quite creepy and atmospheric.”
The holes are unique to that part of the country. They’re bell-shaped chambers many metres underground, accessible only by a narrow chimney. Like many enigmatic relics of the past, it is unknown what they were for exactly – grain stores, dungeons, hideaways – though a theory that they were mines for chalk used to replenish the mineral content of the fields sounds most likely. (They delved so far underground so they could get to chalk uncontaminated by exposure to the atmosphere, and save valuable agricultural land). However, in Harrison’s story they offer access to the abodes of the fairies.
“I did some research on the internet,” says Harrison, “and there weren’t any explanations, there were a lot of different ideas, but it’s just the fact that there’s a bit of mystery about them. That’s why I put them in.”
Despite the the fact that the story is about fairies, and features a female heroine, the boys are buying into as much as the girls. There is, after all, heroine Tanya’s sidekick Fabian, a bookish, resourceful boy. Tanya herself is remarkably well drawn. Like the fairies, she has her bad side: she’s prone to sulks and flashes of unreasonable anger at her relatives. But her foibles make her believably human…
“Yeah, she’s based on my niece actually!” says Harrison. “She’s called Tanya too.”