A FACE LIKE GLASS
MACMILLAN CHILDREN'S BOOKS
A Face Like Glass is another extraordinary and accomplished story from Frances Hardinge, set in an underground world, Caverna, whose citizens have to learn how to create 'faces' to denote certain expressions. The higher up the echelons you are, the more 'faces' you have.
Into this world falls Neverfell, a child whose natural expressions land her in all sorts of dangers. A thoughtful, sophisticated and thoroughly entertaining story, highly recommended for readers aged nine years plus. (488 pages)
Frances Hardinge answers questions about A Face Like Glass and her writing.
Q: A Face Like Glass is set in an underground city, Caverna, and your previous stories are also set in 'other worlds'. Why don't you choose to set your stories in the 'real world'?
A: I love world-building. I enjoy setting up a crazy premise, or a simple premise taken to crazy extremes, and working out how it would affect the world and everyone living within it.
After that, the challenge is to make the world solid and believable despite its bizarreness, so that readers get sucked in, and the story makes sense to them.
I'm quite obsessive about making sure that I know how my worlds work, even if a lot of that information never finds its way on to the page. For example, before I could start writing A Face Like Glass I had to know how the underground city survived from day to day, and where they got their air, light, water, food and money.
For me, though, story is all about character. I like setting up far-fetched situations, and then working out what sort of people might result from such a world, and how they would think.
For example, a lot of the people living in Caverna have never seen the sun, and all assume that overground is a horrible, dry, searing place where nobody in their right mind would want to live.
That belief seems pretty silly to us, but the Cavernans take it for granted, as something 'everybody knows'. Hopefully that makes readers wonder about some of their own assumptions.
Q: In your story, the people of Caverna have to learn facial expressions, and the number of 'faces' they can make suggests their social standing, wealth etc. Why did you decide to use facial expressions in this way?
A: The idea of that all Cavernans would have to learn expressions one by one came first.
Then, when I was discussing the book with a friend of mine, he suggested that perhaps the drudge underclass would only have a handful of expressions, all showing emotions which their masters thought acceptable for them. I really liked this idea, so I ran with it.
One of the common ways in which oppressive powers try to control the downtrodden is by stopping them from expressing themselves.
They ban rebellious books and newspapers, arrest poets and journalists who dare to criticise, crush demonstrations, etc.
In Caverna it's one step worse - the poor drudges aren't even able to look angry. Their expressions are always happy or obedient, even when they're miserable or seething inside.
Q: Neverfell, the main character, uses expressions naturally, as we'd expect a child to. Do you think the adult world, which is much more studied - like Caverna - has much to learn from children?
A: In a word, yes. As we get older, we become much more skilful at lying to ourselves. We sometimes build up a thick, comfortable layer of pretences and excuses that cushion us from reality, and all the things we don't want to think about.
Children are much more likely to question, and to point out when things don't make sense.
Q: Everything in Caverna is controlled by a small elite and by etiquette, a bit like a French court in the time of Louise 14th; I wondered if you had taken any inspiration from our history? Why has so much control developed in this world?
A: When I was writing 'A Face Like Glass', I did look into some historical 'decadent' courts, including that of Louis 14th. I wanted to capture the right sense of danger, distrust and skulduggery.
The powerful elite in Caverna, however, aren't 'nobles' in the sense of belonging to aristocratic families. The city's ruler, the five-hundred-year-old Grand Steward, is gradually sliding into a malaise where there is less and less that he can truly enjoy or experience.
The Craftsmen engage in furious competition to create delicacies that have some effect on him, and thus win his favour.
Those that are at the pinnacle of their Craft rise to the top, and become the most powerful figures at Court... at least until their rivals can backstab them.
In Caverna's Court, appearances are incredibly important. Nobody cares about ethics, everybody cares about etiquette. In fact, Cavernan etiquette has become a nightmarish system of pitfalls into which the unwary can tumble, with potentially deadly consequences...
Q: There are a number of craftsmen making cheese, wine, maps, perfume etc in highly specialised ways in Caverna. What object or food etc would you like a craftsman to create for you?
A: Some Cavernans create wines that can bring back memories with renewed freshness. I wouldn't mind a little of that, so that I could clearly remember places that I'd travelled - a bit like holiday photos, but more vivid. (Memory-revival wine might also help me remember where I've put things. I'm very absent-minded.)
However, I would also be tempted by the specially prepared spices, such as Nocteric (for seeing in the dark) and Paprickle (which improves your hearing and helps you eavesdrop).
Q: What's your favourite food or drink in the real world?
A: Pizza has been one of my favourites ever since I was a child. The wonderful thing about pizza is that you can plonk almost anything else you like on top. (Not all my experiments have been successful, mind. Carrots don't really work as a pizza topping. Neither does Monster Munch.)
I also love Thai food. I have quite a high chilli tolerance.
Q: Do you think you would enjoy living in an underground city like Caverna?
A: To be honest, I think I would hate living underground, and would find it incredibly claustrophobic. There are hundreds of things I would miss - the sun, the wind, trees, grass, watching birds fly, horizons, being able to run, even being caught in the rain.
Q: How well do you plot your stories before you write them?
A: This varies quite a lot. In the case of my first book, I had a chapter by chapter plan of the whole story.
My plan has been less detailed for the other books, but I always have a good sense of the basic story arc, and the major incidents that will occur.
Having said that, I sometimes have a major brainwave halfway through writing the book, and then have to change the plan completely and take the story in a different direction.
Q: How does your writing day go?
A: I tend to get up at about eight in the morning. I'm not a morning person, so I have to be quite strict with myself, otherwise I'd just get up later and later. I would be nocturnal if I gave myself half a chance... so I don't give myself half a chance.
For me, there's no such thing as a 'typical writing day'. I seem to work better if my schedule is varied. On one day I might focus on writing a chapter, another day might be dedicated to research or brainstorming.
On Thursdays I always go for a hike of at least ten miles. Funnily enough, I find these walks really help me mull over ideas.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: My evenings tend to be very social - meeting with friends, going on outings and expeditions, playing games, spending time with my boyfriend, etc.
Writing is a very solitary business, so I like to balance it with an active social life.
I also love reading, hiking and visiting odd or historic places.
Q: Is this a stand-alone book or is a follow-up planned?
A: A Face Like Glass is a stand-alone book. While I could conceivably write a sequel, I don't have any plans to do so.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: At the moment, I am actually trying to write two books at once. One is a changeling story set in the 1920s, and the other is an pirate tale that takes place in an otherworldly ocean where our memories manifest in physical form.