Anne Fine discusses her latest book
The Devil Walks is a sinister new story from acclaimed author Anne Fine. Here, librarian Annie Everall puts her questions to the author.
Where did the idea for The Devil Walks come from?
It stemmed from a sort of haunting of my own - by two lines of verse written by John Betjeman:
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.
I've no idea why I couldn't get the lines out of my head. And - possibly from imagination, possibly from something I once read - I already had the idea of high hedges in a garden behind which the man of the house could stride in a temper, free of the fear of scandalising the ladies with curses like: 'The devil take him!' and, 'Damn him to hell and back!' I knew it would be called The Devil Walks. The book took off from there.
How would you describe the book?
It's set in the past: a gothic tale about a young boy, Daniel, pitifully raised, horribly orphaned, and sent away from an adoptive family he loves to live with his most sinister uncle at High Gates.
There's some mysterious devilry afoot, but we don't know where it stems from, or what the purpose is. All we know is that Daniel's uncle is obsessed with finding an old, old doll's house that is the mirror image of High Gates itself.
Is the Doll's House based on a real house or a complete creation from your imagination?
It's an imaginary house. But as with all novels, once you begin to write, you find echoes and connections everywhere. People have always been fascinated with dolls. There's something so creepy about them. You want them as true to life as they can be - and yet, and yet! Imagine if they suddenly blinked, or spoke. You would be terrified.
Some people have spent whole lives constructing dolls' houses so big and perfect you truly do believe that, if you turned the taps, water might start to flow. Like many museums, The Bowes Museum, half a mile from my house, has a splendid example of a large, furnished doll's house. But I admit I invented the lay out of the house entirely to suit the story.
What are the aspects of the novel that as a writer, you are most pleased with?
I did want to keep at least some of the mystery up to the very end. It's easy enough to set up a strange situation, but a lot harder to keep the reader curious to the very end.
This is in part because the reader who is concentrating totally may pick up the clues well before those who are reading in shorter sessions, or are distracted as they read. I wanted to write it so that, even those who sensed which way the story was headed would continue to be absorbed to the very last page.
There are some interesting threads in the book around child welfare and the nature v nurture issue - what is your perspective on this?
I'm so intrigued by how the care of children has altered down the years. From reading old books, we know that orphaned children just had to take their chances: perhaps some kind relation would take them in; equally likely, brothers and sisters would be separated without a thought, used as workhorses, cruelly treated - even sent to the workhouse.
Now we have so many regulations and guidelines to do with fostering and adoption. They're all well meant, and no doubt save many, many children from utter misery and despair. But, very occasionally, you feel these rules might actually be putting up a barrier to what might be the easiest and happiest solution.
For Daniel, the Marlow family are, happily, the perfect haven. But even back then it was supposed that blood is thicker than water...
I'm also fascinated by how children whose parents have manifestly failed them can grow through the quite understandable bitterness and out the other side. In part, we all depend upon the fact that children are more generous and forgiving, especially to those whom they love, than we could ever hope for or imagine.
In Daniel's case, the reasons for his mother's failure turn out to be sinister and other-worldly. In most real families, the failure is much more human. But I think the resonance is there, and I hope that any reader who comes from a family as splintered and damaged as Daniel's will see that, with a fuller understanding of the causes of parental failure, forgiveness and healing do become possible.
As for the nature versus nurture issue, I am reminded of something Charles Williams said: 'Nobody is ever sent to hell; he, or she, insists on going there.'
What do you hope the reader will take from reading the book?
As ever, the only thing I really, really want is what all authors want: the perfect reader response. "I could not put it down!"
When you are reading a book yourself what are the elements that make it a satisfying 'read' for you?
I suppose I love books that either light up my imagination about a place, or situation, or sort of person. (We all have our own characters, and one of the best things about literature is that it introduces us to people who are not at all like us. We get to know, in short, how others tick. That's why I also so enjoy biography and autobiography.)
I also like the writer to do the work properly. Carelessness startles the reader out of the story, and I hate that. I think the worst thing you can say about a book is, "Of course, to get it, you really have to read it twice."
You may choose to read it again. But if the author did the job properly, you will have got the point the first time through.
Some people argue that we shouldn't give children stories that might scare them - as a writer how would you respond to that?
As far as I can tell, most children spend a lot of their time anyhow laying awake at night worrying that that heap of clothing on the chair in the dark is really a monster, or that dressing gown hung on the bedroom door is a hanged man. So choosing to scare themselves by reading a book they can put down at any time they choose is practically a luxury.
That said, I do think there are ghastly, ghastly images around now in some children's books, even for very young readers, that I know for certain I wouldn't have been able to deal with as a child. I do suspect some parents have no idea how graphic in grisly imagery some of the books their children are reading have become.
But I don't think The Devil Walks falls in that category. It's written far more like a classic mystery / ghost story, and since I write always for the reader in myself, I know that, as a young reader, I would have loved it.
Tell us three things about yourself that your readers might not already know
1. I love going to the cinema all by myself in the mornings. Sometimes I am the only person in the place. Nobody eating, nobody talking. Utter bliss!
2. I have a gift for parallel parking (not at all the same as double parking, which is hemming someone else in!)
3. I thoroughly dislike cats. (Some readers might have guessed this )